What Pakistan's new ties with Russia mean for the world
With Pakistan on board Russia would extend its influence all along the China-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.
Strange how time, and Afghanistan, continue to dictate the direction of Pakistan-Russia relations. Time was, long, long ago, when General Zia-ul-Haq and foreign minister Yaqoob Khan visited the Kremlin for Konstantin Chernenko's funeral, in 1985. And, according to Charlie Wilson's War, Mikhail Gorbachev, who succeeded Chernenko as secretary general of the Soviet communist party, took them to one side and threatened to destroy Pakistan if Zia didn't end his support for the mujahideen. But the fearless leader of the fort of Islam "looked Gorbachev straight in the eye and insisted that his country was not involved. With that, the CIA's key ally left Moscow for Makkah, where he prayed to Allah for courage to continue the jihad."
Zia was lying, of course, because during the course of that long war Pakistan and America practically wrote the book on breaking, bending and bypassing local as well as international laws as they smuggled Russian, Egyptian, Chinese, Swiss, even Israeli and American weapons into Afghanistan. All the while, needless to say, they denied any participation.
Fast forward three-something decades and the Americans are up to their necks in an un-winnable war in Afghanistan. And Islamabad has just signed a contract with Moscow enabling its soldiers to receive training in Russia.
This is part of a wider gambit that Russian President Vladimir Putin played in 2014 as growing pressures in Middle East and Eastern Europe drove a wedge deep into Moscow-Washington relations. Building on its deep ties with China, Moscow decided to increase its area of influence in South Asia by forging a strategic alliance with Islamabad. But, since Pakistan was a long-time US ally and a key partner in the Afghan war, this initiative touched upon a number of fault lines.
Pak-US relations had come under considerable stress by '14, even though President Obama did not kill the financial lifeline like his successor would in a few years. Islamabad was still a 'major non-Nato ally', and there was no way of winding up the Afghan war without its active support. But, on the other hand, its friendship with China was also "higher than Himalayas, deeper than oceans", and Beijing's expanding influence was the main reason for Washington's Pivot to Asia. With Pakistan on board Russia would extend its influence all along the China-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.
Moscow, quite suddenly, revoked its self-imposed embargo on arms sales to Pakistan, a policy posture seemingly from ancient times. Then they sold a number of Mi-35M combat helicopters to Pakistan, an advanced version of the Hind helicopter that the Soviets used to devastating effect in Afghanistan till Pakistanis helped the mujahideen acquire American Stinger missiles, which turned the tide of the war altogether.
By the time Donald Trump took office, Russians and Pakistanis had traded arms, expertise, conducted military exercises and held meetings between their spy chiefs. And when Washington turned off all military support, including the coalition support fund and exchange programs, Russia was poised to fill the vacuum. Until now the military's finest officers, groomed for leadership, were trained in the US. Going forward, the army's value-added training, arms as well as financial support, is expected to come from Moscow.
This new friendship promptly got some in the foreign press talking about a conspiracy on the lines of the Soviet Afghan war, only with superpower roles reversed. There was chatter that Pakistan was now secretly partnering with the Russians to frustrate the US in Afghanistan; just like they helped America 'bleed the Russians by a thousand cuts'. Later, Gen Musharraf would boast in his memoirs that Pakistan "did what Napoleon and Hitler could not do, we beat the Russians."
There were also accusations that the two new friends were secretly aiding the Afghan Taleban. They rejected, of course, countering that it was their push that finally got the Taliban to agree to negotiations. Yet it is natural for both countries to prop up the Taleban in their own fight against Daesh in Afghanistan. While Washington takes a visibly anti-Daesh line, its actions especially in the Middle East often lead to different interpretations. Plus America has no direct land threat from Daesh, which both Pakistan and Russia do.
So in four short years Putin has moved his pieces in the zero-sum South Asia/Middle East chess game much to his country's advantage. Pak-
Russia trade jumped 82pc in the first five months of 2018 alone, and Moscow is helping with the 1,100km gas pipeline linking Lahore to Karachi.
And, for a land that has been occupied by raiders, sultans and kings from the east, finally an alliance with a patron closer to home is on the cards, instead of a relationship of increasing subservience to a superpower thousands of miles, and at least an ocean, away.
- Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore