Russia–Pakistan relations have improved since the end of the Cold War. While that trend is likely to continue, Russia is unlikely to transform Pakistan’s difficult strategic circumstances. Russia is insufficiently wealthy to provide enough aid and investment to revitalize Pakistan’s economy. Russia is also too concerned with maintaining access to the Indian defense market to increase defense sales to Pakistan more than modestly. This article reviews what I call the constraints of geoeconomics, where the relatively small size of the Russian and Pakistani economies combines with the considerable distance between them to limit Russian–Pakistani ties despite periodic official interest in deepening them. It situates these current obstacles in the context of the historic Soviet–Pakistani relationship, which was similarly constrained by distance, great power politics, and Indian concerns.
Pakistani optimism about contemporary prospects for Russia–Pakistan relations often contains within it some regret about the past. In a common retelling of their formative diplomatic history, many Pakistanis claim that the choice of partnership with the Soviet Union versus the United States was a matter of mere chance. Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, made overtures to both countries in the initial years after Pakistan’s independence. Moscow invited Khan for an August 1949 visit to the Soviet Union, but Khan had to decline because he was needed at home for Pakistan’s Independence Day festivities that same month. Pakistani and Soviet diplomats were unable to settle on an acceptable date for a rescheduled visit. So instead Liaquat’s first trip to a superpower capital was to Washington, DC, in May 1950.
The rest is history, or so the myth goes. Liaquat took positions publicly on that trip that troubled Moscow and pleased Washington, beginning a process that ended in US–Pakistan alignment (Dawn 2020). Achakzai (2022) captures the prevailing sentiment when he writes, “Had Liaqat Ali Khan simultaneously visited Russia when he visited the US, Pakistan’s history would have been different today and probably even better” (see also Malik 1994, 43, 108–09). Ahsan (2004, 74) goes further, arguing that the choice at this critical juncture led to enduring and incalculable harm to Pakistan: “Friendship with the US at the cost of enmity with Moscow was not a prudent approach. Pakistan, at no stage, had the capacity and resources to play the role of a ‘frontline state.’…This was a suicidal approach for which the country had to pay a heavy cost.”
Such analysts are obviously not merely furthering a historical argument. They are also making a claim with implications for Pakistan’s current strategic choices. If past proximity to Washington was a mistake, perhaps greater distance should be introduced today? And if past skepticism of Moscow was in error, perhaps embracing strategic partnership with Russia is appropriate now.
Yet this retelling of history has crucial flaws that make it a poor foundation for strategic reassessment. There are matters of historical debate: many observers contend that a Soviet invitation was elicited by Liaquat to arouse US jealousy and was never serious (Haqqani 2013, 44; Kux 2001, 33). Thus the supposed fork in the road may not have been viewed as a serious choice by either Pakistani or Soviet leaders. More crucially, though, such a narrative misunderstands Pakistan’s historic grand strategy, which sought to secure extraregional great power assistance to compensate for the regional imbalance of a much larger India, while avoiding entrapment in any great power disputes (Rais 1991). There is little historic evidence that Pakistan could have secured a better deal with Moscow than the one it extracted from its on-again/off-again partnership with Washington. Since neither the USSR nor the US ever perceived a meaningful, direct threat from India, there were profound limits on Pakistan’s ability to translate its concerns about India into the sort of external resources that would help Pakistan resolve the power asymmetries of the subcontinent. These strategic drivers largely endure even as so many other aspects of global politics have transformed.
This article examines contemporary Russia–Pakistan relations in the run-up to and aftermath of Russia’s calamitous war with Ukraine. It first summarizes their shared history, emphasizing that Pakistan’s relations with Moscow have been largely derivative of its relationship with the US. Pakistan has frequently attempted to repair relations with the Soviet Union, and then with Russia, when its relationship with Washington was troubled. While such efforts have occasionally paid temporary dividends, they never transformed Pakistan’s strategic circumstances. The article then focuses on the two pillars of potential cooperation proposed by relationship optimists: possible economic and energy ties; and potential defense and security partnership. I find that recent cooperation is modest at best, and future cooperation faces obstacles as well. There are important geoeconomic constraints on the relationship between two states separated by thousands of miles—much of it poorly connected by roads or rail—that cannot easily be obviated by diplomatic fiat. While some factors that hampered deeper Pakistan–Soviet ties have been removed, other historic obstacles have only worsened in the last three decades. While Islamabad and Moscow may edge closer to each other, the relationship is likely to remain insubstantial. The article concludes by showing that the Ukraine war and its aftermath are unlikely to overcome these fundamental problems.
