Putin’s decision not to visit Pakistan has disappointed Islamabad but does not take away from the importance Russia attaches to rapprochement with a former foe

What was billed as a ground-breaking first ever visit by a Russian President to Islamabad next week has ended in disappointment for Pakistan with Vladimir Putin’s decision not to go.

President Putin was to attend a summit of the quadrilateral forum of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan that Islamabad was scheduled to host on October 3. Pakistani officials were expecting the Russian leader to arrive a day earlier for an official bilateral visit.

For weeks Pakistani media were agog over the anticipated Putin’s visit describing it as “historic” and “landmark”, even claiming that Pakistan “would be on top of the list of countries Putin would be visiting this year.”

However, a few days before his expected arrival in Islamabad, Mr. Putin sent a letter to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari informing him that he would not be coming. This has compelled Islamabad to “reschedule” the quadrilateral summit.

Russian diplomats say that Mr. Putin’s visit was indeed discussed but insist it was not been cancelled simply because it was never confirmed in the first place.

“Russia agreed to take part in the quadripartite meeting, but we never said Mr. Putin will lead the Russian delegation,” said Mr. Zamir Kabulov, head of the 2nd Asia Department in the Russian Foreign Ministry, which looks after South Asia and Iran.

Three MoUs

Pakistani leaders are themselves to blame for the flop. According to Mr. Kabulov, the sides had readied for signing just three non-binding memoranda of understanding — on the expansion of the Pakistan Steel Mills, on cooperation in energy and education. They are largely a reiteration of agreements signed last year when Mr. Zardari visited Moscow. The Kremlin was apparently concerned that the visit was going to be long on ceremony and short on substance.

“Russian-Pakistani relations have been on the rise in recent years but progress has been mostly at political and emotional levels, while economic ties have lagged behind,” he said.

Pakistan wants Russia to overhaul the Karachi steel mills, undertake several power sector projects and help prospect for oil and gas, but details of the deals are yet to be finalised.

“Declarations are galore but they have little impact on the ground,” the Russian diplomat told The Hindu.

Moscow is also worried over a lack of progress on major regional projects approved by the leaders of the quadrilateral forum at their meeting in Sochi two years ago. These include the Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan (CASA-1000), and the construction of rail tracks and motor roads from Tajikistan to Pakistan to create new trade routes in the region.

Russia has thrown its weight behind these ambitious energy and infrastructure projects, with Mr. Putin pledging to invest $500 million in CASA-1000 and offering to help fund and build the other projects. Yet, they have made hardly any headway.

“The Asia Development Bank, dominated by Japan, and the U.S.-controlled World Bank appear reluctant to support ventures where Russia plays a lead role,” Mr. Kabulov said, adding though that Russia would still support the regional projects if they are undertaken by Western, not Russian companies.

“Big-time economic projects will work for peace and stability in Afghanistan and help normalise bilateral relations in the region, including India-Pakistan and Pakistan-Iran ties,” he said.

Those in India who are suspicious of rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan need not rejoice at Putin’s failure to visit Islamabad. In his letter to Mr. Zardari, Mr. Putin voiced confidence that the upward trend in relations between Moscow and Islamabad would continue.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry quoted Mr. Putin as expressing his eagerness to “jointly enhance our efforts to further develop Russian-Pakistani ties and advance mutually beneficial trade and economic projects.”

Central to Russian strategy

Pakistan is central to Russia’s strategy for stabilisation of Afghanistan after the pullout of the U.S.-led coalition forces in 2014.

“Our own experience in the past and the track record of others in recent years has taught us that the problem of Afghanistan cannot be resolved without the constructive involvement of Pakistan and Iran,” said Mr. Kabulov, who is also the Russian President’s special envoy for Afghanistan.

Moscow and Islamabad share similar perceptions on the post-2014 scenarios for Afghanistan. Both believe in regional solutions for Afghanistan and both are strongly opposed to Washington’s plans to retain military bases in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the coalition forces.

Improved political and economic ties with Pakistan should also help Moscow counteract U.S. plans to shut out Russia from Central Asia, which is the goal of the New Silk Road project promoted by Washington.

“Russia belongs to this region and is against attempts to reorient regional economy and trade from the north to the south,” he said.

Russia has backed Pakistan’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the two countries have for the first time set up an intergovernmental joint commission to promote bilateral trade and economic ties.

“We would like to have normal, even ideal relations with Pakistan,” Mr. Kabulov said pointing out that the years of hostility had brought no gains either to Moscow or Islamabad.

The Russian diplomat did not rule out that at some point in future Moscow may supply anti-terror and anti-drug trafficking hardware to Pakistan even though it is not on the list of countries where Russian exporters can sell weapons.

“Such supplies may come when we achieve a balanced picture of bilateral relations and have big civilian contracts in the pipeline,” he said.

He stated though that Russia’s engagement with Pakistan would not be at the expense of Moscow’s relations with New Delhi.

“India remains our special privileged strategic partner and Putin’s coming visit to New Delhi will demonstrate our commitment to deepen and enrich this partnership.”

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