Pakistan-Russia Relations: Evolving Geopolitics and Strategic Options | World Defense

Pakistan-Russia Relations: Evolving Geopolitics and Strategic Options


Nov 19, 2017
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This October, Pakistan and Russia successfully concluded joint military exercise on counter-terrorism operations. DRUZBA, Friendship 2017, promising augmentation of defence ties between the two countries. More than 200 special forces from both sides conducted joint hostage rescue and cordon-and-search operations. DRUZBA 2016 had brought 100 Russian military men to Pakistan for joint drills with Pakistan Army. In recent years, Russian and Pakistani officials have participated in various multilateral and bilateral forums. These arrangements, being watershed moments for the two countries, have provided them a chance to register shared security concerns and accentuate their uniquely intertwined interests.


It is time that the two powers forge a new degree of mutual trust and consideration for each other. This emerging new alliance calls for specificity of goals and objectives to realize balanced cooperation in the immensely interconnected deltoid realms of politics, economics, and defence. At present, this relation is experiencing a fresh era of rendezvous and there is a growing desire for getting closer.

Russia is resurging and is attempting to retain a geographical buffer against the expanding influence of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) along its borders. In pursuit of security and a global goodwill, Moscow appears to be in an evidently intricate competition with the U.S.-led NATO in rebuilding its own power and creating a multipolar world order. Russia’s plentiful natural wealth, its enormous expanse, and its hard power are its mainstays against the U.S., which it often names the major threat to its security. The challenge is that America is still ostensibly the smartest power on the basis of its abundant hard, soft and unrivaled technological strength. NATO’s steady ingress in former Russian zone of influence and shift in its antagonist’s strategy to contain China’s rise has made Moscow and Beijing natural allies, who, at least temporarily, have set aside their bilateral pugnacity.

Russia is strengthening relations through its economic strategies such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and a number of diplomatic channels. Similarly, China’s grand foreign policy embodied in its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is an entirely new enterprise for the world that incentivizes major players across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Multipolarity serves Beijing and Moscow’s interest of defeating all possible development that contributes to their containment. That is perhaps why Russia and China are co-managing with great interest many inter and intra-regional forums such as BRICS, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the SCO.

Moreover, China’s western region and Russia’s eastern flank are set to undertake massive evolution under these plans. Though focused on harnessing all modes of strengths, they depend more on economic cooperation and integration rather than meddling into an unending irrational competition and power struggle to gain hegemony. For instance, the Russian energy giant Gazprom together with China National Petroleum Corporation plans to build 3,000 km long Power of Siberia gas pipeline from Yakutia to Blagoveshchensk (Chinese border) – one of the biggest projects involving the two states, won after more than a decade of negotiations.1

Promoting regionalism is also in mutual Russian and Chinese interest and that is one of the reasons why Pakistan and India have been simultaneously awarded full membership of SCO. In a visible realignment, India is entering an axis with the U.S. to contain Chinese rise and Russian resurgence, besides pursuing a “special and privileged strategic partnership”2 with Russia. It, however, appears that Moscow and Beijing have not given up on New Delhi. A half-aligned India in SCO is better than an India fully associated with the U.S., provided the former refrains from intensifying its power ambitions and exhibits a conscious desire of coexisting peacefully in the region. Pulling India into SCO is one of the several leverages Russia patiently desires to exercise.

On the other hand, Russia and America have active cooperation in space exploration, including joint work on the International Space Station. This is one of the few domains where cooperation has not been stained by tensions over issues such as Syria and Ukraine. The USD 100 billion worth ISS has been orbiting Earth since 1998 as the world’s largest space program. The Russian space agency Roscosmos and USA’s NASA will cooperate on a NASA-led program of building the first lunar space station, based on their cooperation on building systems and technical standards needed for its organization. Russian designs will be used to create the station’s future elements. They also mulled using the Russian Proton-M and Angara rockets for creating the infrastructure of lunar spaceport.3 The Russian space program relies heavily on the funds it receives for rocket engines and riders for NASA astronauts to the space station.4

Pakistan-Russia relations are warming up in this geopolitical context marked with incidents of cooperation between states against the realist tendencies of competition. Taking sustained baby steps in this regard will be more pragmatic for Russia and Pakistan, rather than rushing into a frail and inconsistent partnership. That process has already started.

