The visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was ostensibly about such solid issues as trade, counter-terrorism and Afghanistan, but in a wider contest, it was about Russia and Pakistan coming closer together so as to balance the burgeoning relations between India and the USA. Both countries have to come to terms with the new reality that prevails after the end of the Cold War. It goes almost without saying that both need to show the USA and India that they are not friendless, and that their prior hostility was because of their allies’ wishes, not because of any inherent antipathy.
The visit ended with a mutual commitment to increase trade. Though the membership of both countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, provides a platform for economic cooperation, bilateral discussions, particularly between top diplomats, shows both the seriousness of the other. Pakistan and Russia have taken some initial steps, involving arms sales to Pakistan. Russia can see the Indian market drying up, because of access to US arms, at a time when Russia’s arms industries really need the business. While no arms purchases come without some political conditions, Pakistan is unlikely to find Russia as finicky as the USA.
Meanwhile, Russia could certainly find opportunities in Pakistan, like the North-South gas pipeline, the Steel Mill or other projects. The Chinese factor should not be ignored, as the New Silk Road has important components for both countries.
The aspect of counter-terrorism is significant, and is related to how both countries must cooperate in an Afghan settlement. Russia’s involvement, seen in the recent conference of Afghans it hosted, is key to a settlement, which it wants as much as Pakistan, and for much of the same reason: the need for a peaceful continent, so that the New Silk Route can do its job of providing continuity with that much ease. Pakistan must realise that improving relations with Russia will prove less of an irritant in its relationship with the USA than any increase in its closeness with China. However, this relationship will cause a commotion in New Delhi, which is probably not going to faze Islamabad.