Russian-Pakistani ties aren’t strengthening at the expense of American, Chinese, or Indian interests, but complement each side’s respective balancing acts in the bi-multipolar world order while also standing to deliver tangible benefits to their people, both directly and also in terms of how they’re slated to reshape the regional geo-economic and geostrategic equations.
Pakistan released the public version of its first-ever National Security Policy (NSP) on Friday. It adopts a holistic approach premised on the three pillars of economic security, traditional security, and human security that combine to form a syncretic paradigm described as comprehensive national security for protecting the state and its people. In simple terms, by placing the physical and economic security of its people first, Pakistan expects to sustainably strengthen the state itself, which will in turn enable it to continue improving its citizens’ lives and so on and so forth.
This symbiotic relationship is at the core of the country’s NSP, which inspired its strategists to promote the concept to geo-economics. This refers to the merger of economic and traditional diplomacy in creative ways that maximally optimize Pakistan’s geostrategic location for the purpose of pioneering more promising regional connectivity projects. This is particularly relevant to Russia since the document explicitly states that “Pakistan’s geo-economic pivot is focused on enhancing trade and economic ties through connectivity that links Central Asia to our warm waters.”
The Central Asian Republics (CARs) are traditionally regarded as being within Russia’s “sphere of interests”, which is why the NSP mentions in the same paragraph that “Pakistan is committed to reimagining its partnership with Russia in energy, defence cooperation, and investment.” Although not stated in the text itself, the vehicle for achieving this ambitious vision is February 2021’s agreement to create a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway. Russia expressed interest in participating in this project last summer since it aligns with its “Greater Eurasian Partnership” grand strategy.
It also deserves mentioning that the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) linking Russia and India via Azerbaijan and Iran could easily incorporate Pakistan since that country is literally along the same geographic route that Russian products would have to pass along the way to India. There’s no reason why Pakistan can’t participate in this trade corridor even if it does so independently of India. Islamabad has cordial ties with Tehran and excellent ones with Baku so there aren’t any political obstacles to this proposal.
Joint cooperation on these regional connectivity initiatives isn’t the only role that Russia can play in implementing Pakistan’s NSP though since there are several other promising opportunities as well. The document’s focus on ensuring energy security through traditional and renewable means provides a chance for Russia to propose expanding their cooperation on the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP) to other projects as well, including hydroelectrical ones. This was actually discussed late last year as the sides put the finishing touches on their talks to develop joint financial infrastructure for facilitating this.
The aforementioned effort’s full completion in the coming future will completely unlock their mutually beneficial geo-economic potential. Russian companies can more confidently invest in Pakistan and thus take advantage of that country’s many emerging opportunities, including in the AI/sci-tech and blue/maritime economy ones mentioned in the NSP, to say nothing of its largely untapped mineral resources that Russian companies are globally renowned for extracting. Some of these investments could also focus on comparatively underdeveloped regions of Pakistan per the NSP’s prioritization.
The document emphasizes the importance of removing vertical and horizontal inequalities within and between the country’s regions. It also proposes more effective and responsive governance there along with more equitable means of wealth distribution to those in society who need it the most, including through affirmative action policies. Considering the contemporary domestic context, this can be understood as a reference to Balochistan and related challenges in that region. Strategic Russian investments there could go a long way towards advancing the NSP’s comprehensive goals.
To elaborate, it might be the case that the ties that Moscow cultivated in that region during the Soviet era could still endear it to the local population despite the changing geopolitical and ideological contexts across the past three decades. Instead of secretly cultivating sub-nationalism like in the past, Russian involvement in Balochistan could be purely economic and coordinated with the national authorities in order to bring maximum benefits to that region’s people. Importantly, there aren’t any controversial perceptions about potential Russian investments there unlike China’s existing ones.
Since PAKAFUZ endeavors to eventually connect Russia to the Indian Ocean, it would be natural for Moscow to consider investing in the adjacent Balochistan region, especially since it serves as the terminal point for the flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That’s not to imply that Russia would participate in CPEC, which it’s unlikely to ever due out of respect for its special and privileged Indian strategic partner’s sensitivities, but just that its companies can take advantage of existing Chinese investments there in energy and transport.
Pakistan has an interest in attracting Russian investment to Balochistan because the region is rich in the sort of resources that Russian companies are globally renowned for extracting and Moscow is thought to still enjoy some genuine goodwill among the local population. There’s a more sensitive angle to this too, one that wouldn’t ever be acknowledged officially by either side but which nevertheless deserves to be touched upon in the context of this analysis, and that’s the diplomatic and security benefits that Russian investments in Balochistan can bring to Pakistan.
Although India fiercely denies it, Pakistan has accused the country multiple times over the years of supporting Baloch militants who Islamabad has designated as terrorists. New Delhi is thought to be motivated not only be a desire to destabilize its neighbor owing to their decades-long rivalry, but also to sabotage CPEC. India knows that China considers this corridor to be its shortcut to the Indian Ocean and it also dislikes that this series of megaprojects transits through Pakistani-controlled territory that New Delhi claims as its own per its approach to the unresolved Kashmir Conflict.
