A military cooperation agreement that Russia and Pakistan signed during Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s recent visit to Islamabad marks an important shift in relations between those two countries. After a long history of bilateral turbulence, Russia and Pakistan appear to have initiated a new era of cooperation that is likely to be closely watched in New Delhi and Washington.
The defense cooperation agreement is the first of its kind between the two countries and has been described in Pakistan as a “milestone” in Russia-Pakistan relations. Agreeing with him, a former Indian diplomat pointed out that even a few years ago a defense pact between Moscow and Islamabad would have been “inconceivable.” Speaking with The Diplomat, he added, “It is a turning point in their relationship.”
Relations between the two countries have historically been frosty, especially during the Cold War decades. Pakistan was part of two U.S.-led military alliances and allowed its air force stations to be used by the U.S. for aerial surveillance of the Soviet Union. In return, it received substantial quantities of military hardware and other aid from Washington. Soviet-Pakistan relations plunged to new depths during the 1980s when Pakistan joined hands with the U.S. to provide funds, weapons and training to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Complicating an already difficult relationship was the robust military and other support that the Soviets were extending to India.
Pakistan’s relations with Moscow improved somewhat with the end of the Cold War but differences over the Taliban kept them on opposite sides. While Islamabad backed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Russia joined hands with Iran and India in the late 1990s to support the Northern Alliance. While the two countries began reaching out to each other a decade ago, it is only over the last four or five years that significant steps towards a rapprochement began to be taken and several high-profile visits were exchanged.
Then, in June, in what was a clear sign of things to come, Russia lifted an embargo on weapons sales to Pakistan. It began negotiating the sale of Mi-35 multi-role helicopters to Islamabad. “The defense cooperation agreement will take such arms sales further,” the former diplomat observed.
The specific contents of the defense cooperation have not been made public. Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Shoigu as saying that it would have “a great practical focus and contribute to increasing combat efficiency” of the armed forces. Besides arms sales, greater naval cooperation, including port visits by Russian warships, increased military delegation visits, participation in military exercises as observers, training of military staff, counter-narcotics and counterterrorism cooperation are on the anvil. The two countries could be eyeing joint defense production too. A Pakistan government press release mentions Shoigu’s appreciation of Pakistan’s defense production capabilities. “The world community not only praises but wants to do business with Pakistan now,” it quotes the Russian defense minister as saying.
The Russia-Pakistan defense pact has caused some unease in India. Moscow shared a special relationship with New Delhi going back to the 1950s. Not only did the Soviets support the building of the Indian economy and the military they also backed India in the Security Council by repeatedly wielding the veto on the Kashmir question. “It is this strong decades-old partnership that makes the recent Russia-Pakistan defense pact hard to digest,” the former Indian diplomat said. India’s “warming relations with the U.S. over the past decade,” especially its rising defense purchases from Washington would have played an “important role” in Russia making overtures to Pakistan. Besides, Pakistan has been looking to reduce its dependence on the U.S. “A Russia-Pakistan coming together was inevitable in the circumstances,” he said.
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Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org