Russia-Pakistan: Evolving Military Relationship

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2015
Page No.: 
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Time tested Indo-Russian partnership is unlikely to be affected by the new found Russia-Pakistan ties
Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November 2014 saw the first-ever visit of a Russian defence minister to Islamabad in 45 years, and the two countries signed a milestone agreement to enhance cooperation in defence. The last visit had taken place as far back as 1969, when USSR defence minister Andrey Grechko made a trip to the country. Both sides expressed satisfaction over convergence of views on many international and regional issues. Hitherto a recipient of American largesse, on seeing USA woo India, Pakistan seems to have chosen to exercise alternate options. All of a sudden Pak considers Russia a key player in the region and are looking forward to strengthening bilateral relations. Russian Defence Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu said that the next step would be to sign a MoU to promote cooperation between the navies of two countries. Russians appreciated the Pak expertise in fighting terror and their defence production capability. The visit of the 41 member delegation came at a time when US led forces are considering phased withdrawal from Afghanistan. Both sides stressed on the need to maintain momentum. Of great importance was the agreement related to politico-military issues. Russia lifted its embargo on arms supplies to Pakistan and would supply Pakistan 20 Mi-35 attack helicopters. All this comes in the backdrop of the fact that Russia has long been the largest supplier of arms to Pakistan’s arch rival India, and continues to have deep long-term military supplies relations.

Blow Hot Blow Cold Initial Years

In 1946, the Soviet Union had vehemently criticized the British partition of India, and had labeled the Muslim League a tool of the British. Soviet Chairman Stalin did not send any congratulatory message to Jinnah on the formation of Pakistan. Moscow voted in favor of India in the United Nations in the initial years. The two finally established diplomatic and bilateral relations in May 1948. Marxist Soviet Union which was atheistic could not side with a staunchly Islamic country. In 1954, Pakistan became a member of America led military alliances SEATO and CENTO in 1955, and this resulted in Soviets overtly becoming pro-India. During Cold war years the countries had ‘Blow Hot Blow Cold’ relations. They went ultimately cold after the USA backed 1958 military coup in Pakistan. In the 1950s Soviet Union did initially agree to give Pakistan technical assistance and aid in agriculture, science, flood control, steel mills and oil exploration. But military dictator Ayub Khan allowed US to clandestinely fly spy plane U-2 from Pakistani soil. Finally in 1959 Soviet Air Defence shot down the U-2 flown by Gary Powers. This severely damaged the relations and Soviets threatened to bomb Pakistan if such an operation took place in future. Soviet Union now on emerged as the biggest supplier of military hardware to India. After the 1965 war, the arms race between India and Pakistan became very asymmetric in favour of India. Soviets also had much closer relations with political parties in East Pakistan and took advantage of the

Anti-American sentiment there. Soviets backed the socialist Awami Party and played a decisive role in the 1971 war. They not only signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation but supported Mukti Bahini. The Soviet Navy dispatched two groups of cruisers and destroyers and a nuclear submarine to trail U.S. Task Force 74 in the Indian Ocean to avert overt US and Chinese threats to India. Billions of dollars of arms transfer by Soviet Union and its support of India through UN veto against Pakistan kept the Russia-Pak relations strained.

In response to Soviet support to communist regime in Afghanistan, Pakistan began to support Mujahedeen rebels attempting to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime. Pakistan aided USA and other players against communism and that led to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The masses in both these countries have traditionally thought poorly about each other. The democratic socialist alliance led by then PM Zulfikar Bhutto made efforts to improve relations with the Soviet Union. Pakistan exited SEATO and CENTO. Relations began to improve. In 1974, Bhutto became first Pak PM to visit Soviet Union. Pakistan later reached agreements with Soviet Union on mutual trust, cooperation, technical assistance, and friendship. Soviets helped Pakistan establish a few large steel mills. The interaction was short lived. CIA-sponsored operation codenamed ‘Fair Play’ removed Bhutto from power in 1977. General Zia-ul-Haq refused Soviet requests for clemency to Bhutto.