Regional Geopolitical Imperatives
Russia appears driven towards improvement of relations with Pakistan and appreciates Islamabad’s balanced view on Syria, Ukraine, and shared view on Afghanistan.5 The Afghanistan factor affects and to some extent, determines most of the contemporary geopolitical debate of this region. For Russia, Afghanistan is an important feature in the reset of its relations with the U.S., the eastward expansion of the NATO, and gaining access to beneficial regional destinations. There are also deep implications for Moscow’s role as a leader in the Central Asian security arena.6

On the Russian side, there is an understanding that Pakistan is a responsible key player in the region and emerging threats, such as the problem of drug trafficking in Afghanistan, cannot be resolved without Pakistan’s help.7 Afghanistan can now set their relations on a new constructivist note. This by far is a mutual realization. Thus, Russia’s support for Pakistan’s inclusion in SCO paves way for more coordinated work on regional stability, and urge for the revival of SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group,that had remained stalled since 2009.8 The Group’s meeting was hosted by Moscow on October 11, 2017 and was a re-launch of the consultative process to support Afghanistan “in the fight against terrorism, drugs, and criminality, as well as helping the country with its sustainable development process within the SCO’s economic cooperation framework”.⁹ Pakistan and Russia are the two key pillars of any strategy framed to realize this goal of peaceful Afghanistan.

Placing Pak-Russia future relations on sound footing requires adept diplomacy from both sides. Pressures ascending from Russia’s decades long strong bilateral relations with India no longer bar it from extending the strategic olive branch to Pakistan. Nevertheless, unlike Pakistan, it would be a challenge to moderate the unpredictable Indian behavior. New Delhi’s ambitious plans span out to gradually align with the U.S. and also enjoying further leverage with both the U.S. and Russian camps while maintaining its independent and assertive foreign policy and safeguarding its interests in the region and beyond.

State of Affairs
The contemporary Russia is warming up to the external world, softly outspreading the strength of its hard power through a renewed foreign policy. From having military alliances with the post-Soviet states such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to converging their economic interests through the EEU, Russia is resurging and finding deeper leverages. President Putin is keen to establish multifaceted relations, as articulated in his idea of Russian creed in words of Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin: “Not to eliminate, not to suppress, not to enslave other people’s blood, not to stifle the life of different tribes and religions – but to give everyone breath and... to honor all, to reconcile all, to allow all to pray in their own way, work in their own way, and engage best in public and cultural development”.10

It was his vision that Russia joined as Observer Member of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) for enhancement of economic cooperation, of which Pakistan was one of the leading proponents.11
Russia has recently expressed interest in expanding trade with Pakistan, in a fashion similar to China. As strategic partners, Russia and China are advancing the Sino-Russian “The Belt and The Union” (the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Eurasian Economic Union) and a comprehensive Eurasian partnership.12 The multimodal CPEC thus gains weight.

China and Russia seek to enhance economic cooperation to its optimum potential. Commenting on the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on October 2017, President Putin expressed keen interest in maintaining “great cooperation plans” with China. While expressing great trust on his “personal friendship” with President Xi, he said that they were “moving forward, instead of going round”.13 This tango is unique in its collective pursuits of economic integration. Sino-Pakistan relations remain time-tested and mature and Russia’s decision to engage with Pakistan and vice versa, will be another promising step.

Forging A New Era of Relations
Pakistan can prove to be a new land of opportunities for Russia. The request for using Gwadar Port for the movement of Russian exports has already been approved by the Government of Pakistan.14 Similarly, many projects in Pakistan owe their success to the Russian support and are momentous symbols of friendship. Pakistan’s renowned JF-17 Thunder aircraft used the Russian Klimov RD-93 engine.15 Dozens of Pakistani officials have received anti-narcotics training in Russia. The Russian and Pakistani counterparts are working in a number of policy domains:

Pakistan-Russia Consultative Group on Strategic Stability was established in 2003. Its 10th meeting was held on April 26, 2016 in Islamabad, that comprised deliberations on the issues of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament.16

Dushanbe Four is a group that includes presidents of Pakistan, Russia, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan focused on curbing terrorism and drug trafficking in the region.

The bilateral strategic dialogue’s first round was organized in 2013. The initiative seeks a multifaceted relationship in the fields of commerce, defence, and energy. A defence cooperation agreement was signed during the 2014 visit of Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu, first visit of its kind since the end of Cold War. The agreement provided for ‘exchange of information on politico-military issues; cooperation for promoting international security; intensification of counter-terrorism and arms control activities; strengthening collaboration in various military fields, including education, medicine, history, topography, hydrography and culture; and sharing experiences in peacekeeping operations’.17

The technical cooperation agreement was initiated for facilitating sale of Russian defence equipment to Pakistan. In September 2015, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced the prospects of delivery of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and Mi-35M helicopters to Pakistan and expressed faith in improvement of Pak-Russia ties.

The Russian Business Council for Cooperation with Pakistan’s (RBCCP) St. Petersburg branch was founded on June 15, 2011 which holds the mission to develop trade and economic relations and to create a bond between their enterprises and businessmen by finding them partners, helping them enter new markets, and creating joint ventures.

The Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economics, Scientific and Technical Cooperation (IGC) supports the progress of collaboration in the fields of science, technology, education, trade and economy.

Five working groups were agreed by the two countries, under the IGC initiative in November 2015 on food and agriculture, energy, industries, banking, and trade and finance. On recommendations of these groups, an agreement was achieved to complete the North-South Pipeline between Lahore and Karachi with an estimated cost of USD 2 billion, to provide three-dozen helicopters to Pakistan for curbing drug trafficking, to start negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and launch a joint naval exercise. A significant development at the occasion was the settlement on a twenty-years long dispute of USD 117 million between the two countries.

The Joint Coordination Commission (JCC) was formed in order to review project implementation timelines. Russian companies will explore oil, gas, and LPG besides providing gas turbines. Russia also agreed to support Pakistan for Tarbela and Dasu hydropower ventures and CASA-1000 power projects.18 Both sides expressed willingness to cooperate in sharing of seismic and geological data, construction of LNG terminals, liquefied petroleum gas processing facility, North-South gas pipeline stretching from Gwadar to Nawabshah, gas purification plants and innovative technology solutions in coal industry and renovating various existing power generating units in Pakistan, particularly those of Russian origin.

In a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of 2017 SCO Astana summit, President Putin had shown keen interest in closer ties between Pakistan and the Eurasian Economic Union and an FTA, provided Pakistan submitted a statement. In the absence of any political relations with Armenia, a member of this Custom Union, Pakistan will not be able to ink such a deal. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs Pakistan has been directed to work out the rationale of this formal statement desired by the Russian president.19

The Way Forward
Many quid pro quos can strengthen Pak-Russia bilateral relationship. Pakistan is not only a land bridge to the east and south but also a significant conduit to the resource abundant Muslim world. Pakistan’s teeming youth and untapped natural and human resource promise innumerable dividends to any friendly country which seeks to play its part for a win-win as a responsible global citizen.

Likewise, there are opportunities for Pakistan. Russia has taken a clear position on issues pertaining to Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the SCO, which proffers solutions and is not a problem in itself. In case of Yemen-Saudi conflict, Russia urges all stakeholders to resolve the issue through negotiations and an all-inclusive dialogue under the patronage of United Nations. Moscow respects the sovereignty of nation states. It has outrightly opposed the Western concept of the Responsibility to Protect, which advocates foreign intervention in countries and threatens their independence and territorial integrity.

Both countries view terrorism and extremism as major threats to their national and international security. SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) shall be a strong forum for dealing with issues of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Five major steps will be useful in managing a sustainable relation:

Step-I: The cultural foundations of both Pakistan and Russia reflect the shades of oriental heritage and understanding of each other’s culture will be mutually beneficial. More Pakistanis should know Russian geography, history, culture, literature, and people, and vice versa, with a well-chalked out role of their diasporas.

Step-II: Building trust and synergy among institutions and fully implemented formal frameworks of their cooperation will add value to ties – some of the institutions being government and corporate bodies, institutions of higher learning and public policy such as think tanks, and the academic and expert communities.

