Changing face of Russia-Pakistan ties

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence near the Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, on August 18, 2010.   | Photo Credit: Dmitry Astakhov

Last month's quadripartite summit of Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan hosted by President Dmitry Medvedev at the Black Sea resort, Sochi, must have made South Block strategists sit up. From India's perspective, the main outcome was that Moscow decisively moved to de-hyphenate its relations with Islamabad and New Delhi. Little wonder then, that even three weeks after the summit there has been no reaction from New Delhi.

The focus of the Sochi meeting was on the situation in Afghanistan. But it also provided an opportunity for Moscow to turn a page on its relations with Islamabad. For decades these relations had been poisoned, first by Pakistan siding with the United States in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, then by its providing the stage for Mujahideen operations against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and later by providing the training ground for Chechen rebels. Even after Moscow overcame its bitter memories of the past, relations with Islamabad remained low key. President Pervez Musharraf's visit to Moscow in 2003, first by a Pakistan leader in 33 years, helped to clear the air but failed to break the ice. Russia-Pakistan relations continued to be defined by Moscow's ties with India.

Sochi was a turning point. Mr. Medvedev's bilateral meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of the summit was marked by uncharacteristic warmth. Noting that “unlike in the past,” he and Mr. Zardari established “very regular, frequent contacts,” and were engaged in “good political dialogue,” Mr. Medvedev called for the two countries “to expand our economic ties too.” He lamented that Russia and Pakistan “have not made much progress in this area yet,” and suggested that the two leaders look at “opportunities for our bilateral economic cooperation and development” as well as “possibilities of working together in a four-party format.”

Mr. Medvedev invited Mr. Zardari to pay an official visit to Russia, while the Pakistani leader extended a similar invitation to his host. Mr. Zardari pointedly noted that it was his fourth meeting with Mr. Medvedev — an unprecedented intensity of interaction, even though all four meetings were held on the sidelines of multilateral events. Next on the agenda is a stand-alone summit. According to Mr. Medvedev's foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko, “We are interested in a full-scale visit by the Pakistani President to Russia.”

In another breakthrough for Pakistan, Mr. Medvedev in Sochi gave the green signal for an inaugural meeting of the Russian-Pakistani Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade and Economic and Scientific-Technological Cooperation in Islamabad this month. The two countries agreed to set up the joint commission 10 years ago but Moscow has, till now, blocked its launch.

Two conclusions

Two main conclusions can be drawn from the Medvedev-Zardari meeting: the Russian-Pakistani dialogue has, for the first time, been promoted to the level of Presidents; and Moscow has overcome its reluctance to develop full-fledged relations with Islamabad. The only taboo for Russia still is sale of weapons to Pakistan but its defence technologies have been trickling into Pakistan, mostly through third countries. Ukrainian main battle tanks, T-80, supplied to Pakistan in the 1990s, had Russian-built key systems and components. Following a “private” visit to Russia by Gen. Musharraf and an official visit by army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani last summer, Russia lifted its objections to the supply to Pakistan of Chinese JF-17 fighter planes powered by Russian RD-93 engines. Many years ago, Russia had sold Pakistan over 40 MI-171 transport helicopters of a non-military version.

What has made the Moscow turnaround is the realisation that seeing Islamabad as part of the region's problems does not help to advance the Russian goal of playing a bigger role in the region. The Kremlin finally decided that Pakistan must be part of the solution. The format of four-way cooperation with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan should help Moscow prepare for the eventual pullback of the U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan: engage Pakistan, return to Afghanistan and tighten Russian hold over the former Soviet Central Asia.

Russia has assiduously been building the new format over the past year. Mr. Medvedev first met the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in Yekaterinburg last summer on the sidelines of an annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. At their second meeting in Dushanbe, the trilateral format was expanded to the quadripartite configuration incorporating Tajikistan, which has by far the longest border — 1,200 km — with Afghanistan among the former Soviet states.

In Sochi, the new forum, which Mr. Medvedev described as “a working regional format,” was institutionalised as a permanent arrangement, independent of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a defence bloc of former Soviet states focussed on Central Asia. The quartet announced that its next summit would take place in Dushanbe and that the foreign and economic ministers of the four countries would hold regular meetings as well.

A joint statement adopted in Sochi highlighted the problems of terrorism and drug-trafficking, which are a source of profound concern for Russia. However, it is joint economic projects that dominated the summit agenda. Russia agreed to join two long-planned regional infrastructure projects that would create energy and transport corridors from Central Asia to Pakistan across Afghanistan.

One project, CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia), involves the export of electricity from power-rich Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia is prepared to help to build two hydropower plants in the Central Asian states that will supply electricity for the project. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) earlier agreed to finance the construction of power lines to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The other project is a motor road and a railway from Tajikistan to Pakistan across the Wakhan corridor in extreme northeast Afghanistan — a buffer the British created at the end of the 19th century between the Russian and British empires. The proposed transport link resurrecting the ancient Silk Road would be a strategic gain for the countries involved. Pakistan will receive direct access to the markets of Central Asia and Russia, while Tajikistan — and Russia — will get access to Pakistani ports. China will also stand to gain, as the road is likely to be linked with the Karakorum Highway connecting Pakistan with China's Xinjiang region.

“Russia may become a donor of economic, social and military-political security for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan,” Chairman of the Russian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev said commenting on the Sochi summit. In Sochi, Mr. Medvedev renewed Russia's offer to rebuild about 140 industrial and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union set up during its 10-year military intervention. The deals may be worth over $1 billion, and may entail further Russian investments in Afghanistan's oil, gas and minerals. Russia's comeback will also encourage many of the 2,00,000 Soviet-educated Afghans, who fled the Taliban to Russia, to return to their homeland.

Military involvement

Putting behind it the painful experience of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, Moscow indicated the willingness to become militarily involved in Afghanistan. Mr. Medvedev told President Hamid Karzai that Russia was ready to supply Mi-17 helicopters and firearms, and help to train more Afghan police. The U.S., which is crafting an exit strategy in Afghanistan, welcomed Russia's new role in the region.

The Barack Obama administration has “a regional strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Russia can play an important role along with other countries in the region,” Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley was quoted as saying in a comment on the Sochi summit. Russia is giving considerable support to the U.S. in Afghanistan in line with the broader “reset” in their bilateral ties, but Washington of course is overly presumptuous to think that Moscow will toe its “strategy” in the region, assuming, of course, that the White House has one.

India could theoretically gain from joint economic projects mooted by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Some Russian analysts have even suggested that Russia might try to incorporate India in the new alliance. This possibility, however, looks highly remote given the current state of relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan has dug in its feet on allowing Indian exports through its territory under the recently concluded Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA). Meanwhile, the APTTA grants Pakistan the right to trade with Central Asia via the Wakhan corridor. Unless New Delhi succeeds in turning around its relations with Islamabad, it will stand to lose in a big way when a new transport corridor links Pakistan with Central Asia.

The Sochi summit also dimmed India's hopes of gaining a strategic foothold in Tajikistan. India and Russia had planned to jointly use the Ayni airfield, which India helped to renovate, but Indian presence there looks doubtful now in the context of the emerging Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Tajikistan axis. India will, of course, remain Russia's close friend and strategic partner, but it will have to learn to live with the new Russian-Pakistani bonhomie, just as Russia has taken in its stride India's entanglement with the U.S.

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