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The Unfolding New Great Game!  By Kashif Mirza

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  • The Unfolding New Great Game!  By Kashif Mirza

Russian-Pakistani relations have improved in parallel with the improvement of US-Indian ones. The de facto US-Indian anti-Chinese alliance – which is imperfect and still beset by some differences of vision – was a regional strategic game-changer that compelled Russia and Pakistan to reconsider their respective policies towards one another. Pakistan and Russia both countries believe that a political settlement in Afghanistan is necessary for regional peace and stability, and are committed to building a strong multi-dimensional relationship that not only serves their respective national interests but also contributes to regional as well as global peace and security. 

The memory of the 1980s Afghan War still lingers on these levels, which third parties like the US and India can take advantage of in Pakistan and Russia respectively. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 marked the beginning of US’s first-ever major military presence in a region deep inside the Eurasian continent. Such presence required support bases in neighboring Central Asian states, and logistical routes across Pakistan, the Caspian, the South Caucasus and the Black Sea, Eastern Europe, and even Russia. The U.S. military presence also led to an increase in U.S. political and ideological influence in the region, which raised concerns in Pakistan, Russia, China, and Iran. Through its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States became a Eurasian power.

Twenty years later, the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves the country in a state of growing turmoil. Taliban Afghanistan are now emerging as the most influential force in the country, poised to topple the U.S.-backed administration in Kabul. In a nutshell, the nature of the Afghan problem for Pakistan and Russia lies in Afghanistan becoming a source of instability for the region. With that presence gone, the civil war in Afghanistan will be fought with much more fervor, and the internationally recognized government may soon be toppled, creating massive refugee flows across the borders, while transborder extremist groups such as IS, now given a free rein. With the United States and its allies departing from the country, Afghanistan may potentially use as a base to undermine stability in Central Asia.

Russian-Pakistani relations help each country flexibly adapt to the rapidly changing geostrategic situation in South Asia and especially the impact that this development has had on the US-Chinese New Cold War. Now Pakistan and Russia are close partners and friends, and recently signed Heads of Terms to construct the $2.5-billion Pakistan-Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP) project of 1,040 kilometers from Port Qasim to Kasur, to be completed by 2023. The infrastructure of the 42-to-56 diameter pipeline, costing $2.25 -2.5 billion, will ensure enhanced energy security of Pakistan. The project will secure sustainable gas supply infrastructure for the next 40 years. This will be the most essential conduit between installation of new LNG terminals and industrial growth of Pakistan. Most recently, when Pakistan was facing a COVID-19 vaccine deficit due to India’s halt of Oxford-AstraZeneca exports under the COVAX Facility, Moscow came to Islamabad’s rescue by sending 50,000 doses of its Sputnik V vaccine.

The greatest force shaping the emerging world order right now is the US-Chinese New Cold War, which Russia and Pakistan are reacting to. The de facto US-Indian alliance is an outcome of that global struggle. Russia’s 21st-century grand strategic ambition is to become the supreme balancing force in Eurasia, to which end it’s seeking to improve its relations with non-traditional partners like Pakistan. Both countries want to diversify their partnerships in order to reap more economic dividends thereof. Russia aims to do this through its Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) while Pakistan could build upon CPEC in order to branch it out along the northern, western, and southern cardinal directions. 

The most important common interest that Russia and Pakistan have in Afghanistan is to stop regional terrorist threats like ISIS that might emanate from that war-torn country. The black swan event also showed Russia that the Taliban – is the most effective on-the-ground anti-ISIS force in Afghanistan. With this in mind, Moscow started behaving more pragmatically towards the Taliban by politically engaging it for the purpose of advancing the fledgling peace process. This ultimately resulted in Russia hosting the Taliban in its capital for talks on several occasions, something that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago, let alone when considering the bitter legacy of the 1980s Afghan War. Both the countries Pakistan and Russia have same interest that there is to prevent an intensification of the civil war in Afghanistan which could catalyze a large-scale regional refugee crisis. This would most directly affect Pakistan but is also very worrying for Russia due to its close relations with the Central Asian Republics. 

Russia wants to pioneer access to the south while Pakistan aims to the same to the north, with their respective visions geostrategically intersecting in Afghanistan. Connectivity is one of the top trends of the 21st century, and it’s already beginning to manifest itself in the region through this year’s earlier agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan to build a railway between them that can casually be referred to as PAKAFUZ for convenience’s sake. Russian state companies are seeking to invest more in Pakistan too as evidenced by the recent agreement to construct the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP). Both private and state Russian companies can also obviously use Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in Pakistan. It should go without saying that PAKAFUZ will probably play a key role in this upon its completion too even though it’s not Chinese-backed but is nonetheless conceptualized as a northern branch of CPEC. 

Russia has also praised Pakistan’s contributions to the War on Terror and was so impressed that it even agreed to stage yearly anti-terrorist drills from 2016 onward in one another’s mountainous territory. It is also supportive of Pakistan’s political contributions to the Afghan peace process, with which it officially cooperates as part of the Enlarged Troika. Additionally, Russia hopes that Pakistan and India can peacefully resolve their dispute over Kashmir. Russia is against nuclear proliferation but tacitly acknowledges Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power. It presumably takes note of Islamabad’s defensive nuclear doctrine too. Russia and Pakistan are against unilateral sanctions and foreign meddling, and they also play important transit roles in China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) through their hosting of the Eurasian Land-Bridge and CPEC respectively. 

The Pakistan-China-Russia Relationship is indeed an emerging coalition, which unfolding the new great game. Russian-Pakistani relations are primarily guided at this moment by their shared security concerns stemming from Afghan-emanating threats and then secondly by energy and connectivity cooperation. Russia reaffirmed on several occasions that its incipient defense cooperation with Pakistan is not aimed against India. Pakistan’s historical dependence on US will also not affect the improvement of Pakistan-Russia relations, it actually acts as an unstated driving force for the improvement of Russian-Pakistani relations since Pakistan wants to avoid returning to the prior position of perceived disproportionate strategic dependence on the US. Pakistan has demonstrated that it’s behaving increasingly independently, especially after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s refusal to host US bases after America’s impending withdrawal from Afghanistan. The underlying motivation for Pakistan and Russia to come together lies in their shared rationale that the only viable solution for regional peace and stability is a political settlement in Afghanistan.

The writer is an economist, anchor, analyst and the President of All Pakistan Private Schools Federation.
President@pakistanprivateschools.com