Pakistan-russia relations: post-cold war era

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Adnan Ali Shah *

The demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991 witnessed a tectonic shift in world affairs. The transition from a bi-polar world to uni-polar one, the emergence of the United States as the triumphant, sole super power, at the end of fifty years of the Cold War, has necessitated a shift in the priorities and goals of the nation states. The renunciation of the Soviet communist ideology, coupled with the unraveling of the Soviet Union into Russia, and the reemergence of former states as well as the emergence of the capitalistic market economy within the socialistic mindset of these societies, all served to shift the global focus from geo-politics to geo-economics. In this changed global scenario, the dominant factors in relations between the states are adherence to common principles, like promoting democracy, human rights and peace, the search for resolving of regional conflicts, as well as for conventional arms control and nuclear non proliferation, trade liberalization and market economy, rather than the pursuit of the specified strategic and ideological goals, as camp followers of two rival Super Powers.

Russia, the successor of the Soviet Union, is caught between a nostalgic past and an uncertain future. Russia’s international status has significantly degraded, as this former super power is currently viewed by many as a little more than a ‘Third World regional power’, even though it still possesses a significant though an antiquated nuclear arsenal.1 The break up of the Soviet Union saw the Russian borders roll back to from where they had been in the Caucasus in the early 1800s, in Central Asia in the mid-1800, and in West Europe to that existed around approximately 1600.2 This degraded status has generated enormous soul searching in Russia about its current identity and where it stands today in the global scenario.

Generally speaking, Russia’s foreign policy makers have three broad, and partially overlapping, geo-strategic options, related to the country’s national interests and its status vis-ˆ-vis America. These alternatives emerged in the period following the Soviet Union’s collapse, namely:

  1. Priority laid on establishing a ‘mature strategic partnership’ with America.

  2. Emphasis on the ‘near abroad’ as Russia’s central concern, with some advocating a Moscow-dominated economic integration, thus restoring, though partially, the image of its former imperial control. Moreover, Russia’s regional role as a power would be strengthened, thereby serving as a balance vis-ˆ-vis America and Europe.

  3. Consideration of an Eurasian counter alliance, designed to reduce the preponderance of the US unchallenged global influence.3

It is generally agreed that in the post-Soviet Russia, there are divergent opinions on foreign policy making among the Foreign Ministry, the academic community and the parliamentary circles. In the initial period around 1992-1995, the Westerners or the ‘Atlanticists’ led by Andrei Kozyrev, the first Foreign Minister of the Post Soviet Russia, and his foreign policy establishment were in clear ascendance. Thus in this period, Asia in general, and South Asia specifically, was accorded a low priority in Moscow’s restructuring. In January 1993, the Russian Foreign Ministry published the ‘Concept of Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy’, in which South Asia was accorded seventh place in its list of ten priorities.4 The emphasis was on a ‘Look West’ policy, emphasising close relations with the West European countries, where too, the significant events, such as the re-unification of Germany and the break up of Yugoslavia took place.

However, the ‘Look West’ policy of the Russia, with an emphasis on forging a ‘Strategic Partnership’ with the US-led West on an equality basis, remains severely challenged. Moreover, its ‘near abroad’ policy of exercising influence on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which previously were part of the Soviet Union, is largely backfiring, with NATO’s expanding eastwards, and rising anti-Russian sentiments in the newly independent CIS. All these developments have forced Russia to rethink its relations with its eastern and southern neighbours.

In South Asia, itself having undergone significant changes, the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Russia as its successor carries its own implications. Pakistan is faced with both internal and external challenges to its development and sovereignty. The security threats to its territorial integrity, which have remained persistent since its inception as a sovereign entity in 1947, were somewhat mitigated by Pakistan joining the Western alliance system, SEATO and CENTO, during the Cold War, which largely helped in buttressing its defences. However, in the post bi-polar world, Pakistan once more feels threatened that its allies of the Cold War period, the US and the West, would and could leave it in the lurch. Within the largely changing external environment since the end of the Cold War, Pakistan needs to review its ties with the other countries, by putting its foreign policy on a pragmatic and constructive basis. One of the major challenges for Pakistan’s foreign policy is the need for a constructive engagement with Russia. This study focuses on both the foundations and the potential for such a development.

