Pakistan, Russia and India


Muhammad Taimur Fahad Khan, research Associate & Media Officer at Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), deals with matters of foreign policy, Russia and its neighborhoods.

- You research at Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), so in your opinion, what is role of the ISSI for developing of the foreign policy agenda of Pakistan?

The Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) is a premier research and analysis think-tank based in Islamabad, Pakistan. It is an autonomous, non-profit organisation. As one of the pioneers & oldest think tanks of the country, ISSI provides quality policy inputs through informed research, objective analyses and dialogue on global and regional issues affecting peace, security and development of Pakistan. To this end, ISSI also conducts different events including seminars, public talks, lectures, book launches, and roundtable discussions. ISSI also hosts meetings of important policy-making stakeholders from within Pakistan and from abroad for dialogue on issues of regional and international significance. Besides producing its own research on different issues, topics and themes, the important data and information collected from the events organised and hosted by ISSI is compiled and disseminated to relevant quarters in the country for informed decision-making as well. The repute of ISSI can also be gauged from the fact that it is always the first choice of important leaders and heads of states to make their public appearance and engage with the public. The latest visit to ISSI was made by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation. Earlier, President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani and Foreign Minister of Iran Dr. Javad Zarif (to name a few) had also visited ISSI.

- Since the beginning of the new century, the international situation has been turbulent and complicated, so how has the relationship between Russia and Pakistan changed in the new century?

The relationship between Pakistan & Russia has changed significantly since the beginning of the 21st century. Especially since 2014, when Russia lifted its arms embargo on Pakistan, bilateral relations have started to warm up significantly. There have been high level visits of military and civilian leadership between the two countries over the years, including meetings of the heads of governments of Pakistan and Russia on the side lines of different multilateral forums. Besides, Russia, along with China also facilitated Pakistan’s full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well. With regards to Afghanistan, there is a clear convergence of interests as both countries support peace and stability in Afghanistan and support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. Pakistan and Russia have also converging interests with regards to fighting the menace of terrorism and narco-trafficking that is plaguing the region. Both countries have been actively collaborating to this end. In the economic domain, both countries are slowly moving towards establishing a sustainable relationship as well with Russia offering to invest in the energy and development sector of Pakistan. Bottom-line is that although there is a lot that still needs to be figured out and accomplished in order to take the bilateral relationship to new heights of cooperation and goodwill but the situation at the moment is promising and things are moving at a slow pace, but in the right direction.

- What kind of goods/services Pakistan may be interested to get from Russia and vice versa?

There is a wide range of goods and services that Pakistan is or can be interested in procuring from Russia and vice versa. For starters, Pakistan is looking to diversify it conventional military arsenal in order to be equipped with the latest weapons and military hardware to be better able to deal with new and evolving challenges it faces such as terrorism, narco-trafficking, cyber warfare, maritime navigation and border-management. Furthermore, Pakistan can benefit from the Russian experience and expertise in the field of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes of course such as health, agriculture and energy production.

Russia has abundant natural energy sources such as oil and gas. Pakistan has a growing need for energy. Both countries can develop a symbiotic relationship in the energy sector where Russian energy can help fulfil Pakistan’s energy requirements on affordable price while Pakistan can prove to be a good market for Russian energy sources. Infrastructure of which can then be further extended to rest of the South Asian region as well which will greatly benefit Russian economy.

Transfer of knowledge can take place in the field of medicine and healthcare as well. Ever since the world encountered the novel COVID-19 pandemic, Russia has been one of the few countries that made remarkable strides in developing vaccines for the virus with considerable success. A country like Pakistan with a large population and insufficient capacity to fight the second wave of the pandemic, it can benefit greatly from Russia’s expertise in this regard which would save many lives.

Moreover, there is a plethora of sectors in Pakistan which can benefit a great deal from serious Russian investment such as automobile industry, technology sector, services sector, banking and water storage to name a few. All these sectors are still underdeveloped and under-utilized in Pakistan and there is a huge potential for growth and innovation which can be tapped into by Russia. Besides this, Russian investment into different sectors of the Pakistani economy will not only help break the monopoly of few companies that have consolidated over the years but will generate a healthy competition and also bring dynamism in the market.

