Courtesy: AFP

Andrew Korybko

Russia and Pakistan have been involved in a fast-moving rapprochement over the past couple of years that has since seen them develop a multidimensional partnership that’s approaching a strategic status. The driving impetus behind their relations has been the US’ War on Afghanistan and the resultant non-state security threats that are emanating from this landlocked country, which has taken on a renewed urgency ever since reports of Daesh appearing there first began to circulate around 2015. With an eye on the future, but careful to understand events from the immediate past that make the time ahead possible, here’s what can be expected from the Russian-Pakistani partnership:

Afghan Diplomacy

As was mentioned, Afghanistan is the driver of Russian-Pakistani cooperation, and the two nuclear-armed Great Powers put aside their historical Cold War-era rivalry in order to revive the stalled Afghan peace process, albeit in a multipolar format centered in Moscow. The effort has yet to yield any tangible success pertaining to the conflict itself, but it’s importantly created new high-level channels of communication between Russia and Pakistan, among the other participants that are involved, and has thus far served as a trust-building exercise for taking relations to the next step.

Anti-Terrorist Exercises

Being that each party is seriously concerned about the spread of Daesh and other terrorist threats from Afghanistan either into their own territory (like Pakistan) or sphere of security influence (as Russia views the Central Asian Republics), it is only logical that they’d eventually commence their first-ever anti-terrorist drills in 2016 in the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan. The exercise was such a success that it was repeated the following year in Russia’s Northern Caucasus and plans to be held yearly. This represents a milestone in the Russian-Pakistani partnership and is proof of just how far relations have come over the past few years.

Moreover, Moscow went through with these drills despite New Delhi’s vehement resistance and even a fake news campaign in its national media alleging that Russia had cancelled them. The significance of this is that evidence is emerging that Russian-Indian ties are fraying after years of neglect by both sides and a sole focus on pecuniary interests such as those derived from the weapons and nuclear industries, however strategic they may be. For Russia to go forth with its anti-terrorist exercises with Pakistan and resist heavy Indian pressure to forgo this move is extraordinary and indicative of Moscow’s desire to become the Eurasian super-continent’s supreme “balancing” force in the 21st century.

Conventional Military Ties

A lot remains to be desired in the realm of conventional military ties between Russia and Pakistan, but judging by the positive inertia of their rapprochement and India’s simultaneous pivot towards the US (the first steps of which began at least a decade ago following the Bush Administration’s nuclear energy outreaches to New Delhi in 2005), it is only a matter of time before this sphere begins to enjoy the fruits of the intense labor that Russian and Pakistani diplomats have put into their partnership. Right now Moscow’s history of arms sales to Islamabad is quite small, with the only real major shipment being four helicopters for anti-terrorist purposes.

That, however, has a symbolic value because it confirmed the growing trust between both sides and was proof that Pakistan is engaged in a conventional military dialogue with Russia behind the scenes. Trump’s recent suspension of military aid to Pakistan could inadvertently end up being a godsend for Russian-Pakistani relations because it might give Moscow a reason to more robustly expand its arms shipments to Islamabad, recognizing the long-term market potential that’s available and prudently taking steps to mitigate the impending losses that it’s poised to experience as the US’ military-industrial complex makes inroads in India.

Geopolitical Balancing

One of the greatest benefits that Russia and Pakistan can provide to one another is that they can help the other “balance” relations with their historical partner, in this case India and China, respectively. Each bilateral relationship is different nowadays and can not be qualitatively compared, but the value in growing Russian-Pakistani relations is that Moscow and Islamabad can acquire more leverage over New Delhi and Beijing, albeit for opposite reasons.

Whereas Russia wants to hedge its strategic losses from India pivoting towards the US and therefore sees its new ties with Pakistan as restoring balance to South Asia, Pakistan wants to use its relationship with Russia as a bargaining tool for striking better economic deals with China by showing Beijing that Islamabad has other possible investment partners if certain Silk Road contracts are not up to its liking.

Russia and China are already strategic partners so there is no harm in them engaging in win-win friendly competition with one another in Pakistan for the benefit of more solidly developing multipolarity, while Russia might see an opportunity to sell S-400 anti-air missile defense systems to Pakistan following its fallout with the US in order to cleverly further conventional military relations with Islamabad via a plausible pretext that New Delhi would be forced to accept.

Socio-Economic And Cultural Improvements

Lastly, the fields in which Russian-Pakistani relations are lacking the most are the socio-economic and cultural ones, and the solution to this long-running lack of personal and commercial contact with one another is for there to be state-to-state agreements in facilitating more academic exchanges, visa-free travel arrangements, and business deals.

The North-South gas pipeline and the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India one that Russia is helping to build across the South Asian state’s territory are excellent starting points for the commercial relationship, but in order to actualize each party’s full potential, their private small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) must eventually use CPEC-connected trade routes through Central Asia and Siberia to enhance their ties.

Although the socio-economic and cultural spheres are the most lacking at the moment, they’re paradoxically the most important for solidifying the Russian-Pakistani rapprochement and taking it to its strategic conclusion by ultimately reshaping Eurasian geopolitics.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and a regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. He tweets:@Akorybko.