Pakistan-Soviet Union Relations in the Cold War Era

Pakistan’s relations with the former Soviet Union, the predecessor of current Russia, fluctuated from cool to antagonistic and hostile. The establishment of Pakistan in August 1947 was not seen as a favourable development in Moscow. The Soviet Union regarded the division of the Indian Subcontinent as ‘the divide and rule’ strategy of British policy in India, and had earlier labeled the Muslim League as a tool of the British, from its very inception. Moreover, it did not send any congratulatory message to Governor General Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Rather it moved slowly in extending its diplomatic recognition to Pakistan. Even the first move to establish diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Russia was not made till April 13, 1948, on which date Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Zafarullah Khan, in New York proposed to Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, that their countries should exchange ambassadors. The Pakistan initiative ran out of steam because, though the Soviet agreement to establish diplomatic relations was announced within a month of the New York meeting, it was not till another seventeen months had passed that Pakistan named her first ambassador to the USSR. The nominee finally presented his credentials in Moscow in the last days of 1949. His counterpart from Russia took even longer to show up in Pakistan and assumed charge of his office on March 22, 1950.5

At the time of the emergence of Pakistan, the existing international system was characterized by the tight bi-polarity of the Cold War, and its ‘spheres of influence’. Pakistan faced serious problems of development and defence. The manner of partition, which brought Pakistan and India into being, had the worst adverse impacts territorially, economically and financially on Pakistan, and it further faced the issues arising out of the Kashmir and river water disputes, the legacy of imperial duplicity of the out going imperial power, Britain could not be relied upon to arbitrate impartially in the solutions of the problems it had itself initiated. The Kashmir dispute could not find a place in the early agenda of the Commonwealth Conference, where, after a strong protest by the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, it was only informally discussed. At this stage, namely the first few years (1947-1953) of the existence of Pakistan, it can be described as the era of non-alignment for the new-born nation state, faced with major internal and external problems.

However, Pakistan’s early policy of non-involvement in the power politics did not pay. Regarding the Kashmir dispute, the Soviet Union maintained a neutral and non-committal attitude, while the Western members of the Security Council initially strove to have the Kashmir dispute settled. Since the status quo was acceptable to India, and not at all to Pakistan, the Soviet attitude in effect favoured India. In a session of the UN Economic Commission for Asia and Far East in 1948, Pakistan made it clear that she would accept aid from any source, but the Soviets did not respond to that request.6

However, two events in the first part of 1949, caused Russia and Pakistan to take a fresh look at their relationship. The first was India’s decision in April 1949 to remain within the Commonwealth. In contravention to India’s own past declarations, it was a clear sign that she was leaning towards the Western countries, which were allied in various post-World War II organizations in the US-led camp, and thus on the opposing side of the USSR. The second was Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s announcement on May 7, 1949, that he had accepted an invitation to visit the United States in October of that year.7 In reaction to this, the Soviet Union extended an invitation to Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, in 1949 to visit Moscow. The visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister, as accounts have shown, were on the cards, but circumstances so conspired that Liaquat Ali Khan went to United States instead, thus shelving his visit to Russia. No official explanation was given for this decision, to explain the preference to first visiting the US instead of USSR, from which it had received the prior invitation. However, it is generally believed that Pakistan was in need of economic and military aid for development and defence purposes. Moreover, Pakistan was striving for a resolution of Kashmir dispute with India, on which the Western countries were initially striving for a resolution in the United Nations’ Security Council, in stark contrast to the position taken by the Soviet Union, which had maintained an indifferent and neutral stand, one that was more favourable to India, itself intent upon maintaining a status quo. Since the US, along with its allies in the Security Council, was in a better position to help Pakistan in the Kashmir dispute and in providing the financial aid required, the fledging Pakistan Government had to take the more expedient route. However, Pakistan had no intentions of having relations with the US at the cost of relations with the Soviet Union. While in the US, Liaquat Ali Khan repeatedly stated that Pakistan had much to gain in the agricultural field through better relations with the Soviet Union.8

Pakistan’s decision to join the Western security alliance system, SEATO in 1954 and CENTO in 1955, was an abrupt change in its earlier non-aligned foreign policy, to that of an alignment with the Western bloc led by the US. This phase in Pakistan’s foreign policy is generally regarded as the Era of Alliances (1954-1962). The following reasons can be forwarded for this change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. (1) Although the Western security alliance system was aimed to check the spread of communism, yet Pakistan hoped to acquire substantial economic and military aid to bolster its defences against India, with which it had an outstanding dispute over Kashmir and had fought a limited war in 1948. (2) Pakistan felt that with its membership of the Western security alliance system, it could seek a solution of the Kashmir dispute through the help of partner Western countries. (3) The elites of Pakistan were under the Western influence and were advocating Pakistan’s joining of Western alliance system. (4) Ideologically, Pakistan was more akin to the US than to the Soviet Union.

