Think Tank
Prospects for Cooperation Between Russia and Pakistan

On June 6, 2022, Moscow will host the first Russian-Pakistani expert dialogue between the Valdai Discussion Club and the analytical centre Pakistan House – International Think Tank. Previously, the Valdai Club has repeatedly participated in expert events in Pakistan, and experts from various Pakistani analytical centres  have taken part in Valdai Club events, such as the Club's Annual Meeting, and the Middle East and Central Asian Conferences. Now the Valdai Club and Pakistan House are entering a new stage of cooperation - a direct bilateral dialogue. It should be noted that major Russian-Pakistani conferences are still a rarity for the intellectual community of the two countries. The Valdai Club is one of the pioneers in this area.

Pakistan is a large regional state, as well as a member of the informal ‘club’ of states that possess nuclear weapons. Islamabad's role as a policymaker is of great importance in terms of maintaining security and stability in South Asia and the Middle East. In recent years, Pakistan has pursued an independent and balanced foreign policy, strengthening ties with Russia and China. Islamabad has repeatedly stressed that the sovereign foreign policy agenda of the country is fully consistent with the national interests of Pakistan. Russia is interested in seeing Pakistan maintain and strengthen its balanced foreign policy in the future, one that is free from outside influence.

Naturally, the events of recent months have introduced a new dynamic into the politics of both Russia and Pakistan. On the one hand, Pakistan was going through a period of internal political instability. In April, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from power after a no-confidence vote was passed by the country's parliament. The former prime minister directly accused the United States of being behind the campaign to overthrow and discredit him. Civil confrontation persists between supporters of Imran Khan and the new government. However, domestic political changes, at least for the moment, do not seem to have had a serious impact on the foreign policy strategy and key foreign policy interests of the country, including the development of relations with Russia. Pakistan has taken a neutral position regarding the situation in Ukraine, despite pressure from the United States. On the other hand, in the context of a complete break in relations between Russia and the West after February 24, maintaining contacts with Asian countries, including Pakistan, has unquestionably become a key strategic priority for Russia.

Five years ago, Pakistan became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This gave Russia and other countries in the region the opportunity to develop cooperation with Pakistan in the fight against terrorism. A mechanism of consultations and an exchange of information has been launched between the SCO member states, and common measures are being taken to build confidence. Military-technical cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is developing dynamically, and contacts between defence departments are being strengthened. The countries regularly conduct joint military and naval exercises: the annual Friendship exercises have been held since 2016.

It is clear that relations between Russia and Pakistan are not developing in isolation from the regional context. Here they have understandable and objective geopolitical limitations, which would be more honest to talk about directly. Relations between Pakistan and India are traditionally complex. Both countries have objective interests in developing cooperation with Russia. Moscow has made it clear that it does not view relations with each of these countries as actions against a third country. The SCO mechanisms, which simultaneously include India and Pakistan, can play a positive role in preventing the escalation of the conflict and possibly reducing tension. However, tensions between India and Pakistan are expected to persist in the medium term. This may limit bilateral Russian-Pakistani contacts, but the importance of this factor, in our opinion, should not be overestimated.

If we talk about Russia's position in relations between Pakistan and India, then after the accession of these countries to the SCO, a significant evolution took place. Since the time of the Afghan military campaign of the 1980s, Russian public opinion has most often perceived Pakistan negatively, through the prism of this conflict. Meanwhile, since Soviet times, Moscow has presented India to Russian society as a friendly partner. This has most recently been facilitated by both active interstate ties (both bilateral and in the BRICS format) and public initiatives. India both has a large flow of Russian tourists and benefits from the general interest of certain Russians in Indian cultural and the nation’s spiritual heritage. This has been the result of India’s effective "soft power" policy in promoting a positive image of the country in Russia and its wide range of cultural initiatives. The result has been a fairly clear pro-Indian position in Russian public opinion when it has come to choosing between India and Pakistan. However, we repeat, this situation began to change after Pakistan's entry into the SCO and the strengthening of bilateral Russian-Pakistani cooperation. Let us also repeat that Russia's clear position is that both its cooperation with Pakistan and its cooperation with India are not directed against third countries. Moscow does not at all seek to be forced to take one side or another in the historic Indo-Pakistani conflict; on the contrary, it aims to reduce tension here and strengthen mutual trust through the mechanisms of bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

On the other hand, China is one of Pakistan's key economic and security partners. Pakistan occupies an important place in China's Belt and Road Initiative, which is continuing to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. For Russia, relations with China are also among the top priorities. In this context, our countries also have prospects for strengthening cooperation.

Afghanistan is of great importance to Pakistan. In addition to the fact that the countries share a long common border, Pakistan and Afghanistan are home to Pashtuns, a significant ethnic group in both countries. The complex dynamics of this issue, including the topic of eventual recognition (or non-recognition) of the Durand Line as an objective Pakistani-Afghan border should also not be completely discounted. In addition, the long-term Afghan conflict, in our opinion, has had a negative impact on Pakistani society. Pakistani researcher Imrana Begum, in a recent book on the impact of the Afghan conflict on Pakistan, even calls the outcome of the war the "Talibanisation of Pakistan".

This so-called Talibanisation of Pakistan, in her opinion, is expressed in the fact that the country actually ended up on the front line, and was flooded with weapons and refugees from Afghanistan. In recent decades, this has seriously undermined the potential for Pakistan's economic development. Islamabad, like Moscow, is interested in a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Both countries maintain certain contacts with the current Afghan leadership, so it is advisable to synchronise watches on this issue, including at the expert level.

Another equally important issue in Russian-Pakistani relations is connected with the historical legacy of the Afghan conflict - the need to build a mutually positive image in the public opinion of the two countries. As noted above, one should not deny the negative impact of the Afghan military campaign of the 1980s on the image of Pakistan in Russia. At the same time, we in Russia often do not take into account that exactly the same situation has developed with respect to the image of Russia in Pakistani public opinion. As a result, in order to achieve sustainable trust in the public opinion of the two countries, purposeful, delicate work is needed on both sides: the ability to hear each other out, openly and impartially discuss complex historical problems and overcome them today. Incidentally, the successful Russian-Chinese experience of building mutual public trust after many years of negativity may well be applied here (the SCO format contributes to this).

A significant separate topic is the development of economic cooperation between Russia and Pakistan. Here, in previous years, a certain groundwork has already been created and large-scale projects have been announced. In 2015, Russia and Pakistan signed an agreement on the construction of a main gas pipeline, which was later called "Pakistan Stream". In the case of the implementation of the Pakistan Stream, the price of electricity for the population may significantly decrease, which may lead to economic growth and a decrease in social tension in the country. Considering that more than 200 million people live in Pakistan, and gas consumption is constantly growing, there is every reason to believe that the implementation of this project could make a significant contribution to ensuring the energy security of the country. On the other hand, it should not be denied that in the new global situation that has taken shape since February 24, this context will have its impact on the dynamics of Russia's economic ties with other countries, including Pakistan. There will be both external pressure and sanctions restrictions. This also shouldn't be discounted.

Therefore, one of the main tasks of the Russian-Pakistani conference of the Valdai Club is to conduct a general review of the state of bilateral relations amid a critical period for Russia and the whole world. The event will consider the main issues of bilateral relations in politics, economics, the development of public relations, as well as the regional and international context of Russian-Pakistani cooperation, which is closely interconnected with the relations of Russia and Pakistan with China, India, Afghanistan, the Arab countries and Iran. The purpose of the conference is to strengthen cooperation between Russia and Pakistan and consolidate the positive trend in the perception of our countries in public opinion, both in Russia and in Pakistan.

Opening and First Session of the Russia-Pakistan Expert Dialogue
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.