Russia and Pakistan
Extensive interview on Russian-Pakistani relations that Andrew Korybko gave exclusively to Mr. Muhammad Taimur Khan of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI) and which was published in the July 2017 edition of The Diplomatic Insight.
1. A great shift has been witnessed in Pakistan-Russia relations lately. In your opinion, what are the reasons behind this change in the attitude of both the countries towards each other (given the soured relations between both countries in the past)?
Russian strategists and decision makers conceptualize their country’s 21st-century geostrategic role as being the supreme balancing force in the Eurasian supercontinent, owing both to Russia’s opportune position on the landmass and its history of leadership. This role can’t be fulfilled if Russia has problems with any of its counterparts in Eurasia, hence the urgent need to rectify any existing issues and enter into rapprochements with those parties. It certainly helps if there’s an overlap of contemporary interest in doing so, such as there is with Pakistan nowadays concerning the War on Afghanistan and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the latter of which is understood more broadly by Russia as advancing the trend of Eurasian integration and is therefore in alignment with the country’s grand strategy.
To delve more deeply into the case of Russian-Pakistani relations, it must be understood that Moscow’s envisioned balancing role forms the guiding philosophy behind all of its outreaches towards Islamabad, and that all other convergences of interest proceed from there. Daesh (also known as ISIS/ISIL/IS) has dangerously moved into Afghanistan over the past couple of years, and this presents a pressing threat to the security of the Central Asian Republics, some of whom have mutual defense agreements with Russia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan through the CSTO) or are part of the same general integration organization (all of the aforementioned plus Uzbekistan as per the SCO).
Russia fears being drawn into a Central Asian anti-terrorist quagmire and would prefer to proactively defeat terrorism in Afghanistan through the use of secondary forces, whether the Kabul government or more recently the interest in passively supporting the Taliban in this capacity. The costs of losing the anti-terrorist struggle in Afghanistan would be enormous for Russia, since the consequent destabilization of the Central Asian Republics would trigger an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the region which would likely manifest itself as a human tidal wave of refugees flooding over Russia’s largely unprotected steppe-Siberian border with Kazakhstan. For all intents and purposes, this could end up dwarfing the recent migrant crisis from the Mideast to Europe, and the strategic damage that this could wreak on Russia justifies describing the process in Harvard researcher Kelly M. Greenhill’s terms as “Weapons of Mass Migration”.
Therefore, it is of time-sensitive necessity for Russia to engage with Pakistan in cooperatively working towards a political solution to the War on Afghanistan, understanding that Islamabad must be an inseparable part of any conflict resolution process there. Moreover, the entrance of Daesh to the Afghan battlefield has completely changed Russia’s calculations towards that conflict and has encouraged it to see the pragmatism of Pakistan’s long-held position that the Taliban are effective anti-terrorist fighters which must be incorporated into any eventual solution to the war. All in all, the Afghan conundrum takes precedence in inspiring the Russian-Pakistani rapprochement and determining the contours of their future engagement, but there’s also another factor which must be included in the analysis as well, and that’s the premier role that the South Asian state is slated to play in the future of Eurasian integration.
CPEC has the very real potential of turning Pakistan into the zipper of pan-Eurasian integration because of the prospects that it holds for linking together China, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAU), Iran, and SAARC, and furthermore it’s the flagship program of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) global vision of New Silk Road connectivity. OBOR has full strategic complementarity with the EAU and SCO, and it represents the practical hard infrastructural manifestation of Russia’s own Eurasian integration vision. Although CPEC won’t directly run through Russian territory, there’s the possibility that branch routes could be extended through Xinjiang to Central Asia and beyond in order to eventually connect to Moscow. Also, Russia’s “Pivot/Rebalancing To Asia” could see the Xinjiang-bordering Siberian territory of the Altai Republic connected to CPEC through a northern-focused branch route as well. This could help Russia develop its Asian/Siberian region by giving the largely landlocked resource-rich area access to the global marketplace.
To wrap it all up, Russia’s grand strategic vision of becoming the supreme balancing force in the Eurasian supercontinent motivated its leadership to look beyond its historical issues with Pakistan and bravely commence a game-changing and comprehensive rapprochement with Islamabad in order to tackle the common challenge of the War on Afghanistan (particularly after Daesh’s entrance to the battlespace) and work together in a win-win partnership through CPEC.
2. Does Russia have a comprehensive policy towards South Asia, as it has remained more country-specific in the past?
At this moment in time, Russia’s foreign policy in general is undergoing a transformation as Moscow transitions to a new paradigm of conducting its International Relations, which as described in the previous answer, is the fulfilment of what its leadership believes to be the country’s historic role in balancing affairs all across Eurasia. This can’t be accomplished if Russia shows partiality towards one or another state in a given region, which is why it’s been persifying its relations in South Asia all across the board and with every single actor. In view of this, it doesn’t yet seem as though Russia has formulated a comprehensive policy for the entire region, though it does by every indication look to be crafting one right now.
Most directly pertinent to Pakistan is Moscow’s relations with Islamabad and New Delhi, both of which have experienced a notable change over the past couple of years. Russia’s balancing strategy isn’t directed against anyone, nor is it meant to be for anyone’s benefit either. Rather, it attempts to be just that – balancing, or finding equilibrium – in order to put Russia in the position to ensure stability in the various regions of Eurasia, in this case South Asia. It’s pertinent to compare Russia’s policy to India’s heralded one of “multi-alignment”, though unlike how the latter hides behind this slogan to overtly side with the US against China, Moscow has no such intentions whatsoever and is actually practicing the said policy as it’s supposed to be. The same also goes for Pakistan, which has a history of seeking perse relationships in order to balance between multiple actors and especially Great Powers.
Because of Russia’s balancing vision, it understandably needs to have country-specific goals that its diplomats work towards achieving, and the broad nature of Moscow’s pan-Eurasian strategy means that this covers every country in the landmass, including all of those in South Asia. It was already described how Russia broadly goes about doing this as it concerns Pakistan and India, but a few words should be said about the other states in South Asia as well.
Bangladesh is the next most relevant state as it relates to Russia’s South Asian strategy, and the two sides are working together on arms shipments and nuclear energy cooperation, the latter field of which has become something of a diplomatic-strategic outreach tool for Moscow in recent decades. The entire mainland South Asian region stretching across Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh provides a plethora of business opportunities for Russian entrepreneurs, though the lack of economic integration between these three parties owing to the institutional failings of SAARC (attributable to Indian intransigence against Pakistan) means that separate strategies need to be crafted and implemented in each case. In addition, each country has different advantages that Russia sees in it – Pakistan is the closest geographic partner with the highest degree of future accessibility through CPEC and access to the Indian Ocean; India has countless infrastructure investment opportunities; and Bangladesh is one of the centers of the global garment industry.
All three share the need for more energy, which thus provides a crucial opening for Russia’s state-owned companies to enter into their respective markets, whether through building a gas pipeline like in Pakistan or nuclear reactors such as those under development in India and Bangladesh.
As is known, South Asia also includes Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Malpes, though Russian policy here is less defined and has no clear strategic stimuli. Russian tourists are known for their proclivity in visiting “exotic” non-Western vacation spots, so it’s possible that more of them might go to these destinations (especially Sri Lanka and the Malpes) in the future, which in that case could help form the foundation for developing bilateral state-to-state relations even further. Concerning the two Himalayan states, Russia’s federal officials would do well to consider ways in which they can encourage religious interaction between their indigenous Buddhist population in the Far East and their counterparts in Bhutan, which could help bring the two sides together in a unique and creative way. As for Nepal, it would be wise for Russia to craft a tangible policy towards this country in order to work on improving its position in this geostrategically crucial state at the literal center of the Chinese-Indian New Cold War, though for now, there aren’t any visible signs that this is a priority for Moscow.
Reflecting on the abovementioned insight, observers should recognize that Russia is making concerted efforts to persify its South Asian relationships from their former Indo-centricity and to something more fair and balanced (“multi-alignment”). This transition will take some time because Russia’s Soviet-era specialists on the region are entering into retirement, and the new generation which is replacing them is still learning the best ways to fulfil their country’s grand strategic goal of Eurasian balancing. Nobody should expect this process to be a fast one, and it will undoubtedly experience twists and turns before it’s perfected, but the elaborated policies explain what Russia wants to accomplish and why it’s been adjusting its relationships in South Asia over the past couple of years.
3. Besides cooperation in defense terms, what other areas of cooperation exist, or could be explored by Pakistan and Russia to further strengthen their bilateral ties?
The significance of the incipient defense relationship between Russia and Pakistan mustn’t be understated because it forms the backbone of their developing rapprochement and serves as the most symbolic manifestation of Moscow’s new strategic thinking towards South Asia and Eurasia in general. What differentiates Russia from the US in this field is that Moscow’s” military diplomacy” is always aimed at reinforcing the existing balance of power between various parties and preventing one or the other from acquiring a decisive enough advantage that they’re compelled to initiate a war. For example, Russia sells weapons to Armenia & Azerbaijan, India & China, and China & Vietnam, three pairs of partners at serious odds with one another, though none of which have received any military wares from Moscow which could disrupt the balance of power.
