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Ties with Russia

July 07, 2019

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REMEMBER Gary Powers? He was the American pilot whose U-2 plane was shot down as he flew on his spying mission to the Soviet Union in May 1960. More important for us: Powers had flown from Badaber, an American airbase in Pakistan.

The downing was a technological shock for America, because the Pentagon believed U-2s flew at a height that was beyond the reach of Soviet air defences. The shooting rocked the polarised world of the time as Moscow fumed. At a national day reception, Soviet prime minister and Communist Party secretary general Nikita Khrushchev sauntered towards where the Pakistan ambassador was sitting and told him he had drawn a red circle round Peshawar. The Pakistan envoy showed a wooden face.

The incident is just one of the many episodes that have bedevilled Pakistan-Soviet relations (replace ‘Russia’ with ‘Soviet’ when the march of history so demands). The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on a date that is now part of Pakistan’s DNA — Christmas Eve 1979 — was just a continuation of this history of bad blood that has over the decades defied every attempt at a ­normalisation — much less a warming — of ties between Moscow and Islamabad.

Nearly a decade earlier, Pakistan and an America that had a normal and better president than Donald Trump joined hands to stage a tour de force to which the Soviet Union perhaps overreacted, even though a normalisation of relations between Beijing and Washington had in any case been long overdue. Jamshed Market’s Cover Point gives a fascinating account of what happened between a tipsy president Yahya Khan and an apoplectic Soviet chief, Leonid Brezhnev. The latter complained bitterly: if Henry Kissinger had to fly to China he could have done so from Hong Kong or some such destination, why from Pakistan?

Somehow the relationship with Russia seems star-crossed.

From the benefit of the hindsight we can safely ask Brezhnev’s successors: did it really matter where Kissinger flew from? If he had flown from Hong Kong or Beirut would that have lessened the significance of the diplomatic coup that paved the way for president Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic and transformed the relationship between the two Pacific powers?

On Tuesday, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Gen Oleg Salyukov, the commander-in-chief of Russian ground forces, met at GHQ, emphasised the non-military part of their future relationship and called for developing ties that had economic dimensions.

Already, the two sides have a limited degree of military collaboration, for the two countries have carried out anti-terror drills, and in 2014 the then army chief Raheel Sharif went to Moscow to pave the way for the sale of Russian helicopters to Pakistan. Beyond that, a deeper degree of military interaction looks difficult if not impossible. Hasn’t Turkey, a Nato member, managed to have the S-400 missile deal with Russia? But, Pakistan is not Turkey.

Besides, the India factor also counts, for Moscow and New Delhi have been traditional friends, and it would be the height of naivety if we thought India would not behave like India and would let Pakistan pocket a major economic or military package with Russia. When India cannot tolerate even CPEC, what else do we expect from New Delhi when it comes to Russia?

Let us note that the symbol of economic collaboration between Pakistan and Russia is Pakistan Steel, whose moribund status is a story unto itself. But when such a landmark agreement could be signed at the height of the Cold War, there is no reason why they cannot agree on an economic project of that magnitude in the present non-communist era. Somehow the relationship seems star-crossed.

President Vladi­­mir Putin postponed his visit to Pakistan in 2016 — annoyed over Pakistan’s pusillanimous res­ponse to the Iran gas pipeline project, even though India too backed out under Ame­rican pressure. Again, at the One Belt, One Road conference in Beijing last April Prime Minister Imran Khan couldn’t have a meeting with President Putin because of their tight schedules.

Certain awkward realities must be accepted. Diplomatic rhetoric apart, Pakistan doesn’t have much to offer to Russia, nor for that matter does India in the post-Cold War scenario, except that its larger size is an advantage. South Asia still interests Russia, as it does every country, but not to the degree it did during the Cold War. Besides, Moscow is content with watching rather than involving itself in the trilateral drama among three key players — China, India and America.

The Kremlin would not like to burn its fingers. The practical option for Islamabad is not to annoy Moscow and keep it humoured. As for economic cooperation, every country has this option with every other country in the world. There is no limit to it, the limit being a country’s own ­elements of national power.

The writer is Dawn’s readers’ editor and an author.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2019