Moscow did not appreciate Pakistan’s alliance within SEATO and CENTO, which it interpreted as a link in the containment strategy against it by the United States. Despite Pakistan’s assurances that its own alliance partnership was intended to strengthen its defences against India, the Soviet Union looked at Pakistan with suspicion. With the intensification of global rivalry between the two super powers, as well as the growing rift between the two communist giants, Russia and China, Russia took a big swing towards India. It is indeed significant that relations between Pakistan and the Soviet Union remained satisfactory as long as Pakistan remained uncommitted in the Cold War. Before 1954, the Soviet Union maintained a neutral and a non-committal or indifferent attitude on Kashmir, when the Western countries were initially striving to find a settlement to the dispute. Though the Soviet initial indifference did not help Pakistan, it was when Pakistan joined the SEATO and CENTO, that Soviet Union became overtly pro-India. In one of his speeches during his visit to India in December 1955, the Soviet premier declared that he regarded Kashmir as the northern part of India and the people of Kashmir as part of the Indian people.9

Against this background of suspicion engendered by Pakistan’s partnership within the US-led Western security alliances, there were instances when both the Soviet Union and Pakistan took significant steps to improve their relations.

In March-April 1954, a delegation of the Soviet cultural troupe toured Pakistan and a festival of the Soviet films was held in Karachi. To reciprocate this, the Pakistani government also sent a delegation to study the Soviet industrial and agricultural development. In 1956, the Soviet Premier Bulganin, offered Pakistan Soviet technical know how for peaceful uses of atomic energy. Pakistan’s Republic day in Moscow, in August, was attended by the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, who hinted that the Soviet government would be willing to construct a steel mill in Pakistan. In a goodwill gesture, the USSR announced a gift of 16,500 tons of rice to help Pakistan tide over a food crisis. Also in the same month, both countries concluded a trade agreement, which accorded each other ‘the status of the most favoured nation’ regarding imports and exports. The Soviet government once again invited the Prime Minister of Pakistan to visit USSR, but the visit once again could not materialize because of internal political developments within the country.

Leader of Soviet Parliamentary delegation, I. A. Benedictov, paid a visit to Pakistan in February 1958. He expressed his country’s willingness to give economical and technical assistance to Pakistan, mainly in agriculture, control of floods and desalination, control of pests and soil erosion. Following the change in government in Pakistan, Moscow once more renewed its offer of assistance in November 1958, to help explore natural resources, particularly oil. The two countries signed a barter deal in December 1959. However, it was the U-2 spy plane incident in May 1960, which brought the bilateral relations to its worst position.10 Pakistan’s acceptance in August 1960, of the Soviet offer of long term loan of US$30 million for oil exploration helped in restoring the relations. The oil agreement was followed by another barter deal in August 1963 and an air agreement in October 1963.

Following the Sino-Indian border war in 1962, Pakistan’s policy of alignment with the West faced a major litmus test. The United States, as part of its China containment policy, rushed military aid to India, to which Pakistan strongly objected. United States, however, ignored Pakistan’s protests. Pakistan, therefore, reviewed its policy and started normalising its relations with Russia and China. That era from 1963-1978 is generally known as the era of bilateralism. President Ayub Khan’s visit to Moscow in April 1965, was the first direct personal contact in 18 years between the top leaders of Pakistan and USSR. The talks between the Russian leaders and President Ayub contributed to removing the misunderstanding, which had plagued relations between the two countries. The visit paved the way for signing three agreements on trade, economic cooperation and cultural exchanges. However, when the India-Pakistan war of 1965 broke out, the Soviet position on the problem was consistent with its manifest support of India. Yet, following the cessation of hostilities. It was the Soviet Union which played the forefront role as both the Indian and Pakistani heads of government signed the ‘Tashkent Declaration’ on Soviet territory, which was assuaging to Pakistan. Pakistan-Soviet collaboration continued with another barter deal signed in January 1966, providing for the exchange of Pakistani rice for Russian vehicles and road building and engineering machinery. In May 1966, Soviet consular offices were opened in Dhaka and Karachi. The same year Soviet Union also offered Pakistan US$80 million in aid and also agreed to grant a credit of Rs.600 million for constructing 15 broadcasting stations.

April 1968 saw the visit of Russian Premier Kosygin to Pakistan. As a consequence of that visit, Moscow announced a limited quantity of arms supply to Pakistan. However, the Soviet military aid to Pakistan, amounted to only $ 5-10 million as against $600-700 million arms assistance, which it gave to India. Even Afghanistan and Iran received much larger Soviet arms aid than Pakistan did, amounting to $260 million and $100 million respectively.11 In 1971, relations once more deteriorated with Russia with India signing the friendship treaty and Pakistan’s successful efforts at rapprochement between China and US. Soviet Union played a decisive role in the dismemberment of East Pakistan, through its role both at the Security Council and in the military assistance it rendered to India during the December 1971 India-Pakistan war. It vetoed the Peking-supported US resolution in the Security Council on December 5, 1971, which called for the immediate cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of armed forces and stationing of observers on the India-Pakistan border. To the contrary, Soviet Union, in line with the Indian stand, demanded first for a political settlement in East Pakistan, followed by the cessation of hostilities. On December 6, 1971, the Soviet Union vetoed another resolution supported by the US, in which the Soviet Union’s objections did not contain ‘political settlement’ of the East Pakistan crisis as a priority. Along with eight other socialist countries, the Soviet Union once more vetoed an Argentine-sponsored resolution asking for the cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of armed forces from each other’s territory. On December 13, 1971, the Soviet Union used its veto for the third time to prevent the passage of a US resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. To the contrary, it supported the Polish resolution, which urged Pakistan to take steps for a peaceful transfer of power in the ‘eastern theatre of conflict’ to the lawfully elected representatives of the people, headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, as the ‘correct approach’. Pakistan construed the Soviet stand as an interference in its internal affairs.12