Pro US Zia and Pakistan Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) supported US intervention in Afghanistan against Soviets. Yet in 1982 Zia travelled to Moscow to attend funeral of Leonid Brezhnev. Soviets embarrassed him by exposing his direct contacts with Israeli Intelligence services for weapon transfers to Afghanistan. Prime Ministers Benazir and Nawaz Sharif continued the policies to look west for modern technology. After collapse of Soviet Union and withdrawal from Afghanistan, the relations started warming. In 1994-95, relations with Russia suffered a major setback when Benazir Bhutto’s government recognized Taliban Controlled government in Afghanistan. Yet in 1996, Russia willingly agreed to launch Pakistan’s second satellite Badr-B from its Baikonur Cosmodrome. In April 1999 Prime Minister Sharif paid a state visit to Moscow, first by a Pak PM in 25 years.

Recent Ties & Defence Supplies

Russia condemned the military coup d’état against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. In the wake of 9/11 attacks of 2001, Pakistan denounced Taliban and joined NATO to hunt down the Jihadists. Pakistan joining the international struggle against terrorism led to gradual improvement in relations. In 2007 Russian PM Fradkov made a 3-day visit to Pakistan, the first in 38 years. Under Asif Ali Zardari relations improved but in 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated that Russia was against developing strategic and military ties with Pakistan because of Russian desire to place emphasis on strategic ties with India. But in 2011, in the background of Indo-US closeness, Putin publicly endorsed Pakistan’s bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and said that Pakistan was a very important partner in South Asia and the Muslim world for Russia. In 2011, Russia strongly condemned the NATO strikes in Pakistan. Putin sent his Foreign Minister Lavrov to Pakistan in 2012, and Pak Army Chief Kayani visited Moscow in October 2012. The two generals discussed improving defence cooperation, army-to-army relations, and the security situation in the region. Russia also agreed to sell helicopters to Pakistan for anti-terrorist operations. Moscow’s move to supply Islamabad came as New Delhi was seeking to modernize its Armed Forces’ by choosing to buy arms from Israel, France, Britain and the United States. Pakistan and Russia held their first strategic dialogue in August 2013. The dialogue laid an institutional framework for building closer relations between the two countries.

Decades of Pakistan’s defence relations with USA, and informal pressure of major defence customer India had resulted in a Russian defence supplies embargo on Pakistan. The same was finally lifted in June 2014 with the beginning of talks on supplying Islamabad with combat helicopters. Both sides have shown desire to translate the relationship in tangible terms and further strengthen military to military relations. Pakistan also invited Russian companies to invest in Pakistan, particularly in the energy sector. Pakistan now hopes to buy as many as 36 Russian Mi-35 helicopters and more closely coordinate efforts with Russia to counter terrorism and narcotics. Pakistan also wants Russian assistance to stabilise chronic energy shortages.

Russian Military Equipment and Exercises

In mid-1994 it was reported that the Russian manufacturers Sukhoi and Mikoyan were offering the Su-27 and MiG-29 to Pakistan, but Pakistan was later reported to be negotiating for supply of the Dassault Mirage 2000-5. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) inducted a number of the Chinese aircraft like Chengdu FC-20 and more advanced J-10, HQ-2 Chinese version of Russian SA-2 air defence system, and FT-2000, an anti-radiation variant of the HQ-9 long range air defence system. One USSR Antanov An-26 has been in service since 2004. 45 second-hand Mi-17 & Mi-171 were inducted on purchase from PLA in 2002. All are of Russian origin. In December 2009 the PAF received its first of four aerial refuellers IL-78 aircraft acquired from Ukraine, equipped with three-point Russian UPAZ refuelling equipment. Russia has also cleared sale of      RD-93 Russian engine for YF-17 aircraft developed by Pakistan with China. There is a desire for exchange of geo-political views and information, strengthen mutual trust and international security, and engage in counter-terrorist and arms related activities. Pakistan Army actively participated in Russian Army War Games 2015 held in Russian Far East. Pakistan was also among the 6 countries that took part in Master of The Air Defense Battle Competition along with Russia, China, Egypt, Venezuela and Belarus. 

