The visit of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on April 6-7, 2021, nine years after his last visit, was obviously of significance. Where does it fit in the sweep of Pak-Russia relations, what exactly is the significance, why did he come, and what does it portend? In reviewing this bilateral relationship since the opening of diplomatic relations in 1948 one aspect stands out: relations with Russia are of immense importance to Pakistan. There have been missteps and misperceptions on both sides with ups and downs, which have necessitated a steady and successful process of trust-building.
To give one example, it is widely believed that Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan turned down the invitation to visit the USSR and instead went to the USA in May 1950. In fact, he was keen for the visit to take place, and his entourage had been assembled, including a dashing young army officer Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, later Ambassador in Moscow then Foreign Minister, as he had learnt Russian in a POW camp during WW2. Putting up this proposal GHQ had noted that an ADC’s understanding of Russian would be advantageous. Such was the detailed attention accorded this visit. Discussions for it had begun in early 1949 through the Ambassadors of both countries, due to the enterprise and foresight of Pakistan’s Ambassador in Tehran, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, as neither country had yet an Embassy in the other’s capital. Matters progressed when the visit was broached by the Soviet CDA in Tehran to the visiting Prime Minister at a dinner arranged by our Ambassador in May 1949. The Prime Minister’s promising reply led to an official invitation which was publicly accepted on June 8, 1949, causing a global stir, and coming as a rude shock to India. Dates in August or November 1949 were proposed by the Pakistani side. But there was a clear change of heart on the Soviet side which in October 1949 switched negotiations to Delhi, where they were stalled, and a further postponement conveyed to Pakistan through the Soviet Embassy in New Delhi. It was clear that another party had intervened in the matter of Liaquat Ali Khan’s visit to Moscow, as Ambassador Sajjad Hyder has related in a chapter on The Visit that Never Was in his book Foreign Policy of Pakistan; and that is why the Prime Minister first went to Washington DC.
India has remained a factor in constraining political, military, and other cooperation with Pakistan. President Musharraf in his meeting in Moscow with President Putin in February 2003 had developed a good personal equation over a convivial lunch that lasted 4 hours, in which they agreed to set up two advisory mechanisms on strategic stability and counter-terrorism. However in his meeting with President Putin in 2005 in New York, on the sidelines of the UNGA which I attended, when he suggested that Russia be more forthcoming in arms sales to Pakistan now that after the U.S.-India nuclear deal India was growing closer to the USA, or was India still that constraining a factor, President Putin frankly replied, yes Mr. President you are right, our arms sales and economic cooperation with India precluded defence equipment cooperation with Pakistan at that time.
During the Cold War both countries were on opposite camps though Pakistan’s involvement with the West was to build up its security against an ever-potent threat from India. Subsequently, Russian peacemaking at Tashkent to end the 1965 Indo-Pak War gave the political boost which improved relations and unlocked both economic and military cooperation. The USSR provided economic assistance in the oil and gas sector. The visit to Moscow in October 1968 by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Yahya Khan led to an understanding to provide military supplies and a draft blueprint for a steel mill was approved in principle. Some military supplies soon commenced to partly compensate for the 1965 onwards American arms embargo, which gap was mainly made up by China.
On March 8, 1969 Defence Minister Marshal Andrei Grechko led a delegation to Pakistan. The armed forces journal Hilal brought out a special edition in English and Urdu to mark this visit. The delegation stayed approximately a week, and visited Peshawar, Risalpur, Nowshera tank range, and Karachi. The Soviet military leaders highly appreciated the morale, professionalism, and expertise of Pakistan Army; and how swiftly Soviet military equipment including artillery and MI-8 helicopters had been mastered and entered into service, as Brig A. R. Siddiqui (R) has related in his seminal book on this period.
At the end of the visit there was a gala banquet. Reportedly around midnight, Admiral Nikolay Smirnov the Deputy leader of the delegation and head of the Operational Directorate, Deputy Chief of the Main Navy Staff at the height of military bonhomie, in a farewell toast, proclaimed, ‘Your enemy is our enemy’. The part that Pakistan played in the secret diplomacy to pave the way for better relations between the USA and China when the USSR was alienated from China drastically impacted the always suspicious Soviet perceptions and Pakistan paid a heavy price for that in 1971.
In the run-up to the 1971 War the Foreign Office held a Conference, in the second week of August 1971, of its leading Ambassadors in Geneva. It was first addressed by Foreign Secretary Sultan Khan, and Secretary Information Roedad Khan before discussions began. Our High Commissioner in New Delhi strongly urged that priority be given to discussing the recently concluded USSR-India Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation of August 9, 1971 which removed any brake on India’s clear intention to attack East Pakistan, which he had been warning his government about without success. The Ambassador in Moscow argued that the Treaty would restrain India from attacking East Pakistan, and most present agreed. He later admitted this had been his one major miscalculation in a long and illustrious diplomatic career.
The High Commissioner met President Yahya Khan on his way back to Delhi. At that meeting he reiterated that November would be a month of peril. The President dismissed his apprehensions as President Nixon had assured him to the contrary. The Envoy replied with respect that peace depended also on the Soviets who were not any longer as determined to preserve the peace as the Americans. A clear reference to the unwise summary rejection of President Podgorny’s earlier offer to help the Government reach a political settlement with our brethren in East Pakistan, which seemed to have touched a raw nerve. On returning to Delhi Ambassador Sajjad Hyder in his last report advised that Pakistan had only two cards left to play, the Indian card which would lead to the long-prepared invasion of East Pakistan; or the Mujibur Rehman card of freeing him which, whatever else, would avoid that.
However, despite the ups and downs both sides sought to always maintain good contacts. This was also the case from 1972 onwards when Prime Minister Bhutto visited Moscow. The Soviet Union built the Karachi Steel Mills; major thermal power plants at Muzaffargarh, Multan, and Guddu; and assisted Pakistan in the establishment of the Oil and Gas Development Company (OGDC). After the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan ended, relations again slowly improved.
The Pakistan Steel Mills Corporation (PASMIC as it was also known in the USSR) with its 1.1 million tons capacity became the largest industrial project in Pakistan. Thousands of young engineers and technicians were sent to Russia to master the various required disciplines, and many Russian experts lived in Pakistan to complete the project. The construction and other expertise gained in the process led to their deployment throughout Pakistan; but figured also in the wave of Pakistani labour and technicians assisting in infrastructure and other construction projects in the Gulf and Middle East, whose foreign remittances, largesse to their families and the country, benefit us to this day.
There has been a constant effort throughout on the part of all Pakistani leaders and political parties to try to improve relations with Russia. Russia, notwithstanding its traditionally priority relationship with India, has also recognized the importance of Pakistan as a middle power; its strategic location a trijunction between the Middle East, Central, and South Asia; and the role it can play in stabilizing Afghanistan, which poses both an ongoing narcotics threat to Russia and a potential threat from terrorists. The global counter-terrorism cooperation from 2001 provided a strong foundation for both countries to move forward with similar objectives and with it to counter narcotics as well, both in the region and particularly in the context of Afghanistan.
Russia has throughout been mindful of the importance of maintaining military links and, whenever possible, defence cooperation with the Pakistan military. Few in Pakistan know or appreciate that since production of the Joint Fighter JF-17, the work horse of the PAF, between China and Pakistan began in 2010, both it and the Chinese version the FC-1 rely for their engines on the Russian Klimov RD-93 Turbofan engine. At a relatively recent EU Conference on Nonproliferation and Disarmament in Brussels a Pakistani participant tasked the bright young Russian academic on the panel for South Asia about Russia leasing nuclear Akula class attack submarines to India capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles. Quick as a flash came the response that Pakistan’s JF-17s were powered by Russian engines supplied through China.
In October 2012, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Islamabad. As a result of the visit, three MoUs were signed, in the fields of metallurgy, energy, and railroads. Since then, the bilateral relationship has acquired more depth, and in a number of aspects been institutionalized.
The upward trajectory of our bilateral relations is encouraging. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which we joined owing to Russian and Chinese support, and the UN General Assembly have in the past two years provided opportunities for talks between the two leaders and foreign ministers.
Trade has not reached its potential, hovering around $500 million overall, with the balance in Pakistan’s favor, except when we preferred in 2020 to import wheat from Russia – $300 million worth for some 700,000 tons, when it went up to $780.6 million. There are systemic hurdles, including lack of direct flights, banking issues due to USA sanctions which other countries have better managed, and slow two-month processing in issuances of business visas by the Russian side, that need to be overcome to enhance trade. Given the constraints our businessmen would rather trade with traditional markets, and there is only a diaspora of some 800 Pakistanis in Russia to draw on given that businessmen need to set up their own importing companies in Russia to reduce risk. The freezing of some $117 million Russian funds by the Sindh High Court at the instance of commercial parties in dispute over funds they claimed remained unsettled in the counterpart trade used to repay Soviet Steel Mill and other project assistance through mainly Pakistani textiles and garments, on the breakup of the USSR became a major irritant discouraging Russian investment in Pakistan. This issue was finally resolved in December 2019 and all the amount due to Russia, $93.5 million, repaid. A development long overdue.
