Recent high-level visits by Russian officials to Islamabad and an upcoming trip by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the first-ever by a Russian head of state since Pakistan’s independence, are highlighting Russia’s efforts to bolster strategic ties with the South Asian country.
While looking to secure its near abroad in advance of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014, Russia is also moving to deepen its geo-economic ties with South Asia as a whole, with Pakistan serving as a gateway for energy trade to the entire subcontinent. For Pakistan, Russia can not only help the civilian government in Islamabad to shore up its economic record, it can also offer an alternative source of military hardware to the country’s armed forces. Diversifying its sources of military supplies has taken on newfound importance for Islamabad given Washington’s increasing reluctance to supply the full spectrum of arms and China’s continued inability to meet all of Pakistan’s requirements.
The move toward closer ties marks a shift in approach for Moscow, which had previously focused more on containing the security risk that Pakistan represented. In 2009, for instance, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev emphasized the need to eliminate nests of terror within Pakistan. Now, however, the Russian establishment seems to believe that it cannot protect its strategic underbelly stretching from the Caucasus to Central Asia without Pakistan’s cooperation. However, as the United States has discovered, Pakistan’s commitment to stabilizing the Hindu Kush and beyond can be fickle. China, too, has not received unqualified Pakistani support for containing Uighur separatists in its Xinjiang province. Islamabad’s mixed record notwithstanding, both China and the U.S. have strategic leverage over Pakistan, something that Russia is now looking to replicate.