If Russia gradually invested more in Balochistan (importantly without doing so under the CPEC umbrella), then it’s possible that suspected Indian-backed Baloch attacks there might decrease. At the very least, there’s no way that India would allow its suspected proxies to attack Russian companies there, especially not after the two Great Powers agreed to a 99-paragraph strategic partnership pact during President Putin’s game-changing trip to India last December that essentially amounts to an undeclared desire to jointly assemble a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”).
Placing aside the zero-sum hopes of some Indian hawks who are suspected of wanting to cause maximum chaos in Balochistan no matter the cost, the Indian Establishment might be amenable to accepting the emergence of Russian companies there as friendly/gentle/non-hostile competitors to their Chinese counterparts. If Pakistan is going to finally develop its long-neglected region, the Indian thinking might go, then it’s better for their de facto Russian ally whom they trust to play a leading role in this process than their Chinese rival whose investments India suspects might have ulterior motives.
There are mutually beneficial diplomatic dividends from this proposal as well. The NSP explicitly states that “Pakistan does not subscribe to ‘camp politics’”, to which end it’s incentivized to further diversify its foreign and economic policies in order to add substance to this slogan. In practice, Russia could function as Pakistan’s much-needed third-party balancing force between its top American and Chinese partners. Prioritizing Russian investments in Pakistan and especially its Balochistan region would show that Islamabad isn’t “indebted” to Beijing like Washington claims but has an independent economic policy.
Building upon that, Russia and Pakistan both aspire to actively multi-align between the increasingly bi-multipolar world order’s growing number of internationally relevant actors. Their experts and officials could therefore more regularly share their respective experiences with one another as these two former rivals’ fast-moving rapprochement further accelerates and comprehensively diversifies in line with their unstated vision of eventually forging a strategic partnership that takes their Afghan- and energy-related trust with one another to the next natural level with time.
The greater that Russia’s stakes in Pakistan’s stability become as it invests more in that geostrategically positioned and economically promising country, the more incentivized Moscow will become to proactively exert positive influence over the region. The NSP declares that “Pakistan remains committed to the revival of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in an equitable manner”, which is also Russia’s interest as well since it supports the emergence of as many independent poles of influence in the bi-multipolar world order as possible. It also hopes to see Indian-Pakistani ties normalize too.
While it’s unrealistic to expect Russia to ever play a role in mediating the Kashmir Conflict due to its special and privileged strategic partnership with India that’s on the verge of becoming an unofficial hemispheric-wide balancing alliance, observers might be more optimistic when it comes to Moscow’s potential role in facilitating the revival of SAARC. The unique channels of communication that Russia has with India as well as their decades-long deep trust in one another could place the Kremlin in the position to positively influence India to pragmatically pursue that bloc’s revival in an equitable manner.
This can be done behind the scenes without laying blame on any of those two for its dysfunction over the past years by simply emphasizing the multipolar pragmatism of pursuing this mutually beneficial geo-economic outcome. It’s important to remember the NSP’s prioritization of economic and human security, which is purely apolitical and perfectly complements the Indian leadership’s own stated goals in this respect too. India, Pakistan, and the rest of the SAARC countries would therefore all benefit if an acceptable solution is found for reviving SAARC with Russian support.
To sum up the insight shared in this analysis, Russia can actually play a pivotal role in implementing Pakistan’s NSP. PAKAFUZ and the PSGP form the geo-economic bases upon which the South Asian state’s human security can be advanced, especially in the underdeveloped Balochistan region that’s expected to be prioritized by the government’s forthcoming policies. More Russian investments in Pakistan, especially strategic ones that are also focused on strategic regions, substantively bolster the recipient state’s credibility when it comes to its claim of not subscribing to “camp politics”.
The comprehensive diversification of bilateral relations through these means furthers the strategic trajectory of their ties, which can in turn also advance the common cause of regional stability considering the positive influence that Russia could exert in encouraging India to stop its suspected support of Baloch militants and pragmatically revive SAARC in an equitable manner. It’s therefore not for naught that Prime Minister Imran Khan declared last spring that relations with Russia are a key foreign policy priority for his country, which his Ambassador to Russia Shafqat Ali Khan later echoed too.
Russian-Pakistani ties aren’t strengthening at the expense of American, Chinese, or Indian interests, but complement each side’s respective balancing acts in the bi-multipolar world order while also standing to deliver tangible benefits to their people, both directly and also in terms of how they’re slated to reshape the regional geo-economic and geostrategic equations. Upon the full establishment of their joint financial infrastructure in the coming future, observers can therefore expect more robust economic relations between them to this end, which serve the interests of Pakistan’s NSP and Russia’s GEP.