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Emerging axes, new equations: Pak-Russia dynamics in a changing world

Imran Khan is visiting Russia on the Kremlin's invitation, and Pakistani officials have said the visit was scheduled well ahead of current developments. In an interview to Russia's state-controlled RT channel on Tuesday, Imran said the visit would focus on Pakistan's relations with Russia.

Pak PM Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (File Photos: AP/Reuters)

The two-day visit to Moscow by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan beginning on Wednesday (February 23) comes at a time when President Vladimir Putin is the bad boy of the world for his actions against Ukraine. Imran will become the first foreign leader to visit Russia after Putin recognised two breakaway regions of Ukraine as independent republics, and the first Prime Minister of Pakistan to travel to that country since the landmark visit by Nawaz Sharif in 1999.

Imran is visiting Russia on the Kremlin’s invitation, and Pakistani officials have said the visit was scheduled well ahead of current developments. In an interview to Russia’s state-controlled RT channel on Tuesday, Imran said the visit would focus on Pakistan’s relations with Russia.

“This [Ukraine crisis] does not concern us. We have a bilateral relationship with Russia, and we really want to strengthen it,” Imran said, adding that Pakistan wanted trade relations with “all countries”.

“I do not believe that military conflicts solve problems. . The countries that rely on a military conflict have not studied history properly,” he said. “The developing world really wishes that there is not another Cold War. … Now, what we want to do is not become part of any bloc.”

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While Imran’s visit reflects the greatly improved ties between Pakistan and Russia, their mutual partnership with China that has grown in recent years signals the undeniable development of a new axis in South Asia and Central Asia. The relations of each of these countries with the United States have worsened over the last two years. This and their overlapping stakes and interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and the Belt and Road Initiative, have seen these three countries take the lead in projecting the Taliban as the rightful claimants to power in Kabul.

Cold War is history

Pakistan’s relations with Russia have come a long way since the time it was a willing ally and treaty partner of the US bloc against the Soviet Union. It had helped the US repair its relations with China, which sent Beijing and Moscow further apart. In response, India and USSR solidified their ties with a defence pact, and increased economic and people-to-people exchanges.

Pakistan saw itself as a frontline state against the spread of communism, and actively aided and assisted in the defeat of the Red Army in the first Afghan war, with the US and Saudi Arabia using the Pak Army to funnel funds and weapons to the mujahideen.

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The collapse of the Soviet Union led to major shifts in international relations. From their vantage points, Pakistan and Russia watched the US and post-economic-reforms India draw closer. Towards the end of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Nawaz Sharif became the first Pakistani leader to visit Moscow.

But it was only in the next decade that Putin’s Russia, looking for new markets for its military hardware, as well as new international partners, began building ties with Pakistan. By then, serious rifts had emerged between the Obama Administration and Pakistan, with the killing of Osama bin Laden in a stealth raid by US marines in Pakistan’s Abbottabad being the turning point.

Russia-Pakistan-China

In 2011, to New Delhi’s shock, Russia lifted its four-decade-old arms embargo on Pakistan — and within four years, would sell Pakistan its first MiG attack helicopters. As a US defeat in Afghanistan began to look certain, both countries made common cause on Afghanistan, again to India’s dismay.

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In September 2016, after the Jaish-e-Mohammed attack in Uri, Russia went ahead with a joint military exercise with Pakistan, ignoring New  Delhi’s appeal against it. In 2017, with Indo-Pak relations at their lowest, Russia sold more helicopters to Pakistan.

And after its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia found a friend in China, the long-time friend of Pakistan, triangulating the relationship.

Both Pakistan and Russia are participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the world has seen the three take common positions and in tacit acknowledgment of each other’s interests in that country.

New Delhi and Moscow

However, Russia is hardly starry-eyed about its relations with Pakistan. As its support for the designation of Pakistan-based terrorist groups, including those targeting India such as the Jaish and its leader, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, have shown, Russia has clear views against Pakistan’s patronage of terrorists. And even while it is supportive of the Taliban regime, Russia is concerned about Islamist extremism emanating from Afghanistan appearing in the Central Asian republics and on the margins of its own territory.

Also, even though the Russia-India relationship is not what it used to be in the Soviet days, both sides recognise its continued mutual benefits. Russia remains India’s biggest arms supplier, and India took the risk of being sanctioned by the US when it bought the Russian S 400 missile defence system. And New Delhi has not yet allowed its close ties with the US to tilt its delicate balance on the Ukraine issue.

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Imran and Putin

Imran will meet Putin on Thursday. It will be an opportunity for the two sides to convey their own messages to the West about building partnerships in a changing world — even though they may steer clear of discussing the conflict directly, and focus more on economic ties. Imran is accompanied by a delegation of cabinet ministers and key advisers.

Pakistan wants Russia to invest in, and construct a $2.5 billion gas pipeline from the seaport in Karachi to Kasur in the Punjab hinterland, even though this pipeline is unlikely to transport Russian gas. Moscow, however, appears to be more interested in the possibility of building the 1,800-km Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline — something that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last July.

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Despite publicly stated opposition to normalising relations with India over Kashmir, Pakistani officials too have been talking about the potential of TAPI — while also pushing with the Russians another plan for a Kazakhstan-Pakistan pipeline.

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First published on: 23-02-2022 at 09:09:03 pm
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