Institutional mechanisms are working well. Four rounds of political consultations at Foreign Secretary level have been held. The Consultative Group on Strategic Stability has met 13 times since its first meeting in 2003 in which I had the privilege of leading our side. Of course, gestation of cooperation takes time. The Mi-35 helicopters discussed at that first meeting were delivered in 2018. On the economic side the Inter-Governmental Commission (IGC) on Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation has held 6 meetings, and has a number of joint working groups. Pursuant to the Pakistan-Russia Military Agreement of 2017 a joint Military-Technical Commission was set up; military sales explored; five joint military exercises held; two joint naval exercises carried out apart from Russian naval ships’ participation in the multilateral AMAN exercises hosted by the Pakistan Navy; and 6 rounds of military staff talks conducted, the latest earlier this month.
It should be kept in mind that the Soviet then Russian Foreign Ministry and with academic think tanks at its back, has a formidable depth and expertise. The late Professor Yuri Gankovsky, Head of the Oriental Institute whom I had the privilege of calling upon in Moscow in 1977, was the pre-eminent academic on South Asia having authored books including The Three Constitutions of Pakistan; and articles including one in the 1982/83 edition of Strategic Studies journal of the Islamabad Institute of Strategic Studies (ISSI) in which he inter alia observed that there were a thousand publications in the USSR dealing with the problems of international relations, peace, and security in South Asia.
Ambassador Mikhail Kapitsa, diplomat and scholar, served as Ambassador in Islamabad in 1961 and 1962. He was the foremost expert on China and South Asia and was in the South Asia section of the Foreign Office in Moscow from 1965 to 1970 thereafter becoming its Head for the next decade. He briefed our Ambassador on the likely succession after Chairman Mao, correctly assessing it would be Hua Guo Feng at a time when his name did not figure in the CIA publication on the public appearances of Chinese leaders, and he asked if Pakistan could convey to the Chinese that the USSR would not interfere or take advantage during the succession process. Prime Minister Bhutto assessed that this was not for Pakistan to convey, Russia could do so itself.
Sometime before Prime Minister Bhutto was overthrown, our Ambassador in Moscow conveyed to him the assessment of the Soviet Foreign Office that power had now flowed away from him. The Prime Minister in his own hand characteristically and caustically noted on that report, what was the point of their telling him that now?
Our Foreign Office has built up a cadre of Russian language experts and deployed them in Moscow; though among two of the best were Khalid Ahmed, who could have become our most learned expert, left to become a prominent journalist and writer, the foreign ministry’s loss; and Dr. Sohail Khan who studied medicine in Tashkent and was for three decades our best interpreter for high level meetings, retired before he could be posted as Ambassador to Moscow where he had spent most of his career. He too should have been retained. However more recently amongst our able envoys to Moscow versed in Russian have been Ambassadors Zaheer Janjua and Khalilullah Qazi. Historically, Pakistan has sent its most capable diplomats there as Heads of Mission; including Arshad Husain and Sahibzada Yakub Khan, who went on to become Foreign Ministers, Akhtar Hussain later Foreign Secretary, Ambassador Sajjad Hyder, and currently flying our flag Ambassador Shafqat Ali Khan.
Similarly, Russia has sent a number of diplomats versed in South Asia to Islamabad, as indeed the present Ambassador Danila Ganich whose entire career has been spent in three postings in Islamabad and in the South Asia division in Moscow. The late Ambassador Sergey Peskov, father of President Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, during his tenure in Islamabad from 2004 to 2008 was a true friend of Pakistan: outgoing, organizing many cultural events, and extremely popular. I understand that young diplomats coming up the ranks versed in Farsi and Urdu whom I am sure will further bilateral relations with verve and fresh minds, the hallmark of youth worldwide.
Now we come to the timing and significance of FM Lavrov’s visit. Coming directly after a visit to New Delhi had its own optics. Speculation that he came to offer Russian good offices to smooth tensions and to help restart dialogue between Pakistan and India does not seem to hold water. Russia’s ever-present concern about Afghanistan has been accentuated by the imminence of U.S. withdrawal and the threat of even greater instability. Afghanistan has been the single most important convergence between Russia and Pakistan, and the visit reflected its centrality. Prominent in the delegation was Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, the Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan, long our interlocutor and main point of contact on Afghanistan of our Ambassadors in Moscow and during his many visits to Islamabad. The Russian Defence Attaché was also included.
The scope of talks was summed up by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Qureshi who emphasized that strengthening relations with the Russian Federation was an important foreign policy priority for Pakistan, and that these relations were marked by enhanced trust and understanding. Noting important progress in bilateral relations he agreed on the need to intensify efforts to deepen cooperation in all areas including economy and trade, energy, counter-terrorism, security, education and people-to-people exchanges. Mr. Qureshi reiterated Pakistan’s resolve to work with Russia towards early commencement of the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline project.