This is important to reflect on because it could form the basis for an enhanced defense partnership between Russia and Pakistan, one which would obviously draw India’s ire but couldn’t reasonably be argued as “directed against” New Delhi or a “betrayal” of the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership. Thus far, Russia’s defense exports to Pakistan have helped strengthen Islamabad’s anti-terrorist capacities, but the trust and goodwill that these shipments have thus far fostered could help form the basis of a more conventional military relationship in the future which might one day involve jets, tanks, and other munitions if the right circumstances unfold. Russia understands that India is one of, if not the, largest defense partners that it has, though the prevailing trend in recent years has been that New Delhi is “multi-aligning” its defense partnerships with those of the US, “Israel”, Japan, and France, all of which is chipping away at Moscow’s former market dominance in this strategic sector.
Understanding “which way the wind is blowing”, it’s sensible for Russia to seek out other arms markets in South Asia, and nowhere in the region is better than Pakistan because of the potential that this sort of an expanded defense partnership could bring in boosting Russia’s balancing credentials in Eurasia as per its grand strategic vision in the 21st century. This is why the existing small-scale defense relations between Russia and Pakistan mustn’t be dismissed, because further confidence-building exercises such as last fall’s historic Druzhba 2016 joint drills could put the two sides on an accelerated trajectory of deepening these ties in response to the ever-changing power dynamics of South Asia, all with the intent of solidifying Russia as the supreme balancing force in South Asia, unlike the disruptive one that the US and its “Israeli”-Japanese allies are becoming.
Having explained all of that, there are indeed other avenues of prospective cooperation that Russia and Pakistan can explore in the coming future, and the most important of course relates to Afghanistan. The Russian capital already hosted three Moscow peace conferences within the past six months, and Russia’s stance towards the conflict has markedly begun to align with Pakistan’s in terms of the envisioned political and anti-terrorist role of the Taliban. This represents a profound change in Russia’s strategic calculus and is mostly attributable to the fear that Moscow has of Daesh infiltrating into the Central Asian Republics and destabilizing them as per the scenario outlined in response to the first question of this interview. Lacking the political will and military capability to decisively intervene in Afghanistan once more, Russia prefers instead to leverage diplomatic solutions using the most directly involved regional stakeholders such as Pakistan in order to make progress on the anti-terrorist front.
Daesh can’t be defeated if the Taliban and Kabul are fighting one another more than their focusing on the terrorists, which is why the Moscow peace initiative sought to find some sort of implicit common ground between the two Afghan actors in order to see them redirect their military efforts against Daesh instead. Pakistan plays a pivotal role in all of this because of its historic relations to both parties and the simple fact that it shares the longest border with Afghanistan out of all of Kabul’s neighbors. Russian-Pakistani strategic coordination in the Afghan context will serve as the driver for further cooperation between the two sides, and is already becoming the crucible on which their new era of relations is being formed. The mutually beneficial convergence of interests in seeing the defeat of Daesh, the recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political actor in the Afghan context, and the war-torn country’s stabilization is bringing the two parties together at an astounding rate, and each side’s strategists deserve to be commended for successfully charting this new strategic course between the two.
Apart from mutual concerns surrounding the Afghan conflict, Russia and Pakistan also stand to deepen their cooperation with one another through the energy sector, which is already ongoing through the construction of the North-South gas pipeline. Russian specialists are world-renowned for their professionalism in this sphere, which is why it was to Pakistan’s best interests to contract them for this purpose. The developing energy cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is symbolic as well, since it demonstrates to the rest of the world that the two parties are working together in a realm of traditional cooperation between Moscow and its partners, though surprisingly in an untraditional geographic region. The North-South pipeline shouldn’t be seen as the full extent of their energy cooperation, but as the beginning, since it holds the potential of expanding their partnership into the import-export capacity sometime in the future.
For example, Russia’s rich Siberian resources could be piped south through Xinjiang and along the CPEC route to enter the Pakistani marketplace if political relations continue to develop along their presently positive trajectory and the right price can be met for this arrangement. There would, however, be natural competition with the TAPI pipeline, so this proposal should be seen as a possible idea and not as a concrete policy suggestion right now. If TAPI for whatever reason doesn’t get built, then the “Altai-Xinjiang” Pipeline would be the best alternative for satisfying Pakistan’s energy needs for a mainland pipeline route.
Additionally, Russia’s LNG exports from the Far East island of Sakhalin could be directed to Pakistan too, though it’s here where Moscow would enter into competition with Doha, which is also vying for the same marketplace. The changing Mideast power dynamics brought about by the Gulf Crisis/GCC Cold War are creating an opportunity to form a grand “gas OPEC” alignment between Qatar, Iran, and Russia, which could potentially see these three players bring Turkmenistan on board as well in “piding” Eurasia up between them. If this comes to pass, Russia and Qatar might reach an LNG exporting arrangement between them to decide who sells to which South Asian state, so in that case, Moscow might export to India while Doha could sell to Pakistan.
Lastly, the final frontier of cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is through CPEC, both in its infrastructural but more likely commercial dimensions. Moscow is reluctant to officially get involved in CPEC due to New Delhi’s concerns about the initiative, and therefore Russia feels compelled to “balance” between the two South Asian states and abstain – at least for now – from formal participation in its projects. Understanding that, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that Russian companies won’t utilize CPEC upon its completion, since there’s nothing that the Russian state can do to prevent private companies from using the infrastructure of a foreign country. To the contrary, Moscow could encourage them to do this in order to help develop Central Asia and Siberia. There is still a long way to go before that happens, though, but the successful initiation of real-sector economic cooperation between Russia and Pakistan via CPEC and its prospective Central Asian and Siberian branches would cement the relationship between the two and give it a wide-ranging, robust, and comprehensive substance.
4. In your opinion, what opportunities and overlapping benefits lie in economic cooperation between Pakistan and Russia?
There are several forms of economic cooperation that can be discussed – energy, investment, financial, and commercial. The first one was described in answering the third question, and it’s that Russia’s construction of the North-South gas pipeline opens up future opportunities for the country’s state-owned energy companies in Pakistan, potentially going as far as making Moscow an energy supplier to Islamabad via an overland trans-Chinese pipeline or LNG shipments. The North-South pipeline is a mighty investment in Pakistan, but it shouldn’t be the only one to mark the renewed relations between both sides. Russia and Pakistan should work together to brainstorm other spheres of investment cooperation between the two sides, potentially in the transport sector. However, Russia will likely be careful to not be seen as formally participating in CPEC because of the damage that this could have for Russian-Indian relations. Nevertheless, it can be argued that all investments in Pakistan at this moment in time are in one way or another linked to CPEC, so Russia might not be able to get around that perception and should in that case partially embrace it.
Financial cooperation between the two erstwhile rivals could see the form of energy-related loans associated with new projects, or the use of national currencies in bilateral trade and investment. Pakistan’s inclusion in the SCO gives Russia the chance to work more closely with its new South Asian partner as the reformed organization takes on more of a multilateral integrational role, including in the economic sector. The tentative SCO Bank could function as the platform for Russia and Pakistan’s larger financial interactions with one another, as could the progress being made on clinching a free trade agreement between the Russian-led EAU and Pakistan (or one day, even more broadly SAARC). From the reverse perspective, Russia could also use Pakistani investments to complement Moscow’s courting of non-Western economic partners during the ongoing sanctions war with the West. The specific areas of investment would have to be determined by relevant professionals and experts, but it’s conceivable that agriculture could be something that Pakistan might be interested in.
About real-sector commercial relations, these will be greatly augmented by the completion of CPEC and its branch expansions to Central Asia and Siberia. If timed to coincide with the blossoming of bilateral investments in one another’s economies, this could see a harmonious exchange of commercial products between the two, such as the Russian import of Pakistani textiles and/or the Pakistani import of Russian agricultural products. Like the last answer concluded, the convocation of a strong real-sector economic/commercial partnership between Russia and Pakistan would cement their bilateral relations and in turn further the development of political, military, and ultimately strategic ones as well, so this should be seen as the ultimate goal towards which both sides should aspire. It won’t happen right away, and there are certain structural and geographic limitations to its development, but it’s certainly not an impossible task, and the outcome would be tremendously positive for each of them.
5. Pakistan and China enjoy strong and cordial relations with each other, so are Sino-Pak ties an encouraging factor to boost Pak-Russia ties too?
The fraternal relations between Pakistan and China most definitely encouraged the formation of stronger Russian-Pakistani relations, too. In fact, it can be reasonably speculated that China played an indispensable role mediating between the two parties at the beginning of their historic rapprochement, considering the high-level and comprehensive strategic relations that China has with both of them. Russia and Pakistan’s common friend in China made Beijing the “balancer” between them and allowed the People’s Republic to facilitate the initially cautious reconciliation between its two allies. It must have been reassuring to Russian decision makers to know that their trusted Chinese friends had vouched for Pakistan’s integrity in being adamantly opposed to terrorism in all of its manifestations, which clearly contrasts with the Indian-backed information warfare which had previously dominated the discussion on this topic. That alone may have given Russians pause to think about whether the Pakistan of today is still the Pakistan of the late-Cold War-era Afghan conflict, thereby helping them to come to terms with the present-day reality and dismissing the propaganda that they’d been fed about Islamabad across the past few decades.
China’s role in brokering the new Russian-Pakistani friendship can only be speculated, of course, but it makes sense that Beijing was Islamabad’s backer in talks with Moscow. Given the heavy dose of Indian influence in Russia, there are few other plausible scenarios except for China’s diplomatic intervention which could have succeeded in convincing Moscow that Islamabad wasn’t the “terrorist-exporting failed state” that New Delhi had consistently presented it as. Extrapolating further from this, the logical implications are that Russian-Chinese ties are taking precedence over what can now be seen in hindsight as the long-lost era of “Rusi-Hindi Bhai Bhai”, in that Russian-Indian relations are now purely transactional and have less to do with strategic coordination than cold hard cash benefits. Moreover, if China – as it convincingly appears – managed to persuade Russia to see the real Pakistan and look past the propagandistic one promoted by India’s soft power agents, then it’s obvious in hindsight what sort of ramifications that had on the Russian-Indian relationship, as Moscow would have then come to distrust New Delhi, which is exceptionally relevant as it relates to India’s “explanations” about its new military-strategic partnership with the US.
About that, Russia clearly understands that the US is its primary – and even existential – geopolitical foe, though it also accepts that its own partners have their own relations with Washington, and that Moscow has no right – nor interest – to interfere with this. The problem, however, comes down to perceived “double-dealing”, whereby one state’s new and unprecedented relations with the US stand the chance to offset the strategic balance in a given region, and the said state’s representatives offer flimsy – or outright false – “justifications” for it. India’s accelerated all-sector relationship with the US is a perfect example of this, as New Delhi tries to hide behind the slogan of “multi-alignment” while deliberately making moves to partner up with Washington against Beijing. Remembering how Russia envisions itself as being the supreme balancing force in Eurasia, it shouldn’t be difficult to see why Moscow distrusts New Delhi to a large degree, especially if China did in fact convince Russia that India was lying this whole time about Pakistan. Russia surely wouldn’t expand relations with a “terrorist-exporting failed state” such as what India presents Pakistan as being, so that in and of itself proves that Moscow no longer believes New Delhi’s rhetoric, both about Islamabad but also Washington.
The chief reason for Russia’s strategic rethinking towards Pakistan and India is China, and even other factors such as the geostrategic ones earlier expostulated upon in the interview also played a role as well, it was Beijing which crucially helped broker the rapprochement between Moscow and Islamabad.
6. Will the nexus between Pakistan, Russia and China (as displayed in the Afghan peace process) further consolidate in the near future, and how will it help in boosting regional cooperation in Asia?
Russia, China, and Pakistan are fast becoming a Eurasian power bloc in their own right, though one which doesn’t satisfy the “traditional” definition of an “alliance”. Instead, it’s better to conceptualize the three as sharing several key interests which drive their strategic convergence. The first has to do with Eurasian integration, which aligns with Russia’s grand vision and the outreach efforts of the EAU. It also plays out through CPEC, and China is the magnet which draws Russia and Pakistan into more closely integrating with one another via a forthcoming partnership between the EAU and CPEC (whether officially stated or de-facto). Secondly, all three Great Powers have very pressing concerns regarding Afghanistan, hence the formalization of their partnership through the incipient Moscow peace process. And finally, the third issue that brings Russia, China, and Pakistan together is India; Beijing and Islamabad face serious security challenges from New Delhi, while Moscow is seen by them as having the capability to “balance” the two sides and thus keep India restrained in order to ensure regional stability.
Altogether, the confluence of interests that Russia, China, and Pakistan share in furthering the goal of Eurasian integration, defeating terrorism in Afghanistan, and “balancing” the US’ new ally India creates a critical mass of strategic gravity which holds the three Great Powers together. Each of their shared goals is long-term and visionary, and none of them can be accomplished right away, which implies that their trilateral relations will expectedly strengthen as all parties leverage their respective advantages in pursuit of these objectives. In practice, observers can expect closer multilateral coordination between the three parties on merging the New Silk Road/OBOR (which includes CPEC), the SCO, and the EAU. They can also look forward to these Great Powers working together to offer joint creative solutions to the War on Afghanistan, which has already taken the form of extending differing degrees of political/normative support to the Taliban.
As for India, Russia will do its best to retain relations with its long-cherished partner in spite of the qualitatively changed nature of moving from top-level and holistic strategic coordination through “Rusi-Hindi Bhai Bhai” to accepting the purely transactional form that their relationship now takes. While it might seemingly look to some as though Russia is being “partial” towards India, nothing of the sort is actually taking place given the equally – if not more – positive substance of Russian-Chinese relations, to say nothing of Russia’s outreaches to Pakistan which have proven Moscow’s balancing intentions. It’s altogether better for Pakistan and China if Russia retains its influence in India because that could lead to Moscow exercising some (ever-lessening) degree of responsible influence over New Delhi that could ultimately play out to their collective benefit in indefinitely retaining the status quo in South Asia despite active American-“Israeli”-Japanese efforts to offset it to India’s favor.
7. Is there any chance in the near future of Russia formally joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project?
Russia more than likely will abstain from any formal government-to-government participation in constructing CPEC out of prudent consideration in protecting its relations with India, as per the previously explained reasons detailed in the answer to the last question. Nevertheless, the Russian government already expressed its indirect approval of the project after President Putin announced during the recent SCO gathering in Kazakhstan that his country will work to integrate the SCO and the New Silk Road/OBOR. This was undoubtedly a signal to India that it needs to behave responsibly as a newly inducted member of the SCO, meaning that if it doesn’t want to take part in CPEC and the Silk Roads, it doesn’t have to, but it shouldn’t obstruct them through the US-backed Hybrid War on CPEC otherwise this puts it at odds with Russia’s strategic vision for Eurasia.
It remains to be seen whether Modi will take Putin’s warning at heart or not, though there aren’t any grounds for optimism that he will, though that’s in and of itself a separate topic of discussion.
To return back to Russia’s possible involvement on CPEC, it’s already thus far been established that Moscow will not formally partake in constructing this project (at least not yet), but it can’t stop any of its private companies from doing so or utilizing this network after it’s been completed. Therein lies the nuance behind the Russian approach – on the one hand, Russia won’t visibly join CPEC in order to keep its relations with India in good standing, though on the other, it will silently make use of the project through its non-state actors after the fact in order to reap the expected strategic pidends, particularly as they relate to expanding Russia’s trade with its desired non-Western partners and eventually developing Siberia as per its “Pivot/Rebalancing to Asia”. In practical terms, Pakistan should understand that Russia supports CPEC, but is wisely playing its cards in the best manner possible by not being too open about it, as this in turn allows Islamabad and Beijing to benefit from the balancing/restraining influence that Moscow could have on New Delhi.
8. Why is Russia still reluctant to formally join the CPEC project even though it can immensely benefit from it?
Russia’s reluctance is totally attributable to its partnership with India, since New Delhi might have conveyed to Moscow that it would be a “red line” in their relationship if Russia were to formally get involved in the project. As was explained in the prior answer, this doesn’t prevent Russia’s companies from joining and utilizing CPEC, but just that the Kremlin itself must be careful to not appear as though it’s too openly backing such moves at this moment in time. The Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership is undergoing radical changes and has been evolving over the past couple of years, so there’s a chance that it might weaken as a result of the US influencing India to more assertively disrupt the strategic balance that it has with Pakistan and China. In such a case, and amid a possible fraying of the Russian-Indian relationship due to Moscow refusing a possible ‘ultimatum’ from New Delhi to overtly side with it over Islamabad and Beijing, then it’s indeed conceivable that Russia would rethink its official position towards CPEC and announce its formal involvement.
That, however, is only a speculative scenario, albeit one which mustn’t be ruled out given the prevailing trajectory of India’s relations with both the US and Russia, especially if Modi ignores Putin’s implied (key word) ‘warning’ against interfering with the integration of the SCO and OBOR through the Hybrid War on CPEC.
Whether Russia actively takes part in CPEC’s construction or not, the fact remains that the country and its companies will still be able to benefit from the project’s completion, so it’s ultimately a moot point to discuss the topic of Moscow joining this initiative. Surely, doing so would send a very strong symbolic message to India, and it would also provide a powerful surge to Russia’s soft power in Pakistan, but given the reasonable constraints influencing Russia’s decision on this topic, it might be for the “greater good” that it’s visibly keeping CPEC at arm’s length for now, at least on the official level. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the retention of Russia’s relationship with India is fundamentally important to China and Pakistan because of the “moderating” influence it could have over India, though this is admittedly lessening with time as the US-“Israeli”-Japanese strategic triangle stands to overpower the Soviet-era legacy of Russia’s hard and soft power in India. Still, for the time being and with an eye on the future, it’s more advantageous for Russia to give a wink-and-a-nod of approval to CPEC than to formally join it and damage its relations with India.
9. Do you feel the Indo-Russia relationship is changing? How would you analyze the relationship in contemporary times?
One of the fastest- and most profoundly-changing historic relations in modern times is the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership, which has moved past its Soviet-era high point of full-spectrum strategic coordination under “Rusi-Hindi Bhai Bhai” to become mostly transactional in nature. The reasons for this paradigm shift are manifold, but it has to equally do with both parties’ changing strategic priorities. The dissolution of the USSR left the Russian Federation successor state in a poor position to attend to the needs of its historic Indian partner, which in turn pushed New Delhi to accelerate its prolonged Western pivot. It needs to be said at this time that India didn’t begin its outreaches to the US in the 1990s, but actually in the 1980s under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi and the tradition of having every single full-term Indian Prime Minister address a joint session of the US Congress, so what essentially happened was New Delhi simply exploited the changed geopolitical situation in the world to advance a trajectory that it had already been on, albeit with the original intent of “balancing” between both superpowers in the closing decade of the Cold War.
