November 21, 2014
When a Russian defence minister comes to Pakistan after a gap of forty-five years, it becomes a landmark event both in the bilateral relations between the two countries and in regional politics. And on top of it, there is much symbolism that Sergey Shoigu came to Pakistan on Thursday in the second leg of a tour that first took him to China at a defining moment in Russia-China strategic ties.
It’s too early to connect the dots — not at least until President Vladimir Putin undertakes a long-awaited visit to Islamabad — but there is no gainsaying the fact that a critical mass of shared interests and concerns is steadily forming between Russia, China and Pakistan.
The press release of the Pakistan defence ministry on Shoigu’s visit, in fact, stressed that the two sides “expressed satisfaction over convergence of views on most international and trans-regional issues.” A military cooperation agreement was signed during Shoigu’s visit, which is the first of its kind between the two countries.
The Pakistani expectation is that the pact will strengthen the mil-to-mil relations in “tangible terms” as well as “pave the way for exchange of views and information on politico-military issues as well as issues related to strengthening of mutual trust and international security, intensification of counter-terrorist and arms control activities, extension of relations in various fields of military education” and so on.
The press release quotes Shoigu as expressing appreciation for Pakistan’s defence production capabilities and remarking publicly that the world community “wants to do business with Pakistan now.” It stands to reason that Russia could be eyeing Pakistan as a potentially valuable partner for military sales and weapons production.
Reporting from Islamabad, TASS news agency quoted Shoigu as saying that there is mutual agreement that “bilateral military cooperation should have a great practical focus and contribute to increasing combat efficiency of our armed forces.”
The Russian-Pakistan interaction at the military level has been steadily building up. All three service chiefs of Russia visited Pakistan this year. Obviously, much preparation went into Shoigu’s landmark visit. Shoigu said without elaborating that he discussed with the Pakistani side “a range of specific events of particular importance.” These are not off-the-cuff remarks and they are meant to carry resonance in the regional and international audience.
What explains the Russian overture to Pakistan? In the broadest sense, the deep chill in Russia’s ties with the United States provides the backdrop.
From the Russian perspective, Pakistan plays a key role in the US’ regional strategies and it is in Moscow’s interest to create political and diplomatic space for Pakistan to withstand US pressure. In intrinsic terms, therefore, Russia will do all it can to strengthen the trend of Pakistan’s independent foreign policies.
Arguably, in the new world order that Putin choreographed in his recent speech in Moscow in late October, Pakistan fits in as participant in what the Russian leader called “a new global consensus of responsible forces.”
In regional terms, Russia has everything to gain out of cooperation with Pakistan. Shoigu acknowledged this by saying, “our [Russian-Pakistani] assessment of the situation in this country [Afghanistan] is either similar or the same.”
To be sure, Russia views with great suspicion the US’ intentions in establishing long-term military presence in Afghanistan, given Washington’s track record of using extremist groups as geopolitical tools. Pakistan, too, cannot but be uneasy about the establishment of the US military bases in Afghanistan. Most certainly, sharing of intelligence becomes a leitmotif of the Russian-Pakistani military cooperation.
Moscow would like to keep track of the covert activities of the US intelligence, which has a big presence in Afghanistan, while the fact remains that Pakistan has been at the receiving end of cross-border terrorism originating from Afghan soil and masterminded by various forces.
Of course, viewed from Delhi, there will be an inclination to see Moscow’s overtures to Pakistan as a Russian reaction to India’s lurch toward the American camp. But that will be simplifying matters in zero-sum terms.
Indeed, the fact that the US has overtaken Russia as the number one vendor of weapons in the Indian bazaar could be rankling Moscow. But then, Russia will not be doing anything exceptional by supplying weapons to Pakistan and India — something which the US and European countries have been doing all along.
What should worry Delhi is something else, namely, the failure of the Indian policy to brand Pakistan as a terrorist state and to demand its isolation.
On a day when Shoigu is in Islamabad while the Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif was being feted by his American hosts, it is beyond doubt that Pakistan is not facing any danger of isolation. Ten days back, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in Beijing, too.
Shoigu’s visit to Islamabad underscores that Russia has joined the US and China in recognising the shift in the Pakistani policies on terrorism, what with the growing evidence of the disintegration of the Taliban and the Haqqani network. By working with Pakistan, Russia hopes to influence the search for an Afghan settlement in a way Moscow’s profound security interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia are safeguarded.
Therefore, as time passes, Delhi will be hard-pressed to find alibi for not engaging Pakistan in dialogue. Secondly, a possible upswing in Russian-Pakistani cooperation — and possible coordination eventually as the relationship matures — on Afghan developments can only aggravate India’s political and diplomatic isolation in Kabul.
Finally, one main purpose of Shoigu’s visit has been to intensify the military exercises between the two countries. This is coming at a time when Russian navy aspires to make its reappearance in the Indian Ocean in the post-cold war era. The Russian warships from the Pacific Fleet made a port call in Karachi in April.
Most certainly, it is no coincidence that Russia is probing the frontiers of military cooperation with Pakistan at a juncture when India is manifestly accelerating its defence ties with the US, Japan and Australia bilaterally as well as multilaterally and giving it a regional format in the ‘Indo-Pacific’. These are early days, but a strategic realignment in the Indian Ocean region is, perhaps, becoming unavoidable and the Russian-Pakistani military pact cannot be regarded as a mere flash in the pan.