In pursuit of the Great Bear

Islamabad is getting cozier with Moscow

In pursuit of the Great Bear
When Foreign Office Spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal on Wednesday morning tweeted, “Enhancing ties and engaging effectively with regional and international partners, an active week on the foreign policy front #diplomaticinitiatives” along with a combo of six pictures - two each with Russian and Chinese leaders, one from Russia and China-led security bloc Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s ministerial meeting in Beijing and one from Pak-US talks - it was more than just a roundup of diplomatic engagements. It rather reflected the new focus of the country’s foreign policy.

It goes without saying that Pakistan had been gradually drifting away from US for sometime now towards its time-tested and best friend China, because of divergences with the former over its regional strategy. In doing so, Islamabad is also getting cozier with Moscow. The frequency of exchanges between Pakistan and Russia this year indicates that the process that began almost a decade ago has assumed added momentum and the two are set to enter into a new phase of the relationship.

This week saw two important visits to Moscow from Islamabad. First the National Security Adviser Lt General (r) Nasser Janjua reached there for high-level security talks, a new forum for engagement that became operational this year. A day later, he was followed by Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa. It may be a mere coincidence that both generals visited Russia the same week, but the agenda of their talks shows how substantive is this engagement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cancelled his visit to Pakistan at the last minute, citing absence of substance in the relationship

General Janjua was accompanied by top National Security Division, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defence Production, Strategic Plans Division (SPD), Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) and intelligence officials. The Russian side, led by Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, included the Commander-in-Chief of Land Forces of the Russian Federation, senior representatives from the Russian Security Council, Ministry of Internal Affairs, RosoboronExport, Federal Security Services, Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation and RosCosmos.

The composition of the delegations is self-explanatory. Besides, the usual security dialogue and exchange of views on the regional situation, the two sides are clearly discussing serious business. Presence of organizations like SUPARCO and SPD from Pakistani side and RosoboronExport, Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation and RosCosmos from the Russian side was of particular interest. Although details of the talks are not public, but the Pakistani National Command Authority’s December 2017 statement that talked about National Space Program 2047 and the potential of the space program and more importantly the Pakistani search for a military hardware supplier, which along with China, could replace US as the major source of arms supply, can provide some context for understanding the agenda.

The framework for supply of Russian military hardware is already there in the shape of a defence cooperation agreement of 2014 and a military-technical cooperation accord of 2015. Pakistan has so far received four Russian Mi35 combat helicopters under the arrangement. Apparently that is now set to change.

It should be recalled that Deputy Secretary of Russian National Security Council Mikhail Popov had visited Pakistan last month and Pakistan also hosted Pakistan-Russia Consultative Group on Strategic Stability in March. The two meetings provided the groundwork for this week’s engagements.

Pakistan has so far received four Russian Mi35 combat helicopters as part of some recent agreements

The visit of General Bajwa is also important. It is, in a way, building on the military-to-military interaction that started under former president General (r) Pervez Musharraf, when he also held the office of army chief. Since then, all army chiefs have visited Moscow. Russian military commanders have also paid return visits to Pakistan.

“Over the past few years, bilateral meetings have contributed to building up contacts between the armed forces of Russia and Pakistan in such areas as the joint drills of land troops and the navies, and also the strengthening of ties between the General Staffs. This year, our defense ministries also have an intense programme of measures,” Russian Defense Minister Gen Sergei Shoigu told his Pakistani counterpart Khurram Dastgir earlier this month.

One must also not forget Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s visit to Moscow in February for meeting his counterpart Sergey Lavrov, during which both sides had agreed on setting up military commission for enhancing defense cooperation.

Both countries are also interested in trade, economic, and energy cooperation, but the regional situation is making them base this rapprochement on military ties. However, they should not forget to expand the base of this relationship beyond defense cooperation if it was to be made sustainable and long lasting.

Invariably all statements issued after meetings between Pakistani and Russian leaders end with a commitment to work for regional peace and stability. That sort of defines the agenda of engagement for now.

“Pakistan will continue to play its part to keep conflicts away from the region and seek approaches which bring regional convergences into play rather that the divergences,” General Bajwa told Colonel General Oleg Salyukov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Ground Forces. Meanwhile, the security dialogue ended with an understanding that both sides would “continue to work together for further improvement in the relationship and to seek enduring peace and stability in the region.” Together these give an overview of what is driving this bonhomie.

Pakistan gravitated towards Russia because of problems in ties with US. Russia, meanwhile, began courting Pakistan out of its concerns about instability in Afghanistan that could potentially destabilize the Central Asia region. It particularly got alarmed over the reports of Da’ish gaining ground in Afghanistan. The Pak-Russia Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism that met a few weeks ago in Islamabad had expressed concern that “while major successes had been achieved in the fight against Da’ish in Syria and Iraq, the returning Da’ish fighters from the conflict zones to countries of origin or third countries constituted a major security threat to various parts of the world, including this region.”

Narcotics trade originating from Afghanistan was also a major concern for Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had on October 12 cancelled his visit to Pakistan at the eleventh hour, citing absence of substance in the relationship. Would Mr Putin, who recently got re-elected for another term, now find enough substance to visit Pakistan? No Russian or even Soviet president has ever visited Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad
Twitter: @bokhari_mr