Moscow’s decision to send its military forces into Afghanistan in the late 70s, to put in place a proxy regime and defend it against the rising mass resistance against the Soviet Union, and the resultant outright war against the Afghans, further worsened its relations with Pakistan. However, as Pakistan became a frontline state and along with other regional powers, feared that accepting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan would endanger its own long-term security interests, Pakistan again found itself firmly entrenched in the Western camp, aligned against the Soviet Union in the Western strategy of defeating the Soviet aggression. By bolstering up the Afghan resistance, Pakistan played a pivotal role as a conduit to land-locked Afghanistan and eventually in the defeat of the Soviet ability to hold on to Afghanistan militarily, thus shattering its image of invincibility. Most political observers agree that the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan was a major contributory factor in the eventual demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism within Soviet Union itself.13

Pakistan-Russia Relations in the Post Bipolar World (1990-to date)

The world has changed rapidly since the formal end of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Pakistan’s relations with the Russian Federation, which emerged as the successor state to the USSR, are quite inseparable from the legacy of more than four decades of earlier Pakistan-Soviet relations. While the new situation provided a major opportunity for a fresh beginning in Islamabad-Moscow relations, which was taken up by both sides, the foundation for it were laid earlier, as shown above, during a period when major irritants existed. High level bilateral contacts took place between Pakistan and the Russian Federation immediately thereafter. It seemed for some time that in the changed geo-political global scenario after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Moscow tended to accord greater attention to Pakistan and other Muslim countries on its southern periphery.14

In November 1992, Sardar Assef Ali, as Pakistan’s Minister of State for Economic Affairs, visited Moscow, followed by his well-known tour of the Central Asian States. Pakistan’s first ministerial visit to the Russian Federation, after years of neglect by past governments, was a major initiative and contributed significantly to the opening up of a new chapter in Pakistan’s relations with the Russian Federation. In reciprocation, the then Russian Vice President, Alexander Rutskoi, visited Pakistan in December 1992. Russia’s new appraisals considered Pakistan as a crucial factor to any political settlement in Afghanistan, inclusive of its help to Moscow to get back its Russian POWs. The joint communique issued at the time of Rutskoi’s visit said that it was the policy of the Russian government ‘to develop relations with Muslim states on new principles, devoid of ideological obstacles and based on mutual respect, goodwill and mutual benefit’.

The joint communique was significant in many ways. It reiterated Russia’s support for the Pakistani proposal of a nuclear-free zone in South Asia. It also welcomed the Pakistani proposal for a five-nation conference on nuclear non-proliferation in the region. Moreover, the mention of Kashmir in the joint communique was worded in a manner advantageous to Pakistan. The Russian side acknowledged Pakistan’s position on Kashmir and expressed the hope that the issue would be resolved peacefully through negotiations between Pakistan and India on the basis of international agreements. The two sides also discussed a draft agreement for cooperation in the political, economic, commercial, scientific, technical and cultural fields. It expressed the hope that there existed good prospects for ‘initiating mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of economy and trade’. It was also agreed to hold regular contacts between the parliamentarians, and between their respective foreign policy and defence establishments. As a pointer to growing warmth in Pakistan-Russia relations, an international conference was held in Moscow in April 1992 on relations between Pakistan and the CIS.

Several high-level exchanges of delegations have taken place between the two sides since then. A broad range of bilateral issues have been discussed during these visits, which, besides highlighting other areas of cooperation, also included proposals for the collaboration in the field of defence, outer space, technology and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. That also is proof of the Russian desire to upgrade relations with Pakistan, in itself a radical departure from the earlier Soviet-day policy of treating Pakistan as an adversary.