Past as Prelude: Modulated Antagonism before 2000
In February 2022, prime minister Imran Khan visited Moscow—the first Pakistani prime minister to do so in more than 20 years. His supporters were quick to call the visit historic. Indeed, it may long be noted in history books, but perhaps not for the reasons Khan may have hoped. First, the visit contributed to the collapse of Khan’s government, which was already suffering from political weakness and civil–military frictions. Second, his arrival coincided with the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine, giving Khan a high-profile cameo appearance in the first great power war in Europe in more than two decades.
Despite the hype, Khan’s visit was not a rupture with the past. Since independence, Pakistan has looked to great powers to help it overcome the structural imbalance it faces in the subcontinent. While Pakistan has had the greatest success in securing US patronage, Pakistani officials have recurrently doubted whether that assistance was worth Washington’s demands for policy alignment. Khan’s visit was like historical attempts by other Pakistani leaders, in publicized dalliances with Moscow, to reduce their dependence on the US and gain greater freedom of maneuver on the world stage. Such maneuvers have been especially attractive for Islamabad (and to a lesser extent Moscow) during periods of improving US–India ties or estranged US–Pakistan ones. Pakistani leaders have intermittently decided a well-publicized trip to Moscow might encourage Washington to provide more assistance—and they have sometimes been correct in that calculation.
Almost from the outset, Pakistan’s relations with Moscow were sour. Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, observed that “Russia alone of all the great countries has not sent a congratulatory message to Pakistan.” He argued that “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America,” because of Pakistan’s position along a frontier where “Russia is not so very far away.” He held these publicly stated views alongside a private belief that “communism [does] not flourish in the soil of Islam,” making it clear in his mind that Pakistani interests lay “more with two great democracies, namely the UK and the USA rather than Russia” (quoted in Haqqani 2013, 9, 34–35). Jinnah died just a year after independence, but his views were shared by many among the Pakistani elite.
Pakistan did not establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union until May 1948 and did not have an ambassador resident in Moscow until December 1949. In contrast, Pakistan’s neighbor and soon-to-be rival, India, announced its intent to establish diplomatic relations in April 1947, four months before Indian and Pakistani independence. A few months later, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, to serve as New Delhi’s first ambassador in Moscow.
Once Soviet–Pakistan relations were established, they were hardly warm. As a young diplomat posted to Moscow in those earliest years of the relationship, Samiullah Koreshi (2004, 41) recalls that Pakistan’s first ambassador there “faced a total isolation by the Soviet leadership. His persistent efforts to make friends with [the] USSR were frustrated. [The] Soviets were as indifferent to the embassy and as hostile to Pakistan as we were keen to be near them.” Relations suffered further as a result of allegations that members of Pakistan’s Communist Party had played a role in a failed military coup attempt, commonly referred to as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, which authorities had discovered and disrupted in February and March of 1951. Given ties between the coup plotters and Communist Party front organizations, the Pakistani government was quick to announce that the conspirators had ties to “a certain foreign country” and soon used the plot to justify systematic and thorough repression of communist-linked groups in Pakistan (New York Times 1951; Zaheer 1998, xxiii–xxiv, 233).
In October 1951, Liaquat was assassinated. This began a period of political turmoil that resulted in a gradual increase of the influence of Pakistan Army chief General Ayub Khan. While Liaquat had signaled clear interest in closer US–Pakistan ties, his civilian successors (with Ayub’s encouragement) brought Pakistan into even closer alignment with Washington. In 1954 the US and Pakistan signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, and Pakistan subsequently joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and then, in 1955, the Central Treaty Organization. Pakistan offered the US access and bases in exchange for aid and security commitments. Soon Pakistani and American officials were discussing seismic monitors, early-warning radars, signals intelligence collection facilities, and airfields for U-2 spy plane operations from Pakistani territory (Bolsinger 2021–22, 64). In the seven years after Liaquat’s death, Pakistan had six different prime ministers of varied temperaments and inclinations. Yet when Pakistani civilian leaders occasionally contemplated drifting away from the US partnership, they were brought back in line by America’s supporters in the military and bureaucracy (Malik 1994, 113). Ayub eventually concluded that domestic political instability was harming Pakistan’s national security and in October 1958 overthrew the civilian government.
Superpower relations with the subcontinent were temporarily disequilibrated at the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s by the emerging Sino–Soviet split and the distinct but simultaneous worsening of Sino–Indian ties over their disputed land boundary. US–India ties improved as Sino–Indian ties worsened following border clashes in 1959. And Soviet anger at Pakistani basing permissions for US spy planes grew following the Soviet shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 in May 1960, which had departed from Pakistan. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev privately warned Pakistan’s ambassador to Moscow that continued flights from Pakistan might trigger Soviet retaliation. Pakistani leaders were thus reminded of the risk of ever-closer cooperation with the US. Malik (1994, 172) writes in his study of the period, “Due to the political fallout of these U-2 incursions, a sense of realism began to grow in Soviet-Pakistan relations.” Pakistan explored closer Soviet ties as a consequence. Shortly after the U-2 episode, Ayub’s government publicly welcomed assistance in oil exploration offered by the USSR.
US aid to India increased after India’s defeat in its 1962 war with China. Ayub continued to court modest Soviet aid and pursued incremental improvement of ties with the Soviet Union, culminating in Ayub’s first visit to Moscow in April 1965. The Johnson administration tired of what they viewed as never-ending Pakistani efforts to involve Washington in the India–Pakistan rivalry. After Ayub’s government initiated a war over Kashmir in 1965, the Soviet Union took the lead in mediating a peace accord at a summit at Tashkent in 1966. The US dramatically curtailed military assistance to both India and Pakistan to show disfavor over the 1965 war, but since Pakistan was far more dependent on US aid and materiel, the effect was asymmetrically punitive to Pakistan. Within a few years, the Pakistan military struggled to acquire new tanks to replace those lost in the 1965 war and obsolescing older models.
Already suffering US sanctions, Ayub’s government sought to demonstrate that Pakistan was not without options. Pakistan now explored the possibility of acquiring Soviet military hardware. Pakistan also signaled its seriousness to Washington and Moscow by stating in the spring of 1968—first privately, then publicly—its intent to close the US intelligence facility in Peshawar (Washington Post 1968). These twin maneuvers rattled US representatives in Pakistan, with the US ambassador writing to President Johnson, “If Pakistan is forced to rely on Russia for arms, Peshawar is lost and all of our other vital interests in this part of the world, including Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are jeopardized” (Oehlert 1968a). That same month, Pakistan told US diplomats that the Soviet Union had “agreed in principle to sell [Pakistan] any hardware it wants, including tanks” (Oehlert 1968b). Pakistan’s efforts to play the two superpowers off of one another worked. The Soviet Union sold 200 T-54 and T-55 tanks to Pakistan that same year.
Yet Pakistan’s new Soviet relationship proved incompatible not just with maintaining its US ties but also with its growing friendship with the People’s Republic of China. By the end of the 1960s, the Sino–Soviet split was profound, with violent clashes along the shared border of the two Asian Communist powers in 1969. When Ayub’s successor, General Yahya Khan, attempted to secure additional Soviet military assistance during his visit to Moscow that June—just three months after the border clashes with China—he was told by Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin that Pakistan could not “be on friendly terms at the same time with China and with the Soviet Union” (quoted in Kux 2001, 180–81).
