THE recent crisis in Ukraine is yet another manifestation of a world fast transitioning to a new order, whose exact parameters have not yet evolved. Three indicators, however, are evident. Unilateral interventions are becoming a norm and multilateralism is on the retreat. International law and global norms are being deliberately ignored. And the US is intensifying its competition with the rising China and resurging Russia, which could lead to bloc politics, new alignments and coalitions.
The US has chosen India, which had traditionally maintained close ties with Russia, as a primary ally in its Indo-Pacific strategy, essentially to counterbalance China. For its part, China is using its mega economic project, the Belt and Road Initiative to expand its outreach and find markets for its surplus capital and goods.
Russia, too, seems to be jockeying for a bigger stake in the emerging world order. Tensions between the US and Russia have been simmering for years. The economic sanctions by the US and Europe have brought the Russian economy under severe stress. In the Middle East too, the US and Russia are mostly on opposite sides. Tensions have now peaked with the Ukraine crisis, which has complicated Europe’s security calculus. While Russian quest for security guarantees is understandable, and the West’s attempts to include Ukraine in Nato has served as a provocation, the Russian military intervention in a sovereign country is not only against international law but could also be costly for Russia as well as the rest of world as this could trigger a much wider conflict, bring stress to world economy, and revive bloc politics of the erstwhile Cold War.
The US, which during Trump years had alienated Europe, has used the Ukraine crisis to make Europe dependent on its security umbrella vis-à-vis Russia. The US might also now pressurise European countries to limit their cooperation with China. The downside is that any US aggressive actions against Chinese interests in Europe could push China and Russia even closer and form a strong bloc against the US-led West. Given the high stakes for world peace, it is imperative that diplomacy be given a chance.
Diplomacy must be given a chance.
Meanwhile, President Putin does seem to recognise the value of his country’s warmer relations with Asian countries to avert any worldwide diplomatic isolation and also stake a major role in the Eurasian landmass.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent visit to Moscow took place in this wider global context. It was essentially a bilateral visit to improve ties. There was a concern that the timing of the visit may have offended the US and Europe with which Pakistan has a substantial economic relationship. The counter view is that postponing or cutting short the visit would have appeared as an action taken under pressure from the West, and spoiled our relations with Russia.
It, therefore, made sense to continue the visit, which was high on optics, and paved the grounds for tangible cooperation in future. For years now, both Russia and Pakistan have been attempting to infuse substance into their relationship. Some headway was made in 2014 when a Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed, followed by military exchanges and joint exercises. However, on the economic front, the long-awaited Russian investment into the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline has still not matured. For the bilateral relationship to assume a higher profile, it would be important for Russia to engage in some economic projects in Pakistan. One note of caution: Pakistan would need to undertake due diligence to ensure that the West’s sanctions against Russia do not implicate Russian investments in Pakistan.
On regional issues, Russia seems deeply interested in coordinating with Pakistan and other neighbours of Afghanistan to secure a lasting peace. The possible re-emergence of terrorist entities on Afghan soil is a shared concern for all neighbours of Afghanistan. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan can be a conduit for Central Asian and Russian trade through the ports of Pakistan.
Russia has also taken a positive position on Islamophobia, which has been appreciated by Pakistan. Notably, however, Russia remains sensitive to any faith-based violent extremism or terrorism, mainly because of its own history with Islamist groups.
So, what does the future of Russia-Pakistan relations look like? In the evolving geopolitics, Russia would want to improve its ties with most Asian countries, including Pakistan. And so would Pakistan as it wants to have the freedom to maintain mutually beneficial ties with all major powers, including the US, Europe, China and Russia. While the recent visit of the prime minister has given the relationship a fillip, two factors will continue to remain relevant for any future cooperation with Russia: the West’s sanctions against Russia and the latter’s traditionally strong ties with India.
The writer is former foreign secretary, DG Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and author of Diplomatic Footprints.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2022