Pakistan, too, has been appreciative of Russian statements that, following the end of the Cold War, it seeks a balanced approach towards South Asia, and attaches an ‘independent significance’ to its relations with Pakistan. According to a political observer, in the early post-Soviet Russia, staunch pro-Western Atlanticists, like Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, downgraded the strategic importance of South Asia: ‘Theirs was a ‘Look West’ policy that made the special relationship with India a victim. Moscow’s new policymakers were also anxious to present a new face of a refurbished, post-communist nation devoid of previous baggage, and the special relationship (with India) was seen as a legacy of the past’.15 Moscow, therefore, pressed on with what appeared to be a remodeled foreign policy stance. Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi proclaimed the objective of new and positive relations with Muslim states in South and Central Asia, including Pakistan, to be established with the idea of ‘equi-distance’ between New Delhi and Islamabad.16

It was against this background that the Russian President, Boris Yelstin, extended an invitation to Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, to visit Russia in December 1994, which reflected that Moscow was serious about establishing a more balanced relationship with Pakistan. The visit was, however, postponed due to the domestic problems of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Sardar Assef Ali, again visited Moscow from 3-5 July, 1994. During his visit, he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, and met other senior functionaries of the Russian government. The two sides discussed a number of international and bilateral issues – the situation in South Asia, the Kashmir problem, Afghanistan and Central Asia including developments in Tajikistan, and Bosnia. During the visit, the two foreign ministers signed a protocol on holding regular consultations between the foreign ministers of the two countries, and an agreement on the abolition of visas for holders of diplomatic passports. The signing of these two agreements signified the fact that Pakistan-Russia relations had come a long way from the animosity of the Cold War era. On September 24, 1995, leader of the Russian Parliamentary delegation to Pakistan, Alexander Vengerovsky, disclosed that Russia was ready to supply military hardware to Pakistan. He further said that Russian technology could find its way into many fields of Pakistani markets.

        The visit of former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to Moscow in April 1999, was termed by the Russian President as ‘a new chapter in relations between the two countries oriented into the 21st Century’. Prime Minister Sharif’s visit, the first by a Pakistani premier in 25 years, may have broken the ice in bilateral relations, but the two sides failed to sign any further significant treaty, after the political treaty initialed in 1994. The only agreement reached was the creation of an inter-governmental commission for trade and economics. Russia and Pakistan signed a bilateral document on trade and economic cooperation to replace the 1956 agreement. Pakistan failed to elicit any further favourable response from their Russian counterparts regarding the increased sale of military hardware to Pakistan. The Kremlin leaders could no longer ignore the basic geo-political fact that India remained by far the more important partner for it in South Asia in comparision with Pakistan, which had been a major partner of the Soviet Union during the days of the Cold War. The former Soviet Union had accounted for 60-70 % of the defence purchases made by India. Moscow itself was keen to retain India as the biggest purchaser of its defence equipment. India’s counter diplomatic moves had succeeded in limiting the defence deals with Pakistan. However, both Russia and Pakistan, during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit held similar views on many international issues, in particular, their ‘support to the non proliferation regime and the settlement of conflicts by political means’. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked for Russia’s assistance for the resolution of out-standing problems of South Asia, such as the Kashmir dispute, saying that his government was ready to go on working in that direction, and expressed the desire that Russia should also promote the normalization of relations between the two major countries of the region. Regarding Russia’s role in India-Pakistan relations, the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, stated that Russia had fulfilled and continued to fulfil an important mission, aimed at the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan. Both sides spoke out in favour of asserting the principles of stability and security in the world, and expressed their commitment to the creation of a multi-polar world, based on the respect for the UN Charter and international law.

However, despite the interest evinced on both sides to establish a constructive and positive relationship, certain irritants continued to exert their negative influence against the establishment of cordial relations. Such as: the situation in Afghanistan, international terrorism, threat of destabilisation in Central Asia, transnational network of drug trafficking, Russian supply of arms to India and so forth.

Hurdles in the Normalization of Relations

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 set in motion a major destabilisation process in the region. The Afghan guerrilla warfare throughout the period of the Soviet occupation (1979-1990) brought in the open patronage of US-led Western powers, which pumped in money and armaments to the Afghan resistance. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Afghanistan continues to remain mired in its internal civil war and its spill-over effects have led to grave repercussions in the Central Asian region, as well as in South Asia.

The Afghanistan imbroglio continues to cast a heavy shadow over the relations between Russia and Pakistan. In the Afghan conflict, Russia and Pakistan’s interests’ were and remain at cross-purposes. Much of this is based on fears, suspicions and concerns about national security interests in the region. Pakistan would not like to have a hostile government on its western periphery as well, since it is already insecure vis-ˆ-vis a hostile India on its eastern border. With the emergence of Islamic renaissance in Central Asia, Russia is fearful of further destabilisation in Central Asia, leading to its consequences being felt in Russia.

