For the first time in their history Russia and Pakistan are conducting joint military exercises.
The exercises are to last from 24th September 2016 to 10th October 2016. They are being held under the title “Friendship-2016”. Approximately 200 troops will take part.
This event is going to change the geopolitical equation of the South Asian region. Russia and Pakistan were enemies during the Cold War. However pressing national security needs have driven them to embrace each other.
Back in May 2011, when US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan, the US media portrayed Pakistan as the centre of a nexus of terror. There were claims that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal was insecure and might at any moment fall into the hand of the terrorists.
At roughly the same time India stepped up its efforts to isolate Pakistan diplomatically. Whilst this Indian campaign had more form than substance, it caused alarm in Pakistan, whose political establishment started to think that the US might be looking for an excuse to attack Pakistan, just as it had previously attacked Iraq and Libya.
Not surprisingly the Pakistani leadership lost no time putting out feelers to the Kremlin. At the same time China – Pakistan’s longtime ally – made it clear that it would regard an attack on Pakistan as an attack on itself.
This set the scene for the strategic convergence between Russia – China’s ally – and Pakistan.
Moreover the two countries share certain joint concerns and interests. As the US withdraws from Iraq, and looks for ways to solve the crisis in Syria with Russia, Afghanistan is the big item of unfinished business.
Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires”. There can be no graceful exit for the US from Afghanistan without Pakistani help. Since Afghanistan is an entirely landlocked country, the only exit route through which the US can withdraw the billion dollar military hardware it has planted in Afghanistan is through the tribal frontier area of Pakistan.
However the current crisis in bilateral relations between the US and Pakistan has made it difficult for the US to come to a workable deal. Moreover the under-the-table deal the US had previously reached with the Taliban – which was arranged by Pakistan – is fast unravelling.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan itself the current US backed regime is becoming pro-Indian. This is perceived in Pakistan as a direct threat to Pakistan’s security. Already the Pakistani government has long complained that India secretly sponsors anti-Pakistani terror attacks in Pakistan from Afghanistan carried out by with the TTP (the “Tehri-k-Taliban Pakistan”). The Pakistani army’s national action plan for combatting terrorism can never be fully successful unless there is a pro-Pakistani government in Afghanistan.
Whilst Pakistani-Indian frictions remain, the long standing Russian-Indian alliance has cooled, as India through the new nuclear power agreement and weapons purchase deals moves closer to the US. For its part Pakistan hardly welcomes the new relationship India is forging with Pakistan’s former ally, the US.
All of this gives Russia and Pakistan good reasons to turn to each other.
Joint economic interests are pulling them together as well. From an economic point of view the Chinese are already one of the biggest foreign investors in the Pakistani economy, and this investment is set to increase exponentially through the agency of the CPEC (‘China Pakistan Economic Cooperation’).
If the CPEC is successful it should provide in the coming years a major boost to the Pakistani economy. Moreover it would be Baluchistan, the impoverished Pakistani province lying at the centre of south Asian terror networks, which would gain the most, hopefully enabling it to become stabilised.
The CPEC is however running into fierce opposition from India. The Indians complain that the CPEC will establish an economic corridor in territory disputed by India and Pakistan. They have been using a mix of diplomatic pressure and threats to try to stop it.
In response Pakistan’s army chief said in a ceremony on 6th September 2016 (Pakistan’s Defence Day) that Pakistan’s army stands ready to protect the CPEC and would do so at any cost. Making good on this promise, Pakistan’s army has already deployed 14,000 troops to the areas covered by the CPEC.
The Iranians meanwhile are also showing interest in joining the CPEC. Some economic analysts say that the potential of the CPEC is so great that it could also in the near future interest Russia and become integrated with Russia’s Eurasian project.
The result is that the economic interests of China, Russia and Pakistan coincide at the same time as their political interests are converging.
The big question is how far will the relationship between Russia and Pakistan go, and how much will each gain from this new relationship? Is this new strategic relationship one which will be limited to the odd military exercise and weapons sale? Or will it become something more?
One thing is for sure: the new President of the United States will be obliged to make Afghanistan a high priority as the new US leadership is forced to complete the unfinished business in Afghanistan bequeathed to it by President Obama. First and foremost that means successfully completing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
That provides a possible route to consolidate the burgeoning Russian-Pakistani relationship. The US will need to come to some sort of understanding with Pakistan to secure a safe exit from Afghanistan. The Pakistanis in return are likely to insist on a reduction in Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Russia has the potential to play the role of a reliable intermediary between the two sides, brokering an agreement just as it did at the time of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Crisis back in 2013.