Moreover, the basis of the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership is the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which originally had a lifespan of 20 years and would then be automatically extended for five years thereafter unless either party decided to terminate it. For all intents and purposes, it’s symbolic that the Soviet Union dissolved the same year that the treaty was set to expire, as this created the ‘plausible’ pretext for India to more assuredly shed its “balancing” pretense and concentrate more thoroughly on what would eventually become the game-changing military-strategic partnership that it clinched with the US in summer 2016 through the Logistics Exchange Memorandum Of Agreement (LEMOA). What India wanted to do in the 1980s with the USSR is the same thing that it’s trying to do in the 2010s with Russia, and that’s apply the (then-presumed) slogan of “multi-alignment” to justify closer relations with the US at Moscow’s expense and get the two powers to enter into a fierce series of never-ending concessions for India’s loyalty which would play out to New Delhi’s ultimate benefit.
That didn’t happen in the 1980s because of the slow pace at which the policy unfolded, and nowadays Russia accepts that there are clear limitations to its relationship with India and that it can’t compete with the US on the economic-commercial front. In and of itself, Russia shouldn’t have to see the US as a competitor in the military or nuclear energy industries that Moscow has traditionally dominated in, but the fact that it does shows that India’s “multi-alignment” is actually preconditioned on diminishing Russia’s influence and replacing it with the US’, although more rapidly than during the 1980s when this seemed almost impossible to countenance. To be fair, though, Russia is also rapidly moving just as close to China as India is to the US, so the larger dynamic taking place here is that the New Cold War between the US and China is taking on Russian-Indian dimensions, though a few words need to be said about the Chinese orientation of Russian geopolitics right now.
Russia and China used to be heated rivals during the Old Cold War, and the US’ masterful “flipping” of Beijing into Washington’s camp during the last decades of that global struggle was a pivotal power play which made it all that more difficult for Moscow manage the American-directed “containment” against it. The Soviet dissolution in 1991 left a legacy of four now-independent states along China’s borders, with all of the attendant disagreements that this entails. The resolution mechanism for multilaterally solving the post-Soviet states’ border disputes with China was the Shanghai Five, which eventually transformed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) following Uzbekistan’s 2001 inclusion and the Russian-Chinese Friendship and Cooperation Treaty of that same year. The US’ simultaneous Hybrid Wars against Russia and China in Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively, in 2014 brought both sides together in an unprecedented way and strategically backfired against Washington. However, India also felt the consequences due to its hyper-nationalist Hindutva leadership’s “zero-sum” mentality as opposed to the Russian-Chinese perception of “win-win” relations.
India interpreted the grand Russian-Chinese alignment of 2014 as being a threat to its interests and implicitly aimed against it, given the obsession that New Delhi has with Beijing and its ally in Islamabad. In response, India doubled down on its pro-American pivot, capitalizing off of the nuclear energy cooperation agreed to under the Bush Administration to expand ties to the military-strategic sphere under Obama’s LEMOA. All told, a strong case can be made that the US is “poaching” India out of the multipolar bloc in a similar manner and with the same strategically decisive consequences during the New Cold War as it did with China in the Old Cold War. Russia somewhat belatedly came to this realization and woke up from the slumber that the “Rusi-Hindi Bhai Bhai” slogan had put most of its decision makers under until that point, aided as they were by China’s silent diplomatic intervention in helping to broker the Russian-Pakistani rapprochement due to their shared concerns surrounding Afghanistan. Again, instead of understanding events through the “win-win” prism that all genuinely multipolar countries are applying nowadays, India’s decision makers clung to their “zero-sum” interpretations in order to “justify” making further progress on their long-desired goal to clinch a military-strategic partnership with the unipolar US.
As it presently stands, both Russia and India understand that they’re “on opposite sides” of the New Cold War between the multipolar and unipolar “blocs”, with Moscow visibly closer to Beijing just like New Delhi is presently the same with Washington. Despite their strategic pergences, both Great Powers are of such geographic distance to one another that neither of them poses any sort of a “threat” to the other, which has helped to stabilize their relations during this somewhat tumultuous transition and actually given them a reason to deepen aspects of their (now-)transactional-dependent relationship through more weapons deals, nuclear energy cooperation, and the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) through Iran and Azerbaijan. Therefore, while the nature of their relationship has evidently changed in many ways, it still retains several common points of convergences which will likely stave off any significant or accelerated weakening in the coming future, barring any unforeseen American-inspired scenarios to sabotage this partnership. As such, Russia still has irreplaceable strategic value to China and Pakistan in being their only trusted partner capable of having a chance to influence India in a positive way and prevent the US from completely upending the strategic balance between these three interconnected parties.
10. Russia has been a very close ally to India. Will Indo-Russia ties impact Pakistan’s bilateral ties with Russia?
Russia’s close relations with India are a godsend for Pakistan because it allows Islamabad the opportunity to leverage its growing relations with Moscow in having its new partner exert “balancing” influence between the two South Asian rivals. Seen from the “zero-sum” perspective common in Indian academic and decision-making circles, this is to the “benefit” of Pakistan and “detriment” of India, though if viewed from the “win-win” angle presently applied by Russia, this is mutually beneficial for South Asian stability because it can work to offset the US’ actions in trying to tilt the regional balance in India’s favor and encourage it to launch a war. It might sound unrealistic, but there are still some in the Indian establishment who are reasonable, level-headed, and don’t ascribe to the “zero-sum” mentality of the Hindutva nationalists. These inpiduals have plainly been sidelined ever since Modi came to power, but they nevertheless exist.
Moreover, the national interests of India shouldn’t be conceptualized by the ideology of whatever party is in power, but by the state’s enduring geopolitical position, which demonstrates that the country has infinitely more to gain by constructively integrating with its neighbors and maintaining peaceful relations with them than isolating itself from the New Silk Roads/OBOR and provoking regional tensions. Understood in this manner, then Russia’s balancing act in South Asia is more to India’s benefit than the Hindutva leadership might believe. Additionally, similar points can be said about Pakistan’s perspective concerning Russia’s Indian relations. It is to Islamabad’s benefit for Moscow to retain and even strengthen its ties with New Delhi in order for Russia to be stand any chance at “moderating” (to whatever degree it might eventually be) the ultra-aggressive policies of the ruling BJP Hindutva nationalists.
It’s of course very optimistic to expect Modi and his RSS backers in Nagpur to implement Russia’s constructive and implied advice, but it’s best for everyone for there to be excellent Russian-Indian relations in the event that another party eventually comes to power which is much more pragmatic than the BJP and genuinely supports the multipolar tenets of the SCO and BRICS. Therefore, while Indians and Pakistanis alike might be suspicious of Russia’s relations with their neighboring rival, such fears are unfounded and revealed to be exaggerations (no matter how apparently convincing to both sides) the more that one becomes acquainted with Russia’s 21st-century grand strategic vision of becoming the supreme balancing force in Eurasia.
11. In this globalized world, no country can live in isolation or aloof from its neighbors or regional countries. How is Russia planning to balance relations between India and Pakistan while maintaining the fragile state of peace and stability in the region?
Russia must proceed very delicately if it’s to succeed in managing relations between India and Pakistan and balancing between them, as the wrong move or too abrupt of a pivot in either direction could jeopardize its hard-fought relations with either party. As it stands, Russia is proceeding slowly but surely in carrying out a comprehensive rapprochement with Pakistan, one which is most immediately influenced by their shared interests in Afghanistan but which has the potential to evolve into a military-economic partnership with time. Concerning India, relations have been moving in the opposite direction as New Delhi steadily replaces Russia’s nuclear energy and especially military influence with that of the US-“Israel”-Japan unipolar trilateral, though Russia is still India’s dominant partner in both fields and the two Great Powers are trying to streamline the NSTC to reinvigorate their long-dormant economic-commercial relationship.
Russia’s apolitical relations with India and Pakistan shouldn’t raise any concern in either rival capital, but it’s when Moscow’s policies begin to take on political-strategic contours that the other gets suspicious. India doesn’t like how Russia’s position on the Taliban almost perfectly overlaps with Pakistan’s nowadays, nor does it feel comfortable with Russia’s low-scale export of select anti-terrorist equipment (helicopters) to Pakistan. Likewise, some decision makers in Pakistan would rather that Russia didn’t help build up India’s military and nuclear capabilities because they fear that these technologies will eventually be directed against their country in times of war. This dichotic dynamic is paradoxical if not properly explained to either party, but it becomes sensible when Russia’s partners realize the wisdom behind Moscow’s South Asian balancing act and its envisioned Eurasian role in general.
What needs to happen, then, is for Russia to officially or discretely convey to its partners the reason behind its outreaches to their rivals, and to consistently engage in trust-building exercises such as diplomatic coordination or military deals with both parties in order to preserve its good standing in their eyes and calm any concerns that arise from its engagement with their neighbor. Any fast moves in one direction or the other could endanger this fragile balance and initiate an irreversible security dilemma which undermines the delicate equilibrium that Russia’s been working towards, which explains why there are rarely any dramatic announcements out of the ordinary concerning Moscow’s bilateral relationships with the other.
