Volume 3, No. 6, June 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The Russian Foreign Minister’s two-day trip to Pakistan has raised many eyebrows. The visit is of great significance as it is Moscow’s first high-level ministerial engagement with Islamabad in nine years. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to discuss a host of issues including the troubled peace process in Afghanistan, where both countries have had a long and complex history of involvement.
Historically, Afghanistan occupies an important position in Russian foreign policy. The Great Game that began in 1830 and lasted throughout the 19th century, witnessed Russia’s competition for influence in Afghanistan and its neighbouring territories in Central Asia against its rival, the British Empire in India. In the Cold War, the Red Army got bogged down in a costly war in Afghanistan, which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan did not feature much in Russian foreign policy discourse for the 1990s decade. Nevertheless, the geopolitical situation changed drastically in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
After 9/11, Russia and the US had largely similar objectives in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s then president Hamid Karzai said that Afghanistan was probably the only place where the interests of Moscow and Washington didn’t clash. After the US invaded Afghanistan, Moscow rendered substantial assistance towards defeating the Taliban and played its role as a mediator to make a political transition possible. Moscow joined the US-led military alliance against the insurgents; actively supported NATO counter-terrorist operations against the Taliban, and did not raise any objection to the deployment of NATO troops in military bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The logic that prevailed in the Kremlin at the time was that Washington and its allies were fighting Russia’s potential enemies and thus removing one of the most potent external military threats to the Russian Federation. As Moscow sought to increase its influence and promote its interests in Central Asia, it was content to leave Afghanistan to the US-led coalition.
By 2014, the US and its allies had reduced their security presence to an almost symbolic one (less than 8,500 troops), which persuaded Russia that Washington was no longer a reliable external security guarantor and that Moscow should consolidate its influence in Afghanistan on its own by working closely with other regional powers. Consequently, Moscow’s influence in Afghanistan increased significantly. It is important to note that Russia reached out to the Taliban long before the Trump administration. In 2016, Russia hosted the first diplomatic summit on Afghanistan and since then several important peace conferences have been held in the country.
Russia’s willingness to accept a major role for the Taliban in the political system has increased in recent times. On the other hand, the US accuses Moscow of supporting and even secretly supplying arms to the Taliban. As the Taliban consolidate their power, Russia views its policy of providing support to them as an insurance policy for the future. Furthermore, even though the Islamic State (ISIS) group’s ability to threaten the security of the North Caucasus and Central Asia region has diminished, Moscow seeks to guard its southern flank from a potential ISIS revival. In this context, Russian interests objectively coincide with the Taliban as both perceive the ISIS and its local branch (Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISKP) as a threat. In his meeting with the Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Lavrov expressed his concern about the “rise in terrorist activities and march of ISIL in the north and east of the country (Afghanistan).”
Russia’s growing interest in Pakistan today is chiefly because of the latter’s geo-strategic significance and its key role in the Afghan peace process. However, despite its growing ties with Islamabad, Moscow is highly unlikely to jeopardise its relationship with India. New Delhi has been Moscow’s ally for decades. India was one of the very few countries that did not condemn the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Moreover, Russia has long been the main supplier of military equipment to India. India-Russia defence ties remain strong and the Kremlin hurriedly agreed to supply fighter jets to the IAF in the wake of the February 28, 2019 Indo-Pak aerial skirmish. Despite the threat of US sanctions, New Delhi is likely to go ahead with its purchase of the S-400 missile defence system. Before landing in Pakistan, Lavrov discussed plans to set up a manufacturing unit in India to produce Russian weapons under the ‘Make in India’ initiative with his Indian counterpart. The two countries also initiated talks on creating a free trade zone between India and the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia sees New Delhi as a significantly larger market than Pakistan. Islamabad is a relatively small power undergoing serious political and economic turmoil, which cannot compete with India’s booming economy and increased persona on the world stage.
Therefore, Moscow’s cosying up to Islamabad is likely to have been aimed at sending New Delhi a message that the Russians are ready to boost ties with the Pakistanis in the event that India continues to strengthen its partnership with the US (as a bulwark against China). It is worth noting that in a recent interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close aide and confidante Vyacheslav Nikonov said that India should not take Lavrov’s trip too seriously, because Islamabad hardly figures on Russia’s foreign policy agenda. Also, the Russian establishment views Islamabad as the US’s regional proxy. The Russians have not forgotten that Pakistan served as a base for the US intelligence operations against the Soviet Union and, more importantly, was the main base for the 1980s Afghan Mujahideen resistance against the Red Army. Similarly, Islamabad is wary of Moscow’s historic relationship with India. This means that Pakistan-Russia ties are still a long way from posing any concern to New Delhi.
Hassan Basharat is an independent geo-strategic analyst, with a keen eye on South Asia and other zones of conflict. He can be contacted at Hassan.email@example.com