He briefed his Russian counterpart on Pakistan’s priorities relating to peace and security centered on an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, and appreciated Russia’s role in the Afghan peace process including through convening the meeting of the Extended Troika (Russia, China, the USA and Pakistan) in Moscow in March 2021.
The meeting between the two FMs, the meeting with the COAS, and the overall visit went well. What next? For Pakistan, the important objective is to give Russia substantive stakes in Pakistan beyond convergence on Afghanistan. The Russian Ambassador, in his subsequent lecture on April 12 at the ISSI on the future of Pak-Russian relations, stressed that both sides should move ahead in any avenue that opened up, big or small, while expressing his apprehension that American influence may retard the Pakistan Stream pipeline project.
The Russians point out that a few Pakistani students apply to study in Russia. Students on their part worry about an opaque process in which the Russian Ministry of Education directs them to the Russian Embassy and vice versa. If that is rectified and it is clear what scholarships are available and what their terms and conditions are, the traditional flow to Russia will recommence, though our side has to give equivalence to their degrees.
Pakistan needs to be more innovative in peaceful nuclear cooperation and should explore cooperation between the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority with its counterparts in Russia and other countries. This will develop more understanding for our objective of NSG membership. We tend to lack institutional memory and forget that Russia with the USA led the effort to get Pakistan to join the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) which they both had set up. We negotiated our membership and joined in 2007 before India, on the basis of the formation below which both superpowers accepted:
"Pakistan, while endorsing the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, reaffirms the voluntary commitments of the Statement of Principles and declares its understanding that the Global Initiative does not cover Pakistan's military nuclear facilities or activities".
Our key priority must be to begin on the ground implementation of the Pakistan Stream; the RLNG North-South, Karachi to Lahore 683 miles’ gas pipeline. The agreement was signed in 2015 and progress has been slow. This has not all been Pakistan’s fault as the original structure proposed by Russia was unworkable being subject to U.S. sanctions. In the first four years hardly any petroleum delegation from Pakistan visited Moscow while many came to Pakistan. One can understand Russian frustration though it is not the only pipeline held up, as is the likewise important one, contracted to a Chinese company RLNG Karachi to Gwadar gas pipeline which has its own strategic significance.
In negotiations since then various hurdles have been cleared. Most recently due to the Supreme Court decision that the amount so far collected as Gas Infrastructure Development Cess (GIDC) needs to be spent on gas infrastructure projects including TAPI, IP, and the Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline, the Ministry of Petroleum duly committed that this would be done. Hence the Russian side was re-engaged to acquiesce to the proposal of carrying out the project jointly on equity participation rather than entirely out of the Russian investment as originally envisaged.
This new shift necessitated the drafting of an additional agreement. The Inter-Governmental Agreement with the Russian side has been amended and a Protocol to that effect approved by the Cabinet. Both sides have agreed and approved this additional agreement and it needs to be signed. GIDC funds are available and land acquisition and the pre-FEED (front-end engineering and design) consultancy, being done by NESPAK. That is promising.
Apropos the technical details, the cost may rise from $2 to around $3 billion if the originally planned diameter of 42 inches capable of transporting 1.2 billion cubic feet RLNG per day is sensibly increased, as Pakistan wants, to either 52 or 56 inches to increase capacity to 1.6 bcfd. This would cater for projected higher demand now, obviating redoing and paralleling the exercise in the future especially over the right of way, other locational issues, and financial cost benefits.
Once this mega-project flagship takes off it will begin a process of unlocking various constraints across the bilateral board apart from making a significant contribution in meeting our future energy demands We must regard it as a strategic opportunity as we did with – originally – PASMIC.
The Russian and Chinese role in our region, including through SCO will grow, and we should explore what economic cooperation benefit we can draw given Pakistan’s objective to try to reap the benefits of inter-connectivity from China’s BRI of which CPEC is a key part, and also from Russia’s Eurasian Economic Community.
In conclusion, we must accord and maintain strategic focus on the Pakistan Stream Pipeline project. As it is implemented on the ground, it will have a positive knock-on impact on our objectives of deepening bilateral and multilateral understanding spanning; energy, economic, and business opportunities, connectivity; military ties, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, peaceful nuclear cooperation including towards the NSG, and concrete regional cooperation, particularly on stabilizing Afghanistan.
The writer led Pakistan’s delegations in the first three Consultative Groups on Strategic Stability with Russia from 2003 onwards, and is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the NDU.
E-mail: [email protected]
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