What Is Driving Pakistan’s Outreach to Russia?

Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamabad is betting that Russia is the best guarantor of its interest in the South and Central Asia region.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the Ukraine crisis came under great scrutiny. Many political analysts questioned the timing of the visit, as it presumably gave the wrong signals about where Pakistan stood diplomatically in the Russia-versus-West confrontation. A dominant theme running in the print and electronic media in Pakistan was that Khan’s visit was planned months in advance, that it was for concluding the negotiations over gas pipeline construction, and that it had nothing to do with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, Pakistan did not visit Russia specifically for negotiations over the construction of a $2.5 billion, 1,100-kilometer gas pipeline from Karachi in Pakistan’s south to Lahore in the center of Punjab province. There were no conclusive details on the agreement in the post-visit press release. The pipeline already suffers from bureaucratic wrangling and arguments over who should assume responsibility in case the construction is delayed or faces complications from the uncertain future of imported hydrocarbons in Pakistan. Further, the gas pipeline has dim prospects of ever being constructed now, let alone operationalized, given the West’s extensive sanctions on Russia. Pakistan’s gas pipeline agreement with Iran is also in limbo for similar reasons.

To say the least, energy cooperation does not represent the flagship area for Pakistan-Russia ties, despite how the Khan visit was framed in media reports. So what is driving Pakistan’s approach to Russia?

Pakistan’s Stance on the Ukraine War

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After the visit, Pakistan’s stance at the international forums suggested neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war. Abstaining from the U.N. General Assembly draft resolution condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Pakistan maintained that endorsing the resolution would close the doors to diplomacy. In an earlier press release of the Khan-Putin meeting, Pakistan had urged for a negotiated settlement to the military conflict.

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Recently, Khan launched a verbal offensive against the European Union ambassadors in Islamabad, as they had urged Pakistan through a public statement to denounce Russia’s war in Ukraine. Khan said that Pakistan was not a slave to follow orders from any country. This reaction was an extension of Khan’s earlier instances of resistance against the U.S.-led drone campaign in Pakistan and Washington’s with-us-or-against-us diktat. Khan instead questioned the West’s position on India’s human rights violations in its administered part of Kashmir.

Political analysts with close links to a wider strategic community in Islamabad remarked that the notion of the West’s dual standards has a “genuine appeal” across the political spectrum in Islamabad. That is, political opponents and the media community in Islamabad largely agreed with the substance of Khan’s comments, though they differed on the tone and means of conveying the message. They also condemned Khan’s public ridicule of strong economic and strategic partners in Europe and North America.

Given this background, how should we understand Pakistan’s neutrality in Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the West? I asked Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, a former chairperson of the Pakistan Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, to explain this. He listed Pakistan’s recent actions that were self-explanatory in that regard: Pakistan’s refusal to join the U.S.-led Summit for Democracies; participation in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing; and then the Moscow visit.

These actions may reflect a tilt away from the West, but frankly speaking, Pakistan pursues narrow strategic, security, and economic interests. It does not matter much for the country if it is getting support for its interests from the U.S., Europe, China, Russia, or the Middle East.

Pakistan’s Eurasian Interests

Pakistan’s refusal to join the democracy summit and Khan’s subsequent visits to Beijing and Moscow do not suggest a shift away from the liberal order and an embrace of autocratic regimes. Nor does it mean that Islamabad would pursue anti-West and pro-Russia/China policies. It only means that after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan understands that Washington will pursue a strategy that focuses on China as a primary strategic threat and the Indo-Pacific region as a primary theater of engagement. With the exit of the United States from its immediate region, Pakistan wants to increase its engagement with other major powers that have major sway in the security and economy of the South and Central Asian region.

Pakistan, like any of its neighboring countries, is operating under this overarching architecture of Eurasia, where the Russo-Chinese “axis of convenience” or “modus vivendi” aims to exclude the United States from their sphere of influence in Eurasia. Pakistan seeks to work with Beijing and Moscow to ensure its security interests more or less the same way it did with the U.S. during the alliance periods to secure its objectives.

This new geopolitical reality is one of the predominant reasons for Pakistan’s new outreach to Russia. Pakistan has lately observed Russia’s important role as the sole arbiter in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and the intervention of Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forces in Kazakhstan, which ensured the survival of the country’s incumbent government. These events provided strong evidence that Russia is the ultimate guarantor of Eurasian security.

Pakistan’s geoeconomic vision and the Vision Central Asia could therefore hinge to a great extent to Russia’s blessings, just as Moscow’s political and security guardianship is helping China’s economic inroads in the region. Without Russia’s backing, Pakistan would find it hard, if not impossible, to work with the Central Asian Republics for inter-regional connectivity and trade projects.

Besides, Pakistan and Russia share an interest in promoting an inclusive government in Kabul. Pakistan could possibly be asking Russia to reason with the Central Asian leaders (and Iran) to cease supporting various political factions in Afghanistan in ways that can lead to a civil war. In exchange, Pakistan would push the Taliban for a power-sharing government with non-Pashtun factions.

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Moreover, Russia, just like China, is against the rise of political Islam in Eurasia, and Pakistan would also like to balance the Taliban’s power with that of other ethnic elements to keep the Taliban and their political ideology restrained. Pakistan would also be willing to work with Russia, China, and other Eurasian countries toward defeating terrorism in the region, including under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Russia’s strong relations with India used to be an irritant in Pakistan-Russia ties. But since at least 2010, when New Delhi diversified its foreign arms acquisitions and reduced Russia’s relative share in Indian defense imports, Moscow has tried reaching out to other defense markets. In 2014, for the first time in the history of Moscow-Islamabad ties, Russia lifted its self-imposed embargo on arms sales to Pakistan and did not take India’s objections into account. In 2016, Russia conducted joint friendship exercises for the first time in Pakistan’s northern areas, again ignoring India’s objections.

Pakistan also noted an opening in Moscow’s stance in 2017 when the country’s ambassador in Islamabad endorsed Pakistan’s case for a criteria-based membership in the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG). It did not resonate with New Delhi’s position for merit-based membership in the nuclear export control group of 48 nations. Pakistan also received four Mi-35 helicopters worth $153 million in 2017 as part of a 2015 defense sales agreement.

All of this signifies that Pakistan is creating strategic, diplomatic, and economic space in its ties with Russia. This newfound opening can reinforce Pakistan’s geoeconomic vision of South and Central Asian economic integration, bring about a convergence of interests in Afghanistan against terrorism and radical ideology, and act as a moderator on India’s alleged military assertiveness toward Pakistan.