The Russia-Pakistan relationship, growing at a slow pace after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has acquired a certain momentum in recent years. The ties in the initial years after establishment of Pakistan were saddled with distrust of the Cold War period, most glaringly after the support extended by Pakistan to the Mujahedeen to help the CIA in Afghanistan in the 1970s-80s. The fact that the USSR was a close friend of India as Pakistan sided with the US had limited the scope of bilateral interactions.
In the immediate post-Soviet years, no concerted effort from either side was made to improve the relationship. In 2003, Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf visited Moscow, while from the Russian side, the prime ministerial level visit took place in 2007 when Mikhail Fradkov visited Pakistan, but could only manage ‘meagre results.’
Some progress was seen with regular meetings between presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Asif Ali Zardari, resulting in the latter’s visit to Moscow in 2011. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pakistan in 2012 after a gap of six years, followed by the visit of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2014, which was an important point in the relationship. Subsequently, Russia decided to lift its embargo on Pakistan and agreed to supply four Mi-35 helicopters (completed in 2017) besides building of a $1.7 billion gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. This signaled the intent of both parties to engage — despite the concerns of India regarding this proximity in ties.
This gradual improvement of ties did not happen out of context of the changing regional situation. The US had announced a troop draw-down from Afghanistan in 2012, followed by the announcement of a withdrawal in 2014. By then, Russia had already demonstrated its willingness to expand its influence in its neighborhood and push back against the US, looking at Afghanistan as another area to assert its position. Apart from this rationale, Russia is particularly interested in Afghanistan due to its impact on security in the broader Central Asian region and also concerned about the threat of terrorism and drugs flowing into its borders via Central Asia. Moscow also noted the threat to regional stability arising from the presence of Islamic State in Afghanistan as the reason for its renewed interest there. In this context, building relations with Pakistan became relevant due to its strategic location and influence.
While Russia sees Pakistan as an important player in dealing with the evolving situation in Afghanistan, India believes it to be responsible for the situation due to its support of Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Moscow has over the years also built its contacts with the Taliban, unlike India, a change from its earlier position of supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.
2016 saw China, Pakistan and Russia come together to discuss Afghanistan, which came under criticism for not including Afghan representatives. This has since been expanded to also include Afghanistan, Iran and India. The inclusion of Pakistan into SCO and the finalisation of the roadmap for the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group gives the two countries another venue for cooperation on the issue. Pakistan, which has seen military assistance from US frozen during the Trump administration and a worsening of overall ties, has been eager to embrace Moscow.
In practical terms, this has meant more frequent visits at the ministerial and heads of armed forces level and participation in joint military drills that have been held annually since 2016. The drills caused much consternation in India in 2016 when it was reported that they were to be held in Gilgit-Baltistan, an area New Delhi considers to be illegally occupied by its neighbour. The drills were eventually held in Cherat.
In 2017, a military-technical cooperation agreement was signed which deals with arms supply and weapon development. A year later, this led to the decision to set up a commission on military-technical cooperation but no new arms deals have been announced as yet.
Gazprom is also looking at the prospect of supplying LNG to Pakistan and construct regional pipelines which have been bogged down in security concerns and geopolitical tussles. A naval cooperation agreement has also been signed in 2018. The Russia-Pakistan Joint Working Group on Counter-terrorism and other Challenges to International Security that had since its establishment in 2002 only held four rounds of meetings till 2009, was revived in 2014. Since then, it has met in 2016 and 2018, with another meeting is expected this year.
Bilateral trade in 2018 was estimated to touch $800 million, up from $600 million the previous year. The Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation, which was set up in 2000 has met very irregularly since then.
When compared to the figures for India, the difference is rather stark. India-Russia trade touched $10 billion in 2017, which despite not being adequate, is miles ahead of the Russia-Pakistan trade. In the defence sector, in 2018 alone, India decided to sign the contract for supply for S400 missile defence system worth $5.2 billion, four frigates worth $950 million followed the next year by a $3 billion deal for a nuclear submarine to replace INS Chakra, approval for purchase of 464 T-90 tanks for $2 billion and the launch of the joint project to manufacture AK-203/103 rifles. The two countries have been holding annual summits without interruption since 2000 and the leaders meet on the side-lines of multilateral summits regularly. Recent steps appear to have also erased the sense of stagnation that prevailed earlier in the relationship. Both India and Russia continue to value the strategic nature of their relationship that has spanned over seven decades.
Some experts maintain that as a consideration for the ties with India, the Russian president has refrained from having a bilateral summit in Islamabad. While there has been an uptick in arms supply, making Russia the third largest supplier to Pakistan — the largest beneficiary of a decline in US sales to Pakistan has been China, as is evident from the table below. In the case of India, there has been a decline in the Russian share of supply of conventional weapons from the high of 70% in 2010-14 to 58% in 2014-18.
Top three suppliers of conventional weapons to Pakistan (%)
Thus, in absolute terms, the Indo-Russia relationship far surpasses the newer relationship with Pakistan but concerns in New Delhi remain. The willingness of Russia to engage with Pakistan despite the concerns of its special and strategic partner reflect not just its immediate interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia but is also a way for it to signal its displeasure to India regarding its increasingly close ties to the US. Besides an enhanced cooperation with US, the enunciation of the Indo-Pacific policy and Moscow’s increased closeness to China has also complicated the dynamics.
The strategic rationale for Russia to engage closely with Pakistan has already been explored, but at present, Moscow has sought to carefully navigate this relationship so as to not offend India. Even at the recently concluded BRI forum and SCO summit, Putin and Imran Khan only held informal discussions. In contrast, not only did Modi and Putin meet in a formal setting at SCO, the Russian president also once again extended the invitation to the Indian leader to be the chief guest at the September 2019 Eastern Economic Forum. The Sochi informal summit in 2018 was also an attempt by both sides to revive the stagnating relationship.
Russia is aware of the growing asymmetry of its ties with China and the weakness of its position in the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific. In this situation, if India senses any formation of Russia-China-Pakistan axis, it would be deeply detrimental to Moscow’s interests. Not only is India a time-tested strategic partner, it is also a significantly larger market than Pakistan, the relationship with whom forms a critical part of the multi-vector policy Russia aims to follow. Also, Russia would not consider a win for itself if its actions push India to move further closer to the US. India, with its growing economic and strategic influence, is important for Russia’s pivot to Asia to succeed.
India too benefits from its close partnership with Russia and would do well to proactively improve the bilateral relationship to prevent any deterioration in ties even as it seeks to build new partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. Already, despite the concerns over growing Russia-China bonhomie, it has sought to strike a balanced approach in its foreign policy through engagement in non-Western multilateral forums like RIC, SCO and BRICS. While some restructuring is bound to happen in the bilateral relationship on account of both domestic priorities and changing global order, the two sides can take steps to strengthen the Indo-Russia ties.
Steps to improve the economic partnership and charting of a clear future plan of action should be a priority for India to moderate Russia’s tilt towards Pakistan. Russia would also benefit from keeping Indian concerns in mind so as to not damage a long-standing partnership with an emerging power.