PAKISTAN and Russia do not have a history of conducive relationship. The new emerging geostrategic realities of the region have led to the new convergence between the two estranged states.

Both the countries are gradually working towards building strategic trust, said Shafqat Khan, Pakistan’s current Ambassador to Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Pakistan (6-7 April 2021) has happened after almost a decade.

He has termed the relationship between the two nations, ‘mutually beneficial and constructive.’ He was accompanied by the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov.

The future of the Afghan peace dialogue holds profound leverage for peace of this region. What has further consolidated the relationship is interestingly the convergence on the way forward in Afghanistan.

Russia is back in the new great game and is fully convinced of Pakistan’s indispensability in any settlement of the Afghan problem.

Russia, Pakistan, China and Iran are on the same page, and agree on peaceful and responsible exit of the NATO troops by the 1st of May 2021. It is no surprise that Afghanistan dominated the discussions of Russia-Pakistan talks in Islamabad.

The rising role of China and the US desire to counter it through a ‘strategic handshake’ with India and reviving Quad originally warmed up the relations between Pakistan and Russia.

The visible warm up of relations started in 2010, they were marked by high level visits, arm sales and increased cooperation. This interestingly coincides with the strains in Pak-US relations.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shigu visited Islamabad in November 2014 and signed a defence cooperation agreement.

Prior to that, Russia and Pakistan conducted their first joint counter narcotics exercise, which was followed by a second round in December 2015.

Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif visited Moscow in the summer of 2015, which culminated in Russia signing a deal with Pakistan to purchase Mi-35M Hind-E assault helicopters.

In September 2016, Russia and Pakistan conducted their first major joint military exercise.

This was the first public display of Russia–Pakistan military relations. In March 2017, a Russian senior military delegation visited Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and studied Pakistani border management and counter-terror strategy. Later in the same year, Pakistan received four more Mi-35M Hind-E helicopters.

Following these procurements, Russia and Pakistan began a series of joint military exercises that included the Arabian Monsoon naval drills in 2014 and 2015.

Pakistan Navy spearheaded the Aman naval exercise, which included the participation of 35 countries.

In this exercise, for the first time, “Russia’s largest anti-submarine warship Severomorsk participated.”

In addition, both militaries conducted joint exercises, starting with the Friendship-2017 military exercises—involving about 70 military mountaineers from Pakistan and the Russian mountain infantry division of Southern Military District—held in the mountain range near Nizhny Arkhyz settlement in Karachay-Cherkessia, Russia.

Early 2018, Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Moscow and signed several agreements. General Qamar Bajwa visited Moscow, and the countries formed the Joint Military Commission.

The national security advisors of both countries held high-level security meetings in Moscow.

The Pakistani delegation included defence officials from the Strategic Plans Division—indicating possibilities of discussions involving strategic and nuclear issues.

The frequency of exchanges of military delegations between Moscow and Islamabad increased thereafter.

For instance, in August 2018, a Pakistani naval delegation led by Vice Admiral Kaleem Shaukat visited Russia and signed a memorandum of understanding on naval cooperation.

In September 2018, military contingents from India and Pakistan participated in SCO joint exercises, which, given the ongoing Pakistan-India tension, was a pleasant positive gesture that happened on Russian soil.

As relations between Pakistan and Russia were consolidating, President Trump terminated Pakistan’s participation in America’s International Military Education Program.

As soon as this became public, Pakistan and Russia signed the “Security Training Agreement” to train Pakistani military officers in Russian military institutions for the first time.

In February 2021, for the first time, the “Russian Black Sea Fleet” with three ships took part in the joint military exercise with NATO members.

Russia is also now more open to defence ties with Pakistan and understand its legitimacy and importance to the balance of power in the region.

Its support to India for hegemonic stability in South Asia is dwindling, which is a huge paradigm shift, perhaps triggered by India aligning itself with the western security architecture construct.

However, New Delhi will continue to figure into Russian scheme of security construct in South Asia.

A triangular relationship between Pakistan, China and Russia could determine the future direction of South Asia.

Pakistan seeks balance in its foreign policy and is open to new alliances and convergences that provide it with options and choices.

Bilateral trade between Russia and Pakistan has also witnessed a 46 per cent increase hitting an all-time high of $790 million.

The officials have also agreed to diversify and increase bilateral ties in the fields of energy, industrial modernization, railways and aviation.

Both countries are discussing protocols on the Stream Gas Pipeline Project, now named Pakistan Stream Project, which will transport 1.6 billion cubic feet per day of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Karachi to Lahore.

Russia has also provided 50,000 doses of its Covid-19 Sputnik-V Vaccine to Pakistan, which has emerged as an important private option for the citizens of Pakistan complementing government initiatives.

The future of Pakistan-Russia relations is multi-dimensional and seems sustainable. There is tangible political desire on both sides to deepen and strengthen the relationship.

It is a win-win.
—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

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