Implications for India

Indo-Russian friendship is deep and time-tested. There are large political and economic investments for both. Nearly 70 percent of Indian Armed Forces still remain Russia centric. Traditionally, the Indo-Russian strategic partnership has been built on defence, civil nuclear energy, anti-terrorism and space. Bilateral trade between both countries in 2012 grew by over 24%. Both countries have set a target for US $30 billion in bilateral trade by 2025. Both interact closely in UN, BRICS, G20 and SCO. Russia is major supplier of not only military hardware but nuclear power plants, heavy engineering, metals, and petro chemicals. Russia is great market for any Indian products including pharmaceuticals. India is emerging as a great global player and has a huge a market for anyone to ignore. Russian masses continue to be fond of India. Among the major military projects are BrahMos cruise missile, Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, Su-30 MKI aircraft, Ilyushin/HAL Tactical Transport Aircraft, Kamov Ka-226 helicopters, T-90S Bhishma tanks, Akula-II nuclear submarine and many more systems in an never ending list worth tens of billions US$. Russia is India’s largest arms supplier, with $18bn in sales since 2006, according to Sipri. However, Russia has of late been driving hard bargains in defence deals with India. INS Vikramaditya being a prime example. In comparison the Russia-Pak trade is around US$ 542 million, mainly in Textiles, Oil and Gas energy etc. The trade is growing steadily with an ambitious target of US$ 4 billion by 2017. Any Pakistan Russia relations can only be temporary pin-pricks for India and no more.

Unfolding Scenarios

As the US moves closer to India, Pakistan looks to Russia. Pakistan is conscious that the balance of world power is being tipped toward India. Pakistanis are also worried the Indian military is moving toward dominance in the conventional arms race. They feel conventional military parity is important for peace and stability. Islamabad’s military and political leaders are seeking warm ties with Moscow with desire to shift historic alliances in south Asia. Pakistani leaders are increasingly nervous as their traditional alliance partners,including in the Arab World, tilt towards much larger player India. China is Pakistan’s largest arms supplier, having sold or transferred it nearly $4 bn in weapons since 2006. Meanwhile, Russia wants to use Pakistan Army’s expertise against terrorists in a conventional war. Russia is currently providing US$ 500 million to the mega-energy project, CASA-1000, that will transmit power generation from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan. Taliban continues to be a hair-raising nightmare for the Russian security managers. In 2012, Russia and Pakistan covertly developed geopolitical and strategic relations behind the scenes of world politics. As the NATO-led ISAF Forces are planning to depart Afghanistan, the Russians thought Pakistan was a crucial player and decided to close-in. Talks for delivery of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and previously agreed upon delivery of Mi-35M helicopters are actively on. Despite Indian protests, the deals will go through. Earlier 2015 a draft contract for the delivery of four Mi-35M ‘Hind E’ combat helicopters was sent to Pakistan from Russia. “Pakistan’s historical mistake after its inception was to establish close ties with the United States but to ignore the Russians,” said Haji Muhammad Adeel, a Pak lawmaker. It is time to stop putting all eggs in the same basket say others. Russian foreign policy experts say Russia can’t risk its relations with India selling significant arms to Pakistan. Pakistan is just being used as leverage over the Indian government so it doesn’t get too close to the US. Moscow is only keen to befriend Pakistan’s army rather than its civilian government. The Indians will have to be genuinely concerned about the impact of the Russia-Pakistan defence agreement only if the Russians end up with harming Indian interests. But this is highly improbable.