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Friday, Nov. 16, 2012

Pakistan-Russia ties forging new alignments


By HARSH V. PANT
Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — Pakistan Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Russia in early October in a renewed attempt to improve relations with Moscow. His visit came 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.

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 President Asif Ali Zardari visited Russia in May, and the Russian president's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, visited Pakistan in June. 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 defense 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 this regional dynamic.

Russia has taken note of Indian foreign policy's changing priorities and the recent downturn in U.S.-Pakistan ties. The U.S.-India rapprochement has been problematic for Russia. As India moves away from Russia, especially as its dependence on defense equipment decreases, Moscow is also looking for alternatives. Moscow also recognizes the importance of Pakistan in restoring stability to a post-2014 Afghanistan and the larger Central Asian region. 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 Organization and had offered Russian help in managing Pakistan's energy infrastructure. He went on to suggest that 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 U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact, there have been rumblings in Moscow regarding the manner in which the Kudankulam project has been handled so far by New Delhi.

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 percent share of the trade, surpassed only by the U.S., which controls almost 30 percent of the global arms market. India continues to account for over 50 percent 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 U.S.

Defense 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. Defense cooperation as envisaged by the two sides may involve joint military exercises, exchange of personnel and defense sales.

There are clear limits here. Moscow can never substitute for Washington as far as aid and defense 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 U.S. that it has other options.

In the past, Moscow was always 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 defense technology with Pakistan to the extent that it alienates India, one of its largest markets for defense equipment. Russia deals with India on a number of levels, but their partnership could be jeopardized if Pakistan becomes a major priority for Moscow.

India will be looking at developments with great interest, but India's ties with Russia are historic, wide ranging and well institutionalized. Russia will do its best to assuage Indian concerns, and New Delhi should be satisfied with that unless the trajectory of Russia-Pakistan ties ultimately impinge on Indian interests.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.


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