Fears of religious extremism in Central Asia and Afghanistan, combined with disillusionment about the roles of India and the U.S. in South Asia, could push Russia and Pakistan closer together.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, during the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) summit in Ufa, Russia, Friday, July 10, 2015. Photo: AP

Russia appears to be taking steps to deepen its relationship with Pakistan. The commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, Oleg Salyukov, recently announced that Russian ground forces would hold their first-ever military drills with Pakistan during 2016, in what is being billed as “special drills in mountainous terrain.” Prior to this, Russia had waved its embargo on arms supplies to Pakistan in June 2014 and signed a bilateral defense cooperation agreement with Pakistan in November 2014.

Arguably, these latest moves were only designed to strengthen military-to-military relations between Russia and Pakistan and put things in order for establishing stronger ties in the future. That is why it was no surprise to see a defense deal for Russia to send Mi-35 Hind E helicopters to Pakistan. However, there was also Pakistan’s invitation to President Putin for the inauguration of a pipeline worth more than $2 billion that would extend from Karachi to Lahore. Furthermore, Islamabad is looking for a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union to nurture strong cooperation in commerce and trade.

Common interests between Russia and Pakistan

Interests are the permanent bonds between states that determine whether their mutual affairs are to be considered as those of an enemy or friend. This well-proven statement is once again appearing to be the truth in light of the recent embryonic bonhomie between the Kremlin and Islamabad. The recent surge in bilateral relations is an outcome of one main factor the United States and several other areas of interests between the two.

More or less for a decade, India’s tilt towards the United States and the latter’s withering alliance with Pakistan was critical for ties between Moscow and Islamabad. Although officially nonaligned, India remained a close partner with the Soviet Union and continued to manage this strategic partnership with Russia in the post-Cold War era as well. However, New Delhi’s recent embrace of Washington encouraged Moscow to reconsider its links with South Asia.

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In the past, despite having a huge asymmetry of size and capacity vis-à-vis Russia, Pakistan had adversarial relations towards the Kremlin for almost the entire Cold War period. There were short spans of time when Moscow welcomed Islamabad’s pursuit of friendship and cooperation; however, events like the U-2 spy plane incident and Pakistan’s role as frontline state in the Soviet Union’s 1979 war in Afghanistan, led to eventual eviction of the Soviets in 1989.

Among the most critical factors was Pakistan’s membership in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), although Islamabad joined these organizations solely because of its own complementary interests. However, Pakistan participated in an alliance with the U.S., while pursuing divergent interests.

One of the pioneering international relations realists, Hans J. Morgenthau, describes the lack of identity of interests in the U.S.-Pakistan alliance relationship in the following way: “The alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan is one of many contemporary instances of an alliance serving complementary interests. For Washington it serves the primary purpose of expanding the scope of the policy of containment; for Islamabad it serves primarily the purpose of increasing her political, military and economic potential vis-a-vis her neighbors.”

There is a long saga that explains how and why Pakistan from joined these South Asia security pacts. In the wake of security and survival relations, the newly emerged state of Pakistan was consumed by the fear of aggression from its eastern neighbor. There were several factors that supported this argument in Pakistan’s security corridors and led policymakers to pursue possible as well as available options to mitigate this insecurity and improve defense capabilities.

These fears were fueled by Indian aggression against Kashmir, Hyderabad and Jona Garh (all three states which were to be part of either India or Pakistan on settled and agreed upon criteria, mainly the consent of the majority of the population of the state). India forcefully integrated Hyderabad and Jona Garh into Indian territory; yet, Kashmir became a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Kashmir remains an unfinished item on the agenda and a bone of contention between the two nuclear neighbors. This was the scenario that constituted Pakistan’s insecurity and uncertainty about survival.

The former prime minister of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Bogra, who is believed to be one of the architects of the security policy to join alliances with the U.S., explains the primary reason for joining anti-Communism alliances: “Our main and only purpose was to safeguard the safety and security of Pakistan and we needed support from like-minded and peace-loving nations. We have never made any secret of the fact that we apprehended a threat to our security from India.” Pakistan had provided the United States with intelligence sharing and air bases and joined the containment policy as the second-largest non-Communist state of Asia, but its strategic concerns about India were not focused on by its partners.

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Afghanistan and the Islamic insurgency

Afghanistan once viewed Pakistan as the Soviet adversary, but now it needs both Pakistan and Russia for the stability and development of its own nation and region. Russia’s foremost periphery in the Central Asia comprises the former Soviet states, which are directly affected by the instability in Afghanistan. Disorder in Kabul has direct consequences for this periphery and results in a surge in terrorism in Russia as well.

Pakistan, with the endorsement of China, has a greater role to play in the peace process in Afghanistan. Thus, stability there is another area of common interest between Russia and Pakistan.

Once the U.S. will have finished its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Kremlin will consider Pakistan as an essential partner for stability in the region, especially in Afghanistan. With backing from Beijing and support from Washington, Islamabad already plays an active role in peace negotiations with the Taliban. Thus, Russia seeks Pakistan as a significant partner to maintain peace and order in the post-Soviet territories of Central Asia, the so-called “backyard of Russia.” From the Pakistani point of view, relying on the United States for more than six decades produced nothing more than a delusionary friendship that lacks mutual trust and jeopardizes Pakistan’s security.

Changing realities give birth to new partnerships

The changing realities of international politics negate the Cold War mentality and allow new partnerships and venues of cooperation to emerge. As far as the interests of Russia and Pakistan coincide, they must enhance mutual cooperation in areas of interest to find more common ground for the future. Relations between the two should not be based on the frustrations and disappointments from their respective partners, India and the U.S., whose alliance is aimed at another state, China.

Central Asia offers a mutual area of interest for Russia and Pakistan, where instability and Islamic insurgency are concerns for both. Pakistan has a decade-long expertise in fighting religious militant groups, as does Russia, which also suffers from religious extremism. Mutual collaboration and exchange of experts would strengthen both sides to nip this evil of extremism in the bud and pave the way for regional development.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.