The post-Cold War strategic landscape in Eurasia saw the emergence of the Multipolar Trilateral of Russia, India, and China in the late 1990s and early 2000s, brought about by the dedicated diplomatic efforts of Russia’s former Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. These three Great Powers would later form the basis for BRICS, and the pragmatic relations between them underpinned stability in a large swath of the supercontinent during those two decades. Everything began to unravel in 2014, however, with the election of Narendra Modi from the Hindu nationalist BJP as India’s current Prime Minister, and he quickly took advantage of the incipient strategic relations that his predecessors established with the US to develop a full-fledged and all-around partnership with it over the past four years.
This pivot, which India unconvincingly claims is a “balancing act”, subverted the Multipolar Trilateral that it was previously in with Russia and China. Washington succeeded in trapping New Delhi and Beijing in a “security dilemma” that it thenceforth exploited to turn India against China in the New Cold War just as it did with China against the Soviet Union in the Old Cold War. India still aspires to deepen its cooperation with Russia, but the relationship is no longer the same as it once was decades ago when the slogan of “Rusi-Hindi Bhai Bhai” was enthusiastically voiced by each other’s citizens. Although there’s indeed a strategic element in Russian-Indian relations due to the military and nuclear spheres that they still cooperate in, the relationship lacks the robustness that characterizes other strategic partnerships across the world and has pretty much become about mutually advantageous pecuniary interests.
Russia recognized this trend a few years ago when it decided to take the unprecedented step of entering into a fast-moving rapprochement with Pakistan motivated by their shared security concerns stemming from Afghanistan. Both Great Powers enjoy excellent relations with China, but their ties with one another had been severely marred by their heated rivalry during the Afghan War of the 1980s. Nevertheless, in consistency with Russia’s 21st-century desire to become the supreme balancing force in the Eurasian supercontinent, Moscow undertook the responsibility to reboot its relations with Islamabad and begin from a clean slate. The timing couldn’t have been better because this untraditional partnership holds with it the potential for restoring stability to South Asia after India’s pro-American pivot threatens to undermine it, especially in the aftermath of the US-Pakistani strategic split at the beginning of this year.
Pakistan’s geography endows it with the potential to become the “Zipper of Eurasia” and accordingly replace India in the Multipolar Trilateral, but a lot of work still needs to be done before this could be the case. Russian-Pakistani relations lag far behind each respective country’s ties with China, forming the “weak” link in the relationship whose strengthening must be prioritized in the near future if this prospective format is to ever enter into practical force. Unlike some other states elsewhere in the world, Russia and Pakistan’s foreign policies are chiefly led by the members of their permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies, or “deep states”, and not by business or organic soft power influences in the private sector. This means that the driving force behind their rapprochement will continue to be the state, thus making its more directly related interests in the military and security sectors more immediately important than those in the economic and political ones in this instance.
The guiding concept is that the comprehensive betterment of Russian-Pakistani relations, specifically along the military-security axis but also including the economic-political one as well, will allow for the creation of a new Multipolar Trilateral between them and China to replace the outdated one that originally included India prior to its pro-American pivot. Pakistan’s cooperation with China through CPEC and America’s rejection of it for what can be presumed is the very same reason have put Islamabad in a position where it is just as eagerly courting Russia as the reverse in response to the pressure that Moscow is experiencing with the US and NATO in Eastern Europe. The strategic complementarities between these two parties are enhanced by the post-Cold War geography between them, as they’re no longer “too close for comfort” like during the Soviet era have enough distance between them to cooperate with one another instead of compete.
Right now the focus of their relationship has been on countering the security threats coming from Afghanistan, especially Daesh, and establishing an alternative multilateral peace process in Moscow for making political progress on resolving the country’s conflict. Tangentially, the two sides embarked on their first-ever joint anti-terrorist drills in 2016 in northern Pakistan that were followed up last year in Russia’s Northern Caucasus, with each side sharing their anti-terrorist experiences with one another. As part of the Afghan-centric basis of their rapprochement, Russia also sold Pakistan four helicopters to assist with its anti-terrorist operations, demonstrating that there are indeed workable channels of communication open between their military-industrial complexes and hinting at the potential for future deals in the field of conventional weaponry.
In parallel with the progress made on the military-security front, Russia and Pakistan have also explored entering into an energy partnership with one another as well. The first project is the North-South pipeline and has already been discussed for a few years, while the end of last year saw the announcement of an exciting new opportunity for Russia to build an Iranian-Pakistani pipeline that might even one day connect to India too. These two examples are emblematic of Russia’s “energy diplomacy” and can easily be leveraged to improve political relations between the two states and bring more of a visible benefit to the majority of Pakistan’s population. Quite naturally, the next step would be to encourage more commercial trading ties between the two countries and expand people-to-people interactions through cooperation in the informational, academic, and tourism fields.
China stands to gain from all of this because it could play a value-added supplementary role in each of these processes, thereby qualitatively improving them through the new Multipolar Trilateral format and leading to a more desirable win-win outcome for everyone. For example, joint anti-terrorist drills on each of their territories could become a regular occurrence throughout the year and even occasionally include a fourth party in Central Asia such as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Beijing is already involved in the Moscow-based peace process for Afghanistan, but it can throw its economic weight behind whatever political initiatives Russia and Pakistan come up with, thus making them more attractive to all in-country stakeholders and consequently boosting their odds of being taken seriously.
