In a far-reaching decision for Russia, India as well as the broader South Asian strategic landscape, Russia has decided to lift an embargo on supplying weapons and military hardware to Pakistan. Sergey Chemezov, head of Russian state-run technologies corporation Rostec, has suggested that Moscow is negotiating the delivery of several Mi-25 helicopter gunships to Islamabad. Moscow’s ambassador to India Alexander M Kadakin has tried to justify this by suggesting that Russia had never imposed any arms embargo on Pakistan and that its technical and military cooperation with the country dates back to the 1960s. This has angered sections of the Indian foreign policy establishment but this is something that New Delhi should have seen coming.
In an attempt to broaden its strategic space after the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan post-2014, Russia has been making concerted attempts to reach out to Pakistan. Pakistan Army’s then chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Russia in October 2012 in a renewed attempt to improve relations with Moscow. His visit had come after the cancellation of the visit of Russian president Vladimir Putin to Pakistan. This would have been the first-ever visit of a Russian president to Pakistan and, as such, was loaded with significance. Putin was also to participate in a quadrilateral meeting on Afghanistan with leaders of Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In place of Putin, his foreign minister was sent to Pakistan. But despite that, the two nations continued to make efforts to reach out to each other.
As NATO forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, new alignments of regional powers are emerging. Pakistan-Russia ties are also taking a new turn, and this holds great significance for India and the South Asian region. Pakistan’s efforts to improve its relationship with Russia since the deterioration in relations between Pakistan and the United States have been evident for some time. Pakistan’s former president Asif Ali Zardari had visited Russia in May 2012, and the Russian president’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, visited Pakistan the following month. Islamabad finds itself with few friends across the globe. Even China has been circumspect in what it says it can offer its “all weather friend”. Pakistan hopes Russia will start selling it more substantial defence equipment as well.
Both countries are also trying to increase their presence in Central Asia. Russia wants stability in its Central Asian periphery and Pakistan remains critical in managing the region. Moscow’s outreach to Islamabad is an attempt to get a handle on the regional dynamic. Russia has taken note of Indian foreign policy’s changing priorities and the recent downturn in US-Pakistan ties. The US-India rapprochement has been problematic for Russia. As India moves away from Russia, especially as its dependence on defence equipment decreases, Moscow is also looking for alternatives. Moscow also recognises the importance of Pakistan in restoring stability to a post-2014 Afghanistan and larger Central Asia. So there are various factors at work here in this outreach. It was Putin who had publicly endorsed Pakistan’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and had offered Russian help in managing Pakistan’s energy infrastructure. He went on to suggest Russia views Pakistan as a reliable and very important partner.
Russia’s Gazprom wants to invest in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Meanwhile, though Russia has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the externalities from the US-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact, there have been rumblings in Moscow regarding the manner in which the Koodankulam nuclear project has been handled by New Delhi and because of the civil nuclear liability law of India which makes India an unattractive market for Russian nuclear sector.
After deciding to ignore Pakistan for decades in its arms sales matrix, Moscow has now decided to gradually start weapons sales to Pakistan. Russia is the world’s second largest arms exporter with a 24 per cent share of the trade, surpassed only by the US, which controls almost 30 per cent of the global arms market. India continues to account for over 50 per cent of Russian arms sales, but New Delhi has diversified its suppliers. As the arms market becomes a difficult place for Russia to navigate, with China deciding to produce its own weapons rather than procuring them from Russia, Moscow needs new buyers. India’s move away from Russia has been gradual but significant. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft deal with French Rafale was viewed as big a setback to Russia as it was to the US.
Defence sales to Pakistan could open up a potentially new and open-ended market for Russia as the appetite in Washington to sustain Pakistan’s military-industrial declines dramatically. Defence cooperation as envisaged by the two sides may involve joint military exercises, exchange of personnel and defence sales.
There are clear limits here. Moscow can never substitute Washington as far as aid and defence support to Pakistan is concerned. It is severely constrained in what it can do and Pakistan’s needs are huge. It is unlikely that Russia will emerge as a major benefactor, but Pakistan wants to show the US that it has other options. In the past, Moscow has been very critical of Pakistan’s military establishment’s propensity to use extremist groups to further their nation’s strategic ends. And it remains worried about this tendency, so the pressure on Pakistan will continue.
The Russian establishment also feels strongly about the possibility of nuclear technology falling into the hands of extremists in Pakistan and has been very vocal about this threat. Nor would Moscow like to share its defence technology with Pakistan to the extent that it alienates India, one of its largest markets for defence equipment. Russia deals with India on a number of levels, but their partnership could be jeopardised if Pakistan becomes a major priority for Moscow.
Whatever shape Russia-Pakistan ties take eventually, the fact that Moscow is reaching out to Pakistan and shaping new alignments in South Asia exemplifies Pakistan’s centrality amidst regional flux and how most regional states are now trying to hedge their bets in an ever-evolving strategic environment. Time has also come to move away from the tired old discourse on Russia being India’s “age old friend” and to bring some clear-headed sensibility in Delhi’s dealings with Moscow.
The author is a professor in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College, London.