Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly canceled his visit to Pakistan last week, but ties between the two countries nevertheless appear to be growing as a result of the Kremlin's fear of instability in Afghanistan.
Putin was supposed to be in Pakistan last week for the Dushanbe Four summit, a grouping that includes Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But he canceled at the last minute; foreign minister Sergey Lavrov went instead and Pakistan's chief of army staff, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, visited Moscow at the same time. And despite Putin's cancellation, analysts in Russia, Pakistan and India all seem to agree that Russian-Pakistani relations are nevertheless destined to get stronger.
Part of this seems to be a very slow post-Cold War geopolitical realignment, and part is motivated by specific worries about Afghanistan. Russia and India have strong relations, especially military-to-military ties, a vestige of the Cold War when India was a Soviet ally and its enemy, Pakistan, was supported by the U.S. But India is now seeking to diversify its relations, including strengthening ties (including in defense) with the U.S. That has led some in Moscow to want to send India a message, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and an analyst well connected to the Russian Ministry of Defense, in an interview with Kommersant:
“India remains Moscow’s most important partner in the area of [military-technical cooperation], both in terms of volume and potential. Yet Delhi’s attempts to diversify its supplies of new weapons – increasingly from Western countries – are making Russia flinch. Moscow has explained to Delhi, in no uncertain terms, that it can also diversify its military-technical ties by means of a rapprochement with Pakistan."
The Hindu, in a piece headlined "Growing Russia-Pakistan ties a reality that India will have to live with" quotes an unnamed Russian diplomat saying as much:
“India could have been more loyal to Russia in the field of military and technical cooperation and saved it from the disagreeable situation in which Moscow on its own has to search for markets to sell military equipment meant for Delhi,” said another Russian diplomat. The consolation: even in the most optimistic scenario, the diplomat asserted, military cooperation between Russia and Pakistan would remain insignificant and would not alter the balance of power in the region.
But Afghanistan is perhaps the key driver in the Russia-Pakistan rapprochement, writes Sadhavi Chauhan in an analysis for OpenDemocracy:
While Pakistan’s deteriorating relations with the US have led it to look for new regional allies, Russia’s increased closeness to Islamabad is primarily motivated by the situation in Pakistan and around. As the US prepares to curtail its presence in Afghanistan by 2014, Russia fears that state failure in that country will cause a spillover of Islamic fundamentalism into Central Asia, and from there into the southern regions of Russia. Having just dealt with Islamist secessionist movements in Chechnya and the South Caucasus, this is not a scenario that Russia would welcome.
In this context, while Russia is aware of Islamabad's role in fomenting international terrorism, it realises that any successful resolution of the problems associated with Afghanistan must involve Pakistan. A cancelled presidential visit cannot change the relevance of this, or of Russia's goal, in enhancing ties with Pakistan, of securing greater cooperation on counter terrorism.
"Pakistan exerts huge influence over the country. Moscow is racking its brains over how to ensure the safety and security of the southern borders of the CIS when U.S. and NATO troops finally pull out of Afghanistan. If Russia continues to snub Pakistan in favor of India, it would ultimately run contrary to the interests of Russia's security."
But what might this mean in terms of arms sales? Probably not a sea change, Pukhov said:
“Russia is unlikely to sell Islamabad an air defense system or fighter aircraft,” said Pukhov. “Still, dual-use systems, such as the Mi-17 helicopter, could be supplied, in addition to combat training and the exchange of military experts.”
And Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, visiting New Delhi this week, assured Indians that Moscow would continue to be on their side, reports the Economic Times:
"I will make a very short comment that we have not had any change in our legislation whatsoever," Russian defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told reporters here at a joint press conference with Indian Defence Minister AK Antony.
He was asked if there was any change in Russian policy of not arming India's adversaries.
So it looks like Putin will be making that trip to Islamabad one of these days.