The euphoria is palpable. Pakistani diplomats and media have been ecstatic at being able to host a Russian Foreign Minister after more than eight years. And Sergey Lavrov is no ordinary diplomat or politician. With his boss Vladimir Putin now cleared to run for two more terms as President, technically till 2036, Lavrov is likely to go from strength to strength, even as he is currently the longest serving Cabinet member, helming the Russian foreign ministry since 2004.
So, when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi waxes eloquent on the visit of this distinguished visitor, he is justified — to an extent.
The trouble is that, notwithstanding the effusive statements, there’s not a lot of substance in Pakistan-Russia ties as yet.
The Defence Relationship
Things seemed to set off to a good start when President Putin was slated to visit Pakistan in 2012, but which was subsequently cancelled reportedly due to Delhi’s concerns. The then Army Chief Kayani’s visit to Moscow that same year did however lead to reciprocal visits by the Air Chiefs of the two countries. But the relationship developed slowly, and it took another two years before the two signed a Military Cooperation Agreement in 2014.
As COAS Raheel Sharif visited Moscow, media reports speculated on the supply of an unspecified number of Sukhoi 35’s and other equipment, in what was rumoured to be the ‘biggest deal ever’. In the event, Russia provided just a few Mi-35 Hind armed helicopters. By 2018, the first meeting of the Joint Military Consultative Meeting led to a decision to allow training for Pakistani officers, followed by military exercises — first in counter narcotics and then counter-terrorism exercises, and later at sea, as part of the Aman naval exercises.
In 2020, Moscow sent one frigate, a patrol ship and a detachment of marine corps. Attempts by Pakistan — for a joint exercise in Gilgit-Baltistan — came to nothing, after India made its displeasure clear.
That’s rather a facer, given that Russia had reportedly flatly refused an earlier request for the deadly Kalashnikovs.
But relative to the defence deals that are ongoing with India — particularly during the Galwan stand off, or even in a standalone assessment — there’s really nothing much to point to.
No Trade Underpinnings
There is even less to enthuse on trade. The Joint Presser had to be enthusiastic about a 45 percent increase, to a mere USD 790 million. Bilateral trade with India is above USD 10 bn, though that’s far below potential. Neither is there any sign of Russia as an investor in Pakistan, with Moscow not even coming into the first ten according to Pakistan’s Board of Investment.
There has been talk of a USD 14 bn investment in Pakistan’s energy sector, with some USD 10 bn for a undersea pipeline and the rest for a Karachi to Lahore North-South gas pipeline first envisaged in 2015.
But the energy giant Gazprom’s vision for the undersea pipeline is to extend it to not just India but also to Bangladesh, and perhaps China. Pakistan by itself doesn’t have the capacity to absorb energy to justify such massive investment.
The Afghanistan Tangle
The biggest step-up for Pakistan, is that Russia chose to include Pakistan in a forum called the 'Extended Troika' , a rather strange meeting between the US, Russia and China (the Troika) with the addition of Pakistan, apart from Turkey and Qatar as ‘honoured guests’.
The Biden Administration seems to be ready to bring in Russia in a shift from the barrage of accusations and counter-accusations of the Trump Administration. Russia has, for some time, been wooing the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek groupings on the Central Asian border, and thereby undermining Kabul.
It’s no surprise then that Moscow is backing an interim government that is resolutely opposed by President Ghani, and also chooses to refer to the Taliban ‘delegation’.
That’s a win for Pakistan, together with its perception that India was ‘left out’.
Iran was not invited either, but all three were part of a Trilateral earlier. While there is no evidence that the Moscow meeting had any value for Afghanistan itself, other than adding to the rapidly increasing numbers of such conclaves, there is no doubt that as Indian MEA Dr S Jaishankar stated bluntly: “For India, what happens in Afghanistan impacts its security directly”.
Why Russia Continues to Hold Sway Over US
Overall, there is little to prop-up a relationship between a former super power and the present economic straggler that is Pakistan.
One is looking for new markets and ways to salvage its lost position, while the other is basically looking for hand-outs. Moscow is lagging at 11th place among the large economies of the world, far behind China, and even to India at fifth. However, Russia is still a country with vast potential resources valued at some USD 75 trillion, the largest exporter of gas in the world, and still the second-largest nuclear weapons power in the world.
That last counts for something, and is the reason why the United States still sees Russia as a prime threat, and sanctions nearly everything it does. The public fighting and spitting between the two works for Islamabad, who routinely projects its alleged ‘proximity’ to Russia, as arising from its rejection by the US.
In Islamabad, roundabout arguments and enthusiastic hyperbole is the stuff of diplomacy.
Delhi & Moscow’s Close Bond
More importantly, the Russia relationship is a source of great satisfaction for Islamabad, since it knows that it annoys New Delhi no end. That holds true to an extent, especially at a time when the whole ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct has angered Moscow, which in turn led to the postponement of a summit for the first time in 20 years last year.
But the truth is that there is a close bond between Delhi and Moscow, evident most recently when Russia was used as a diplomatic conveyer belt to get talking to China during the Galwan crisis.
Russia in turn is far from comfortable with Chinese ingress into its Central Asian rim. In international relations theory, it is said that the best relations are those of necessity, and not sentiment. In Delhi there’s more of the first, and still quite a bit on the second. On that estimate however, the Pakistan relationship falls flat on its face.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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