Move comes after Trump blasted Islamabad for providing havens to terrorists
ISLAMABAD—Alarmed at Washington’s long-time criticism and mistrust of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Islamabad is on a fast track to reconstruct its relationship with Russia—its Cold War-era foe.
United States President Donald Trump’s new policy on Afghanistan came as shock to the Pakistanis, who were already concerned by Washington’s growing rapprochement with India. Unveiling his policy in August, Trump singled out Pakistan, claiming that the nuclear power had been duplicitous in its dealings with the US and needed to change its policies.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” the American leader asserted.
In response, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi predicted that Trump’s policy would fail.
Many in Pakistan believe that the White House’s stance is destructive to the bilateral relationship, thereby inducing Islamabad to speed up efforts to strengthen ties with Russia—a country officials believe can become Islamabad’s new strategic partner.
“Pakistan doesn’t care if the US wants to part ways with it, as China is on its side and the relationship with Russia is improving at a fast pace. So, we aren’t worried at all,” a senior Pakistani government official told The Media Line.
Mushahid Ullah Khan, the Pakistani Minister for Climate Change and an important member of Abbasi’s cabinet, confirmed to The Media Line that Islamabad was taking concrete steps to boost its ties with Moscow.
“Nawaz Sharif was the first Pakistani prime minister to visit Russia in 1997 in an attempt to reconstruct relations and his visit laid the foundation for a cordial relationship,” Khan related. Unfortunately, he added, Sharif’s government was toppled in a military coup in October 1999 and between then and 2013 relations between the two countries did not progress.
However, “soon after Sharif became prime minister in 2013, diplomacy with Russia began to warm up,” Khan explained.
For its part, Moscow’s engagement with Pakistan provides a means of breaking out of its growing economic and diplomatic isolation, which climaxed when the West imposed sanctions on the Russian economy after the annexation of Crimea.
Maria Sultan, chairperson of the Islamabad-based South Asian Strategic Stability Institute told The Media Line that while Pakistan and Russia are natural strategic partners, Washington remains an important player. “The Pakistan-Russia relationship will not replace Pakistan-US ties, but it will redraw Islamabad’s role in global affairs,” Dr. Sultan said.
The question, she continued, is whether the US is ready to lose Pakistan to emerging world powers that may not be willing to accept a preeminent role for Washington in their drive to create a new world order.
Pakistani media recently reported that Islamabad is likely to provide Moscow with access to its deep sea Indian Ocean port, Gwadar. The decision was purportedly taken following a secret visit by Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Russian Federal Security Services and former KGB chief, to Islamabad last year. It was the first time in nearly a decade and a half that any senior official from Russia had visited Pakistan.
Although, the Russian Embassy denied the specific report, local officials revealed that Bortnikov had expressed a desire to be part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and use Gwadar to import and export goods.
“Russia has not [formally] requested to be a part of CPEC, but we have launched our own projects in Pakistan which include construction of a $2 billion pipeline that will transport gas from the city of Karachi in southern Sindh to Lahore in the central Punjab province,” Sentyurin Vyacheslav, Second Secretary at the Russian Embassy told The Media Line.
In this respect, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Britain, Wajid Shams ul-Hassan, highlighted to the The Media Line Pakistan’s geographical importance, as it sits at the entry of the Gulf of Oman, a primary trade route between South Asia, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. Given that pivotal position, he contended, no nation can afford to ignore Islamabad.
The gas pipeline accord followed a landmark arms deal signed in August 2015 for the sale of Russian-made Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters to Pakistan. The two countries are also discussing delivery of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets.
As regards military cooperation, Pakistani and Russian troops last month held a two-week exercise focusing on counter-terrorism, hostage rescue and search operations. “The joint operation will enhance and further strengthen military ties between both countries and share the Pakistan Army’s experience in the war against terrorism,” Major-General Asif Ghafoor told The Media Line.
As many as 14,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and more than 35,000 wounded in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 during the Soviet invasion. It is believed that most of the causalities were inflicted by forces that received significant support from Pakistan and the US.
Even after the end of the Cold War, Pakistan served as an important US ally.
This appears to be changing. As the US moves closer to India—Pakistan’s arch-rival—Islamabad seems content, for now, to foster ties with its new strategic partner, Russia.