Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has arrived in Russia for a two-day visit. This is the first visit to Russia by a Pakistani prime minister since then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. As the visit coincided with the outbreak of the Conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the public opinion once had the impression that Pakistan was “supporting” Russia on the Ukraine issue. The Pakistani Prime Minister’s office therefore issued a special statement, stressing that Pakistan will remain “neutral” on the issue. In fact, the prime minister had been advised to cancel his visit even before he went to Russia, but Imran Khan refused. In spite of pressure from public opinion at home and abroad, Pakistani Prime Minister insisted on visiting Russia as planned, which fully demonstrates the importance the Pakistani government attaches to developing relations with Russia.
The “Historical Burden” of Pakistan-Russia Relations
During the Cold War, Pakistan’s relations with the Soviet Union were essentially “hostile.” This was determined by the “bipolar” global pattern of the United States and the Soviet Union and the “hostile” regional pattern of India and Pakistan in South Asia. Pakistan joined the West in the 1950s to win support from the US and the West during the first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir after partition in 1947. At the same time, India and the Soviet Union began to close. In 1962, China-Pakistan relations developed rapidly after the china-India border war of self-defence. Normalization began in 1971 with a secret visit to China by Then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with Pakistan’s help. In the same year, the Soviet Union and India signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, and the two countries established a de facto alliance. The signing of this treaty provided “strong backing” for India’s invasion of East Pakistan and the independence of East Pakistan from Bangladesh in the Third Indo-Pakistani War. In 1979, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan, with the support of the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries, became a base for training and recruiting Islamic fighters to resist the expansion of the Soviet Union, which became one of the important reasons for the Soviet Union to fall into the quagmire of the Afghan war, greatly weakened the national strength of the Soviet Union, and foiled the future disintegration.
Due to the deficit of mutual trust caused by “historical entanglements”, after the end of the Cold War, Pakistan and Russia experienced a slow and difficult process to rebuild trust. This has become a major obstacle for Pakistan to improve its relations with Russia, as the two countries have continued the soviet-India friendship during the Cold War. In addition, the evolution of the situation in Afghanistan has created a new gap in pakistan-Russian relations. In the mid-1990s, the Afghan Taliban, widely believed to have grown rapidly with Pakistani support, defeated Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which was believed to be backed by Russia, Iran and India, leading Russia to view Pakistan as a potential threat to stability in Central Asia. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, Russia, Pakistan and other countries generally supported the US-led war on terror. In December 2002, Pakistan and Russia established a joint working group meeting mechanism on fighting terrorism. In 2003, then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited Russia and clarified Russia’s concerns. Since then, leaders of the two sides have exchanged visits several times and established several intergovernmental dialogue mechanisms. For example, in 2009 Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan established the quadripartite conference mechanism on Afghanistan. In 2011, Russia also expressed support for Pakistan’s formal accession to the SCO.
Bilateral relations have made breakthroughs
In 2014, Pakistan-Russia relations achieved “breakthrough progress”. In June of that year, Russia lifted its arms embargo on Pakistan; In October, the navies and anti-drug agencies of the two countries conducted their first joint exercise to combat drug trafficking in the northern Arabian Sea. In November, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pakistan and the two countries signed a “landmark” military cooperation agreement covering a wide range of issues, including the exchange of information on political and military issues and enhanced cooperation between defense and anti-terrorism departments.
The reason why Pakistan and Russia can get rid of the “historical burden” is still highly related to the changes in the global and regional geopolitical situation. Pakistan, for its part, is looking for new strategic and defense partners as its strategic position in the eyes of the United States declines. Since the end of the Cold War, Pakistan has been under pressure from the US on the nuclear issue and has become the country subject to the most SANCTIONS from the US among its Allies. After 9/11, Pakistan’s strategic position as a “front-line state” was restored to some extent. However, after 2005, the United States began to implement the policy of “India-Pakistan decoupling”, and India’s position in the FOREIGN strategy of the United States increased day by day. Meanwhile, the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in 2006, with the United States accusing Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban and failing to cooperate in fighting terrorism. After the 2011 assassination of then-aL Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, relations between the two countries deteriorated significantly, and the U.S. government gradually reduced its aid to Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan believes it is necessary to find new partners, and one of the “candidates” is Russia.
And for Russia, as its traditional partners in South Asia and India’s largest arms importer, after entering the 21st century has gradually strengthened the relations with the United States, growing to countries such as the United States and Israel’s weapons procurement, therefore Russia think it is necessary while maintaining the relations with India to achieve diversification of partnership, and thus become a potential partner in Pakistan. Russia’s choice of Pakistan was also aimed at “warning” India not to get too close to the United States. In addition, the Ukraine crisis in 2014 led to the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the US and Europe, and western sanctions restricted Russia’s energy exports, which also prompted Russia to look for new energy markets. Pakistan is energy poor and needs to import a lot of energy. Moreover, peace and stability in Afghanistan is of great importance to Russia. In this context, Pakistan-Russia relations have made a breakthrough.
Cooperation is still in its infancy
At present, Pakistan-Russia cooperation mainly focuses on three aspects, namely, defense and military cooperation, economic and energy cooperation and cooperation on the Afghan issue. On the defense and military front, the two countries agreed in 2015 to purchase two Mi-171E multipurpose helicopters and four Mi-35M attack helicopters. Pakistan can also directly import the Russian-made RD-93 engine for JF-17 fighter jets from Russia. In addition, Pakistan and Russia have conducted several joint military exercises, established the Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) and signed an agreement for Pakistani officers to receive military training in Russia.
In terms of economic and energy cooperation, in October 2015, the two countries reached an agreement to build a $2 billion natural gas pipeline between The southern port city of Karachi and the central city of Lahore. But the project has been put on hold because of western sanctions against State-controlled Rustek. Under an agreement signed by the two countries in July 2021, Russia offered Pakistan a 74 percent stake in the project, which has been renamed the Pakistan-Stream Gas Pipeline project, and promised to help Pakistan acquire expertise. The project is one of the main issues prime Minister Imran Khan hopes to resolve during his visit to Russia.
In addition, after the Return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, the two countries have conducted relatively close cooperation on the Afghan issue through bilateral and multilateral channels. At present, both countries are taking active measures to prevent the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan from developing into a humanitarian disaster.
In general, the cooperation between Pakistan and Russia is still in its infancy, and there is room for further development in terms of scale, breadth and depth of cooperation. At the same time, however, the cooperation between the two countries still faces many practical obstacles. On the one hand, Pakistan hopes to remain “neutral” between the United States and Russia, and does not want to be considered as an “opposing camp” by either side. On the other hand, Russia does not want to lose India because of its size.