After decades of cold and minimal contacts, known Cold War adversaries Russia and Pakistan are finally warming up and are ready to write a new chapter in their bilateral relationship.
Arriving in Moscow at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Imran Khan is expected to address a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan. Analysts believe Prime Minister Khan’s visit to the Russian capital marks the start of a new era in relations between the old foes – especially after the abrupt withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan last year.
“Bilateral relations have never been so good. Although there is a long way to go, the progress Russia and Pakistan have made in such a short time is impressive,” said Moscow-based political analyst Andrew Korybko. “It is particularly symbolic that these former Cold War-era rivals have come together over shared concerns about threats emanating from Afghanistan – given that they once fought a proxy war there,” he said. Korybko by e-mail.
Ties between Pakistan and Russia, he explained, had improved significantly since 2014 – after Moscow lifted its arms embargo on Islamabad in a bid to help improve its counter-terrorism capabilities. “The entry of Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) into Afghanistan was a game-changer and served to accelerate their already rapid rapprochement,” he added.
Korybko, who specializes in the relationship between US strategy in Afro-Eurasia and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, noted that Islamabad’s defense ties with Moscow have surpassed Soviet-era hostilities in recent years. “Russia and Pakistan conduct joint counter-terrorism drills every year. This further increased trust between their armed forces and their permanent bureaucracies more broadly.
During the Cold War – especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Islamabad aligned itself with Washington. This angered the leaders in Moscow. More recently, after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, relations between Pakistan and Russia plunged again, as Islamabad was granted major non-EU ally status by Washington. NATO. According to experts, the recent change in relations between Pakistan and the United States has pushed the country to seek better relations with Russia. Cooperation between the two sides entered a new phase shortly after the departure of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021.
Policymakers around the world, Korybko said, are fully aware that no serious actor can achieve anything meaningful in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support. “Claims to the contrary are nothing more than an information war aimed at manipulating mass perceptions about this country. Policy makers, however, know that such a narrative has no basis in reality.
Russia and Pakistan, the experts said, will continue to coordinate their diplomatic approaches to Afghanistan’s de facto Taliban-led government, as well as solutions to the looming humanitarian crisis there. According to Korybko, Pakistan’s future prospects align much more closely with those of Russia and China than with those of the United States. “For this reason, Pakistan should further strengthen its cooperation with these two countries, potentially even on a trilateral or broader basis, not to mention the already existing bilateral cooperations,” the Moscow-based expert said.
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Historically, Russia has had closer ties with Pakistan’s arch-rival, India. When asked to comment on the impact of the new Islamabad-Moscow tie and its impact on the latter’s ties with New Delhi, Korybko said: “Russia is not practicing a zero-sum foreign policy, but a win-win policy, just like China. Its new relationship with Pakistan is aimed at restoring balance to its South Asian strategy, especially in light of India’s imbalance in the region through its de facto pivot to the United States so that these two” contain “jointly China”.
“To be clear, Russian-Pakistani relations do not threaten India or come at the expense of Russian-Indian relations, but some demagogic forces in New Delhi still claim otherwise,” he added.
India and the region
Throughout the Cold War between Russia and the United States, South Asia’s main rivals, India and Pakistan, have been seen on opposite sides of the fence. India remained closely aligned with the Soviet Union, and Pakistan was considered a close ally of the United States. That has changed dramatically, and the change has accelerated since the United States left the region after nearly two decades in Afghanistan.
The disappearance of American influence in the region and the resulting rise of Russia and China have forced countries to choose sides again. This time India seems to be closer to the United States and Pakistan, for obvious reasons, seems closely aligned with China. Commenting on the new bond between Russia and Pakistan, Dr Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University, said: “The convergence of interests between Russia, Pakistan and China will continue to bring them closer.
There are a number of mutual interests including Afghanistan where these countries will be seen working together and this is a challenge not only for the West but also for India. Strengthening Moscow-Islamabad ties, Dr. Swain explained, eliminates Pakistan’s foreign policy challenge. “With improved relations with Russia, which already has a strong connection to China, Pakistan no longer has to perform a diplomatic balancing act as it had to between Washington and Beijing.”
For India, which appears to be within the United States’ sphere of influence, the Sweden-based expert said, booming Russian-Pakistani relations create a significant foreign policy challenge. “For decades, Russia has been India’s main backer in the architecture of the United Nations Security Council. With improved ties with Islamabad, this power may not always support India in UN debates, especially on Kashmir. Russia’s unwavering support for India, Dr Swain said, might not be guaranteed after the new tie with Pakistan. “India will have to seek the support of other powers and countries for its position.”
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New Delhi, Dr. Swain explained, still buys a significant share of weapons from Moscow. The growing alliance between Russia, China and Pakistan, said Dr Swain of Uppsala University, will impact arms sales to India. “China would not appreciate Russia selling arms to India and some other countries,” he added.
What to expect?
With the reconfiguration of ties between Washington and Islamabad, Pakistan has asserted its interests. In a recent interview with Russian state media, Russia Today, Prime Minister Imran Khan reiterated that Islamabad will not play “camp politics”. The country, Prime Minister Khan said, seeks trade relations with all nations to lift its people out of poverty.
Analysts say Pakistan’s stance should not be seen as the country’s refusal to do the US regional bidding as before. “Some have interpreted this as hostility to America’s regional vision, but it should rather be seen as a principled defense of Pakistan’s national interests,” Korybko said from Moscow, where he is based.
Senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Dr Natalia Zamaraeva pointed out that Pakistan can expect collaboration with Russia in a number of areas, including defense to strengthen its counter-terrorism capabilities. The eminent expert said that Russia, like China, believes in a win-win foreign policy. “Islamabad can expect support for energy and development projects in the future.”
Russia, Dr Zamaraeva explained, does not believe in allies but seeks partners.
Commenting on the development, Dr Shahida Wizarat, former chair of the Department of International Relations at the University of Karachi, said: “It is time for Pakistan to move away from American influence. The new Russian-Chinese alliance is more beneficial for Pakistan than the transactional relationship with Washington.
The United States, she said, has divided the world into camps. “Inadvertently, Washington managed to push several countries into the camp of its adversary. Pakistan is one of them. It is time we looked after our own national interest.