Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s two-day visit to Islamabad augurs well for the relations between Pakistan and Russia as well as the region. The hallmark of the visit was that the two countries agreed to boost their relationship in diverse area such as trade, counterterrorism, energy and defense.
The past year saw a record 46 percent growth in the bilateral trade which reached 790 million U.S. dollars. Similarly, construction of the Stream Gas Pipeline project (formerly North-South gas pipeline), the flagship project in the energy sector, is in the advanced stages of negotiation.
Not only that, Russian companies have evinced interest to participate in the modernization of the energy sector and the archaic railroad system of Pakistan. Cooperation in the COVID-19 was another area where the two countries are cooperating. Russia has provided 50,000 anti-COVID vaccines while Pakistan intends to buy half a million more with the provision of producing the vaccine in Pakistan.
Apart from counterterrorism cooperation, peace and stability in Afghanistan were other areas where the two Foreign Ministers found common avenues to work together. Similar messages were conveyed to Lavrov by the Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa when he called on them.
Significantly, Lavrov visited Islamabad from New Delhi, where he had detailed discussions on bilateral and regional issues. He specifically hinted at emerging alignments cobbled together by the United States against China and Russia. He was frank in expressing his concerns over Indo-Pacific alliance and the QUAD, to which India is a Member.
It was a friendly nudge to India that it should be careful before entering into new alliances. Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s evasiveness on Russia’s S-400 missile defense system was another indicator of Indian dilemma of running with the hare and haunting with the hound. It was obvious that the threat of American sanctions was uppermost in their minds if they opted for the S-400.
Another significant development which India must have grudgingly noticed was Lavrov’s remarks on Kashmir dispute. In an interview with Pakistan’s English daily, The News, Lavrov said: “…we are convinced that disagreements between states in any region of the world including, of course, South Asia, should be resolved in a peaceful, civilized manner based on international law.”
While it may not be an outright change of Russian policy on the Kashmir dispute, it nevertheless reminded the Indians that even strategic partners could redefine their interests and priorities as per the evolving situation. It was also a message to India that if it can find the U.S. as an ally, it cannot take Russian support for granted.
It was also obvious that India and Russia did not see eye to eye on Afghanistan situation when Lavrov, while answering a question from the Indian journalist in New Delhi, reminded his audience that Taliban were a part of the Afghan society and that the U.S.’ decision to delay withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1 would have negative consequences.
If the Indian side expected that FM Lavrov would be critical of the Taliban, they were in for disappointment. For Russia, stability in Afghanistan is more important than supporting a pro-Indian stance of keeping Ashraf Ghani in power; even the Americans are not supporting such an idea.
Russia’s role in the Troika Plus meeting in Moscow held in March and the emerging consensus among the immediate neighbors of Afghanistan that the U.S. troops’ stay beyond the May 1 deadline would not augur well for future peace in the country is also gaining traction.
However, neighbors of Afghanistan would support an understanding reached between the U.S. and Taliban allowing extension of U.S. troops’ stay for a short period, say for three-to-six months. Hopefully, this would allow time to the interlocutors in the intra-Afghan dialogue to reach to an amicable solution about the future contours of Afghan dispensation.
Historically, Pakistani leadership followed the western dictum which dubbed Russia’s predecessor, the USSR, as an “evil empire”. Pakistanis were scared of the USSR’s attempts to reach out to the “warm waters” via Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not anymore.
The changing international and regional dynamics offer Pakistan an opportunity to transform its geographical advantage into a viable transit hub with access to Central Asian states and Russia to the “warm waters” and to make China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a central artery of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).
Concurrently, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) provides a formidable platform to promote greater regional integration among the member states, although it may take a while before such an integrated bloc, with all the trappings of emerging as a formidable economic powerhouse, may appear on the map.
The warming of Pakistan-Russia relations has not taken place overnight; it has been a work in progress for the past two decades. Both Pakistan and Russia have realized that living by the past baggage served no purpose in a changing international environment.
Besides, there has been change of heart among the old partners of the Cold War era. While the U.S. entered into full courtship with India, Pakistan has, for the first time, realized that instead of looking for allies far afield it has much reliable partners available next door which can secure its security and economic interests.
Therefore, a paradigm shift is discernible in Pakistan’s strategy which now focuses more on a strong regional approach or minimal reliance on the U.S. There is more emphasis on geo-economics than geo-politics with a realization that by improving the country’s economy, both political stability within the country and in the neighborhood could be achieved. FM Lavrov’s visit can provide the necessary fillip to this approach.