Global politics has come to a very interesting point: A gradual rise of multipolarity is creating geo-strategic spaces for states to maneuver for their individual interests and, at the same time, opening new avenues of cooperation for shared geo-economic interests. This scenario is compelling states to adjust the undertones of their foreign policies and adapt to the transforming realities.

The trickle-down effect of these global changes has helped the emergence of many alignments that are running parallel to one other. For instance, a Russia-China-Pakistan axis seems to be in the making. They are joining hands with one another under the ambit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and through the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. At the same time, the Russia-India-China strategic triangle emerges as an on-again, off-again phenomenon. Interestingly, in an attempt to build a parallel transnational corridor (International North-South Transport Corridor), Russia, India and Iran are cooperating with one another, leaving China and Pakistan out of the project.

In such a flux of inter-state politics, how can Pakistan-Russia relations be contextualized?

Russian engagement and investment

Apart from defense cooperation, the US drawdown in Afghanistan is rapidly converging the interests of Russia and Pakistan. Also, as a staunch ally of Beijing, Islamabad occupies a special place in Moscow’s strategic calculus. Pakistan, Russia and China convened three trilateral dialogues on Afghanistan. The first round was held in Beijing, the second in Islamabad and the third in Moscow. This trilateral dialogue was held in the backdrop of a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and its implications for the region. In the same vein, the Moscow peace conference, held this year, was a continuation of the trilateral cooperation as it was convened in the backdrop of a US withdrawal from Kabul.

The presence of Daesh (ISIS) in Afghanistan is an ominous reality for both Pakistan and Russia. This threat is spurring joint military exercises to curb the menace of terrorism.  However, Pakistan-Russia rapprochement is not confined to security and politics but is expanding in the economic realm as well.

In October 2015, a memorandum of understanding was signed to build a 1,100-kilometer gas pipeline to connect LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminals in the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab. Headed by a Russian company, RT Global Resources, this project was expected to be implemented last year and handed over to Pakistan for 25 years on the build-own-transfer (BOT) model. A Russian oil and gas consortium, Inter RAO Engineering and Himmash-Apparat, signed an MoU with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Oil and Gas Company Ltd (KPOGCL) to establish an oil refinery in Kohat. The Russian companies are also negotiating on converting an oil- and gas-fired power plant in Muzaffargarh, Punjab, into a coal-fired station.

Here is the rub

Afghanistan is a thorny problem. Two days after US-Taliban talks held in the United Arab Emirates, the Russian side not only voiced its concerns but arranged a meeting with Indian diplomats in New Delhi also. As reported by Sputnik, the Indo-Russia meeting was held in the backdrop of the US-Taliban talks. If one wishes to find a hint of where India stands in Russia’s new “Great Game” in Afghanistan, it is in the press release of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

It stated that Pakistan and Russia do have common interests in creating the conditions for an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process but, while alluding to the role of India in Afghanistan, “the accession of India and Pakistan to the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] gave a new breath to SCO-Afghan Contact Group.” India has always been an irritant in Pakistan-Russia relations and it continues to be one. To the Indian objections on joint military exercises, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s director of the Second Asian Department, Zamir Kubulov, responded that India need not worry about the military drills as they will not be conducted in the disputed areas.

Between Moscow and Islamabad, a long-standing economic dispute stands as a huge impediment to improving economic ties. The economic row led to the freezing of Russian assets (worth US$120 million) in Pakistan. Efforts to resolve this dispute have yet to yield results. The North-South gas corridor was expected to be implemented in 2018, but it is in limbo. Disagreements on the transit tariffs are delaying the implementation of the gas-pipeline project. Victor Kladov, Rostec Corporation director for international cooperation and regional policy, predicted further delays in the project beyond 2018.

A big fissure is the inherent Sino-Russia competition in this trilateral configuration, which is most evident in the economic domain

A big fissure is the inherent Sino-Russia competition in this trilateral configuration, which is most evident in the economic domain. In their official statements, the Russians do endorse the BRI and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) but, in the practical domain, they are creating their own niche in Pakistan’s energy and development sectors. The Russian-led energy projects and initiatives confirm this pattern of investment. Top of the list is the North-South Gas Corridor, which would run in parallel to the BRI in Central and South Asia. An oil and gas refinery in Kohat is also a bilateral project. As of now, there are no Russian projects in the CPEC.

Unless China and Russia come to an agreement over the percentage of Russian and Chinese shares in CPEC particularly, Russian investment in Pakistan’s energy sector remains a big challenge.

In the foreseeable future, Russia will be on course to a multi-layered and complex policy that will keep adjusting according to its national interests. Because of the structural changes in the international system and their trickle-down effect to the regional level, the shared preferences of Moscow and Islamabad are going to be more pronounced. However, Pakistan needs to come up with a proactive and pragmatic approach that warrants a diversified foreign policy.

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