Pakistan-Russia relations on upward trajectory

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Amid the on-again, off-again relationship between Pakistan and the US, the “reluctant romance” between Islamabad and Moscow seems to be blossoming once more.

Recently, Russia signaled its support for Pakistan’s candidature for the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Pavel Didkovsky, first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Islamabad, speaking at a seminar on “Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Strategic Stability,” highlighted the possibility of a criterion-based approach for states that have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty to join the NSG.

He acknowledged Pakistan’s efforts to maintain strategic stability in South Asia and emphasized that Russia, along with China, was working for a formula that could be deemed acceptable for all. He further said that Moscow had never opposed and had no wish to block Pakistan’s application to join the NSG.

Pakistan-Russia relations have been witnessing an upward trajectory since 2013. Earlier, their bilateral cooperation was confined to defense, but now it is expanding to trade, commerce and economy. Moscow has expressed its interest in Pakistan’s energy market and is also willing to reconstruct Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi. At present, Russian companies are engaged in negotiations on the conversion of the oil- and gas-fired Muzaffargarh Power project into a coal-fired station.

Amid the fears of losing its oil and gas market in Europe because of US sanctions, Russia is also looking for alternatives such as laying a gas pipeline from Iran to India via Gwadar, Pakistan. It manages vast gas reserves in Iran and is planning to export gas to India and Pakistan. This project has long been opposed by the US and, therefore, has been delayed very often. But US President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy appeared to have opened avenues for such a business deal for Pakistan and Russia.

Last month, the sixth meeting of the Pakistan-Russia Intergovernmental Commission was held to identify areas of cooperation in trade, technology, science and economy. Later, in a meeting between Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, the two sides reached an agreement to lay the offshore gas pipeline.

Earlier, India was part of the project but pulled out because of US pressure. It will be interesting to see how India navigates the complexities of US-Russia relations and ensure the successful implementation of this initiative.

In a recent trilateral meeting with the Chinese and Indian foreign ministers in New Delhi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged India to find ways to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In this way, Russia has thrown its weight behind Pakistan’s efforts to implement the CPEC, which has been vehemently opposed by India.

The upsurge in Pakistan-Russia relations reflects the thinking of the policymakers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi that they are adapting to the complex undertones of regional and global politics

Meanwhile, distrust between Washington and Islamabad prevails. Though there is no space for complacency in Pakistan-US relations, America’s policy of propping up India’s role as a “stabilizing” factor in South Asia and Afghanistan undermines the very foundations of Islamabad-Washington ties. Also, Trump’s Afghan policy disappointedly overlooks the political and regional dynamics of the Afghan issue.

So it can be expected that the trust deficit will not be bridged and the areas of cooperation between Islamabad and Washington remain ill-defined. Hence there is plenty of room for a long-term engagement between Russia and Pakistan.

US global influence is declining, which is creating strategic spaces for other major powers, especially for an assertive Russia and rising China, to maneuver for their national interests. In a bid to challenge the US, China and Russia have been cementing their strategic partnership under the pretext of geo-economics. They have proposed to use an alternative international reserve currency and are considering integrating Russia’s Mir Payment System with China’s domestic payment system.

In the recent meeting between the foreign ministers of China and Russia in New Delhi, China’s Wang Yi discussed the possibility of integrating BRI with the Eurasian Economic Union. this again suggests increased cooperation between Moscow and Islamabad, because Pakistan is an active partner in the BRI and is situated at the crossroads of Eurasia.

Pakistan fits well in Russia’s strategic calculus of . The generally propagated myth that Pakistan carries no factual weight in Moscow’s geo-strategic calculus is more of a neglected version of the country’s geopolitical importance in the Eurasian integration. At present, Moscow is preoccupied with strategizing the need to join hands with other countries to steer clear the challenges of the US sanctions.

To this end, it has crafted a policy of spurring economic cooperation, especially in the oil and gas industry, and Pan-Eurasian integration. Russian analyst Andrew Korybko explains in his article “Pakistan is the zipper of Pan-Eurasian integration” that Islamabad holds a pivotal position in Russia’s strategic agenda in Asia.

The upsurge in Pakistan-Russia ties reflects the thinking of the policymakers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi that they are adapting to the complex undertones of regional and global politics. It is also true that the country is in dire need of diversifying its relations with the major powers on sounder foundations.

Though the developments are encouraging and bode well for the future ties, Pakistan-Russia cooperation must be institutionalized along with increasing people-to-people contacts.

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