The Soviet Union, too, faced considerable irritation from India about sales to its regional rival (Coughlin 1969). By then Moscow had become a leading supplier of military hardware to India, and hesitated to jeopardize that connection by trying to enhance its ties to Pakistan. The Central Intelligence Agency (1972, 4) would later sum it up: “In 1969 the Soviets concluded that their attempt to curry favor with Pakistan was losing them more good will in New Delhi than they were gaining in Islamabad. Military aid deliveries to Pakistan were accordingly suspended.” The US also seemed inclined to return to its old habits. The Nixon administration announced in October 1970 that it would provide weapons to Pakistan as a “one-time exception” to the Johnson-era embargo but soon “tilted” strongly toward Pakistan in the East Pakistan crisis of 1971. For its part, the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with India during that crisis, and generally worked to block US and Chinese interventions during India’s military operations against East Pakistan—soon Bangladesh—in November and December of that year.
The Pakistani defeat in the 1971 war, despite meaningful but hardly herculean US efforts to prevent Indian victory, brought Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to power. His nation’s sometimes criminal conduct in the 1971 war caused considerable US congressional concern, hampering Nixon’s ability to resume transfer of lethal military equipment. In 1972, the Nixon administration also opted not to provide sizeable food aid to Pakistan under the PL-480 program. Given these slights, Bhutto announced his government’s intent to leave the SEATO alliance in November 1972 (Saunders and Holdridge 1972). This was part of a broader shift toward “bilateralism” that Bhutto espoused publicly, arguing that cooperation with each of the great powers should be pursued so long as it did not harm Pakistan’s bilateral relationships with the other great powers (Malik 1994, 228–29).
Bhutto would continue to explore creative ways to secure renewed and more extensive US support. On February 10, 1973, Bhutto ordered a raid of the Iraqi Embassy in Islamabad, where Pakistani authorities captured a large cache of Soviet-origin weapons. Bhutto’s primary goal for the operation was to discredit political opponents at home, but the Pakistani leader was never averse to killing two birds with one stone. Bhutto pointed to the episode as evidence of a Soviet plot (Bureau of Intelligence and Research 1973). US government observers were not oblivious to Bhutto’s instrumental goals, yet the following month, in part to reassure Bhutto, Nixon decided to resume limited military equipment transfers (Kissinger 1973; Sober 1973).
Throughout 1973, Bhutto stressed repeatedly to US officials that he perceived a Soviet plot to secure access to Pakistan’s southern Makran coast, even as he simultaneously attempted an opening to Moscow (Saunders 1973). He told American officials that he was under intense pressure from the Soviet Union to join its proposed Asian collective security architecture—a Soviet-designed effort to contain China. All the while, Bhutto also solicited Soviet aid. His efforts netted the Pakistani leader more than USD 600 million in Soviet credits toward a large steel mill project near Karachi (Central Intelligence Agency 1979). Bhutto visited Moscow in 1974, though his officials assured their American counterparts that the trip was merely a “stalling” tactic to deflect Soviet pressure. These same Pakistani officials implied, however, that if Washington was not more forthcoming with “tangible evidence” of US reliability then Bhutto might be unable to arrest “eroding” Pakistani public support for its historic “pro-US orientation” (Central Intelligence Agency 1974). In February 1975, the new Ford administration finally lifted the ban on arms transfers to South Asia, but also limited them to cash sales of “defensive” weapons (Kux 2001, 218).
The impact of the decision was modest, though, because any renewed flow of US weapons was held back by the Ford administration as it sought to pressure Pakistan to accept binding limits on its nuclear program. Islamabad instead ramped up its nuclear weapons efforts after India’s 1974 test of a “peaceful” nuclear explosive device. US coercion was insufficient to cause Bhutto to reconsider Pakistan’s nuclear requirements, and Bhutto’s Soviet visits were not sufficiently worrisome to Washington to cause it to deprioritize American nonproliferation goals.
Again a Pakistani leader had tried to play Moscow and Washington off one another, and again the results were tangible but unremarkable. The incoming Carter administration was even more concerned about Pakistan’s nuclear efforts and even more skeptical of weapons sales for the remainder of Bhutto’s term. They were further troubled by the new military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, which ousted Bhutto in 1977.