Once more both Pakistan and Russia find themselves on two different sides of the fence. Both have a stake in the outcome of the Afghan conflict. Moscow is concerned that should the Taliban consolidate their power by defeating the Northern Alliance under Ahmad Shah Masood, they will then support Islamic uprisings in Central Asia and beyond, thereby destabilizing the entire region. This has partly happened. Russia blames the Taliban to be behind the uprising in Chechnya and Dagestan. To contain the spillover effect from further spreading throughout Russia via Central Asia, the Russians have been extending material and political support to the anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan. The international community, by and large, holds the Taliban regime responsible for problems like terrorism, drug trafficking, activities of transnational religious militant movements, which they say are emanating from the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Since Pakistan is seen as the force behind the creation of the Afghan Taliban, it is often linked as the co-sponsor of all these activities. Pakistan has always maintained that Tailban are an indigenous phenomenon, arising out of the civil war among the Afghan mujahideen factions during the 1990s. In fact, Pakistan has always urged the world community to work towards bringing about a political dialogue among all Afghan factions, under the auspices of the United Nations.

During the September 2000 visit of Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Security Chief of the Russian government, to Pakistan, in the discussions that took place the situation in Afghanistan was on the top of the agenda. The Russia Security Chief termed his trip as having inspired a ‘cautious optimism’, dependent on political declarations being followed by ‘concrete deeds’. On the possibility of a visit by President Putin to Pakistan, the Security Chief added it was conditional on whether Islamabad showed its readiness to heed Russia’s concerns about ‘the situation in the region and in Central Asia, including Afghanistan’. He urged intensifying interaction with Pakistan on regional issues, especially Afghanistan, conceding that Russia had ‘gained nothing from not engaging Pakistan on the problem of Afghanistan’.17 He claimed that about 30,000 elements comprising Arabs, elements from the Pakistani Army and Chechen militiamen were jointly fighting in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Moinuddin Haider, briefed the envoy about the steps being taken by Pakistan to fight terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal immigration and computerization of related databases. To assuage the Russian fears, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider, agreed to conclude an extradition treaty with Russia and to work in closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorism, arms, narcotics trafficking and illegal immigration, which is to be signed during Russian Interior Minister’s proposed visit to Pakistan.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the Russians need to rethink their policy on Afghanistan. It believes that the Russian justification of military and political support to the Northern Alliance, on the grounds that the former government of Burhanuddin Rabbani occupies a seat in the UN, is a camouflage for continuing with the earlier Soviet days policy. Pakistan believes that as a protagonist, Moscow will have to talk with the Taliban directly, in which Pakistan could play the role of a facilitator only. Russia and the Central Asian states have vital interests in the stability of their region. But in the growing spectre of instability, which is visible in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, they see the role of external factors, primarily arising out of Afghanistan. The Russian and Central Asian leadership view religious extremism as being encouraged and supported by external actors, particularly by the Afghan Taliban and some extremist religious groups in Pakistan. They have pointed their fingers at alleged training camps in Afghanistan for the Chechens, Uzbeks and Tajiks dissidents. Pakistan stresses that it is only through dialogue with the Taliban that Russia could alleviate its own misplaced fears. On the other hand, Russia’s moral, material and political support of the Northern Alliance makes the Taliban distrustful of Russia. Their reaction is expressed through their support to Chechen freedom fighters. As regards the drug trafficking from Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance too is as much a part of the Afghan drug nexus as the Taliban authorities. The Taliban have recently made efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation from the area under their direct control. In fact Mulla Mohammad Umar, the Supreme leader of Taliban banned poppy cultivation through an edict issued on July 27, 2000. Moreover, according to the UNDP report of February 2001, the Tailban have eliminated the opium cultivation completely from some area under their direct control.18 There are regions under the control of Northern Alliance, which are responsible for the poppy cultivation and distribution of drugs via Central Asia to the rest of the world.

Another irritant, which is bedevilling the Pak-Russian bilateral relations, is the Russian arms sales to India. Pakistan has strong reservations about the Russo-Indian military relationship. Pakistan feels that the continued sale of military hardware to India by Russia will further deteriorate the military imbalance, which is already highly tilted in favour of a hegemonistic India. The comments of Mr. Prikhodko, an aide to President Putin, in a news briefing after the visit in September 2000 to Pakistan, of Russia’s Security Chief, Yasterzhembsky are worth observing, when he said that ‘long-range national and geo-political interests of Russia and India largely coincide. Our cooperation helps stabilize the situation not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also promotes a healthier climate through out the world.’19

During President Putin’s visit to India in October 2000, the two sides signed a ‘strategic partnership’ document. The most significant part of the visit was perhaps the signing of several multi-million dollar arms contracts, under which India would buy 140 Sukoi, Su-30 MKI jet fighters and 10 T-90 tanks. It would also get a Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorchkov, for free, but will have to pay $ 750 million for its refitting in Russia and another $1.2 billion for MiG 29-K jets, which could further add to its offensive capability.20 The provision of this weaponry will be detrimental for Pakistan’s security and will disturb the already heavily tilted balance of power in the South Asian region.

