Russia and Pakistan - Besides cooperation in defense terms, what other areas of cooperation
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Besides cooperation in defense terms, what other areas of cooperation exist, or could be explored by Pakistan and Russia to further strengthen their bilateral ties?
The significance of the incipient defense relationship between Russia and Pakistan mustn’t be understated because it forms the backbone of their developing rapprochement and serves as the most symbolic manifestation of Moscow’s new strategic thinking towards South Asia and Eurasia in general. What differentiates Russia from the US in this field is that Moscow’s” military diplomacy” is always aimed at reinforcing the existing balance of power between various parties and preventing one or the other from acquiring a decisive enough advantage that they’re compelled to initiate a war. For example, Russia sells weapons to Armenia & Azerbaijan, India & China, and China & Vietnam, three pairs of partners at serious odds with one another, though none of which have received any military wares from Moscow which could disrupt the balance of power.
This is important to reflect on because it could form the basis for an enhanced defense partnership between Russia and Pakistan, one which would obviously draw India’s ire but couldn’t reasonably be argued as “directed against” New Delhi or a “betrayal” of the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership. Thus far, Russia’s defense exports to Pakistan have helped strengthen Islamabad’s anti-terrorist capacities, but the trust and goodwill that these shipments have thus far fostered could help form the basis of a more conventional military relationship in the future which might one day involve jets, tanks, and other munitions if the right circumstances unfold. Russia understands that India is one of, if not the, largest defense partners that it has, though the prevailing trend in recent years has been that New Delhi is “multi-aligning” its defense partnerships with those of the US, “Israel”, Japan, and France, all of which is chipping away at Moscow’s former market dominance in this strategic sector.
Understanding “which way the wind is blowing”, it’s sensible for Russia to seek out other arms markets in South Asia, and nowhere in the region is better than Pakistan because of the potential that this sort of an expanded defense partnership could bring in boosting Russia’s balancing credentials in Eurasia as per its grand strategic vision in the 21st century. This is why the existing small-scale defense relations between Russia and Pakistan mustn’t be dismissed, because further confidence-building exercises such as last fall’s historic Druzhba 2016 joint drills could put the two sides on an accelerated trajectory of deepening these ties in response to the ever-changing power dynamics of South Asia, all with the intent of solidifying Russia as the supreme balancing force in South Asia, unlike the disruptive one that the US and its “Israeli”-Japanese allies are becoming.
Having explained all of that, there are indeed other avenues of prospective cooperation that Russia and Pakistan can explore in the coming future, and the most important of course relates to Afghanistan. The Russian capital already hosted three Moscow peace conferences within the past six months, and Russia’s stance towards the conflict has markedly begun to align with Pakistan’s in terms of the envisioned political and anti-terrorist role of the Taliban. This represents a profound change in Russia’s strategic calculus and is mostly attributable to the fear that Moscow has of Daesh infiltrating into the Central Asian Republics and destabilizing them as per the scenario outlined in response to the first question of this interview. Lacking the political will and military capability to decisively intervene in Afghanistan once more, Russia prefers instead to leverage diplomatic solutions using the most directly involved regional stakeholders such as Pakistan in order to make progress on the anti-terrorist front.
Daesh can’t be defeated if the Taliban and Kabul are fighting one another more than their focusing on the terrorists, which is why the Moscow peace initiative sought to find some sort of implicit common ground between the two Afghan actors in order to see them redirect their military efforts against Daesh instead. Pakistan plays a pivotal role in all of this because of its historic relations to both parties and the simple fact that it shares the longest border with Afghanistan out of all of Kabul’s neighbors. Russian-Pakistani strategic coordination in the Afghan context will serve as the driver for further cooperation between the two sides, and is already becoming the crucible on which their new era of relations is being formed. The mutually beneficial convergence of interests in seeing the defeat of Daesh, the recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political actor in the Afghan context, and the war-torn country’s stabilization is bringing the two parties together at an astounding rate, and each side’s strategists deserve to be commended for successfully charting this new strategic course between the two.
Apart from mutual concerns surrounding the Afghan conflict, Russia and Pakistan also stand to deepen their cooperation with one another through the energy sector, which is already ongoing through the construction of the North-South gas pipeline. Russian specialists are world-renowned for their professionalism in this sphere, which is why it was to Pakistan’s best interests to contract them for this purpose. The developing energy cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is symbolic as well, since it demonstrates to the rest of the world that the two parties are working together in a realm of traditional cooperation between Moscow and its partners, though surprisingly in an untraditional geographic region. The North-South pipeline shouldn’t be seen as the full extent of their energy cooperation, but as the beginning, since it holds the potential of expanding their partnership into the import-export capacity sometime in the future.
For example, Russia’s rich Siberian resources could be piped south through Xinjiang and along the CPEC route to enter the Pakistani marketplace if political relations continue to develop along their presently positive trajectory and the right price can be met for this arrangement. There would, however, be natural competition with the TAPI pipeline, so this proposal should be seen as a possible idea and not as a concrete policy suggestion right now. If TAPI for whatever reason doesn’t get built, then the “Altai-Xinjiang” Pipeline would be the best alternative for satisfying Pakistan’s energy needs for a mainland pipeline route.
Additionally, Russia’s LNG exports from the Far East island of Sakhalin could be directed to Pakistan too, though it’s here where Moscow would enter into competition with Doha, which is also vying for the same marketplace. The changing Mideast power dynamics brought about by the Gulf Crisis/GCC Cold War are creating an opportunity to form a grand “gas OPEC” alignment between Qatar, Iran, and Russia, which could potentially see these three players bring Turkmenistan on board as well in “dividing” Eurasia up between them. If this comes to pass, Russia and Qatar might reach an LNG exporting arrangement between them to decide who sells to which South Asian state, so in that case, Moscow might export to India while Doha could sell to Pakistan.
Lastly, the final frontier of cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is through CPEC, both in its infrastructural but more likely commercial dimensions. Moscow is reluctant to officially get involved in CPEC due to New Delhi’s concerns about the initiative, and therefore Russia feels compelled to “balance” between the two South Asian states and abstain – at least for now – from formal participation in its projects. Understanding that, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that Russian companies won’t utilize CPEC upon its completion, since there’s nothing that the Russian state can do to prevent private companies from using the infrastructure of a foreign country. To the contrary, Moscow could encourage them to do this in order to help develop Central Asia and Siberia. There is still a long way to go before that happens, though, but the successful initiation of real-sector economic cooperation between Russia and Pakistan via CPEC and its prospective Central Asian and Siberian branches would cement the relationship between the two and give it a wide-ranging, robust, and comprehensive substance.