On the other hand, Pakistan can also offer multiple things in exchange to Russia. Pakistan is an agro-based economy and one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, grains, rice, sugarcane and various other valuable crops. The quality of Pakistan’s agricultural commodities is extremely high with competitive prices. Pakistan can be a good destination for Russian agricultural imports. Pakistan’s textile is yet another industry which can find a good market for its high-quality product and affordable cost can find a good market in Russia if encouraged and facilitated by the latter state. Furthermore, the skilled and educated youth of Pakistan that is looking for employment opportunities can be facilitated by Russia such as doctors, engineers, and even unskilled labour as well.

Then the most valuable service that Pakistan can offer Russia is the transit for Russian goods and resources to and from the South Asian region and beyond. Through Pakistan, Russia can have access to the most secure and considerably shortest access to the Arabian Sea from where its merchandise can navigate to Africa as well as South East Asia.

- What do you think of the "Friendship-2020" joint military exercise held by Russia and Pakistan?

The joint-military drills between Pakistan and Russia (Druzhba - Friendship) are a great initiative by the militaries of both countries. Not only is it great for optics of bilateral relations but it is also a sign of the warming up ties between Pakistan and Russia. These military drills are a testament that these two countries, which were on the opposite sides of the table during the Cold War, have moved beyond the negative legacy of their history and are gradually building trust and mutual respect for each other. However, it is important that both countries should build further on the momentum provided by these military drills and further expand and deepen their military and defence cooperation with each other. Pakistan and Russia should capitalize on this momentum while keeping the geo-strategic and geopolitical necessities and realities in mind, otherwise these drills will not be of any substantial significance to the growth of bilateral relations.

- What role do you think India plays in the relations between Russia and Pakistan?

India plays a very significant role in the nature and state of relationship between Pakistan and Russia. Realistically speaking, India has been the most dominating factor in Russia’s policy approach towards the South Asian region in general and Pakistan in particular. It was only after the realisation by the Russian leadership after the first decade of the 21st century, that India has moved significantly and decisively into the US camp that Russia started to make approaches to other regional countries and gradually modify its policy towards South Asia. Throughout history, Russia has maintained a considerable distance with Pakistan, only to avoid antagonising India. Now I say this without negating Pakistan’s close partnership with the United States of America. It also played a major part in stagnated Pak-Russia relations for a long time as well.

Even today, where India has reduced its military and defence related imports from Russia a great deal and have become a pronounced “Strategic Partner” of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, Russia is hesitant to a great extent in warming up to Pakistan with a pace that India did with the US. Same goes for Pakistan that as Pak-US relations experienced turbulence in recent times; Pakistan also embarked on a policy to diversify its foreign policy options and began developing ties with different countries in the region, hence rapprochement with Russia.

Despite statements made by some leaders of the current ruling party of India (BJP) regarding Russia no longer being a trusted partner of India, the Russian government went out of its way to calm the situation and called India a “soul mate”.

It should be clear to the Russian leadership that Pakistan does not see Russia as a rival in any sense now and looks to develop durable and strong relations with it as it is a major global power. Besides, Pakistan does not want to develop relations with Russia at the detriment of the latter’s relationship with India but it wants a relationship with its own political and economic niches and unique complementarities. And Russia should stop try to fit Pakistan into the void left by India (as it would not be possible for the time being at least) and deal with Pakistan in its own different way.

- According to the news, Russia initially sold a batch of military equipment to India, and then conducted counter-terrorism exercises with Pakistan. Does this mean that Russia is dissatisfied with India's actions, will alienate its relations with India, and "Russia-India friendship will come to an end"?

In my opinion, Russia is definitely dissatisfied with India’s actions, especially with regards to the latter’s “strategic partnership” with the United States of America but Russia will never alienate its relationship with India. India is the second largest open market in the world and still one of the largest importers of Russian defence equipment and tech. The annual bilateral trade between India and Russia is worth billions of dollars and both recently agreed on increasing the bilateral trade to up to $30 billion per year. Interests of both countries converge and both complement and support each other’s’ stances on different forums such as UN, NSG, BRICS, G20, and SCO.

