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Russia and Pakistan Are Getting Really Friendly

There's no denying Pakistan-Russia relations have improved and at the exact same time Pakistan-US relations have cooled

An excerpt from an article that originally appeared in The National Interest

The year 2011 was terrible for U.S.-Pakistan relations. It began with the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA security officer on a Lahore street.

Months later, U.S. special operations forces launched a covert raid deep into Pakistan territory to kill Osama bin Laden. In the following months, U.S. officials embittered by the presence of bin Laden in Pakistan, engaged in a media war against Islamabad, leaking damaging claims to The Atlantic, New York Times and other publications about Pakistan’s human rights record, support for militants and nuclear weapons program.

The year ended with a U.S. attack on a Pakistani base that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers, forcing Islamabad to shut down the Pakistan-based NATO supply route into Afghanistan.

It took eight months for the U.S. to issue an apology and the supply route to reopen. Relations between Islamabad and Washington have since steadily improved. But the events of 2011 sparked a long conversation in Pakistan on the need to move beyond the United States to diversify its relations with global powers.

In Pakistani newspaper columns, on talk shows and in official meetings, the consensus was clear: the end of American hegemony was near and Pakistan should adjust to and exploit a G-Zero world. In fact, in Pakistan’s public discourse, the aforementioned anecdote about Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s supposed choice to visit Washington over Moscow and thus paved the way for a long and tumultuous partnership with the United States was oft-mentioned and criticized.

In the Islamabad-Washington impasse, Moscow saw an opportunity it could exploit. And Pakistan’s power elite was keen on engaging Russia. In January 2012, a conference of Pakistani envoys recommended broadening ties with Moscow “to reduce reliance on the U.S.” A month later, Foreign Minister HinaRabbaniKhar, a staunch realist, visited Moscow, beginning a dialogue on the future of Afghanistan, aircraft sales, energy trade and a capital injection into the now-fledgling Pakistan Steel Mills. Chief of Army Staff AshfaqParvezKayani visited Moscow that September to move the dialogue forward on defense acquisitions. Putin was scheduled to visit Pakistan soon after, but the visit was canceled for unknown reasons.

Let’s Do Business

Despite the cancelation of the Putin visit, Moscow’s interest in engaging Islamabad has only grown.

Russia sees Pakistan as critical to the stability of its backyard. As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan dwindles, Pakistan’s role in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban becomes even more vital. In contrast to the 1990s, Russia is more keen to work with Pakistan in stabilizing Afghanistan, especially given China’s endorsement of the peace negotiations.

Also, factors that previously held Moscow back from engaging Islamabad have been weakened. Pakistan has largely cleansed its tribal areas of foreign militants, including those from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Over the course of a decade, Islamabad has made great strides in improving its nuclear safety and export control systems. And Moscow’s long-time partner, New Delhi, has rapidly increased defense acquisitions from Washington, making the United States, not Russia, its largest arms supplier over the past four years

International sanctions following the Ukraine invasion have brought renewed urgency in Russia to exploit new defense and energy trade markets. Russia has moved forward with defense sales to Pakistan despite Indian objections.

In June 2014, the Russian deputy prime minister was informed by Indian officials that sale of combat aircraft to Pakistan would be crossing a red line. Nonetheless, last November, Islamabad and Moscow signed a defense cooperation agreement, which included a commitment to sell Mi-35 combat helicopters. The sale of an initial four Mi-35 helicopters was finalized this August and could be expanded to 20 in the coming years.

Earlier this year, Pakistan closed a deal with Russia to import Klimov RD-93 engines for the JF-17 aircraft it jointly manufactures with China. Previously, Pakistan would import them from Russia via China. Direct imports will lower the cost of production and perhaps aid Pakistan’s export prospects.

Surprisingly, Moscow and Islamabad are also in the initial phases of talks on the sale of the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet, a long-range combat aircraft that would enhance Pakistan’s ability to conduct  maritime patrols and penetrate deeper into enemy territory. The export of the Su-35 will provide a real test of the extent to which Russia is willing to depart from its historic alliance with India. Pakistan is also exploring the purchase of a range of other Russian defense hardware, including the Yak-130 combat trainer aircraft.

Pakistan and Russia are also intent on enhancing economic ties. They are close to finalizing a $2-2.5 billion pipeline deal that would transmit natural gas from the port city of Karachi to Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. Russia may also join Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the CASA-1000 energy project, providing Afghanistan and Pakistan with electricity.

For several years, Moscow has been rumored to be interested in either providing the Pakistan Steel Mills with a cash infusionpurchasing a stake in the state-owned enterprise. Pakistan aims to privatize the company by the end of this year, and we may see Russian companies get into the mix.

Islamabad and Moscow are also looking to expand bilateral trade. Pakistan has expressed interest in establishing a free trade agreement with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union. And a Pakistani trade authority delegation recently visited Moscow in a bid to negotiate lower non-tariff trade barriers for Pakistani goods.

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