- Don’t be fooled by the informal exchange of pleasantries
The brief but relatively pleasant interactions between Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the recently concluded SCO summit in the capital city of Kyrgyzstan were widely reported in Pakistan’s mainstream media and hailed by the youth of the country on social media potentially as a “quick reset” in ties between the two Cold War rival nations. In other words, many at home in Pakistan seemed to think that Russia and Pakistan are now strong allies because Khan had some good moments with Putin unlike Mr. Modi, a recently re-elected leader of Pakistan’s archrival India. Wrong!
It is quite interesting to see that both Imran Khan and Vladimir Putin nonetheless share some spectacular attributes (both innate and acquired) such as their year, month and close days of birth (Oct 05 and 07, 1952), athletic and fit physiques, ultra-nationalism and patriotism, anti-Americanism, strong stand against corruption, and pro-people policies etc. However, their polar differences such as their divergent stand on the freedom of media, human rights, democracy; revolution (‘Tsunami’ in Khan’s language), international relations, pragmatism and much more outshine their similarities.
Pakistan’s Imran Khan needs to understand the Russian leader Vladimir Putin as well as the country that the latter has been ruling since 1999, in order to launch meaningful ties with the powerful bear to the north
This is in addition to the fact that Khan is a newcomer in government with little-to-none diplomatic skills while Putin is a former elite KGB spy who has been successfully ruling his country for the past twenty years now and who has flamboyant diplomatic skills with epic articulation.
Long gone are the days when alliance systems among nations used to be based upon and cemented by the personal chemistry between political leadership, ideological kinship, usual spell of diplomacy, and other such intangible and immaterial attributes. This marked shift has especially been a hallmark of the post-bipolar world.
What we see and term today as “cordial or special relationship and or a strong bond” among certain nations of the world basically stems from the strong economic and or technological interdependence that have held them together; hence the term “economic diplomacy.” This certainly does not apply when we speak of Pak-Russia relations especially vis-à-vis Indo-Russia relations and despite some military-to-military contacts in the past few years between Pakistan and Russia.
Pakistan’s Imran Khan needs to understand the Russian leader Vladimir Putin as well as the country that the latter has been ruling since 1999, in order to launch meaningful ties with the powerful bear to the north.
Ever since Vladimir Putin assumed the reins of power, there has been only one thing on his mind, advancing and stabilizing his country’s economy. The KGB spy-turned president knew well that without an economically viable Russia, competition with the US led free world was only a mad man’s dream. This approach can be corroborated by the fact that in 2000, the GDP per capita of Russia was only US$1,899 but in 2017 it stood at US$10,966. Also, Russia is forecasted to become the 5th largest economy of the world by 2022. This happened due to- among many other measures- Putin’s emphasis on revitalizing the fractured economic bonds between Russia and some powerful economies in Europe and Asia.
For instance, Russia’s bilateral annual trade volume with Japan in 2003 was $6 billion whereas it jumped up to $14 billion in 2018, with China it was below $2 billion in the late 1990’s while it stood at $107.06 billion as of 2018, and lastly trade with India; Pakistan’s long time rival, is expected to hit $30 billion by 2025.
On the other hand, Putin’s Russia appears to be least interested in forging even near-strong ties with nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka etc for they are faced with the scourge of terrorism and sweeping corruption at home and thus offer very little market for Russian exports or geostrategic influence. This is substantiated by the fact that the Russian president has not visited any of the said countries since his coming to power in 1999 as prime minister of the Russian Federation. Likewise, trade with any of these countries is hardly above US$1 billion as of 2018.
When it comes to Pakistan’s relations with Russia, it has surely moved slightly in the positive direction especially in the backdrop of some high profile visits of military and political personnel between the two countries and of discussions over some limited military sales to Pakistan. However, according to Ajit Doval, India’s national security adviser, Russia has no plans to diversify the spectrum of its defense relationship with Pakistan and that it would rather prefer to keep it limited. In other words, Russia cannot afford to alienate an ever growing export market in a powerful India only to appease an economically struggling Pakistan in return for defense projects worth only peanuts.
As far as the news of Russia’s interest in the CPEC (a flagship project of the Chinese sponsored Belt and Road Initiative), it is far from a reality at the moment at least. Part of the reason is, Russia’s major consumer of gas is Europe, China and it is actively pursuing new ways to further it rather than thinking of the Middle East and Africa- probably last of the last options for Russian energy exports.
Apart from the above, Russia appears to have no geostrategic interests in Pakistan, except for using the “Pakistan card” to modify the behavior of India and to turn it to its own interests. Russia is wary of deepening Indo-US economic and defense ties which is why it sometimes plays the Pakistan card.
If Imran Khan’s “Naya Pakistan” really wants to forge closer ties with Russia, it can do so by: utilizing all options to maintain peace in Afghanistan that will then provide an easy access for Pakistan to Russia’s rich “near abroad” and ultimately to Russia itself, mulling Russian investment in non-defense sectors such as education, tourism, energy, infrastructure development, information technology, agriculture, dairy farming, minerals, research and development, counter-terrorism, engineering and textile etc, and by trying to closely aligning Pakistan’s diplomatic interests with those of Russia. Once this has been accomplished, it will pave the way for stronger military ties as well.