Pakistan-Russia ties have come a long way since the days of the Cold War. It was Gen. Musharraf who travelled to Moscow in 2003 and laid the groundwork for a shift. In 2013, President Zardari and Gen Kiyani both visited Russia, and Putin was widely expected to reciprocate but his trip was postponed, reportedly under pressure from India. Nonetheless, situation has evolved to such an extent that Russia-Pakistan Consultative Group on Strategic Stability meets regularly, and with the first ever strategic dialogue held from August 28 to 29. In addition to the political and economic cooperation the agenda for the recent talks also included defense ties between the two.
These consultations, and earlier ones, have taken place in the backdrop of slow moving Pakistan-US strategic talks and expanding Pakistan-China partnership. Pakistan’s ties with Russia are improving at a unique time, when the Kremlin is at a center stage of world affairs with its opposition to military intervention in Syria. The postures of Pakistan and Russia, including India, are increasingly aligned in promoting the role of UN Security Council in such international conflicts. In the last weeks G20 meeting in Russia, India followed this line along with Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa
However, the interests of Russia, India and Pakistan, also diverge when it comes to the future of Afghanistan beyond 2014. Moreover, the emerging institutions of BRICS and SCO complicate the role of these international players.
State Sovereignty and National Integrity
The views of Pakistan and India on key international issues are closer to each other, and to those of Russia and China. In addition to the focus on developing regional trade and energy corridors, the buzzwords emanating from China, Russia, Pakistan and India, are respect for sovereignty and national integrity of states and resistance to external intervention in regional disputes.
Obviously, these positions are connected to the domestic environment of these states. For example, non-intervention helps India in maintaining the status quo in Kashmir while keeping a lid on the Maoist insurgency plaguing large parts of India. On the other hand, for Pakistan, it helps to handle the foreign pressure when it comes to extremist sanctuaries in FATA, and insurgency brewing in Balochistan.
In the case of Russia, it is the revolt in Chechnya and Dagestan, and its dismal human rights record, which keeps it worried about interference in its internal affairs. This is a concern China shares with Russia, which has faced its own domestic turbulence in Xingjian province. At the same time, all of these players, including US, are fearful of extremism that emanates from Pakistan.
The Interplay of Strategic Ties
At the same time, apprehensions have grown in the US about India not fully embracing its strategic security relations, especially as it relates to the American policy of pivoting to the Pacific. India’s strategic ties with the US are complicated by its involvement in BRICS and as an observer status on the SCO. On the other hand, Pakistan is fully embracing its strategic partnership with China. This was obvious by moves such as recent handing over of the Gwadar port to the Chinese and also deciding to adopt the Chinese global navigation system.
India is obviously concerned about the budding Pakistan-Russia ties, which it fears is taking place at the cost of India. This dynamic is the reverse of how US position over India has evolved.
When it comes to Pakistan-Russia ties, the Russians have publicly endorsed Pakistan’s bid for full membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russian interest in Pakistan is multidimensional and not just limited to the post 2014 Afghanistan scenarios, or securing its underbelly from the scourge of extremism. Putin has previously stated that it considers Pakistan an important economic and trade partner for Russia. “Pakistan is not only an important trade and economic partner but also a key Russian partner in South Asia and the Islamic world,” Putin was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS news agency in 2012.
This comment provides important insights into the Russian thinking about Pakistan. As the situation of Middle East rapidly deteriorates, the country is looking at the totality of its relations with the Islamic world.
The emerging sectarian dimension in the Middle East has the Russians increasingly worried. If wider conflagration erupts, as is widely expected, Russia is positioning itself to balance its ties with the Islamic world. The postures of the Saudis and Turkey on Syria and Iran, are putting Russian ties with the Sunni Muslim states to the test. Chinese interest in Pakistan may not be much different. While the strategic location of Pakistan is of vital significance, good ties with it, help China offset traditionally tense ties with Muslim states of the Pacific, and perhaps soon with the Gulf States as well.
This is somewhat the same dilemma, albeit in reverse, the Americans face, by siding against Syria, Iran and the Shias. In this emerging landscape, the role of Pakistan becomes critical for Russia, China and the US, to balance ties with the Islamic world. It has also caught India in a bind; on how to delicately manage its ties with Iran and the Gulf States, while at the same time have good ties with US, Russia, and Israel. Being a member of BRICS puts India in a very tight spot.
What we may be witnessing resembles a similarity to what occurred during WWI and WWII; the Muslim regions of the time were divided amongst the competing interests of the colonial powers.
About 1.3 million men from the subcontinent served in the British Indian Army in World War I and about 2.5 million in World War II. Many of these soldiers were Punjabis, Pathans and Baluchis and voluntarily fought at various fronts in the subcontinent, Middle East, Africa, and Europe. These Muslims often fought with fellow Muslims, at the behest of the colonial powers of the time. Thus, what’s transpiring today should not come as a surprise.
At the end of these wars, most pan-Islamic sentiments were transformed into a nation-state reality, which exists today. A question to ponder over is; what will follow the present struggle and the shift in the global balance of power.