In 1979, the increasingly gerontocratic and unimaginative regime in Moscow believed it had little choice but to intervene in Afghanistan, lest Kabul escape the Soviet orbit. The Soviet invasion was sufficient to cause Washington to overlook prior concerns with Pakistan, and the two states repaired relations into a close de facto alliance following the Soviet invasion. There were no serious attempts at Soviet–Pakistani rapprochement throughout the decade-long Afghan War, though modest technical and economic ties continued into the 1980s. Pakistan instead played a frontline role in supporting a proxy war in Afghanistan, which killed tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers and led to Soviet abandonment of the Afghan client state by the end of the decade.
In 1989, tumult in great power politics again disequilibrated the subcontinent. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February, the Chinese military violently quashed Tiananmen Square protests in June, and the Berlin Wall fell in November. The Cold War soon ended, and the Soviet Union formally dissolved in 1991. With the Soviet threat removed, the de facto US–China alliance collapsed under its ideological contradictions. India had carefully avoided a full rupture with Washington despite its 1971 treaty with the Soviet Union, and now explored closer ties with the sole remaining superpower. Washington responded slowly to this opening with India, given continued nonproliferation concerns. The US government also decided in 1990 to sanction Pakistan for its nuclear weapons development. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan meant American policymakers no longer felt compelled to ignore the steady stream of intelligence regarding Islamabad’s nuclear ambitions.
In this new post–Cold War landscape, Russia and Pakistan tentatively explored deeper ties. Benazir Bhutto’s ambassador to Moscow, Tanvir Ahmed Khan (2012), has written that in the 1990s “powerful sections of the Pakistani establishment,” especially those who had been associated with the anti-Soviet jihad, remained deeply skeptical of Russia and worked determinedly against improved ties. Similarly, in Moscow, there was a split between those who thought Russia’s future lay in Asia and those who prioritized deepening relations with the West (Malik 1994, viii). There were a slew of senior-official visits between Islamabad and Moscow in the early 1990s—vice presidents, ministers and ministers of state, and government secretaries, but no national leaders. Russian president Boris Yeltsin invited Benazir Bhutto to Moscow in December 1994, but the trip was cancelled, reportedly for reasons of Yeltsin’s health (Shukla 1999, 255). A Russian parliamentary delegation visited in 1995, and indicated Moscow was again willing to supply military hardware to Pakistan (Shah 2001, 43–45).
The post-Soviet mess around the former communist power’s old periphery created reasons for Russia–Pakistan diplomacy but also conflicting interests between them. While neither Moscow nor Islamabad sought a long civil war in Afghanistan, both wanted their proxies to win, even at the expense of a long civil war. Pakistan worked strenuously to bring down the Moscow-backed Najibullah government the Soviets had left behind in their former client state. Russia also blamed Pakistan for providing support to militants not only in Afghanistan but also in Tajikistan, which was convulsed by civil war from 1992 to 1997, and in Chechnya, where Russia fought a vicious counterinsurgency beginning in 1994 (Iqbal 2000; Raman 2010). Pakistan’s eventual backing of the Taliban did not improve matters.
These bilateral tensions did not prevent cooperation even as they limited it. Pakistan and Russia were observers to the Tajikistan peace process and eventually agreed—along with Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—to act as “political and moral guarantors” of the 1997 accord that concluded the conflict. Though Benazir Bhutto canceled her planned 1994 visit, her successor as prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, did manage to visit Moscow in April 1999. Yet that meeting—during Boris Yeltsin’s final months in office, with the Russian president’s health failing and power ebbing—was unremarkable, producing little more than a joint commission to enhance trade and Russian agreement to launch a Pakistani satellite (Agence France Presse 1999; Bantin 1999; Ivanov 1999).
Much of the framework for post–Cold War Russia–Pakistan relations was evident by 1999. Russia was too weak to serve as an alternative great power patron. Pakistan, for its part, was committed to a policy course in Afghanistan that contributed to Russian suspicion but was also engaged in a rivalry with India, Russia’s historic partner. The respective heads of both countries at the time of their April 1999 summit would be out of office by the end of the year, replaced by men they had appointed. Pakistan would be governed by military dictator Pervez Musharraf for much of the next decade. Vladimir Putin would prove even more durable.
Pillars for a New Partnership with Putin’s Russia?
When Musharraf ousted Sharif, in October 1999, the Russian government expressed concern about the fate of the leader who had visited Moscow only six months earlier. Yet soon Putin replaced the ailing Yeltsin, and the new Russian leader had no ideological hang-ups with autocracy—military or otherwise. By 2000, ideological limitations on a new Pakistani–Russian partnership were gone, and the two governments explored possible avenues of cooperation. Putin also accelerated the improvement in Sino–Russian ties that had begun the previous decade. Given the “all-weather friendship” between Beijing and Islamabad, this China–Russia entente could coexist happily with warmer Pakistani–Russian ties. Yet always lurking in the background was Russia’s aversion to risking the benefits of its historic relations with India just to improve ties with Pakistan. This has continued to be an impediment to transformed Russia–Pakistan ties.
In the contemporary era, two dimensions are most commonly highlighted by analysts optimistic about the future of the Russia–Pakistan relationship. I first review the possibility of much deeper economic and energy ties, before turning to progress on defense and security cooperation. Yet a careful examination of each area shows just as many constraints on cooperation as incentives for it. Geography, economics, and power politics continue to militate against meaningful Russia–Pakistan partnership.
Economic and Energy Ties
Putin and Musharraf met on the sidelines of multilateral gatherings in 2000 and 2002, before Putin invited Musharraf to Moscow in 2003. This summit again failed to be transformative. The Kremlin emphasized that Putin had stated that Pakistan–Russia relations “could not and must not be coordinated to the detriment of Russia’s traditional partners,” a clear reference to India. Yet one area highlighted by the two autocrats did improve under their stewardship and has continued to improve since Musharraf ’s departure. Both leaders stressed their desire for more bilateral trade, and two-way trade between the states has since risen from a paltry USD 87.5 million in the year before the Putin–Musharraf summit to USD 728 million in 2020—a more than seven-fold increase in nominal terms (Figure 1).
Yet neither Russia nor Pakistan is a major player in the economy of the other. In 2020, Pakistan was perhaps the 44th-largest economy in nominal terms, but it was merely the 63rd-largest market for Russian exports, according to World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimates. That same year, Russia was the 11th-largest economy in the world, but only the 27th-largest market for Pakistani goods. Pakistan buys mostly agricultural products from Russia. Wheat and legumes make up nearly 80% of Russian exports to Pakistan. In exchange, Russia imports modest quantities of textiles (55% of Pakistan’s overall exports to Russia) and citrus (20%), along with other odds and ends. Such trade is no doubt important to Russian and Pakistani farmers, but hardly evokes the grand strategic potential of the relationship.
Popular conversation focuses instead on the possibility of energy imports, pipelines, and connectivity infrastructure. “There are many opportunities available to strengthen Pakistan-Russia cooperation in the field of fuel and energy, a sector in which Russia has acquired advanced technology,” wrote Owais (2007, 132). More than a decade later, Khan (2019, 70–71) could still sketch a heady vision where Russian “investments will potentially meet Pakistan’s energy needs, while contributing to economic buoyancy that would ultimately pave way for regional integration, specifically through transnational energy cooperation.” When agriculture—arguably the most established sector of cooperation—is mentioned, it tends to be an afterthought: “Prospects are bright for promoting trade, investment and joint ventures in the fields of energy, infrastructure development, metal industry and agriculture sectors,” Hanif (2013, 76) reported.
There is little evidence the reality has kept up with the vision. Of Russia’s modest USD 400–500 billion total foreign direct investment the Russian central bank records no outbound direct investments in Pakistan in the last decade—or at least none that exceed the relatively low USD 500,000 recording cutoff (Bank of Russia 2022). While the State Bank of Pakistan only reports the top 50 or 60 investing countries in each reporting period, it also does not list Russia as among those top private investing countries in the last decade (State Bank of Pakistan 2022). While this does not eliminate the possibility that Russian funds are being routed through some third jurisdiction—for tax minimization or other purposes—it does indicate that the hope and the hype are not yet borne out in the official statistics of either state.
The dream of Pakistani authorities for at least three decades has been to offer Pakistan as a conduit for energy pipelines. And for at least three decades that vision has been stymied by geopolitics. The architecture proposed in these dreams has varied: pipelines through Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan (TAP) were a mainstay of news articles and commentary in the 1990s, while an Iran–Pakistan (IP) pipeline was the talk of the 2010s. Both architectures came with two variants: one that involved liquifying the natural gas and shipping it from established Pakistani ports (Karachi) or developing ones (Gwadar), and the other hoping to connect the pipelines to India’s much larger economy. The attraction of turning TAP into TAPI and IP into IPI is obvious. India’s total energy consumption in 2019 was nearly 32 quadrillion BTU, while Pakistan consumed roughly a tenth as much: an estimated 3.5 quadrillion BTU (US Energy Information Administration 2022). Moreover, the process of liquifying, transporting, and regasifying natural gas is expensive and requires enormous upfront capital investments. Pipelines are also expensive, but tend to be cheaper than the LNG infrastructure over short-to-medium distances (Molnar 2022). For investors considering pipelines that transit through Pakistan to an LNG terminal or that go on to the Indian market, the upfront capital costs would be considerable, and recouping the investment would take years, if not decades. Variability in the price of natural gas adds some uncertainty, but the politics of either TAPI or IPI have been toxic for investors. With a brief respite during the Obama years, the US has been intensely focused on sanctioning Iran, deterring even risk-acceptant investors such as China from financing the Iran–Pakistan project (Richter and Rodriguez 2012). And the TAP route never could overcome the widespread instability in Afghanistan (Rashid 2010).
Russia’s involvement in Pakistan’s pipeline politics has not yet produced a better outcome than Pakistan’s other attempts in this area. In three proposed projects, Russia has been asked to provide technical and construction assistance for long natural gas pipelines—in all three cases, pipelines that would carry other countries’ natural gas to South Asian markets. In the first such case, Russian assistance has been mooted publicly by Pakistani authorities for a pipeline from Kazakhstan to Pakistan, but the distances involved are considerable, and any line originating in Kazakhstan must go through Afghanistan or Iran, bringing the same problems as the TAPI and IPI architectures (Bhutta 2022). While prime minister Imran Khan reportedly planned to propose a Kazakhstan-origin pipeline in his visit to Russia in February 2022, the project seems to be at an embryonic stage (Press Trust of India 2022).
By far the most advanced effort envisioning a Russian role was formerly known as the North–South Pipeline and now is more commonly referred to as the Pakistan Stream. Under the current proposal, Russia would provide the infrastructure to connect LNG terminals in the southern city of Karachi to the outskirts of Lahore via an 1,100-kilometer pipeline, with associated compressor stations to permit gas flow. The planned terminus for the pipeline, in Kasur (less than 10 kilometers from India), suggests that the planners are keeping open the option of a future Indian extension. Unlike the Kazakhstan project, the Pakistan Stream has been discussed extensively in public, and both countries have signed agreements toward its planned completion. Yet the status of those agreements suggests trouble. A 2015 intergovernmental agreement anticipated the pipeline would be complete by mid-2018, and all associated compressor stations by mid-2020 (Dawn 2015). Instead the project underwent years of negotiation and renegotiation. US sanctions in December 2015 against a Russian firm involved in the planned construction derailed the initial agreement (Bhutta 2016). And even after a replacement for the sanctioned firm was found, several other sticking points appear to have prevented Prime Minister Khan from announcing progress on the pipeline during his 2022 Moscow visit (Isaad and Nicholas 2022; Mustafa 2022; Shahzeb and Iqbal 2022).
The most ambitious imagined Russian project involves a 1,500-kilometer offshore pipeline from the gas-rich Gulf states, such as Bahrain and Qatar, to Pakistan. This would be one of the longest offshore pipelines in the world. While frequently mentioned in the press, the project appears to be stuck in the feasibility-study stage and far from construction, yet alone completion (Gazprom 2019; Israr Khan 2019).
