NOTHING is impossible when uphol-ding a country's self-interest. The recent visit of the Russian defence minister to Pakistan is an eye-opener for everyone. Has the strategic environment been changed in South Asia? Both Russia and Pakistan think so.
Pakistan-Russia relations seemed to have taken a new turn when former Pakistan army chief Kayani visited Moscow in 2012. Although Russia and Pakistan have no common border, both countries face similar problems from organised crime to terrorism to nuclear security. As the influence of the US is gradually increasing in India, Russia is making footprints in Pakistan and Bangladesh in South Asia.
Russia and the US are back in Cold War mode on the Ukraine crisis. On December 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to Russia's Federal Assembly, which carries a great deal of significance. This year, however, Putin's speech was markedly different from past addresses in ways that reflect both a shift in Russia's view of the world and the massive challenges that Russia now faces.
Russia took steps to undermine the United States internationally by co-opting negotiations over Syria and then by granting sanctuary to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden. Moscow advanced the notion that it was a major international player on par with the United States.
It is noted that as India is getting closer to the US and Prime Minister Modi invited President Obama to India's Republic Day on January 26, Russia is stepping up its relations with Pakistan.
Given the above context, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pakistan on November 20 and signed an unprecedented Russian-Pakistan defence agreement. This was the first visit of a Russian defence minister to Pakistan after 45 years.
It is reported that in his discussions with his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Shoigu raised the issues of Afghanistan, regional security, and arm sales. It is unthinkable to many observers that Russia, a trusted friend and ally of India, has signed a defence cooperation agreement with Pakistan.
The background of signing of the defence agreement was laid when Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin arrived in India in June. He was informed that Russia's plans to sell lethal military equipment to Pakistan amounted to the crossing of a “red line” in relations between New Delhi and Moscow.
“There are red lines in all relationships. We have no problems if the Russians sell non-lethal equipment like Mi-17 helicopters to Pakistan. They can even sell counter-terrorism equipment, but the Mi-35s are not non-lethal equipment,” a source in the government reported said.
Russia was displaced last year by the US as India's biggest arms supplier and Russia did not take it positively. Since July, the relationship between the two countries has been strained over India's growing defence procurement from the US, even as Russia struggles with sanctions by the West.
Russia has reportedly agreed to sell lethal equipment like Mi-35 attack helicopters to Islamabad, which would be tantamount to “crossing a red line” by India. It may be recalled that Russia had earlier lifted its embargo on arm sales to Pakistan and began negotiations for sale of combat helicopters to Pakistan.
It is further reported that dialogue is taking place on potential Russian-Pakistan civilian nuclear cooperation. Pakistan has been suffering from energy shortage and nuclear power plants from Russia would be welcome in Pakistan.
India is unhappy with Russia's new defence cooperation agreement with Pakistan, which marks a significant shift from the past. A Russian delegation took part for the first time in the Karachi Defence Exposition, which was held in early December. India's External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin called it “obviously significant,” adding “India has noted that Russia, like other countries, has chosen to improve defence cooperation with our neighbour,” thereby marking a shift from the “special” relationship with India.
Against the above background, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in India for a 24-hour visit on December 10. Putin said that Russia's cooperation with Pakistan would serve the “long-term” interests of India. It is reported that Russia would build another 10 nuclear plants in India.
Indian analyst C. Rajamohan wrote: “The geopolitical circumstances that bound India and Russia close together for so long have begun to change. The structure of the partnership, too, is looking less special amid extended stagnation.”
The unexpected defence cooperation between Russia and Pakistan marks a dramatic shift in the rapidly changing security environment. Past enemies become friends and older friends are abandoned. Geo-political necessity compels a country to look for new friends, and Russia has ushered in a new relationship with Pakistan. The strategic shift of Russian policy towards Pakistan may be appreciated in an era of change due to on-going power shift and power diffusion.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.