By: William Persing
This year marks the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and Pakistan, who in recent years have reforged their once acrimonious ties. While mutual counterterrorism and security concerns have partially driven this rapprochement, cooling U.S.-Pakistan relations have also contributed to the growing cooperation. The realignment unfolding between Russia and Pakistan, relative to Russia-India relations, could greatly reshape the future of security in South Asia, as well as the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
During the Cold War, Pakistan and the Soviet Union stood on opposite ends of the global struggle. The Soviet Union sided with India on territorial issues in Kashmir and displayed support for India during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Bilateral relations further deteriorated following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, in which the Pakistani government actively supported the Mujahideen fighting against the Red Army. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pakistan-Russian relations began to change. Moscow and Islamabad normalized relations following Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s historic visit to Pakistan in 2007.
Much of the current warming in relations dates back to 2014 and was directly tied to defense and security concerns. That year, Russia lifted its arms embargo on Pakistan and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Islamabad and signed a defense cooperation agreement with his Pakistani counterpart, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif. This was the first time in 45 years that a Soviet/Russian defense minister had visited Pakistan. The expressed goal of this meeting was countering terrorism and drug trafficking in the region; however, the United States’ improved relations with India and temporary surpassing of Russia as the primary supplier of weapons to New Delhi likely served as one catalyst for the meeting. In 2015, Russia agreed to sell four Mi-35M helicopters to Pakistan. Additionally, Russia approved the Pakistani purchase of Klimov RD-93 engines for use in their domestically made JF-17 fighter jets. A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes that since 2014, the percentage of arms Pakistan imports from Russia has grown to 5.7 percent of the country’s total imports. This has coincided with a precipitous drop in U.S. arms exports to Pakistan by 76 percent from 2013 to 2017 as compared to 2008 to 2012.
The rising strength of Russian-Pakistan relations has coincided with a decline in Pakistan’s relations with its historic ally, the United States. Beginning after the collapse of the USSR, and gaining momentum following the start of the War on Terror, the United States has begun to pursue closer relations with India. Souring relations between Pakistan and the U.S., especially under President Donald Trump, have allowed for a window of greater cooperation between Russia and Pakistan. In January this year, President Trump tweeted, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Trump’s tweet encapsulates the growing frustration among some American officials over perceived Pakistani passivity at best and active support at worst for the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Beyond arms sales, military exercises have also functioned as a signal of a growing closeness between Islamabad and Moscow. In September 2016, Russia and Pakistan hosted their first ever joint military exercise in Pakistan with around 70 Russian personnel working alongside 130 Pakistani troops. In September 2017, Russia and Pakistan launched their second joint military exercise, dubbed “Druzhba 2017,” which was held in the North Caucasus Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and involved over 200 special forces from the two nations. The military exercise was focused on counterterrorism and search and rescue operations. India’s ire toward Russia’s increased cooperation with its bitter rival Pakistan has proven to be a major point of contention between New Delhi and Moscow. Consequently, Russia faces a serious challenge improving relations with Pakistan, while continuing to manage its historically close relations with India. Political frustration with Pakistan emanating from Washington will likely continue to push Moscow and Islamabad closer together. How far President Putin decides to take this relationship with Pakistan relative to India might shape the political balance in the region for decades to come.
Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency have been a driving force behind the rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan, as well as growing trilateral relations between the two nations and China. In 2016, the three countries held a series of discussions on Afghanistan, which focused on the growing Taliban insurgency and rising Islamic State (IS) forces in the nation. The first meeting held in Moscow was noteworthy for its exclusion of Afghan representatives, as well as the United States. Multilateral cooperation on counterterrorism in the region has become more common, especially given the ascendency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). “Russian-Pakistani relations have been constructive and mutually beneficial. Pakistan is an important partner for Russia in South Asia,” stated President Putin at the SCO Summit in Ufa on July 9, 2017. India and Pakistan both joined the organization in 2017 and have increasingly looked to greater cooperation with China and Russia as a way to address threats stemming from Afghanistan and multinational terrorism. For example, in August 2018, the SCO is planning to hold military exercises in the Ural Mountains to include China, Russia, India and Pakistan. “Peace Mission 2018” will include counterterrorism operations focused on preventing terror attacks and dismantling terror networks.
As regards terrorism and Afghanistan, both Russia and Pakistan are looking to intensify their partnership. In 2018, Pakistan and Russia announced a joint anti-terror military cooperation commission, which has been framed as a way of stemming the growth of IS in Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated, “We have confirmed Russia’s readiness to continue boosting Pakistan’s counterterrorism capacity, which is in the entire region’s interest.”
Overall, Russia and Pakistan’s shared goals of stabilizing Afghanistan and preventing the spread of radicalism in Asia has proven to be a powerful uniting force for the two nations. Whether mutual cooperation through the SCO is enough to satiate India’s foreign policy concerns toward Pakistan has yet to be seen. It is clear, however, that Pakistan-Russia relations are undergoing a massive reconciliation that will have major repercussions in Central and South Asia.
William Persing is an intern at the EastWest Institute and a graduate from Columbia University's Harriman Institute with a master's degree in Regional Studies: Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe.