Originally Published 2011-05-17 00:00:00 Published on May 17, 2011
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's official visit (May 11) to Russia is interesting especially as it occurred within a fortnight of the US raid in Abbottabad, killing Osama bin Laden.
Russia and Pakistan: Getting Closer
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's official visit (May  11)  to Russia is interesting especially as it occurred within a fortnight of the US raid in Abbottabad, killing Osama bin Laden. Though the visit was announced a few days before Operation Geronimo, the timing appeared propitious for Pakistan as it was reeling under a wave of criticism ranging from complicity in protecting Laden to plain incompetence of the much vaunted Pakistan Army and its intelligence agencies. The Abbottabad raid has also put the US-Pakistan relationship under further strain.

Unsurprisingly, Zardari's trip to Russia and Moscow's sympathetic handling of the fallout of Abbottabad were a welcome relief for Pakistan. It is also important to note that Zardari's visit was not just a one-off event. It is part of a series of high-profile diplomatic exchanges between Pakistan and Russia over the past couple of years. Zardari and President Dmitry Medvedev had their first formal interaction in Dushanbe in June 2009 as part of the quadripartite meeting between the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In the second edition of this quadripartite meeting hosted by the Russian president in the Black Sea resort Sochi in June 2010, Zardari and Medvedev had another tête-à-tête. Following this, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had a one to one meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Gilani during the SCO Heads of Government Council in Tajikistan in November 2010. Zardari's latest visit however is more significant as it is his first official stand-alone visit to Russia and by raising the quality and quantity of the bilateral exchanges with Pakistan Russia is possibly signalling its intention to pursue a multi-vectored policy in South Asia. Russia's Pakistan policy has long been under the shadow of the mistrust and suspicions developed during the cold war and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While the end of the Cold war led to a blossoming of ties between the United States and India no such change was evident in Russia-Pakistan relations for long. Both countries now are becoming increasingly aware of the merits of developing ties in a pragmatic manner.

Russia is quite aware of debilitating effects of an unstable Afghanistan and this is perhaps the most important reason for Russia to develop a closer relationship with Pakistan. Even as Russia criticizes the sustained American presence in the region, it is distinctly uncomfortable about the swift drawdown of the international forces from Afghanistan. A power vacuum in Afghanistan and the consequent civil strife can easily spill over to neighbouring Central Asia-a region which Russia considers as its near abroad. Russia is also acutely aware of the effect it will have on the restive Northern Caucasus. When the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan, it recognized Chechnya as an independent state and permitted the opening of an "'embassy' in Kabul in 2000. Russia would certainly like to avoid a repeat of that. Russia is already in negotiations with Tajikistan to post Russian soldiers to guard the long and porous Afghan-Tajik border.

Apart from the threat of radicalism, Russia is also concerned about drug-trafficking from Afghanistan. Almost one fourth of the drugs produced in Afghanistan end up in Russia. With falling demographics and nearly 3 million drug addicts Russia can ill afford to let the situation continue. Russia understands Pakistan's importance as the key player in Afghanistan and its geopolitical significance. Unlike in the past where Russia rendered its exclusive support to Northern Alliance, it may want to keep its options open and it has recently indicated its support for Afghan national reconciliation and its willingness to open conditional negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan can be a helpful conduit in any such Russian initiative. In fact the two major themes which got highlighted in the joint statement issued after Zardari's visit were the importance of joint fight against terrorism and narcotics.

Increasing ties between Russia and Pakistan is also a reflection of China's growing clout in the region. China has been Pakistan's all weather friend while Sino-Russian ties have never been better. Russian and Chinese reactions to the Abbottabad raid spared the Pakistani establishment from rampant criticism. Interestingly, the month of May has seen a flurry of diplomatic exchanges between Russia, Pakistan and China. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Moscow on May 6 which was followed by Zardari's Russia trip. Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani meanwhile begins his four day trip to Beijing on May 17.

Both Russia and China are equally wary of the Western presence as well as the instability in their neighbourhood. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is viewed by Russia and China with the potential to emerge as a key player in the neighbourhood and Russia has indicated its willingness to support Islamabad's quest for full membership in the SCO. It is also interesting to note that almost a fortnight before the Abbottabad raid, during a meeting with the Afghan leadership in Kabul; Prime Minister Gilani suggested that "Afghanistan needed to look to China, a power in the ascendance, rather than hewing closely to the United States".1

Meanwhile tangible benefits for Pakistan from the trip included an intergovernmental agreement between the two countries on air traffic, and MoUs in the field of energy and agriculture. Russia has also promised to explore the possibilities of developing the CASA 100 electric transmission project from Tajikistan, the expansion of the Russian-built Karachi Steel Plant, upgrade of the Heavy Mechanical Complex in Taxila, and the Pakistan Machine Tool Factory in Karachi. Russia has also expressed its support for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project.

Increasing ties between Russia and Pakistan adds another interesting dimension to the Eurasian geopolitics. It will be interesting to see the future trajectory of this new-found friendship. As of now, the relationship is sustained by political pragmatism and shared tactical interests. However, unlike Russia's ties with India, there is no confluence of strategic interests between Russia and Pakistan. Historical animosity and the lack of economic relations can also inhibit the ties from progressing beyond a point. Even on Afghanistan, which is the prime motivation for Russia in building bridges with Pakistan, the possibility of a Russia-Pakistan divergence cannot be ruled out. Moreover, given the depth and breadth of Russia's historic relationship with India, it appears unlikely that Russia will permit its ties with Islamabad to have any negative impact on India.

Ajish Joy is  Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

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