When there are, such as the Moscow peace conference which initially counted only Pakistan and China as Russia’s two guests last December, reciprocal moves are made to court favour with the other such as including India in the other meetings. In addition, Russia also goes to great lengths to explain why it’s making the moves that it does, such as reminding everyone of the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership when negotiating the S-400 deal with New Delhi or raising awareness about Daesh to justify its diplomatic engagement with Pakistan in Afghanistan. There’s no guarantee that either side will always believe Russia’s explanations, but what’s important to focus on is that they’re both plausible and consistent with Russia’s established interests, which altogether should prove to non-partisan observers that Moscow wants to become the most reliable and neutral balancing force in Eurasia throughout the course of this century.
12. Terrorism is a menace being faced by almost every region and country in the world. How can Pakistan and Russia help each other in rooting out this threat from the region?
Russia and Pakistan are engaged in an anti-terrorist partnership in order to stop Daesh from using Afghanistan as a launching pad into Central and South Asia. Since the war-torn country straddles each Great Power’s respective home region or ‘sphere of influence’, it’s to their mutual benefit to join forces in stamping out this threat before it becomes uncontrollable. To that end, the Russian-Pakistani anti-terrorist partnership is active in the military, diplomatic, and economic spheres, with each one complementing the other.
Concerning the military dimension, both sides partook in the unprecedented Druzhba 2016 joint exercises last fall, which was the first time in their histories that such a drill took place. While generally thought of as a symbolic exercise to mark their fast-moving rapprochement, there were also practical reasons for it as well. Russia was able to share its anti-terrorist experiences from Syria, while Pakistan did the same from Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Islamabad gained key insight from Moscow’s fight against Daesh, while Moscow was able to learn how Islamabad successfully swept terrorists out of its mountainous border region, a lesson which could come in handy if there’s ever a return of large-scale violence to the Northern Caucasus. Russia is also helping to augment Pakistan’s anti-terrorist capabilities through the sale of four attack helicopters to the South Asian country. This, just like Druzhba 2016, is more symbolic than anything, but it also importantly functions as the first step in a formalized and potentially larger-scale military partnership.
Concerning the diplomatic element of their anti-terrorist partnership, Russia and Pakistan are cooperating in the format of the recently unveiled Moscow peace process that aim to achieve broad recognition of the Taliban as both a legitimate political actor in Afghanistan and the country’s most effective anti-terrorist fighting force against Daesh. Some conference participants such as India and the US might never agree to this no matter how long the talks go on for, but it’s important to recognize that Russia doesn’t realistically expect them to either. Instead, Moscow is going through the motions of ‘diplomatic inclusivity’ to show that the new peace process is open to all, but later on down the line there’s a possibility that the core Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, Central Asian, and maybe even Iranian members will break off to form their own concentrated grouping dedicated to achieving rapid progress in this direction if they can all agree on the Taliban’s role and convince Kabul of it too. Again, it’ll take a lot of time to do this and it might eventually be all for naught, but as of now, this is Afghanistan’s most promising multilateral diplomatic initiative aimed at ending the war.
To address the last dimension of anti-terrorist cooperation between Russia and Pakistan, there has barely been any progress on this front thus far, but it will eventually become the most important later on as both sides seek to sustain the anti-terrorist gains brought about by their military and diplomatic partnership. It’s been widely thought that terrorists thrive in poor economic conditions because they can more easily recruit disadvantaged and resentful inpiduals to their cause, especially among the youth. In order to pre-emptively combat this and ensure that prior anti-terrorist progress isn’t rolled back, it is absolutely imperative that liberated areas receive some sort of economic support. Ideally, it’s best if this assistance isn’t just hand-outs and subsidies, but reliable and real-sector opportunities such as those provided by the New Silk Roads, OBOR, and CPEC. The only conceivable way to deter the resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan following the end of the war (and presuming the withdrawal of foreign occupation troops) is to integrate the country into these three aforementioned projects plus the SCO and Russian-led EAU. This vision is still years away, but both sides need to have a plan for implementing it once the opportune moment arrives.
13. The US is desperately luring significant South Asian countries in order to regain the foothold it had here in the past. In spite of the massive aid being poured into Afghanistan, the US has significantly lost touch with the region strategically and naturally. This vacuum is bound to be filled by a regional power and Russia seems to be one of those capable of doing so. Will Russia be willing to do this? If yes, then how?
Russia is more interested in working with regional powers and stakeholders to ensure stability in vacuum-prone regions than directly taking that role on for itself. The exception to this is of course Syria, but even there, Russia is actively “balancing” between all non-terrorist sides in the conflict and trying to mediate a “political solution” to the war that could allow it to significantly scale back its military presence in the country. Russia wants to “Lead From Behind”, to use the American phrase, in the sense that it contributes to shaping the conditions that empower its relevant partners to take ownership of the security situation in their regions. Through this manner, Russia can balance between the involved parties in getting them to see the multilateral self-interest in pursuing regional stability, after which it can then manage the improved situation through traditional and military diplomacy in order to keep the peace.
How this relates to South Asia is complicated, but can best be explained by Russia’s interconnected approaches to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The last question addressed Afghanistan, so there’s no need to rehash it too much aside from reminding the reader that the Russian-Pakistan rapprochement, the Great Power Tripartite between Russia-China-Pakistan, and the resultant Moscow peace process are being used to advance a workable multipolar solution to ending the war. Concerning Pakistan, the interview has already more or less covered the main contours of Russia’s rapprochement with the country, which is dually concentrated on achieving peace in Afghanistan and pragmatically cooperating on apolitical projects such as energy and eventually infrastructure. As for India, that dimension was also discussed thus far in the interview, with the most relevant point being that Russia is hoping to use its influence with New Delhi as an avenue for “moderating” its aggressive foreign policy, which is highly optimistic but noble nonetheless.
In order to more fully appreciate Russia’s balancing role in South Asia, it’s necessary to describe the disruptive one that the US has been playing lately. Washington and its Kabul proxy allowed Daesh to enter Afghanistan because they thought that it would destroy the Taliban, and they’re also using the conflict-strewn country’s territory as a staging pad for India’s Hybrid War on CPEC. This directly threatens Pakistan’s national security and could even become an existential risk to it if the Baloch separatist movement gains terrorist traction. Pakistan is being squeezed from both the Afghan and Indian sides as punishment for CPEC, as the US wants to prevent China from obtaining unhindered non-Malacca access to the Indian Ocean through which most of its energy and trade traverses. India, therefore, is being groomed for the New Cold War proxy role against China that China itself had against the USSR in the Old Cold War. Taken together, the risk for state-to-state conflict in South Asia is exceedingly high as a result of the US’ strategic machinations and intrigue.
Russia’s responsibility as the envisioned supreme balancing force in Eurasia is to prevent a major conflict from occurring, but Moscow understands that it has obvious limitations in its diplomatic-military capabilities. Russia doesn’t aspire for leadership in South Asia, but wants to balance all sides in order to indefinitely maintain the regional equilibrium and forestall the prospective conflict until a more responsible party comes to power in India. This of course isn’t openly stated because it would be the height of “political incorrectness” to openly admit, but Russia seems to recognize that the Modi-led BJP Hindutva government in India is hopelessly opposed to the New Silk Roads, OBOR, CPEC, and Eurasian integration in general except through the NSTC. This creates serious complications for the efficacy of the SCO and Russian grand strategy in general, and further diminishes the prospects that Russia could lead in South Asia even if it wanted to. Rather, Russia’s policy – to reiterate it once more – is to take the lead in balancing all actors in order to retain stability, but not to lead on its own because it lacks the political will and capabilities to realistically do so in this day and age.
14. The US is frantically trying to maintain its presence and influence in the South Asia region through various means, while Russian influence and interest in the region also seems to be growing with each passing day. In your opinion, do you think that there is going to be another Cold War?
There already is a New Cold War, but it’s not just between Russia and the US, nor is it limited to South Asia. This is a very expansive topic to speak upon, but it can be succinctly said that the New Cold War is the friction between the existing US/Western-led unipolar order and the emerging multipolar one being pioneered by Russia, China, and Iran. This has been ongoing to various degrees ever since the dissolution of the USSR, but became more noticeable and influential after 9/11 and especially following the US’ simultaneously launched Hybrid Wars against Russia and China in Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively, in 2014. There are other contours to this global struggle aside from recent geopolitics, as the ambitious attempts to reform the global financial and economic systems play a large part in this far-reaching conflict.
In addition, there are several states whose “allegiance/loyalty” to either “bloc” isn’t clear-cut, and India and Pakistan both fell into this category until recently. New Delhi was flirting with BRICS and committed to cooperating with the Great Power framework in order to help reform the global financial system, though it’s lately become China’s chief geopolitical rival in Asia per the US’ proxy designs. Pakistan, for its part, has been balancing between the US and China for decades, but lately threw its weight decisively behind Beijing in hosting CPEC, which thus makes the country the most important New Silk Road state in the world outside of China. The contradiction between Pakistan’s participation in OBOR and India’s intransigence in refusing to join the global initiative has resulted in the Hybrid War on CPEC, which is more about the global proxy war between the US and China than it is about India and Pakistan.