On top of that, the successful construction of Russia’s Pakistani pipelines could prove to Beijing that Moscow is properly equipped to ship Mideast energy overland through South Asia and into the People’s Republic via a CPEC-like energy corridor. Furthermore, Russia and Pakistan are both equally important Silk Road partners for China due to their crucial role as transit states for the Eurasian Land Bridge and CPEC projects, respectively, so it’s very likely that Beijing will also benefit from their enhanced economic connectivity with one another. As for the informational, academic, and tourism fields, each of these three categories of interpersonal interactions could be grouped together under the Multipolar Trilateral and broadened to include China as well, possibly by branding this new coordination format as being part of a “Silk Road Future” or something along those lines in order to help shape and reinforce similar narratives of shared interest.
The end goal is to formalize the Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani Multipolar Trilateral in an institutional fashion just like its Indian predecessor, which to be clear, won’t be replaced in an official sense but will just be rendered increasingly irrelevant as the US-provoked New Cold War tensions between the two Asian Great Powers diminishes their interests and capacities in cooperating with one another. The old mechanism could be useful in crisis situations if Moscow attempts to mediate between New Delhi and Beijing, and it also serves a symbolic function in reassuring observers that BRICS is still alive, but for all intents and purposes, it no longer fulfills the same use as it once did, and its proposed Pakistani successor has a much more promising potential for the foreseeable future.
Russia and Pakistan both want to acquire more strategic value to China in an attempt to equalize their economic relations with it and ensure that they can bargain for better Silk Road deals, so strengthening their bilateral ties with one another is expected to contribute to that goal. Moreover, Pakistan could provide Russian businesses with access to a major South Asian marketplace to compensate for potential losses in India in the face of aggressive American competition there, just like Pakistan’s positive relations with Russia could ensure that its eventual CPEC-enabled economic presence is welcomed in Moscow’s sphere of strategic interests in Central Asia. That said, there are a few concrete policy prescriptions for what each side needs to do in order to take their relations to the next level and cement the creation of the new Multipolar Trilateral.
The first and most immediately actionable one is that Russia and Pakistan must begin having a serious conversation about diversifying their anti-terrorist military partnership and having it take on conventional dimensions. Moscow must compensate for Washington and also Tel Aviv’s new military relations with New Delhi, just as Islamabad needs to fill the void left by Washington suspending military aid to it without becoming overly dependent on Beijing in response. There is no better moment than now to make impressive progress on this front, and both sides must seize this golden opportunity right away. As for expanding commercial trade relations with one another, these could be facilitated through Chinese infrastructure investments in the “North-South Corridor” via Iran and/or between Xinjiang and Siberia through what can be called CPEC+. Pakistan should also consider applying to join the Russian-led Eurasian Development Bank.
The Russian and Pakistani Embassies in each other’s capitals will continue to function in assisting state-to-state relations, but what’s urgently needed in order to take them to the next people-to-people phase is the construction of a multifunctional Russian Friendship Center in Islamabad that serves as a cultural, business, academic, and tourist interface between the two countries. Pakistan can also develop an analogue in Russia if it feels that the time is right, though truthfully speaking, it seems as though Pakistanis have more interest in Russia right now than the reverse. Plus, Pakistan might instead seek to build its counterpart in Tashkent or elsewhere in Russian-speaking Central Asia owing to its shared civilizational heritage there, while Russia’s basing of its own facility in Islamabad is a similarly strategic decision, albeit one designed to establish a coordination center right in the heart of CPEC along the Convergence of Civilizations.
Both strategic projects would relieve their respective embassies of the need to concentrate as much on soft power interactions with civilians and therefore free them up to focus more on state-to-state cooperation in the military-security spheres. The Friendship Centers would coordinate with the embassies but also have the flexibility to do more than any diplomat ever could because they’d prospectively be manned by civilians, even if they formerly have government experience. The idea is for these facilities to function as bases of academia, commercial, and tourist interactions with one another, including business registrars, cultural activities, historical exhibitions, language classes, and student exchanges. If Russia and Pakistan sincerely desire to enter into a strategic partnership with one another that provides the basis for expanding their relations into a Multipolar Trilateral with China, then they absolutely must lay the prerequisite groundwork for harnessing all aspects of their national power in the sustainable fashion that only the Friendship Centers can provide.
If successful in this ambitious endeavor, then Russia and Pakistan can reinforce the “weak link” of the Great Power triangle and make it much easier to streamline their collective relations with one another and China in effecting tangible geopolitical change in Eurasia. So as to focus more fully on the military-security drivers of this arrangement as well as the tangential energy ones without sacrificing the opportunity to develop commercial and soft power opportunities during this unprecedented paradigm shift in South Asia, Moscow and Islamabad must “outsource” the latter pair of duties to the Friendship Centers in order to complete their rapprochement and take it to its logical conclusion of a strategic partnership, one which forms the basis of a larger Multipolar Trilateral with China.
This is the official transcript of Andrew Korybko’s exclusive speech at the one-day international conference on “China, Pakistan & Russia: Regional Stability and Dividends for Peace” that was hosted by the prestigious Pakistan House think tank on 7 February, 2018 in Islamabad and which saw the participation of such high-profile speakers as Pakistani Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Zubair Mahmood Hayat NI (M), Former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and the High Commissioner of Pakistan to India Ambassador (Retired) Salman Bashir, His Excellency Russian Ambassador Alexey Y. Dedov, and His Excellency Chinese Ambassador Yao Jing.