Russia-Pakistan relations limited by India

Asif Ali Zardari and Dmitry Medvedev

Asif Ali Zardari and Dmitry Medvedev

The meeting between President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan last week in Sochi, where a summit of four presidents (Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan) took place, was momentous in more ways than one. The abiding question, however, is whether the declared good intentions can be put into practice.

There have always been many factors that complicated relations between Russia and Pakistan. From the time of independence, Islamabad has followed a pro-Western course. Since the early 1960s Pakistan was seen as China’s key ally in the area. The Soviet Union for its part always designed its South Asia policy with due account of the interests of its main geo-strategic ally, India. Soviet-Pakistani relations hit a low point in the 1980s when Pakistan actively supported the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

The negative legacy lingered after the break-up of the Soviet Union. During his official visit to India in 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin backed India over the issue of Kashmir. A little later he said that “Russia will not sell Pakistan a single bullet.”

The situation in Kashmir has many similarities to that in Chechnya. Therefore, Russia saw Kashmir exclusively through the prism of India’s territorial integrity. In addition, Pakistan was one of the three countries (along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) that recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The decision sealed Islamabad’s image as a country that aided and abetted international terrorism despite the fact that in the wake of 9/11 Pakistan’s leader Pervez Musharraf unequivocally backed the American military operation against the Taliban.

And finally and most importantly, India has been and remains Russia’s key partner in military-technical cooperation. Delhi sees the increase of economic ties between Russia and Pakistan as a threat. Russia cannot afford to put at risk its billion-dollar orders considering that Russian-Pakistani trade today stands at a mere half a billion dollars a year.

Now the two countries’ leaders seem to be ready to start from a clean slate. Dmitry Medvedev invited Asif Ali Zardari to come to Moscow on an official visit. The Pakistani President reciprocated by inviting Medvedev to Islamabad. As presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko said on the eve of the two leaders’ meeting, “we are interested in having a full-scale visit to Russia by the President of Pakistan.”

It is symbolic that the meeting of the two Presidents took place on the day that marked the second anniversary of the resignation of Pakistan’s previous President, Pervez Musharraf. Does it mean that the two countries will build their relations in a new way without looking back over their shoulders at other countries?

Deputy Head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Konstantin Makiyenko had this to say: “We still have to look back at India over our shoulders. India’s share in the portfolio of arms orders is at least 50%.” At the same time, cooperation with Pakistan has recently begun to develop as well. Russia sells Islamabad Mi-17 helicopters and RD-93 engines for FC-1 Chinese-Pakistani fighter planes. India expressed displeasure over the deal, but shipments nevertheless went ahead. Even so, “Pakistan will never take India’s place in Moscow’ heart,” Makiyenko said.

Pyotr Topychkanov, a senior research fellow with the International Security Centre at the RAS Institute of World Economy and International Relations, has noted that progress in the relations between Moscow and Islamabad is mainly confined to the security sphere. The project to have Russian Oka cars produced in Pakistan vigorously promoted by Pakistan in the early 2000s never got off the ground. Pakistan’s main interest is not in cars, but in KAMAZ trucks. But KAMAZ already has production in India, which eyes the possibility of these trucks being produced in Pakistan with a good deal of suspicion. In the end, the Chinese occupied the cheap small car production niche in Pakistan. The expert stressed that Dmitry Medvedev has not yet decided whether to visit Pakistan: “Pervez Musharraf sent a similar invitation to Vladimir Putin in 2003, but the visit did not take place for security reasons.”

Russia is unlikely to play an important role in the settlement of the long-simmering conflicts in South Asia, although Pakistan is egging Russia on to act as a broker in the settlement of the Kashmir issue, hoping that Moscow could use its influence on Delhi. But India has always said that Kashmir is a bilateral problem that does not call for international interference. This was effectively admitted by Prikhodko, who said that “traditionally we assist in the establishment of direct contacts between these states.”

Topychkanov said that “Russia tries to act as a broker, but it has no real resources to do so, which means that all the talk on this theme is intended for internal consumption.” The expert recalled an episode from recent history when Vladimir Putin, at the 2002 summit in Alma-Ata, tried to act as an intermediary between Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but the two leaders refused even to shake hands. The Indian delegation was not invited to yesterday’s meeting in Sochi.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari held a meeting on Wednesday, and agreed that the countries need to develop economic and security cooperation. Zardari expressed his condolences for the 50 lives lost in the wildfires across Russia, caused by the unprecedented heatwave.

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