Prospects for a Future Harmonious Pakistan-Russia Relations

There is no gainsaying the fact that currently relations between Russia and Pakistan are tense. However, both the countries, recognizing the changing geo-strategic and geo-political environment, have evinced their desire to embark upon a constructive and harmonious relationship. Three areas of cooperation are of special interest to Pakistan, in which future cooperation can be based and developed into stronger long-term relationship, helpful to both the countries.

Military Cooperation

The various regimes in Islamabad had tried in fits and starts to establish favourable terms with Russia and other East European countries, with a view to procuring some major weapon systems and defense technology from the countries of Eastern Europe. Developing a military relationship with Russia, which was the major producer of such a defense technology, was of prime interest to Islamabad.

Pakistan’s search for new sources of military hardware continues, following the clamping of the Pressler amendment on Pakistan, which led to the subsequent imposition of an American arms embargo on Pakistan in October 1990, after the then US President G. W. Bush failed to certify that Pakistan’s incipient nuclear programme was peaceful. Since military supplies from US were choked off after the Pressler amendment came in to effect in October 1990, and the French and other Western military hardware became unaffordable for Pakistan due to their prices, Pakistan had three options open to it for military purchases to strengthen its defence, namely: Russia, China and the Eastern European countries which were previously the Soviet States. Pakistan has procured weaponry from China, but since it was insufficient to match the inventory of its adversary, India, therefore, Pakistan is seriously considering purshasing weapons from Eastern European countries and Russia. If the Pakistan armed services start procuring weaponry from Eastern Europe, it will have to refurbish its maintenance and weapon support systems itself, which will escalate the overall cost of equipment. Moreover, since Russia has the pressing need to earn foreign exchange, it would show prompt readiness to sell its arms to Pakistan, or for that matter any other ready market.21

Despite the availability of arms from Russia, five identifiable reasons can be attributed to Pakistan’s failure in securing arms sales from Russia in the post-Cold War era.

Firstly, earlier on, Islamabad did not seriously exploit the possibility of acquiring weapons from Moscow. In the early 1990s negotiations were started several times to procure weapons like Su-27 aircraft for the PAF, but without results. The final impression the Russians formed was that negotiations with Moscow were being used by Islamabad to broker deals with other Western arms suppliers: France for Mirage-2000, or with Sweden for the Swedish Grippen aircraft.

Secondly, the memory of the Afghan war continues to haunt Russian policy makers. Moreover, on-going civil war in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s recognition of its Taliban regime as the de jure Government, has further embittered the Russian-Pakistan relations.

Thirdly, the pro-Indian lobby in Russia is very strong and active. It even operates in the circles of arms manufacturers that resist weapons transfers to Pakistan. This can be gauged from the fact that Soviet Union has accounted for 60-70 percent of Indian defence purchases, and thousands of jobs in the Russian defence industry depends on orders from India. Moreover, Moscow is also keen to retain India as the biggest purchaser of its defence equipment.22

Fourthly, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Islamabad had tried to build strategic ties with the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Along with Turkey and Iran, Pakistan hoped to consolidate the various prospects of the emergence of a bloc of Muslim countries in the region in the shape of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Such a development could and did generate mistrust in Pakistan-Russia relations, since Russia interpreted these moves as an attempt to limit its influence in the Central Asian States.

Finally, the domestic political instability in Pakistan did not allow any initiatives to further develop into strengthened relations with Moscow.23

It is in the long-term interest of Pakistan to establish mutually constructive relations with Russia. Efforts should be made to forge ties with Moscow without expecting immediate results, like a change in Russian government’s stance on Kashmir, selling arms to Pakistan, or adopting a more balanced foreign policy towards South Asia. It is through confidence building measures and cooperation on issues like terrorism, threat of destabilisation in Central Asia, and formation of a consensus based government in Afghanistan, that may bring fruition in Pakistan-Russia bilateral relations. Once the hurdles and mistrust between the two countries is removed, we will be able to see a fruitful collaboration between them in every sphere of activity, including military cooperation. Russia, on its part, can take steps by allowing Pakistan to become a member of Shanghai-5, which is currently working towards addressing security threats faced by the Central Asian region and the member countries. Pakistan should also realize that Moscow’s policy in South Asia was never a zero-sum-game. Pakistan should learn from the example of China and Russia, which were adversaries during the Cold War, but are strategic partners in the 21st century.