Military drills with Pakistan, as mentioned earlier are good for optics and at best could have been used by Russia to send a signal to India that if it can move closer to the US, Russia can also do the same (by moving a bit closer to Pakistan). But this does not signal in any way that Russia will end its ‘friendship’ with India. As I mentioned earlier, that even though some Indian ruling party leaders declared that Russia is no longer a trust partner of India and the latter should not be relying on its for its security interests, Russia responded by calling India its “soul mate”.

Agreed that there is not much substance to Pak-Russia relations to warrant a visit by Russian President Putin to Pakistan (despite several invitations), the Russian President has visited India approximately 8 times in the last 20 years. It would have been his 9th visit this November but due to the pandemic, the visit could not materialise. I think that says a lot about the Russo-India relations.

Russia has geo-strategic, political and economic interests aligned with India. It will never take its relations to a point with Russia where they are damaged beyond repair. And same is the case with India. Regardless of its newfound bonhomie with the US, it will never subject on a policy path that will permanently damage its relations with Russia. Both states will always find ways to maintain their partnership. Ups and downs may occur, but a uniform trajectory will remain.

- Does the United States play a role in the conflict between India and Pakistan?

Yes, the US does have a role to play in the conflict between Pakistan and India. US is a major global power and it has stakes in all the major regions of the world. South Asia is one of the most significant regions in the world. South Asia has acquired more significance in the US' geostrategic calculation because South Asia not only hosts two De Facto nuclear states (Pakistan & India), but it has close proximity to China and hosts Afghanistan as well.

The US has always had a transactional relationship with Pakistan and has now become a "strategic partner" of India. As it is clear now that Pakistan-US relations are not as warm as they were before and the former has inched more closer to China. While US has drawn closer to India and has commenced on a strategy to build it as a counter-weight to China in the region.

Interests of Pakistan and India were already diverging and with US extending all kinds of support to India definitely compromises Pakistani interests in the region. Furthermore, with regards to Afghanistan, US has always encouraged greater Indian role in Afghanistan which again affects Pakistan's interests. Moreover, the Kashmir dispute is also an extremely important matter for Pakistan and US' silence on the Indian atrocities and transgressions in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJK) definitely has a negative impact on Pak-US relations and emboldens Indian arrogance and belligerence and that automatically sours Pak-India relations.

On nuclear matters, US' open support to India also affects Pak-India relations as support of India not only disturbs the strategic balance of the region but encourages an unwanted arm race as well. Consequently, Pakistan's strategic partnership with China is also viewed negatively in the US and as a result, Pakistan is subjected to bear the cost of US-China competition.

So, by keeping such things in mind, one can easily conclude that United States does play a direct and implicit role in Pakistan-India conflicts.

- Since April last year, India has been in conflict with China over border issues, and it has continued until nowits own situation of COVID-19 has become worse and worse, and now it is in conflict with Pakistan. Does this have any impact on the current international situation? What kind of influence does it have on China, Pakistan and Russia?

India's current policy posture and strategic orientation is because of the US' support to the country in order to build it as a counter weight to China in the region. This support by the US have revealed the real strategic thinking and Weltanschauung of India which is expansionist and imperialist in nature.

Ultimately, with an agenda and thinking like that, there are bound to be impacts on regional and international level as well.

Plus, the volatile internal situation in India is also a point of concern and sets a very wrong precedent in the world. With the ongoing wave of populism and religious-hyper nationalism that has spread like wild fire around the world, what is happening inside the "largest democracy" of the world encourages wrong trends. This negative behavior of India has definitely had an impact on India's relations with its immediate neighbors and other partners within the region and beyond.

As far as Pakistan and China are concerned, India has initiated a vicious strategic, political and economic zero-sum game which has embroiled the region in constant insecurity and instability. Moreover, India has constantly been engaged militarily over its borders with Pakistan and China for a long period now which has also contributed immensely to region's instability.

With Russia, India has distanced itself a great deal. As mentioned earlier, senior leadership of India's ruling BJP has termed Russia an unreliable partner and said that India should no longer rely on Russia for its national security interests. Besides signing several defense deals and agreements with the US, India has made a clear choice where it stands. Now this does not mean that by choosing the US camp India will abandon its relationship with Russia. That will never happen as India will try to keep a balance the two relations but recent developments have definitely driven a strong wedge in Indo-Russia relationship which is unprecedented.

