“Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is likely to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tashkent”, announced the Russian ambassador, Alexey Y Dedov on February 29, 2016, while addressing a meeting hosted in his honour by the businessmen of Faisalabad. Considering that the Russian President is also set to visit Pakistan soon to inaugurate the Russian-funded gas pipeline, it may not be wrong to say that the once-bitter cold war rivals are rightly sensing the changing strategic realities in the region and are thus willing to seek the benefits of a warmer and tighter embrace.
There may be many strategic or specific reasons for Russia to seek this embrace, but for Pakistan the key factor that dwarfs all others is the leverage that this historic, strategic and diplomatic breakthrough provides it — alignment with either the Russians or the Americans depending upon which of its national interest is best served by whom.
President Barak Obama made history by becoming the only US President to have visited India twice (once in 2010 and later as chief guest of the Indian Republic Day Parade in January, 2015). Before bowing out of the office he might just make history again and become a US president who witnesses the first-ever visit by a Russian president to its long-term partner and major non-NATO ally in the region, Pakistan.
The good news is that a high-level delegation led by Mr Sartaj Aziz recently visited the US and had a meaningful interaction during the Sixth Ministerial Level US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue with his US counterparts. The willingness of the US to sell F-16s to Pakistan despite loud Indian opposition and the US pledge to provide $250 million to help “rebuild the communities of persons who have been displaced by fighting during the military operations” is a welcome sign. Military-to-military relations in Pakistan’s ‘Russian tilt’, will be its best bet at this stage and in this it can learn some lessons from its arch rival — India.
India is the second-largest market for the Russian defence industry and seventy per cent of its arms market is crowded with military hardware of Russian origin. Russian origin aircrafts, submarines, tanks, helicopters, aircraft carriers and small arms constitute the backbone of Indian military capability, much alike the American military hardware which is the backbone of the military capability of Pakistan. Despite a time-tested Indian-Russian military-to-military relationship, India is now increasingly seeking to diversify its military hardware purchases and in doing so has already supplanted Russia with the US as New Delhi’s primary supplier of defence material. Some of the US-India defence deals concluded or under review include the $2.5billion purchase of 22 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, C-17s and C-130s and American F35 Stealth multi-role fighters. Even Britain, France (the multibillion Indian-France deal on the purchase of France’s Rafale fighter jets that is currently stalled), Israel (which delivered UAVs for high-altitude surveillance and laser-guided munitions as a quick response to Indian requests during the Kargil conflict) and Japan (supplying India with Boeing P-81 Poseidon maritime patrol aircrafts) are some of the other countries that are on India’s defence equipment supplier’s list. Knowing that India already has over 300 Russian MI-8 and MI-17 helicopters and over 200 Russian SU-30MKI fighter jets in service in the Indian Air Force (likely to remain in service for many decades), the Indian shift to the other military suppliers for diversifying its military hardware is a strategic move that will not only become a reason for initiating an arms race in the region (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has, this week, published data according to which “six out of the ten largest importers of heavy weapons are in Asia and Pacific: India, China ,Australia ,Pakistan ,Vietnam and South Korea”), but also cause huge financial and administrative issues for its armed forces — issues such as repairing, refitting, upgrading and ensuring the operational serviceability of aging Russian defence equipment, together with increased defence spending for the new purchases. But Indian eyes are set on achieving the status of a great military power and to do that it needs to reinforce its position in the Indian Ocean region. Doing this will not only propel it to military greatness but it will also enable it to execute the so dear to the west ‘Anti-China containment strategy’.
Pakistan, on its part, must continue to maintain a military balance with India (the reason why its name figures out in the six largest importers of heavy weapons in the world), but more importantly, its need for military equipment that is suitable to fight the war on terror is what currently takes up most of its attention. With Russia under president Putin showing signs of rebalancing its strategic orientation towards Pakistan, we have an opportunity to ally and partner with a regional power under a common policy goal of putting up a joint fight against terrorism in the region. The process of both Russia and Pakistan aligning with this policy goal was initiated in a major way when Russia lifted the self-imposed arms embargo on Pakistan in June, 2014. This was followed by the process of including Pakistan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), when Russia hosted regional leaders at the summit on July 10, 2015, in the Russian city of Uffa. A month prior to that, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, had undertaken a three-day official visit to Russia where the most significant part of his visit was the fifteen hours that he spent at an arms expo near Moscow that featured the latest Russian weapons and military equipment. Since then, Pakistan and Russia have agreed to conduct a joint military exercise this year and there is also news of significant defence deals materialising between Russia and Pakistan to include possible purchase of SU-35 Flanker-E fighter jets, the MI-35 combat helicopters, and even Klimov RD-39 engines for its JF Thunder fighter aircrafts. The Pakistan-Russia military partnership is seemingly being prompted and is a consequence of India’s decision to enter into a tighter embrace with the US and the west, but whatever may be the reason, Pakistan must draw the requisite benefits from this relationship.
What importance Russia attaches to this newfound relationship with Pakistan can be well determined by reading Andrew Korybko’s article, “Pakistan is the zipper of Pan-Eurasian Integration”, on the website of a Russian government-funded thinktank — RISS the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS). His assessments on Pakistan’s well-founded future have since caused grave concern in India, where multiple articles are being written to challenge his assessment. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the growing relationship between Pakistan and Russia.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2016.