To elaborate a bit more on this observation, one needs to appreciate the transformative implications of OBOR, and especially its CPEC core. China has embarked on the historically unprecedented task of reforming Western-led globalization into a more equitable model for all players, hence its desire to connect them all to one another through Chinese-constructed and –financed infrastructure projects, which also serve its high-level self-interest of providing markets for the overproduction emanating from the People’s Republic. China needs to offload its excess capacity in order to keep its population employed, which in turn prevents social strife and potential Color Revolution destabilization. CPEC is the spine of the emerging Multipolar World Order because it aspires to provide China with unrestricted non-Malacca access to the Indian Ocean through which most of its energy and trade traverses, thereby “unleashing the dragon” from its “containment chains” in the South China Sea and completely freeing its foreign policy.
For this reason, the US is adamantly opposed to CPEC and recruited India as its bulldog for attacking it. It wasn’t hard to convince New Delhi to take this task upon itself, seeing as how much hate the Modi-led Hindutva ultra-nationalist BJP already has for China and Pakistan, let alone the flagship cooperative project between them which runs through territory that India claims as its own. This explains the origins behind the latest conflict dynamics in South Asia, whether between India and Pakistan, Indian-backed Afghanistan and Pakistan, or India and China. The central point of gravity in the New Cold War is therefore shifting to South Asia as all parties converge on CPEC, be it to destabilize the project or reinforce it through investments and political support.
South Asia isn’t the only scene of New Cold War tension between the multipolar and unipolar blocs, as the Balkans, Mideast (West Asia), Afghanistan (Central Asia), and Southeast Asia are also part of this struggle to for differing reasons, but the strategic element uniting these theaters is that they’re generally located along the Eurasian Rimland and are being targeted in order to “contain” Russia, China, and Iran through a ring of crises as per Brzezinski’s “Eurasian Balkans” theorem/blueprint. Respecting that the focus of this interview is on South Asia, however, there’s no need to further elaborate on the shape of the New Cold War in those other regions, though it needs to once again be emphasized that this is all connected because the US is pulling out all the stops in unleashing “manageable chaos” all across Eurasia in order to offset Russia, China, and Iran’s transformational progress in transitioning the existing American-led unipolar system to an emerging Multipolar World Order.
Due to Pakistan’s pivotal role in hosting CPEC, it can also be said to have joined the coalition of nations actively working to reform the global system, but its irreplaceable geographic role in facilitating this is why it’s the top Hybrid War target of the New Cold War.
15. What is Russia’s stance on Pakistan’s induction into the Nuclear Suppliers Group? Does it support Pakistan’s point of “Criteria-Based Approach” of inclusion into the exclusive group?
Russia has made a point of supporting India’s entry into the NSG and has been shy about publicly commenting on Pakistan’s bid, but that’s a deliberate choice that it made for strategic reasons. There’s no plausible scenario where Russia would oppose Pakistan’s entry but support India’s; rather, it’s being quiet about its position towards Pakistan in order to avoid rattling India. This in many ways mirrors its attitude towards CPEC – Russia has given off signals of support for both initiatives, but is withholding full and official approval in order to retain its relationship with India and thereby remain in a position of influence within the country. If Russia were to have ‘violated’ the political sensitivities of its Indian partner by openly backing CPEC and Pakistan’s approach to the NSG, then it wouldn’t be amiss to suggest that New Delhi would have almost immediately cancelled some of its military and nuclear contracts with Russia and replaced them with American, “Israeli”, and/or Japanese companies instead.
There are definitely many limitations to what India can do in this regard, especially considering the amount of time and training it would take to rapidly transition from Russian military systems to Western ones, for example, or the large-scale economic and energy consequences of reneging on the nuclear deal with Moscow, but India is nevertheless in the unique position where it could also exert limited influence on Russia through simply hinting that this self-inflicted punishment to its own strategic interests is an option to also “harm” Russia if Moscow “betrays” it in what New Delhi would see as the most spectacular manner possible. Like it was mentioned earlier in the interview, the geostrategic situation is steadily shifting all across the world, and the conditions might arise where Russia could more confidently back CPEC in public without drawing India’s wrath (such as if New Delhi moves too rapidly toward Washington and the rest of the “China Containment Coalition”), but for now, both sides are somewhat restrained in terms of how they can influence the other without inflicting serious damage to their own interests.
To get back to the question at hand, everyone should always keep Russia’s envisioned balancing role in mind because this explains why Moscow is somewhat very cautious and shrewd in its diplomacy, whether over CPEC or the NSG. This sometimes leads to disappointment and calls for Russia to “do more”, but the fact is that Moscow is managing a very delicate balancing act in South Asia and elsewhere, and that it can only do so much without “rocking the boat” and undermining its own grand strategy. For these reasons, no one should get their hopes up that Russia will publicly trumpet Pakistan’s positions in the international diplomatic arena, but that also doesn’t mean that it will oppose them either like in the past. In and of itself, this should be seen as a win-win approach through which Russia can equally please India and Pakistan, though the ruling authorities in India probably don’t see it this way due to their “zero-sum” understanding of International Relations which influences them to view anything short of sharply condemning Pakistan as “supporting it against India”.
Even so, India knows that it can’t reasonably make such a case in public to its partners such as Russia, and can only grumble to them in private to voice their concerns. New Delhi isn’t willing to endanger the mutually advantageous relationship that it has with Moscow simply because Russia wasn’t “just as Indian as the Indians” in international fora. If, however, and at this specific moment in time (the conditions of which are subject to change), Russia were to become “just as Pakistani as the Pakistanis” by pivotally becoming a partisan player on Islamabad’s behalf and at New Delhi’s perceived soft power expense, then it’s almost certain that India would mull taking retributive action against Russian interests even at the risk of self-inflicted strategic harm. Conclusively, the best position that Russia can be in at the moment is the one at present, which sees Moscow implicitly support Islamabad but not openly enough to the point that New Delhi is pushed to react.
16. What is Russia’s stance on the special waiver given to India by the US? Did it affect Indo-Russia relations after its implementation?
By all indications, Russia is aware that India is trying to play it off against the US in order to reap the best deal from both parties, all per its policy of “multi-alignment” which is in reality a thinly veiled excuse for progressively pivoting towards the unipolar world. Nuclear energy cooperation is among the highest forms of partnership that any country can have with another, so the fact that the US is courting India ever more in this direction proves that Washington intends to “flip it” to its camp and eventually against Beijing. Russia really can’t do much in stopping India’s sovereign right to decide its own partners in whatever the sphere may be, nor does it want to, but it should safely be assumed that this event telegraphed a clear signal of India’s strategic intent to Russia, even if some in the decision making echelons didn’t fully understand it at the time or chose to overlook it.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the slogan of “Rusi-Hindi Bhai Bhai” is very emotive and evokes romantic memories of a bygone era of Soviet leadership in the world, one which Moscow will never again be able to recreate in the same form owing to the radically changed geostrategic conditions since 1991. Nevertheless, most of the South Asian experts working in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs either came of age during that high point of Soviet power or had that slogan instilled in their hearts from their older and more experienced peers. There’s a tremendous amount of Indian influence in Russia, be it in its Foreign Ministry, media, or even general perceptions among common folks, and the unforgettable words of “Rusi-Hindi Bhai Bhai” capture that sentiment perfectly because of the time period that they evoke.
For all of the feel-good memories associated with that slogan, however, its influence is quickly fading due to the events discussed throughout the course of this interview, and objective experts are nowadays coming to terms with the fact that the relationship has changed to such a degree that “America-Hindi Bhai Bhai” is a more accurate saying to describe New Delhi’s most presently important relationship. Neither Russia nor India are fully “abandoning” the other, but it’s just that their strategic priorities have shifted towards China and the US, respectively, though Moscow’s “win-win” philosophy in recent times has somewhat blinded it to New Delhi’s “zero-sum” interpretation of International Relations. Russia’s “strategic awakening” in belatedly realizing this is why it took so much time for it to embrace China at the level that it’s lately done and to commence the long-overdue rapprochement with Pakistan.
17. The US lately agreed to sell $2-3 billion worth of armed drones to India. What is your take on the matter and how do you think it will affect the strategic balance in the region?
Looked at in a vacuum, this may not seem like that significant of a move seeing as how all countries are purchasing drones for their militaries, but what’s important here is to look at how this deal fits into the continuum of the unprecedented military-strategic partnership between the US and India. The US’ policy is to always disrupt the regional balance in every area of the world that it’s involved in, but apart from its dramatic conventional wars on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, for example, it either attempts to do this indirectly through Hybrid Wars such as during the theater-wide Color Revolution attempt popularly known as the “Arab Spring” or via incremental measures like its weapons deals with India and other players.
The qualitative difference that each military deal has on boosting India’s capabilities might not be large enough to observe, but taken together, the collective effect of multiple deals can ever so slightly shift the power balance in India’s favor, especially depending on the theater that it plans to concentrate its new assets in. The American strategy is to embolden India to the point where it feels confident enough to “counter/contain” China and Pakistan, as the US would phrase it, which implies more aggressive cross-border action against both of them with the disturbing prospects of triggering a large-scale hot war. Before it gets to that point, and barring any unintended escalation by the Hindutva hyper-nationalists (which is a real enough possibility that shouldn’t be discounted), the US wants India to be in a position that it could be relatively confident in its military capabilities in such a conflict.
