Bilateral ties have long been rocky, but a recent defense deal marks a turning point.
A military cooperation agreement that Russia and Pakistan signed during Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s recent visit to Islamabad marks an important shift in relations between those two countries. After a long history of bilateral turbulence, Russia and Pakistan appear to have initiated a new era of cooperation that is likely to be closely watched in New Delhi and Washington.
The defense cooperation agreement is the first of its kind between the two countries and has been described in Pakistan as a “milestone” in Russia-Pakistan relations. Agreeing with him, a former Indian diplomat pointed out that even a few years ago a defense pact between Moscow and Islamabad would have been “inconceivable.” Speaking with The Diplomat, he added, “It is a turning point in their relationship.”
Relations between the two countries have historically been frosty, especially during the Cold War decades. Pakistan was part of two U.S.-led military alliances and allowed its air force stations to be used by the U.S. for aerial surveillance of the Soviet Union. In return, it received substantial quantities of military hardware and other aid from Washington. Soviet-Pakistan relations plunged to new depths during the 1980s when Pakistan joined hands with the U.S. to provide funds, weapons and training to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Complicating an already difficult relationship was the robust military and other support that the Soviets were extending to India.
Pakistan’s relations with Moscow improved somewhat with the end of the Cold War but differences over the Taliban kept them on opposite sides. While Islamabad backed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Russia joined hands with Iran and India in the late 1990s to support the Northern Alliance. While the two countries began reaching out to each other a decade ago, it is only over the last four or five years that significant steps towards a rapprochement began to be taken and several high-profile visits were exchanged.
Then, in June, in what was a clear sign of things to come, Russia lifted an embargo on weapons sales to Pakistan. It began negotiating the sale of Mi-35 multi-role helicopters to Islamabad. “The defense cooperation agreement will take such arms sales further,” the former diplomat observed.
The specific contents of the defense cooperation have not been made public. Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Shoigu as saying that it would have “a great practical focus and contribute to increasing combat efficiency” of the armed forces. Besides arms sales, greater naval cooperation, including port visits by Russian warships, increased military delegation visits, participation in military exercises as observers, training of military staff, counternarcotics and counterterrorism cooperation are on the anvil. The two countries could be eyeing joint defense production too. A Pakistan government press release mentions Shoigu’s appreciation of Pakistan’s defense production capabilities. “The world community not only praises but wants to do business with Pakistan now,” it quotes the Russian defense minister as saying.
The Russia-Pakistan defense pact has caused some unease in India. Moscow shared a special relationship with New Delhi going back to the 1950s. Not only did the Soviets support the building of the Indian economy and the military they also backed India in the Security Council by repeatedly wielding the veto on the Kashmir question. “It is this strong decades-old partnership that makes the recent Russia-Pakistan defense pact hard to digest,” the former Indian diplomat said. India’s “warming relations with the U.S. over the past decade,” especially its rising defense purchases from Washington would have played an “important role” in Russia making overtures to Pakistan. Besides, Pakistan has been looking to reduce its dependence on the U.S. “A Russia-Pakistan coming together was inevitable in the circumstances,” he said.
Salma Malik, a specialist on regional security issues at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, disagrees. It was the opening up of a “new and good” defense market through which “Pakistan can fulfill its defense needs and which in turn is beneficial for Russia” that underlies their rapprochement, she told The Diplomat. There were instances in the past when Moscow and Islamabad tried to clinch major defense deals, but because of the former’s “established military ties with New Delhi, these did not work out.” Drawing attention to Pakistan’s “genuine and growing security needs” and the availability and opening up of a market, she argued that “it is only logical” that Islamabad would act to draw benefit from the opportunity. This culminated in the historic defense cooperation pact.
Commenting on the growing defense cooperation between Russia and Pakistan, Petr Topychkanov, an associate at the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told The Diplomat that India has “no reason to be worried.” Regarding military sales, “as of now, there is only one approved decision to re-export via China engines for the China-Pakistan jointly developed JF-17 combat aircraft, he said, adding that the scale of this deal “is very limited.” As for Mi-35 chopper deal, its “prospects are still unclear.” Russia has only indicated the “possibility” of a deal, Topychkanov said, pointing out that the two sides have “not yet signed a contract or even a Memorandum of Understanding on this” Even if they do, there are “many questions” for them to grapple over, such as the weaponry on these helicopters.
According to Topychkanov said that Russia and Pakistan are keen on more joint military exercises, their navies having participated in a couple of limited drills this year. “But the scale of such exercises will be limited and they will focus on counternarcotics, counterterrorism and counter-piracy,” he said.
Informed opinion in Pakistan and Russia is of the view that Russia’s pact with Pakistan will not be at the cost of India. “While developing military cooperation with Pakistan, Russia wants to make its relationship with India deeper and more strategic,” Topychkanov said. Malik meanwhile doubts whether Pakistan’s defense deal with Russia would “equal what India is gaining from its Western partners now as well as Russia in the past.”
“Moscow remains a strong ally of New Delhi,” Riffat Hussain, a noted Pakistani defense analyst told The Diplomat. Sounding a cautionary note, he said that Russia’s overtures toward Pakistan, including the opening of an arms supply line “is a countervailing trend that New Delhi should watch but not worry or fret about.”
In India too, the emotional response to the pact in sections of the media notwithstanding, the mood in the bureaucracy seems cautious rather than alarmed. “Russia is unlikely to do anything to jeopardize its enormous defense business with India. We hope it will avoid entering into defense deals with Pakistan that impinge on India’s security,” an official in India’s Ministry of Defence said, adding that India will raise its concerns over the agreement with the Russians. “More transparency on Russia’s part on military sales will be helpful,” he emphasized.
An important reason for Russia’s interest in Pakistan is the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, which has direct implications for Russia’s security. In recent years, Russia, China and Pakistan have met several times to “coordinate” their strategies. During the Russian defense minister’s recent visit, the two sides are said to have exchanged views on Afghanistan. “Our assessments of the situation in that country are mainly close or coincide,” Shoigu said.
According to Hussain, Russia-Pakistan cooperation on Afghanistan could see the two countries “share intelligence relating to cross-border movement, illicit trafficking of narcotics and small arms.” However, due to the legacy of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, “any enhanced Russian role inside Afghanistan will likely evoke suspicions of the Afghans,” he warned.
Russia’s cooperation with Pakistan to deal with instability in Afghanistan is significant for several reasons. For one, the new partnership marks a shift away from their long-standing differences on Islamist militancy in that country. Importantly, their cooperation signals differences in the approach of India and Russia to tackling terrorism. Unlike India, which wants Pakistan isolated for its role in global terrorism, Russia appears to have come around to working with Islamabad on the issue.
Opinion in India seems divided on whether Russia’s rapprochement with Pakistan and their defense agreement in particular is driven primarily by its concerns over the Afghan situation or Moscow’s annoyance with India’s warming to the U.S. Either way, the pact represents a major triumph for Pakistan’s diplomacy. It is a wake-up call that India ignores at its peril. It is a reminder that Delhi cannot expect sentimentalism and nostalgia to take care of partnerships even with old friends and, importantly, it cannot expect to hold down Russia to an exclusive relationship with itself, when it is cozying up to Washington.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues