ISLAMABAD ― Pakistan and Russia have pledged to improve defense ties, but Moscow appears to be trying to balance its South Asia relations rather than abandon its traditional strategic partner India.
The latest pledge came as Pakistan’s national security adviser, Nasser Khan Janjua, for the first time led a ministerial-level delegation comprising the heads of the various defense, national security and space ministries to Russia where they met their counterparts.
According to a Russian news release, “issues of bilateral military cooperation in information security and countering international terrorism were studied.”
James Hackett, editor of The Military Balance blog and defense analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, highlighted “recent changes in the Russia-India defense relationship,” such as the Indo-Russian fifth-generation fighter aircraft program from which India pulled out.
“But Russia is still very heavily invested in current and future Indian defense equipment,” Hackett added, as a considerable amount of materiel in India’s arsenal is of Russian origin. “So in this context, because of India’s potential reaction, Russia would likely weigh carefully any decision to significantly deepen defense ties with Pakistan.”
India has repeatedly requested Russia not sell arms to Pakistan. Despite trying to wean itself off Russia, India has still placed large orders with the country, partially to entice Russia to refrain from selling weaponry to Pakistan.
India’s 2016 $5.5 billion S-400 surface-to-air missile deal was signed under these circumstances.
As part of the delegation, Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, met Russia’s chief of the general staff for the armed forces to discuss “regional security, stability and bilateral security cooperation,” plus support for “Pakistan’s efforts towards reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan.”
The meetings came against the backdrop of the 9th International Meeting of High-Level Officials Responsible for Security Matters, hosted by Russia in Sochi. It also came in the wake of a meeting between the Pakistani and Russian defense ministers at the 7th Moscow Conference on International Security in early April where Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said both nations would build upon efforts to boost defense cooperation.
Shoigu also expected interaction under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or SCO, would “contribute to developing and strengthening friendly ties between our defense ministries” and that better bilateral relations were “an important factor of ensuring regional stability.”
No details regarding further closer cooperation between Moscow and Islamabad were forthcoming from Pakistan’s military, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Russian Embassy in Pakistan when contacted by Defense News.
Kamal Alam, Pakistan analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, thinks Russia may still restrict the amount and type of weaponry offered to Pakistan, but that this stance could change if India continues purchasing Western equipment.
However, as India “approaches the U.S. aggressively to replace Pakistan as the South Asia base for U.S. pivot” and seeks to acquire Western combat aircraft, “Russia needs Pakistan to counter the U.S. in Afghanistan and Central Asia,” Alam added.
Analyst, author and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley believes Pakistan partially wants “to continue distancing itself from the U.S., which it regards with increasing distrust and suspicion, given much impetus by [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s New Year[’s] tweet.”
For the time being, Russia appears to be playing a balancing game. The government announced plans host military drills under Peace Mission 2018 in the August/September time frame under the auspices of the SCO that would for the first time include both India and Pakistan.
Nicholas Redman, the director of editorial with IISS, believes “at a time of considerable tension in ties between Russia and the West, there is a stronger incentive for Russia to develop the non-Western vectors of its foreign relations.”
This can also help boost Russia’s defense industry, and “there is little reason to think that the Kremlin sees arms sales to Pakistan and India as mutually exclusive,” Redman noted.
Weapon sales are certainly on Pakistan’s mind, and Cloughley thinks it is “in Pakistan’s best interests to widen its acquisition base, as it can no longer rely on Washington to provide equipment” with the U.S. and the European Union concentrating on India.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.