- What impact does the India-Pakistan conflict have on Russia?

In my opinion, the conflict between Pakistan and India does not have any substantial impact on Russia beside the point that it keeps Russia from warming up to Pakistan (which the former is not very keen to do as well) because realistically speaking, it has more to gain with its relations with India as compared to Pakistan. Pak-India conflict, can prove to be little problematic for smooth functioning of multi-lateral organisations such as the SCO where difference between Pakistan and India on certain issues can lead to a stalemate or minor hiccups but nothing substantial. However, if one is looking from the larger perspective, Pakistan-India conflict can prove detrimental to Russian regional projects such as the North South Transport Corridor (NSTC), Eurasian Economic Union and the Railway Line Consortium signed in 2018. These regional projects can fall victim to the Pakistan-India rivalry where both countries will try to out manoeuvre each other in pursuit of their geo-strategic and national security objectives.

- Is Russia selling weapons to Pakistan and conducting counter-terrorism exercises with Pakistan to strengthen its influence in South Asia?

To my knowledge, Russian weapons sales to Pakistan are almost negligible. And the equipment that is being sold to Pakistan by Russia is strategically and tactically insignificant unlike the sales made by Russia to India. The sale of S-400 missile defence system to India disrupted the strategic balance in the region significantly and tilted the balance in India’s favour. It provided India with a clear advantage in missile defence against Pakistan. The military drills between Pakistan and Russia are also not that significant if one looks at it from the strategic perspective. As I mentioned before, these drills are a good mechanism to build trust and confidence but more needs to be done in order to build a strong and durable relationship.

Of course, such moves by Russia must have a larger interest in mind, that is spreading its influence in the South Asian region and building good ties with countries in the region besides India (as the latter has moved closer to the US in recent years). But for the time being, such moves are comparatively insignificant, unless they are followed by some serious and substantial measures because as of now, Pak-Russia relations revolve around 3 points, Afghanistan, terrorism and narco-trafficking emanating from Afghanistan.

- Is there any essential difference between the relationship between Russia and Pakistan and the relationship between China and Pakistan?

Of course, there are several essential differences between the Pak-Russia relations and Pak-China relationship. Although all relations are driven primarily by interests but Pak-China relationship has proved to be one of its kind in international relations. In Pak-China relationship, both countries have always stood by each other regardless of the calculations of any gains or losses. Pakistan rightly calls China its “Iron Brother” because the latter has always extended unwavering support to Pakistan on every forum and vice versa. Besides saving Pakistan’s dwindling economy with a multi-billion-dollar project like China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China has helped Pakistan in every sector of national importance such as defence, industry, health, education, and energy to name a few.

China has always given extra preference and priority to Pakistan and has treated Pakistan with utmost respect. Both countries enjoy immense trust and confidence in each other. Both countries have always respected the territorial and ideological sovereignty of each other and have never interfered in each other’s’ relations with other countries or viewed them negatively. Interfering or even discussing the internal affairs of each other is out of the question for Pakistan and China.

While on the other hand, Pak-Russia relations have been a victim of geo-political and geo-strategic differences. Ever since the Cold War, both countries have behaved as rivals to each other. Both Pakistan and Russia have worked to hurt each other in the past which proved to be a serious detriment to national interests. On several occasion on multiple international forums, Russia and Pakistan have always been on the opposite sides of the fence.

So yes, there are several essential differences between Pakistan’s relations with China and Russia respectively. But it would also be unfair to continue viewing bilateral relations between Pakistan and Russia through the same lens of the Cold War. Both countries have come a long way since then and the international environment has also transformed. In an interconnected and globalised world, both countries should re-evaluate and should work towards the improvement of bilateral relations.

There is enough substance in the relationship which can be worked upon mutually by Pakistan and Russia to build trust and confidence in each other and further strengthen their bilateral relations as it is need of the hour. The burden of the negative historical baggage between Pakistan and Russia should be let go and efforts should be made for cooperation and regional integration. If genuine efforts are made by Russia (being the bigger country in size and influence) to establish good relations with Pakistan, the latter will definitely reciprocate and prove to be a valuable and trusted partner.

Interviewed by Xie Dongqiang.