Pakistan's North Korean sourced (No Dong) long-range surface-to-surface Ghauri missile

Khan needs to understand Putin, as well the country that the latter has been ruling since 1999, to launch meaningful ties with the powerful bear to the north

by Nasir Muhammad

The brief, but relatively pleasant interactions between Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, were widely reported in Pakistan’s mainstream media and hailed by the youth of the country on social media as a potentially “quick reset” in ties between the two Cold War rival nations.

In other words, many at home in Pakistan seemed to think that Moscow and Islamabad are now strong allies because Khan had some good moments with Putin – unlike Indian’s Narendra Modi, the recently reelected leader of Pakistan’s arch rival. Wrong!

It is quite interesting to see that both Khan and Putin nonetheless share some spectacular attributes (both innate and acquired), such as their almost identical birthdays (October 5 and 7, 1952, respectively), athletic and fit physiques, their ultra-nationalism and patriotism, anti-Americanism and a strong stand against corruption, as well as pro-people policies, among other things. However, their polar differences – such as their divergent stand on the freedom of media, human rights, democracy, revolution (“Tsunami” in Khan’s language), international relations and pragmatism – outshine their similarities.

This is in addition to the fact that Khan is a newcomer to government with little to no diplomatic skills, while Putin is a former elite KGB spy who has been successfully ruling his country for the past 20 years and who has flamboyant diplomatic skills with epic articulation.

Long gone are the days when alliance systems among nations used to be based upon and cemented by the personal chemistry between political leadership, ideological kinship, usual spell of diplomacy and other such intangible and immaterial attributes. This marked shift has especially been a hallmark of the post-bipolar world.

What we see and refer to today as a “cordial or special relationship” and/or “a strong bond” among certain nations of the world basically stems from the strong economic and/or technological interdependence that have held them together. Hence the term “economic diplomacy.” This certainly does not apply when one speaks of Pakistani-Russian relations – especially vis-à-vis Indo-Russian relations and despite some military-to-military contacts in the past few years between Pakistan and Russia.

Khan needs to understand Putin, as well the country that the latter has been ruling since 1999, to launch meaningful ties with the powerful bear to the north.

Ever since Putin assumed the reins of power, there has been only one thing on his mind: advancing and stabilising his country’s economy. The KGB spy-turned president knew well that without an economically viable Russia, competition with the US-led Free World was only a mad man’s dream. This approach can be corroborated by the fact that in 2000, the GDP per capita in Russia was only $1,899, but in 2017 it stood at $10,966. Also, Russia is forecast to become the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020. This happened due to, among many factors, Putin’s emphasis on revitalising the fractured economic bonds between Russia and some powerful economies in Europe and Asia.

For instance, Russia’s bilateral annual trade volume with Japan in 2003 was $6 billion, whereas it jumped to $14b. in 2018. With China it was below $2b. in the late 1990s but stood at $107b. as of 2018. And lastly, trade with India, Pakistan’s longtime rival, is expected to hit $30b. by 2025.

On the other hand, Putin’s Russia appears to be least interested in forging even near-strong ties with nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, because they are faced with the scourge of terrorism and sweeping corruption and thus offer very little marketability for Russian exports or geostrategic influence. This is substantiated by the fact that the Russian president has not visited any of the said countries since his coming to power in 1999 as prime minister of the Russian Federation. Likewise, trade with any of these countries is barely above $1b. as of 2018.

When it comes to Pakistan’s relations with Russia, it has surely moved slightly in a positive direction, especially in the backdrop of some high-profile visits of military and political personnel between the two countries and of discussions over some limited military sales to Pakistan. However, according to Ajit Doval, India’s national security adviser, Moscow has no plans to diversify the spectrum of its defence relationship with Islamabad but would rather prefer to keep it limited. In other words, Russia cannot afford to alienate the ever-growing export market in a powerful India, only to appease an economically struggling Pakistan in return for defence projects worth peanuts.

As for the news of Russia’s interest in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (a flagship project of the Chinese-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative), it is far from reality at the moment. Part of the reason is that Russia’s major consumers of gas are Europe, China and the “near abroad” post-Soviet states, and that it is actively pursuing new ways to expand those markets rather than thinking of the Middle East and Africa, which is probably the absolute last option for Russian energy exports.

Apart from the above, Russia appears to have no geostrategic interests in Pakistan, except for using the “Pakistan card” to modify the behaviour of India and to turn it to its own interests. Russia is wary of deepening Indo-US economic and defence ties, which is why it sometimes plays the Pakistan card.

If Khan’s “Naya Pakistan” really wants to forge closer ties with Russia, it can do so by: utilising all options to maintain peace in Afghanistan, which will then provide an easy access for Pakistan to Russia’s rich “near abroad” and ultimately to Russia itself; mulling Russian investment in non-defence sectors such as education, tourism, energy, infrastructure development, information technology, agriculture, dairy farming, minerals, research and development, counter terrorism, engineering and textile etc; and by trying to closely align Pakistan’s diplomatic interests with those of Russia. Once this has been accomplished, it will pave the way for stronger military ties as well.

The writer is an MPhil in international relations, and teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of Management and Technology, Lahore, Pakistan