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Pakistan-Russia: can old rivals be strategic partners?

ISLAMABAD: What was considered unimaginable in past may soon become a reality. When Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani lands in Moscow this month it would mark a paradigm shift and give a new dimension to the emerging relationship between the two nuclear-armed Asian nations.
Pakistan’s membership of anti-communist alliances like SEATO/ CENTO, shooting down of American U-2 spy plane over Soviet Union that took off from a Pakistani airbase on May 01, 1960, Moscow’s backing of 1971 Indian Army’s invasion of East Pakistan and Soviet Army’s defeat in US/Pakistan backed Afghan Jihad were stumbling blocks in normalization of Pak-Russia relations.
Gen Kayani’s upcoming visit follows in the heels of Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafiq Butt’s landmark trip to Moscow last month, first ever by a PAF chief, to attend Russian Air Force’s centenary celebrations.
The air chief termed his visit as significant towards ‘greater cooperation with Russia in the field of defence, particularly in air defence.’ Gen Kayani’s Moscow visit is significant as it takes place a few weeks before the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Islamabad in early October, first ever by a Russian Head of State, for a regional conference also being attended by leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The Moscow journey takes place in the backdrop of intense US pressure to launch North Waziristan’s anti-Haqqani offensive and incessant US drone attacks that continue to fuel terrorist backlash in major Pakistani cities. Foreign agencies continue to use Afghan soil to support Baloch insurgency and also instigate cross border attacks by Pakistani Taliban in Fata.
Is there a convergence in Pak-Russia geo-strategic/economic interests and goals in this region? Both countries are essential stakeholders in the Afghan endgame and seek a secure road map towards peaceful transition in Afghanistan after US/Nato withdrawal by 2014.
Both would be concerned with Washington’s decision to designate Haqqanis as terrorist entity that could jeopardize the Afghan peace process involving major Afghan power players including Taliban/ Haqqanis and push Afghanistan towards instability/chaos.
Pakistan and Russia will not welcome US troops and security contractors’ presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 under the US-Afghan strategic partnership agreement as this could keep the country and region destabilized. In return for Russian influence to stop Indian support to Baloch insurgents as well as Tehreek-e-Taliban from across Afghanistan, Pakistan could reciprocate by eliminating safe havens of central Asian militants specially Uzbek fighters in Pak-Afghan border region.
Russia has publicly backed Pakistan for full membership of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an emerging alliance that promotes security(intelligence sharing/ counter terrorism), defence and economic cooperation between member countries including China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Any Chinese presence at Gwadar overlooking the sensitive oil shipping lanes of Strait of Hormuz in Persian Gulf will cause jitters to the west particularly the US but may be good news for the SCO member states.
Pakistan’s recent decision to transfer Gwadar port’s operational control from Port Singapore Authority to a Chinese company has geo economic implications. The Russians and central Asian states could seek a link up with Gwadar via the north-south trade/energy corridor, a proposal which Pakistan may willingly agree to. The SCO could well be the counter to US backed interference in Balochistan.
Moscow’s willingness to assist in expansion/modernization of Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) with $500 million investment would enhance Steel Mills annual production capacity from the current 1.1 to 1.5 million tons and subsequently to 3.0 million tons. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for PSM’s upgradation is expected to be signed during President Putin’s Islamabad visit.
Despite strong US opposition including threats of sanctions, the Russians have signalled their willingness to fund and provide technical assistance for Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project provided contract is awarded to Russian energy giant — Gazprom. But would government of Pakistan waive off Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) rules which call for open bidding by prospective competitors?
Enhanced Pak-Russia bilateral relations could open new chapter of defence and scientific cooperation between the two countries particularly in the supply of Russian military hardware, higher education in Russian universities and space technology.
While Russian MI-17 helicopters currently form the backbone of our Army’s logistics/troop lift capability, some of these could be upgraded to armed versions with Russian assistance.
While Indian influence prevented Russian supply of MI series attack gunships and potent air defence weapon systems to Pakistan, the new Pak-Russia military to military relationship and improved Indo-Pak ties may turn the tide in our favour.
While Indian armed forces rely heavily on Russian military hardware, their new emphasis is on diversification through induction of US made C-130 Js/C-17 Globemasters to augment heavy airlift potential as well as European fighter aircraft for IAF. To offset the threat of spare parts sanctions for US supplied PAF F16s and Navy’s P3-C Orions, the solution could lie in acquisition of Russian/Chinese advanced fighter/ surveillance aircraft so as to secure alternate sources.
Both Pakistan and China seek to export the JF17 Thunder fighter jet that is powered by Russian engine and is currently being jointly produced at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Kamra. In long term, Kamra could well witness Pak-China-Russia joint development/production of fighter aircraft under transfer of technology program.
How would the US view Islamabad’s warming up to Moscow? Would Pak-Russia engagement reduce US influence on Islamabad? Will US arrogance towards Pakistan sober out with less arm twisting by Washington? Will the US revive Pak-US strategic dialogue and offer rich incentives to lure back its estranged ally?
Can old rivals turn into strategic partners? Despite 1962 Sino-India border conflict, both these countries enjoy a $75 billion bilateral trade and are planning to hold joint military exercises. Are both Russia and Pakistan ready to bury the mutual distrust and antagonism of the Cold War era? In a changing world of strategic realignment and shifting interests this may well be round the corner.

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