This is why the US has taken its time in fostering military relations with India and focusing not on an holistic approach that’s meant to openly rival Russia’s strategic role in supplying the country’s armed forces, but a separate case-by-case one intended to boost various capabilities which could cumulatively give India the advantage (or self-perception thereof) that it needs to embark on more assertive military action against China and Pakistan. Returning back to the example of the drone deal, this is meant as a response to China’s naval (particularly submarine) presence in the Indian Ocean and as a first step to more robustly improving India’s maritime capabilities in its namesake body of water. Taken to its eventual conclusion a decade or two down the line, the US wants to ‘outsource’ leadership in this ocean to India per Washington’s tried-and-tested “Lead From Behind” proxy model for countering its rivals, which in this case is China.
18. Given the unorthodox style of governance of the current US President Donald Trump, what would be the US foreign policy towards the South Asian region, particularly Pakistan?
It’s very difficult to predict exactly what Trump’s policy will be towards Pakistan, but considering this decision maker’s personal biases, it’s likely that he views the country in the simplistic and stereotyped sense of being a “Muslim terrorist-exporting Chinese ally”, which hits all the “red flags” in his mind concerning Muslims, terrorism, and China. If that’s the case, then Trump’s approach to Pakistan will probably be negative, such as recommencing drone strikes against it and applying concerted international pressure to pin the blame for regional terrorism squarely on its doorstep. In accordance with this operative understanding, he would also ramp up the Hybrid War on CPEC using Indian-trained and Afghan-based proxies against the Pakistani province of Balochistan.
On the other hand, if Trump’s advisors are smart, then they’ll downplay their leader’s personal prejudice against Pakistan and understand the crucial role that Islamabad must play in bringing peace to Afghanistan, though provided that an end to the war is what they’re really looking for. If the Trump Administration and the permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (or “deep state”) behind it have disowned their country’s previous decades-long policy of using Afghanistan as a springboard for exporting regional chaos, which is intended to catalyse the “Eurasian Balkans” and equally damage Russia, China, and Iran’s strategic security, then they’ll find a way to pragmatically engage Pakistan while still giving overall preference to India due to its “Lead From Behind” proxy war role against China.
Additionally, a Machiavellian approach could also be employed if Trump tries to use make a scene out of his sincere or disingenuous outreaches towards Pakistan in order to reap even more strategic pidends from India. In that scenario, Pakistan would function as nothing more than a ‘useful idiot’ in going along with Trump’s purportedly pragmatic proposals only to be betrayed later on once the US squeezed as much as it could from India, assuming that New Delhi is still playing “hard to get” in some ways and hasn’t yet surrendered most of its sovereignty to Washington. The highly publicized economic and environmental disagreements between the US and India hint that there’s “trouble in paradise” on some fronts, though not large enough to offset their military-strategic partnership. Nevertheless, under such pretexts, Trump might try engaging more with Pakistan in order to make India feverishly jealous and get it to enter into unilateral concessions in order to “win back” the US, all according to Washington’s ultimate plan.
19. What options are there for Pakistan to effectively maintain balanced relations with Russia and the US simultaneously?
The primary thing that Pakistan needs to realize is that its relations with the US will never return to what they once were, for better or for worse. On the one hand, the US used to (and still does to a large extent) provide Pakistan with millions of dollars in military and other forms of aid, and it used to favor Islamabad as its preferred South Asian partner. On the other hand, however, this came with immense physical costs to Pakistan as Afghan-based terrorists spilled over the border and ended up killing around 60,000 martyrs thus far, some of which were slaughtered in spectacular and highly publicized attacks which destroyed the country’s international image. In addition, the US used to regularly bomb Pakistan with impunity, speculatively because of a deal that it had with the government. This, too, cast a very dark shadow of Pakistan’s international reputation and eroded its credibility as a sovereign actor, let alone a Great Power.
Considering the lucrative benefits that came with Pakistan’s prior relationship with the US, it’s understandable why some decision makers would want to return to that level of relations, while it’s equally reasonable why some would be opposed to this for the dangerous and humiliating reasons just mentioned.
At the end of the day, however, everything qualitatively changed the moment that Pakistan agreed to CPEC in spring 2015. From that moment onwards, there was no chance that the US would ever return to any semblance of legitimate “partnership” with Pakistan because the country was thenceforth seen as China’s geopolitically irreplaceable bridge to the Indian Ocean, which of course carries with it profound implications for American grand strategy. Therefore, no matter what Pakistan might say or do, unless it opts out of participating in CPEC (which won’t happen), it’s impossible for the US to “favor” the country like it used to. Instead, Pakistan is now the most important target of an active Hybrid War anywhere in the world, and this is all being carried out by India with implicit approval from the US. Considering the existing strategic context, a possible course of action that Pakistan can pioneer is to find ways to make the US or its national companies stakeholders in the country’s stability in the hopes that this will eventually cause the US to downscale its asymmetrical proxy aggression against the country.
The first idea that likely comes to anyone’s mind when thinking about this is to emphasize Pakistan’s role in as a transit state for supplying and equipping the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, but that only goes so far as decent leverage because it presumes that the US is indeed interested in bringing peace to the country and behaving as a constructive actor within its borders. That has yet to be seen, and most likely, never will because the US appears to be applying the Brzezinski theorem of fomenting “controlled chaos” in the “Eurasian Balkans” in order to create pressing geostrategic challenges for Russia, China, and Iran. As fate would have it, Afghanistan sits right at the junction between those three states (understanding that Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ in Central Asia makes it a direct security stakeholder as well), so it’s a very attractive state for the US to destabilize in pursuit of those aims. Pakistan would immediately be impacted by that development, too, as it already has been since the War on Afghanistan began in 2001, but now it too will become a deliberate target owing to its hosting of CPEC.
The way that the US perceives regional events, it is much more in Washington’s interests to destabilize Afghanistan to the extent that it becomes a regional exporter of terrorism against Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan than to constructively work together with Islamabad to end that years-long conflict. It’s admittedly a cynical approach, but it’s difficult to argue with the logic referenced in coming to this conclusion. The US might temporarily work closely with Pakistan as it and its NATO underlings ship more troops, armor, and supplies to Afghanistan, but the dual purpose behind doing this is just to create a public front that it’s “serious about fighting terror” and also to throw India’s Hindutva nationalist government into a jealous frenzy which pushes it to enact a series of unilateral concessions on all fronts in order to deepen its military-strategic relations with the US and “win Washington back” from Pakistan. Either way, Pakistan is slated to (once more) be an American pawn in a larger regional game, and its leadership needs to keenly understand this before deciding how it needs to tailor its future relations with the US.
It’s not being inferred that Pakistan should become “hostile” or “anti-American”, but just that it needs to understand that cooperation with the US is short-term and based on the temporary convergence of shared interest, but that there can no longer be any far-reaching and “trusted” relationship like the former perception (key word) of how their ties used to be. There is no conceivable scenario where the US would agree to allowing Kabul to host peace talks with the Taliban unless this decision was undertaken out of a position of immense weakness and desperation, which probably won’t happen for as long as the US is “surging” more of its troops into the country, no matter how numerically small of an amount it might further deploy. The symbolism behind recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political actor in the country at the same time as the US is doubling down its military presence there once more would amount to an unspeakable humiliation for the Trump Administration which has built part of its foreign policy brand on being “hard against terrorism” (as it sees the Taliban as a “terrorist group”).
Washington’s approach is the polar opposite of Islamabad’s, so there’s really no incentive for Pakistan to support the US in Afghanistan aside from imploring it to target the actual terrorists of Daesh, though even such statements would be more superficial than substantial because it’s unlikely that this is the sole mission of the incoming US troops for the earlier described reasons. Accepting that American-Pakistani military relations will remain unbalanced as regards Afghanistan, this raises the question about their purely bilateral nature, which is probably expected to suffer so long as the US sides with India in accusing Pakistan of “sheltering terrorists” and “launching cross-border terrorist attacks” against Indian occupation forces in Kashmir. It’s possible that existing US military aid might eventually be perted from Pakistan to India on the false pretext that New Delhi is a “more effective” “anti-terrorist” state than Pakistan is. The cause for such rhetoric won’t just be to satisfy domestic US public opinion, but to create the conditions whereby the Hybrid War on CPEC can be accelerated in a generally open manner, whether by the US itself with drone strikes or India’s RAW through terrorism.
Pakistan is again placed in a bend, and for once, it’s actually almost impossible for it to “balance” anything with the US, unlike it thought it could do in times past. The country’s geopolitical fate as an enduring “enemy” of the US was sealed when it agreed to CPEC, but this doesn’t mean that the US can or will immediately intensify its Hybrid War campaign against the country and its flagship series of infrastructure projects. If Pakistan were to find a way to entice American and other Western investors to partake in CPEC, then this could “cushion” the country (or parts of it) from coming under an intense attack. However, it shouldn’t also be dismissed that the participation of many Westerners in CPEC could also become a major security liability, as the death of these said nationals at the hands of RAW-backed terrorists (perhaps with the US’ own blessing) could prompt the US to exploit the situation and commence even more drone strikes within Pakistani territory, including those which “accidentally” hit CPEC projects or Chinese workers in the country.
