Pakistan’s foreign policy decisions have always been shaped by its security and economic needs. The country inherited an arch-rival on its eastern border, India, it had been a key ally of the United States during the Cold War. This posed Russia and Pakistan against each other. Pakistan acted as the major US non-NATO ally in the region during the Cold War. Relations between Russia and Pakistan saw some minor and temporary improvements during the Cold War era, but the latter has always used this enhancement of relations as a bait to lure US attention. Once the US-Pakistan relations came back on track, the latter abandoned its relations with Russia. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was against the partition of the Sub-continent. It held the view that this partition had only facilitated the British domination in both the countries, India and Pakistan. However, it later accepted this partition to be legitimate. The Soviet Union opened its embassy in Pakistan in 1948. Relations between the two sides are improving in the current era, but the specter of rivalry in the past still haunts them. Pakistan provided air bases to the United States, which it used for spying on the then Soviet Union. The famous U2 incident, when a US spy plane was caught by the Soviet Union in 1960, increased the gulf between Pakistan and the Soviet Union.
Relations between Pakistan and Russia improved for a short interval in the Cold War era. Pakistan was left in the lurch by the United States in the 1965 and 1971 wars against India. The former faced defeat in the 1971 war, which disintegrated the eastern wing of the country. A large number of Pakistani soldiers were taken as prisoners by India in this war. Russia reached to resolve the dispute between Pakistan and India. It helped the two sides to sign a peace deal, known as the Shimla Agreement. In the same year, Pakistan established Pakistan Steel Mills with the collaboration of the Soviet Union. However, the relations between the two sides reached a historic low after the Soviet troops entered to Afghanistan. Pakistan helped the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union by providing them with arms and training. The former also provided intelligence to the Afghan Mujahideen. This embittered their relations to a larger extent.
Russia had been involved in peace attempts in the region even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It encouraged Pakistan and Russia to sign the Lahore Declaration in 1999. Pakistan’s involvement in the US-led War on Terror once again widened the gulf between Pakistan and Russia. However, both countries started redefining their foreign policy outlook towards each other after the turn of the 21st Century. One of the major events that resulted in the improvement of their bilateral relations was the visit of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to Pakistan in the year 2007. Their bilateral relations saw notable improvement after the deterioration of Pak-US relations in 2011. In 2014, Russia and Pakistan signed a defense cooperation agreement. Both countries hold the view that extra-regional intervention was the main source of regional stability in South Asia.
In 2015, both countries signed an agreement to launch a project, the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP), which would help Pakistan fulfill its energy needs. Pakistan and Russia held joint military exercises, Druzhbha-2016, for the first time in September 2016. Russia also provided four Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan in 2017. Both countries signed several bilateral agreements in 2018. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Pakistan in 2021. This was the first visit of a Russian high-level official after 9 years to Pakistan. This visit holds behemoth significance as it resulted in the commencement of a new epoch of improvement of relations between the two sides.
Pakistan and Russia are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). They can use this forum to enhance their bilateral relations. Improvement in the bilateral relations between Russia and Pakistan will serve the interests of both countries. Pakistan can provide Russia access to warm waters of the Arabian Sea through CPEC which can augment Russia’s trade to a great extent. Pakistan also needs Russia to establish cordial relations with the Central Asian countries. This would increase Pakistan’s trade by providing access to new markets. Moreover, it would also help Pakistan resolve its energy crisis, as the Central Asian region is home to 3/4th of the world’s known energy reserves. Cordial relations with Russia could also help Pakistan in signing the Eurasian Economic Union, as the latter holds significant influence over the region. Pakistan has also signed multiple agreements and MOUs with Uzbekistan, which can only be fulfilled by having Russia’s recognition.
Augmenting the India-US alliance has also brought Pakistan and Russia closer. The United States is increasing its arms export to India, which has impinged Russia’s arms export to the latter. As per reports, Russia’s arms exports to India have declined from 62 percent of India’s arms imports to 45 percent. On the other hand, India’s arms imports from the US have increased by 14 percent from 2018 to 2022. The United States has also decreased its arms supply to Pakistan. Therefore, Russia and Pakistan can help each other in this domain as well. Pakistan can provide a new arms market to Russia. On the other hand, the latter can fulfill its security needs. Russia can also help Pakistan in resolving its energy crisis. Recently, Pakistan has signed a long-term oil purchase deal with Russia which would assist the former to buy cheap oil.
However, some challenges also stand in the creation of long-term cordial bilateral relations. Historically, Pakistan has used improvement in relations with Russia as bait to lure the US attention. It has abandoned Russia for the sake of having fraternal relations with the US. Moreover, Pakistan has a history of preferring Chinese bidders after long-term negotiations with Russia. This creates a trust deficit among the Russian policymakers regarding long-term relations with Pakistan. Moreover, Russian trade relations with India could also impinge on Pakistan-Russia relations, as it inculcates a sense of insecurity in the Pakistani establishment. Moreover, China holds strong influence over Pakistan. It holds a monopoly over the Pakistani market. This could also hamper Pak-Russia relations, as the latter would have little leverage in the Pakistani market. Although there are numerous obstacles to the establishment of long-term relations between Pakistan and Russia, taking prudent measures can overcome these hindrances and elevate the plight of the region.
Abbas Hashemite – is a political observer and research analyst for regional and global geopolitical issues. He is currently working as an independent researcher and journalist, exclusively for “New Eastern Outlook“.