Trade and Investment

There is much scope for trade, economic and scientific cooperation between Pakistan and Russia. Both countries have elicited their desire on numerous occasions for closer economic cooperation. During former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Russia in April 1999, the two sides signed an agreement on the creation of an inter-governmental commission for trade and economic cooperation, replacing the bilateral accord of 1956. The Russians also showed their interest in the construction of power plants, roads and bridges in Pakistan and for the supply of supply power, engineering and road construction equipment. Russia also evinced its desire to modernize the steel plant in Karachi, earlier built by the Soviet Union in July 1975, when they provided a credit of $525 million for purchase of machinery and technology.24 The Russian Trade Minister, Georgy Gabuniya, also mentioned the possibility of setting up joint ventures in Pakistan’s free export zones, as well as direct interaction between Pakistani exports and Russian regions. Trade relations were discussed once more during the visit of Russia’s President’s special envoy, Yastrzembsky, to Pakistan in September 2000, with the Russian envoy suggesting on using Turkey as a trade route, till peace and stability returns in Afghanistan. He also said that as an alternative, Pakistani exporters could arrange for delivery of Russian-bound items at Ashkabad through Afghanistan. In reciprocation, Pakistan suggested setting up joint ventures in the mineral, fish, fruit and food-based industries with Russian expertise and mutually agreed funds both in the public and private sector.25

On May 26, 2001, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Pakistan, Edward Shevchenko, held a meeting with the Federal Minister for Privatisation, Altaf M. Saleem, in Islamabad, in which both shared the experiences learned through privatisation processes in Russia and Pakistan. The Pakistani Minister expressed his hope for Russian investment in the units in financial sector, gas companies, and industrial mega-projects like Pakistan Steel Mill and the Pak-Saudi Fertlizer Company, which are to be privatized soon. The Russian ambassador stressed the need for exchange of experts and asked for expanding the existing economic and trade interaction, underscoring the fact that the Russian engineers were already participating in the modernisation of Pakistan Steel Mill.

It will be advantageous for Pakistan if Russia is allowed even an observer status in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) to help counter its suspicion towards what it views as a Muslim bloc. The dividends of Russia’s interest or relations with ECO would have positive implications for economic prosperity in the member countries but also stability in the region. Russia being technologically much superior, with a sound industrial base, the ECO countries can learn through technology transfer and expertise from Russian experience. Besides that, trade among the countries can fetch economic prosperity to the entire region, as well as address security and other international issues, facing the member countries, which can be better addressed through working jointly and through coordination.

Scientific and Technological Cooperation

Besides trade, both sides have expressed a need to cooperate in science and technology. A breakthrough was achieved when Russia and Pakistan, on April 29, 1999, agreed that Russian and Pakistani space agencies will jointly launch ‘a Pakistani scientific research satellite’, under an agreement reached between Sputnik and SUPARCO. According to the Chairman, State Duma of the Russian Federation, Guemady Nikolavitch, there were great prospects of cooperation between the two countries in scientific and technological fields, including in the peaceful exploration of outer space.26 Apart from that, the energy sector, production of aircraft industry, agricultural machinery, passenger vehicles as well as traditional Pakistani items, like fruits, dry fruit, textile goods, sport goods, handicrafts etc., were identified as the other fields that promise great potential for bilateral trade between the two countries.

Pakistan can learn a good deal of technological know how and experience from Russia. However, it is an irony that not enough attention has been paid to bolster trade ties and scientific cooperation between the two countries. The main hindrance has been the internal political problems in both countries, which mires relationship between the two countries. However, what both countries have to learn to accept is that economic cooperation need not be sacrificed at the cost of differing views on international political issues, and in which political dialogue should remain an on going process.


There was an expectation that with the end of the Cold War that Russia and Pakistan would offload the baggage of tensions arising out of the conflict in Afghanistan, and steer a new course towards cooperative relations. The assumption was that both of them would free themselves from the stranglehold of prejudices and misperceptions, and see each other as potential partners in promoting stability and security in Afghanistan and Central Asia. This has not happened. It is more distressing to note that no serious effort has been made by either side to freshen the stagnant waters of latent hostility, with more direct bilateral contacts.

This is not to suggest, however, that a breakthrough in bilateral relations with Russia cannot be achieved. For this to happen it would require modifications in Pakistan’s military-strategic thinking and how a more constructive foreign policy approach on how engagement with Russia can be pursued.

It is also important that Russia, Pakistan and Central Asian states should resolve outstanding issues by evolving a regional framework. This would require more than visits of special envoys. Since Shanghai-5 has been created to deal with the security threats emerging in the Asian heartland, and Pakistan is also beset with the internal and external threats destabilizing the region, it should also be allowed to become a member of the Shahghai-5. Interaction in official spheres may help remove the mental roadblocks that have characterised relations between Russia and Pakistan. Beyond officialdom, lies a vast region where fundamental questions revolving around ideological foundations, institutional capacity building, national development, economic and political transformations will require greater empathy and deeper cooperation among neighbours. It is high time to shift policies from the Cold War paradigm of a zero sum game to a more people-centred cooperative regional security.

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