A Pakistani Mi-17 helicopter flies during the National Day parade in Islamabad on March 23. Sales of Russian equipment to Pakistan may increase. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
ISLAMABAD — Analysts have welcomed Russia’s decision to loosen its longstanding restrictive arms supply policy toward Pakistan and sell helicopter gunships, but are unsure what the final results will be.
Further details of the negotiations are unknown.
A spokesperson for the Defense Ministry here would not comment on specific details of what was being discussed with their Russian counterparts, saying only that deliberations were underway.
The issue of cost, “not only of acquisition but of operation, maintenance and eventual upgrade” is a strong plus when considering Russian arms, says former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley.
“Both India and Pakistan have found, to their distaste, that although US defense products are very good, they are inordinately expensive and very costly to run. It makes sense to go for reasonably priced equipment that is not over-complex and doesn’t take a fortune to acquire and operate”, he said.
Analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said Pakistan’s Russian arms wish list will be long. However, he said there is the strong possibility the helicopter mentioned as being under discussion is not the Mi-35 Hind, but the Mi-28 Havoc.
“I have the feeling they are talking about Mi-28, which [former Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq] Kiyani discussed with the Russians,” he said.
Khan said even a slight improvement in arms transfers could actually benefit Sino-Pakistani deals such as the possible one for the FC-20 variant of the Chengdu J-10B.
“If the door is opened then the issue of the [Saturn] AL-31F and the FC-20 deal could move a little further,” he said in reference to its Russian engine.
Similarly, Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher, Arms Transfers and Arms Production Programme, at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said, Pakistan would potentially “look for Russian equipment of types that China does not yet produce or is not yet ready to export.”
Wezeman agrees defense deals with cash-strapped Pakistan “will not make Russia rich” even though Pakistan will still have to pay for them, unlike the very flexible deals inked with China.
However, a primary issue is how this will affect Russia’s relations with its South Asian strategic partner, and Pakistan’s arch-rival, India.
“Until now, India has always been trying to persuade Russia not to sell too much advanced weapons to Pakistan. Some Mi-17 helicopters were delivered and they didn’t much change the balance with India, but advanced versions of the Mi-24 would be something else. It seems almost to come at a very wrong time for Russia-Indian relations,” Wezeman said.
Wezeman points out “India is still Russia’s main market and to some extent, even the much-needed financier for development of new weapons such as the PAKFA [fighter jet].”
However, he highlights a growing Indian criticism over the “quality and price of Russian weapons delivered [e.g. Su-30 aircraft, T-90 tanks and the Gorshkov aircraft carrier that went massively over price] and the prospects of getting something useful and affordable from development cooperation [e.g. in the PAKFA or the MTA transport aircraft].”
This is in contrast to improving relations and arms deals with the US.
Khan also highlights India signing billions of dollars worth of defense deals with American, European and Israeli companies as well as with Japan, and not with Russian companies, but says there are also “other geo-strategic factors.”
“China and Russia are increasingly threatened by the US and EU along with Australia and Japan. Both China and Russia have pushed hard for the establishment of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” which Pakistan is a member of.
However, Wezeman says Russia may still be able to convince India that its arms deals with Pakistan “are limited in number and level of technology and potentially mainly useful for Pakistan for use against local Pakistani extremists” to deflect opposition.
Cloughley said India may not be as opposed to Russo-Pakistani deals as one may expect.
“Acquisition by Pakistan of Russian military helicopters is most interesting, even fascinating, in its international relations aspects, as well as in practical terms, because it signals increasing pragmatism all round,” he said.
Adding, “In spite of [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi being of strongly nationalistic inclination he is a realist and it is unlikely that this defense deal [if it happens] will affect Delhi-Moscow or Delhi-Washington relations.”
But there is one thing that unites India and Pakistan: Their pro-business governments want to push trade in general and bilateral trade in particular to revive their economies.
“Modi is prepared to involve foreign firms in India more deeply, and neither he nor the US would take action that might check or stop the advance of Walmart and Boeing” he said.
“Similarly, although some people in the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party/Indian People’s Party] and the [Pakistan People’s Party], and even the [Pakistan Muslim League], might voice noisy protests, such a deal would be unlikely to affect movement toward greater India-Pakistan trade, which is what Modi and Nawaz Sharif wish, above almost all else, in their country’s relations.” ■