Step-III: Although regular meetings of established forums are being held, maximum and tangible gains are yet to be reaped. These are possible only if the strategies and progress remain unimpeded by the disruptive campaigns of any third party. The expansion of mutual cooperation must lay emphasis on building Pakistan’s capacity through trainings, technology transfer, incubation and commercialization, joint production, and strengthening of Pakistan’s defence industry.

Step-IV: Robust economic relations thrive on balance of trade and smooth flows of foreign direct investment (FDI). Russia is the 16th largest export and 22nd import economy, while Pakistan positions at 54th export and 44th import economy out of 120 economies worldwide.20 Neither of the two countries are among top fifteen trade partners of each other.21 The trade and investment relations are far below potential, as the trade keeps switching over between a meager USD 400 to 600 million. Russia’s 85 regions could benefit from Pakistani products. An increase in Pakistani consulates and direct flights in Russian cities – from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok – will serve the purpose. The CPEC offers investment and co-work in projects such as smart and safe cities, special economic and free trade zones, rail, road and other mega infrastructure, and education cities.

Step-V: Pak-Russia greater relations will give impetus to their energy sectors. Russia hosts few of the world’s most proficient energy firms that find myriad opportunities of reforms and investment in the Pakistani energy market.

The shift toward a multipolar world order calls for pragmatic, mature, and considerate strategies by the responsible nation states to ensure sustainable global peace, security, and development. The culmination of Pakistan-Russia prospective multidimensional relationship would be the best example of constructivism for the region and world at large.

In the spirit of regionalism, both Russia and China have shown strategic vision in giving permanent membership of SCO to Pakistan. It is equally important that Russia and China should be given formal role in South Asian region and offered membership of SAARC. Likewise, Pakistan should be considered for observer status that leads to membership of BRICS because the country is a rising regional power. This realization exists within their political, defense, and academic spheres and can be termed as the onset of a promising Asia Century, with positive externalities.

The writer is a Senior Research and Policy Analyst at NUST Global Think Tank Network.
E-mail: [email protected]

1 “Large section of Russian gas pipeline to China completed,” Russia Today, October 18, 2017.
2 Arun S, “Russia – a forgotten trade partner?”, The Hindu, April 09, 2017.
3 “Russia and U.S. will cooperate to build moon’s first space station,” The Guardian, September 27, 2017.
4 Eric Berger, “Russian official on new U.S. sanctions and NASA: ‘Nothing lasts forever’”, ARS Technica, July 31, 2017.
5 “Pakistan, Russia agree to form five working groups,” Board of Investment Pakistan, November 21, 2015.
6 M.K. Bhadrakumar, “India Displays Multi-Vector Diplomacy”, Asia Times, December 9, 2009.
7 “Pakistan, Russia agree to form five working groups,” Board of Investment Pakistan, November 21, 2015.
8 Lailuma Noori, “SCO’s Afghanistan Contact Group Meeting held in Moscow,” The Kabul Times, October 15, 2017.
9 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Afghanistan Contact Group Meeting, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, October 11, 2017.
10 Anna Mahjar-Barducci and Giuseppe Rippa, “Understanding Russian political ideology and vision: A call for Eurasia from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, Middle East Media Research Institute, March 23, 2016.
11 Glenn Diesen, Russia’s Geoeconomic Strategy for a Greater Eurasia (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 129.
12 “Russia’s joining of CPEC to enhance China, Russia, and Pakistan cooperation,” Pakistan Today, January 7, 2017.
13 “China’s reform will lead to sustainable growth: Putin,” China Daily, October 20, 2017.
14 “Russia’s joining of CPEC to enhance China, Russia, and Pakistan cooperation,” Pakistan Today, January 7, 2017.
15 JF-17 Thunder,
16 Press Release, Embassy of Pakistan (Doha),
17 Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Pakistan, Russia sign landmark defence cooperation agreement,” Dawn, November 21, 2014.
18 “Pakistan, Russia agree to form five working groups,” Board of Investment Pakistan. November 21, 2015.
19 “Pakistan has no FTA with Russia, NA told,” The Nation, September 22, 2017.
20 The Observatory of Economic Complexity,
21 World’s Top Exports,

Written By: Atia Ali Kazmi