The beginning of the Russia-Pakistan joint war games at the end of September in Pakistan, involving a total of 200 troops (70 Russians and 130 Pakistanis), had the strategic community in Pakistan beaming. This was a reassurance that Islamabad was not isolated as Delhi would like to imagine. In fact, parts of Indian media had claimed that the military exercise was called off, which it was not. But this is not about a temporary smile on the faces of generals or foreign office bureaucrats. The fact is that both Moscow and Islamabad are trying to rewrite their history differently and build a linkage that would potentially counterbalance the particular US rearrangement in the South Asian region.
It would be too early to depict it as some phenomenal development. There is a long path to tread, but it indicates a significant shift from a decade ago, when even Pakistan’s foreign office claimed that there was too much of a gap between the two states. Pakistan’s military had started to eye Russian weapons after the US arms embargo in October 1990. While the generals were of the view that the Russians were happy to sell weapons, the foreign office believed that this was not the case. The sour history of Pakistan-Russia bilateral relations, laced with the bitter memory of the Afghan war and the fact that India was Moscow’s biggest client, would deter the Russians from making any major moves. Despite that, the new state of Russia that appeared from the ashes of the Cold War was desperate for cash and Pakistan’s arms purchases were tantamount to small change.
Another major deterrent was that Pakistan was a known US client state that had its bitter moments with Washington but had always fought against Moscow at America’s behest. A shift, however, back to the 1960’s, when there was some hope of constructing positive ties during General Ayub’s era, began at the end of the 2000s. During the middle of this decade, the overt surveillance of Russian diplomats in Islamabad was removed. At this juncture, both states seem to have a goal that can be used as a launching pad to build something sturdier. The rearrangement of American strategic goals in South Asia—picking on India as a strategic partner to counter-balance China (and inadvertently Russia)—has resulted in Moscow re-evaluating its options. New Delhi is also keen to find linkages in the West, especially with the US, for technological and strategic dividends. It’s almost like India coming of age, imagining Washington will treat it at par in setting a new global Great Game. Although quantitatively, New Delhi’s major purchases are from Moscow, its more serious procurements are from the West—France, US and Israel. In fact, in an urge to act as the new kid in town, Delhi seems to have engaged in a needless splurge, buying equipment for a higher price—as is obvious in the Rafale fighter jet deal.
In reaching out to Pakistan, Moscow seems to have announced its intent to rethink its traditional arrangements as much as India has. The military exercise is not the beginning of an alignment but a re-orientation that has tremendous potential in the future. If there is any indication of change in the internal discourse in the military, its most telling example was the film recently produced with the help of the armed forces public relations organisation, ISPR. The film, Maalik, questions the efficacy of the Pakistan army fighting Russians in Afghanistan for the first time. Indeed, if there is a conversation going on within the GHQ, it indicates that Islamabad is willing to rethink its options. In any case, it is shifting fast from an American alignment towards Beijing, which is now a major source of procurement of weapons for all the three services of the armed forces. Notwithstanding its financial constraints, Pakistan is also struggling to expand its military ties with Moscow through exercises and arms purchases. Last year, it bought a few Mi-35 attack helicopters. There is also the talk of considering Russian fighter jets. While the Chinese may not allow Islamabad to seriously consider other options, the Russian option will enhance the conversation between Islamabad and Moscow.
The problem with the under-development links are their military centricity. Pakistan’s ambassador in Moscow is not an impressive man, which leaves a lot for GHQ Rawalpindi to control. There is also no visible effort to develop cultural ties or people-to-people contact. Even Moscow is not ready to expand the linkage as long as Islamabad is not. Thus, for the bulk of Pakistanis, relations with Russia will either be through the prism of counter-balance to US-India, or a path for illegally crossing into Western Europe.