Asif Ali Zardari’s first official visit to Russia, which, according to his website, was also the first time that a Pakistani President had been officially invited to Russia since 1974, took place on May 11-13, 2011. The bilateral Summit yielded agreements on air services, energy and agriculture. The two sides agreed to maintain regional peace and reiterated support for the joint fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, and expansion of coordination on these and other issues. They also agreed to cooperate in bilateral trade, investment, the financial sector including barter and swap schemes, and business and joint projects including the modernization of a metallurgical plant in Karachi, construction of power generation facilities and the development of gas fields in Pakistan.
Since Russia had announced its interest in participating in the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, the Joint Statement issued at the Summit mentioned the interest of both sides in TAPI and the Tajikistan- Afghanistan-Pakistan CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia) electricity transmission project. Russian energy companies such as Gazprom are backing the initiative. Interestingly, Gazprom is also seeking a role in Bangladesh.
The two main themes at the Summit were therefore energy, business and economic cooperation on the one hand and combating drug trafficking and terrorism to stabilise the security situation in the region on the other. Russia and Pakistan had earlier discussed transit issues and opening a route to the “warm waters”. So it was not surprising that on the eve of the Summit President Zardari reiterated the invitation to Russia to take advantage of Pakistan’s access to the southern seas.
The timing of the Summit - just 10 days after the killing of Osama bin Laden - inevitably gave rise to some speculation as to whether it was calculated to send a signal to the US. This needs to be laid to rest. Such high-level visits are planned well in advance. Thus, this visit had been planned after President Zardari told President Medvedev - on the sidelines of the second Pakistan-Afghanistan-Russia-Tajikistan (hereinafter referred to as the PART) Summit at Sochi in August 20101 - that he wished to visit Moscow.
Moreover, President Medvedev and other Russian leaders left no one in doubt about their reactions to the killing of Osama bin Laden.2 The Kremlin welcomed the operation and the Russian Foreign Ministry publicly appreciated the US informing Russia about the operation before President Obama’s official announcement. Dmitry Rogozin, Russian envoy to NATO, reportedly called the liquidation of Osama “a great political success”. Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, justified it by referring to the Security Council resolution adopted after 9/11 “recognizing the US’ right of self-defense under Article 51… The right of self-defense envisages no restrictions. Those who carried out the operation, had a sound legal basis” as per “the right of self-defense under the UN Charter, confirmed moreover in the resolution of the Security Council.” Thus Article 51 allowed “a country against which an attack was made to take all necessary measures to prevent any future such attacks and punish those responsible.”3
A high-level security meeting on terrorist attacks on Russian targets abroad was held a day before President Zardari’s arrival in Russia, inadvertently serving as the backdrop to his visit.
Clearly, therefore, the Summit was not timed to exploit Pakistan’s emerging rift with the United States. Instead, it was part of Russia’s ongoing initiatives to play a greater role in stabilising the region before the expected withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan presented the region with “a whole range of potential worst-case scenarios,” with the only hope being “they will not all come true at once”.4
Thus, Pakistan, already suffering from multiple crises, had accelerated its tactical nuclear weapons programme. China is moreover readying itself to take advantage of the American withdrawal. Pakistan immediately rushed to China to find succor, and reportedly weighed in on Afghan President Karzai to throw in his lot with Pakistan and China.5 In fact, the tone of the American Administration seemed to change once the China card was played by Pakistan. The China factor may even be a reason for the Americans to reconsider their withdrawal plans after 2014.
Significantly, the CSTO’s Russian Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha stated that foreign troops needed to stay in Afghanistan.6 Fyodor Lukyanov, the reputed Editor in Chief of Russia in Global Affairs also opined that Russia and neighboring countries were not interested in a quick US withdrawal.
Like all affected countries, Russia is deeply concerned at the accentuation of instability in the region and its spillover effects into its southern periphery, increase in drug trafficking and terrorism, etc. Russia may also be uneasy at the erosion of its influence in Eurasia, while China increases its stranglehold over the region’s resources, transportation and energy networks. Thus the massive copper deposits at Aynak – discovered by Soviet experts – are now being exploited by China.
Russia has accordingly tried to re-engage constructively in the region over the past few years. Apart from its activism in SCO and CSTO, Russia has intensified its involvement in Afghanistan, through the Russia-Afghan forum, the SCO-Afghan contact group and the CTSO7-Afghan working group. Despite severe funding constraints, Russia has also explored the possibilities of greater engagement in Afghanistan’s development programmes, such as restoring Soviet-era pipelines and hydroelectric stations, and investing in Afghanistan’s mineral, oil and gas deposits – many of which were discovered by the Soviets.
Russia has moreover facilitated the transit of military supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan through its territory, in addition to making available helicopters and other facilities. It is to be hoped that the stand-off regarding stationing of ballistic missile defences in the European theatre does not derail the developing understanding between the US, NATO and Russia for stabilising the region.
Russia may have also concluded that isolating Pakistan from any dialogue to stabilise the region would be counter-productive, and hence intensified its outreach to Pakistan. This explains the PART initiative in 2009 and why Russia publicly supported Pakistan’s membership in the SCO at the Moscow Summit of May 2011, with India also formally applying for SCO membership around this time.8 The bilateral Summit was a logical extension of this strategy.
A perennial question is whether a rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan will adversely impact Indo-Russian relations, particularly whether Russia will sell arms to Pakistan. The Russian Secretary of the Security Council and Pakistan’s Defence Minister were reportedly present at the talks at the recent Summit. India’s relationship with Russia is however too well entrenched to be easily disturbed, while the possibility of major Russian arms sales to Pakistan in the near future is remote. Russia’s outreach to Pakistan is a part of its efforts to stabilise this volatile region, and also part of its multi-vector diplomacy and desire to play a more meaningful role in Asia. Russia probably means to resurrect the role of “honest broker” it played at Tashkent, and India may thus expect a little more even-handedness from Russia. Other than that, India and Russia should not perceive each other’s relationships with other countries as a zero sum game.
Of far greater urgency, especially for India, is the need to address the worsening regional security situation. The Indian PM’s visit to Afghanistan to forge a strategic partnership was a good move. But the effort to shape the agenda for regional cooperation and the contours of a peaceful Eurasia has to extend beyond Afghanistan by proactively reaching out to Russia, the Central Asian countries, the United States and other constructive partners like the EU, UN and the ADB, and even China - to build connectivity and spheres for mutual engagement and cooperation.
The Summit has underlined the necessity for skilful regional diplomacy to manage the complex dynamics and fresh security challenges emerging in the region, which India would do well to factor into its own security strategy.
Smita Purushottam is Senior Fellow at IDSA. The views expressed are personal.