Russia-Pak relations: Beyond Putin's cancelled trip to Islamabad
03 October 2012
Two months after President Vladimir Putin called for greater pragmatism in Russian foreign policy, he was ready to make history by becoming the first Russian head of state to visit Pakistan. While the primary purpose of his visit was a quadrilateral meeting with the leaders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, scheduled for 3rd October, Putin was also scheduled to hold bilateral talks with his Pakistani counterpart.
Against the backdrop of the USA’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, many saw this as a Russian attempt to increase its strategic leverage by enhancing its ties with Pakistan. Surprisingly, however, Putin has postponed his visit, without naming a new date or giving any reason for the change of plan.
While reasons for the cancellation remain speculative, many have pointed the finger at India. As Pakistan’s chief adversary, India undoubtedly keeps a close watch on its neighbour. However, like Russia, India is a part of the emerging multilateral world order and understands the need for increased regional and global interaction. More importantly, as Professor Harsh V. Pant of King’s College, London points out, ’India’s ties with Russia are historic, wide ranging and well institutionalized. Russia will do its best to assuage Indian concerns and New Delhi should largely be satisfied with it.’ Evidently, India would have little to lose from Putin’s visit to Islamabad and so has little incentive to influence his decision.
Whatever the reason for Putin’s abrupt change of plan, it raises the question of whether his declaration of integrating Russia in global processes by engaging with unconventional allies like Pakistan is anything more than rhetoric.
The answer to this question can be found by looking at broader Russo-Pakistani relations. Diplomatically, we have recently been seeing increased cooperation between the two countries. In the past, high-level exchanges were rare - President Musharraf travelled to Moscow in 2003 and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov visited Pakistan in 2007. 2012, however, has marked a change in Russo-Pakistani relations. Following visits to Moscow by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and President Asif Ali Zardari earlier this year, the Russian capital is set to welcome General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on 3rd October. It is worth noting that his trip continues to be on course despite the cancellation of Putin’s visit.
While Pakistan’s deteriorating relations with the US have led it to look for new regional allies, Russia’s increased closeness to Islamabad is primarily motivated by the situation in Pakistan and around. As the US prepares to curtail its presence in Afghanistan by 2014, Russia fears that state failure in that country will cause a spillover of Islamic fundamentalism into Central Asia, and from there into the southern regions of Russia. Having just dealt with Islamist secessionist movements in Chechnya and the South Caucasus, this is not a scenario that Russia would welcome.
In this context, while Russia is aware of Islamabad’s role in fomenting international terrorism, it realises that any successful resolution of the problems associated with Afghanistan must involve Pakistan. A cancelled presidential visit cannot change the relevance of this, or of Russia’s goal, in enhancing ties with Pakistan, of securing greater cooperation on counter terrorism.
The politics of energy
Another important element of this relationship is cooperation on energy. The importance of energy to Pakistan cannot be overemphasized - no electricity projects were initiated between 1996 and 2008, despite an annual increase of 1,600MW in electricity demand since 2007. In fact, the energy crisis is so profound that it has begun to influence Islamabad’s foreign policy decisions. Earlier this year, for example, Pakistan agreed to import petroleum and electricity from arch-rival India and liberalise trade relations with New Delhi.
Conversely, one of the primary drivers of Moscow’s foreign policy is global energy politics. Unsurprisingly, Moscow is trying to develop closer ties with Pakistan in this sector. Russia has, for example, expressed interest in financing the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAPI) gas project and has also agreed to make investments in the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project. There is media speculation that Putin’s decision to cancel his visit could be linked to Pakistan’s reluctance to award Russia’s energy giant Gazprom a $1.2 billion contract for the Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline, without going through the bidding process which is the international norm. There is, however, no official evidence to support this conjecture.
Russian investors have also expressed keen interest in the Thar Coalfield Project, intended to exploit the massive deposits of coal found in this desert region in 1991, as well as in the Central Asian and South Asian (CASA) project, which aims at establishing the necessary transmission and trading infrastructure to enable trade in electricity between Central and South Asia. And as well as investment in new projects, Moscow has also offered to finance the refurbishment of the Guddu and Muzaffargarh power plants.
Russia has offered to cooperate in the non-energy infrastructure sector as well. Recently, Russia’s Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Factory (MMK) offered to invest $500 million to expand the production capacity of Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) from one million to 3 three million tons a year. And while the postponement of Putin’s visit definitely delays the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for PSM’s expansion, it is too early to conclude that it is off the agenda. Experts feel that with Pakistan accounting for just 0.3 percent of Russia’s trade in 2011, there is enormous potential for growth in this sector.
The most controversial element of closer Russo-Pakistani relations is military cooperation. General Kayani’s upcoming visit follows the first ever trip to Moscow by Pakistani Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafiq. Apart from these symbolic visits there has also been a slow infiltration of Russia’s defence technology from third countries into Pakistan. Ukrainian T-80 main battle tanks, supplied to Pakistan in the 1990s, have Russian-built key systems and components. Even the JF-17 fighter planes supplied by China to Pakistan were powered by Russian RD-93 engines.
Interestingly, Russia’s support for Pakistan is not confined to bilateral issues, but has also been observed in multilateral forums. Putin’s public endorsement of Pakistan’s candidacy for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), along with his acknowledgment of the crucial role that Pakistan plays in South Asia and the larger Muslim world, is proof of this.
Cooperation in multilateral institutions serves to silence sceptics who view improving Russo-Pakistani ties as the start of a new Cold War between the US and Russia for influence over this strategically located country. Putin has suggested the setting up of an SCO energy club, grouping the energy producing countries of Russia, Iran and Central Asia and the three big energy-consuming countries of India, Pakistan and China. This proposal in itself shows that Russia’s involvement in South Asia is based on the principle of cooperation, not confrontation.
The postponement of Putin’s visit is undoubtedly a symbolic blow to Pakistan’s efforts to diversify its strategic allies and do away with its image of bandwagoning with America. At the same time it’s a blow to Russia’s ambitions of making greater inroads into Central and South Asia.However, it needs to be stressed that Putin has postponed his trip and not cancelled it. Indeed, in his letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, he expressed hope for enhanced cooperation and suggested a trip to Moscow. Therefore, it would be wrong to dismiss Putin’s postponed trip as a sign of vacillating Russo-Pakistani relations. There is a definite rapprochement between the two, even though their current bilateral engagement continues to be limited.
(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)