All in all, it’s going to be very difficult for Pakistan to convince the US to downscale or indefinitely suspend the Hybrid War on CPEC, since there’s nothing that Islamabad could offer Washington aside from the impossibility of abandoning the project that could spare it from the escalation of this already ongoing conflict. It’s probably much better, in that case, to not care too much about American sensitivities since the Pentagon is already working with RAW to offset CPEC anyhow, and for Pakistan to more confidently embrace China, Russia, and even Iran in strengthening the shared strategic Afghan-Central Asian space between them as a multilateral preparatory measure for withstanding the coming terrorist onslaught which is slated to emanate from Afghanistan. Interacting with the US from a position of collective strength is bound to yield better gains for Pakistan than dealing with it one-on-one in a position of relative weakness and as an already asymmetrically targeted “adversary”. Of course, the US might show its hand and become openly hostile against Pakistan in that case, but then decision makers shouldn’t be surprised or “blame” themselves or their Eurasian partners, but see that as America finally being honest with Pakistan about its strategic intentions.
20. What effects will Pakistan’s balanced bilateral relations with Russia and US have on South Asia, particularly Pakistan?
To reiterate, it’s going to be extraordinarily challenging for Pakistan to strike any sort of “balance” in its relations with the US because of the fact that Washington now regards Islamabad as an “accomplice” to what it perceives to be Beijing’s “bid for global power”, so there’s almost no way that the US will look past this game-changing geostrategic fact in order to narrowly cultivate positive relations with Pakistan at the expense of trying to stop CPEC. Imbalance, not balance, will come to define the relations that Pakistan has with the US and its much more reliable Eurasian partners. There’s no way to compare the Chinese-Pakistani Strategic Partnership with the sham of an “anti-terrorist” “alliance” that the US-Pakistani one was supposed to be, especially considering American support for Afghanistan’s state-to-state aggression against Pakistan in recent years and its clandestine backing of RAW terrorists waging war in Balochistan and beyond.
Even bearing in mind that the Russian-Pakistani Strategic Partnership is still in its early stages, it still can’t be compared to Islamabad’s relations with Washington. Russia and Pakistan faced off in Afghanistan during the 1980s, while the US and Pakistan cooperated there to an extent in the 2000s. Islamabad “won” the first war but “lost” the second, and remaining in a high-level “partnership” with the US isn’t going to change that. In fact, it’s the whole reason for Pakistan’s present “defeat” (if it can be looked at in such a way) and why the Afghan state apparatus has turn against its neighbor and is even welcoming Indian military-terrorist influence into its eastern borderlands for this purpose. Faced with this ever-growing predicament, the best course of action for Pakistan is to expand its relations with Russia, China, and Iran in order to counter the strategic disaster that Afghanistan is becoming for all of them, and the developing Moscow peace process attempts to do just that through encouraging tighter multipolar Eurasian coordination in tackling the country’s conflict.
The consequences of this imbalance between Pakistan’s “traditional” relations with the US and its “new” ones with Eurasia will reverberate all throughout South Asia because it’ll make the country ground zero in the Hybrid War on China (as waged against CPEC), though there’s really no practical way to get around this eventuality. Pakistan won’t abandon CPEC, so it’ll therefore remain the prime target of joint US-Indian destabilization operations. Accordingly, Pakistan should work with its Eurasian partners in order to strengthen its anti-terrorist capacities even further and publicly shed light on what’s going on in order to instructively inform the masses about the new strategic state of affairs in their country, region, hemisphere, and the world more generally. The combined capabilities of the Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Pakistani information apparatuses should be more than enough to make a convincing case to those in the world who care to listen that South Asia is becoming the central battleground in the New Cold War between the multipolar and unipolar forces.
It’s uncomfortable to think about and will probably trigger accusatory remarks of “fear mongering”, but the sooner that Pakistani strategists, decision makers, and the political leadership accept this inevitability, the less behind the curve they’ll be in defending against this eventuality, and the more collective of a response they’ll be able to harness in protecting their country. It’s largely ‘outdated’ to think in terms of a “bloc mentality”, but as a simplified (operative word) explanation for what’s taking place in Eurasia nowadays, it’s essentially the multipolar bloc of Russia-China-Pakistan vs. the unipolar one of the US-India-Afghanistan, with Iran throwing its weight behind the multipolar forces but with the potential of playing a double game against Pakistan if RAW is successful in convincing it that India-backed cross-border attacks are some sort of “conspiracy” hatched by Islamabad. This is the reality of the present-day geopolitical situation surrounding Afghanistan, and it’s the guiding dynamic which will determine Pakistan’s relations with the US going forward.
21. What changes in Pakistan’s foreign policy would you recommend to help the country boost ties with Russia and the US?
Pakistan should confidently embrace its geopolitical destiny in serving as the spine/zipper of the emerging Multipolar World Order due to CPEC and unabashedly tighten its relations with its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian partners, preferably in as multilateral of a manner as possible. Even though this isn’t intended to be “against” anyone, let alone the US, there’s no doubt that America will perceive it as being directed against its regional interests, but there’s nothing that Pakistan’s “win-win” leadership can do to dissuade America’s “zero-sum” one from interpreting events in this way. There’s a certain degree of responsibility with taking this step due to the expected American reaction, but then again, decision makers need to ask themselves whether it’s worth delaying the inevitable bad press and intensified Hybrid War on CPEC just for the sake of temporarily humoring the US, or if it’s better to accept these two outcomes as they’re predetermined to be in order to get a head start on defending the country from what it’s bound to face.
The short-term and superficial “benefits” of Pakistan playing along with the US and pretending that there isn’t any irreconcilable strategic contradiction between them due to CPEC pale in comparison to the ones that can be reaped by responsibly working together with other interested and targeted Eurasian stakeholders. Any unilateral concessions that Pakistan enacts in order to “calm” the US only work out to the disadvantage of its national interests and the collective ones that it shares with its new Eurasian partners, and they could further harm Islamabad’s reputation by making its Great Power peers condescendingly see it as an unreliable and mercurial player, or in other words, the “weak/sick” man of the supercontinent. Even Turkey, which is nominally “allied” with the US through NATO of all institutions isn’t shy about sharply speaking out against Washington for supporting terrorism against Ankara by arming the PKK-aligned Syrian Kurds. Pakistan could learn from its time-tested partner how to behave in publicly defending its national interests and working to elevate itself to the level that it can speak to the US on equal state-to-state terms.
Washington only respects power, and so long as Islamabad defers to the US’ strategic will in attempting to “balance” between it and its new Eurasian partners, it will only come off as weak and confused to American strategists, who will then seize the moment to “pounce” through intensifying the Hybrid War on CPEC regardless. Remember, nothing is being inferred whatsoever about Pakistan becoming “hostile” towards the US or “anti-American”, but just that it needs to remain confident in its capabilities as a nuclear-armed Great Power under strategic siege in a two-front asymmetrical war against CPEC, and that its geopolitical fate was determined once it decided to go forward with China’s OBOR flagship project. It’s still possible for Pakistan to pragmatically and constructively work with the US and retain some elements of their erstwhile partnership such as economic ties and diplomatic collaboration, but the relationship has fundamentally changed over the past couple of years and will never return to its previous state.
Therefore, all of Pakistan’s engagements with the US going forward need to be conducted from the position of confident strength and not in any way give off the sense that Islamabad is desperately trying to “balance” in order to delay Washington’s inevitable wrath.
22. How can Pakistan make its foreign policy more robust and effective?
Pakistan has already made impressive strides in adapting its foreign policy in line with the country’s geopolitical destiny as the “Zipper of Eurasia”, though the next logical step is for it to expand upon these existing ties and strengthen them in the direction of boosting relations with Russia and Iran. There aren’t any more problems impeding the partnership between Moscow and Islamabad, but the same can’t be said for ties with Tehran, which have traditionally been marked by mild distrust for the past couple of decades and are presently under strain due to RAW’s repeated attempts to use false flag terrorism in provoking a border clash between the two neighbors. Even so, relations are pretty much stable between the two countries, but they still leave plenty to be desired if multipolarity is to thrive in the “Greater Heartland” of Eurasia. Accordingly, Pakistan needs to prioritize the bettering of relations with Iran, perhaps even requesting that its all-weather Chinese friend and recent Russian partner assist it in this regard, seeing as how it also works to their grand strategic interests to see the strengthening of ties between these two states.
Pertaining to the US, it’s been argued all throughout the last part of the interview that Pakistan must remain confident in its standing as a proud nuclear-armed Great Power and not be bullied by Washington into enacting any sort of concessions towards the US, nor to approach it from a position of weakness which could be perceived as “desperation” or “begging”. Pakistan is, and always has been, a very strong country, and its geostrategic profile is astronomically rising given its important role in CPEC and inseparable part of any forthcoming resolution to the War on Afghanistan. These two factors alone make it an attractive partner for Russia and others, and while Moscow can never compensate with the ‘incentives’ that Washington could dangle before Islamabad, at least Russia is sincere in its partnership and will follow through on everything that it promises without attaching any political preconditions. The same naturally can’t be said for the US, which has the polar opposite approach to relations with Pakistan. It’s therefore impossible for Pakistan to “balance” ties with the US, so it must instead persify them by seeking out new partners such as Russia and even Iran which could help it form a collective front in opposing Washington’s aggression.
By Andrew Korybko