These are not the only roles mentioned for major Russian investments in the Pakistani economy, though in some ways they represent the projects most likely to reach fruition. Most ventures discussed by relationship optimists do not withstand even brief scrutiny. For example, since Soviet investment helped establish the Karachi Steel Mills in the 1970s, Russia has been periodically proposed as a possible savior of the now-antiquated industrial facility, which has not produced any steel since 2015. As of 2022, though, it appears that if any foreign firm helps modernize the facilities it is likely to be Chinese rather than Russian (Khan 2022; News International 2021b). Similarly, since Soviet (and later Russian) experts helped build power plants in Guddu, Muzaffargarh, and Multan, their help in modernizing and rehabilitating these facilities is often mentioned by officials and in the press—but any execution of these schemes is thus far lacking (Express Tribune 2013; Masood 2018). Russian help for construction of a new power plant in Jamshoro has also been “under consideration” since 2017 (Embassy of Pakistan, Moscow, 2022; Geo TV 2017). Elsewhere, a set of electrical transmission lines has been proposed, stretching from Central Asia to Pakistan, to carry abundant summer hydropower from the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, through Afghanistan, into Pakistan. Russia has suggested it might contribute its own excess electricity during periods of lower hydropower generation, helping the year-round economics of the project as well as benefiting Russian power producers. Yet this project, referred to commonly as Central Asia–South Asia–1000 (or CASA-1000), faces the same troubles with Afghan instability that have stymied the TAPI pipeline (Kiani 2016). Finally, Russian interest in exploiting Thar’s coal fields has been frequently mentioned in the Pakistani press for a decade, but the evidence that such interest will lead to a meaningful financial or technical commitment is scant (Express Tribune 2011).
All of these projects were proposed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the invasion has made all of them less likely. The severity and international breadth of sanctions targeting Moscow has grown, making these projects economically and politically dangerous for Pakistan while also calling into question Russia’s availability to provide financial and technical assistance given the current strains on the Russian economy. Some projects, like the CASA-1000 transmission lines, depend in substantial part on US financing. The already challenging project may be even less viable if Russian participation is excluded because of concerns over Western sanctions (Reuters 2022).
The post-2022, post-Ukraine landscape also interacts with the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which restored the Taliban to power. The restored Taliban government has little legitimacy abroad and limited control of the countryside. The Afghan Taliban’s ideological affinity with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan may also complicate Pakistan–Afghanistan relations. Afghan instability consequently complicates all proposals that depend on ground corridors from Russia through Central Asia into Pakistan. They were economically and politically risky during the best years of post-9/11 Afghanistan. Those risks have now grown prohibitive. Perhaps a shared Russian–Pakistani desire to manage that instability might provide another avenue of cooperation, even if economic ties are not yet sturdy. That possibility is considered next.
Russia–Pakistan Cooperation on Defense and Security
Pakistan and the US grudgingly reunited after 9/11, when Washington demanded that Pakistan support an American-led war against the Taliban. Pakistan was hesitant to resume its status as frontline state and even more so to abandon the Taliban, which had been the vehicle by which Pakistan had finally secured its multidecade goal of ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul (Fair 2014, chap. 5). Pakistan hedged this policy reversal by providing safe haven to Taliban leaders as they fled the US-backed regime-change operation while simultaneously offering basing, transit routes, and intelligence to the American regional counterterrorist and counterinsurgency effort. Within a few years of the Taliban’s ouster, Pakistani military and intelligence officials appear to have calculated that Washington’s staying power in Afghanistan would be transitory, and indications grew of Pakistani support, rather than mere safe haven, for the Afghan Taliban and the closely aligned Haqqani network (Tankel 2018).
Pakistan clearly held a position of influence over post-9/11 Afghanistan’s fate, which led to engagement with the Musharraf regime from all the extraregional great powers. While Western powers were fearful for the new government in Kabul and worried about signs of instability in Pakistan, China and Russia also sought to ensure that Afghanistan’s long-term trajectory did not prove injurious to their interests. Comments by US officials and political leaders that implied Washington wanted more or less permanent military bases in Central Asia rankled Beijing and Moscow. During a February 2005 visit to Kabul, Republican senator John McCain told the press that he wanted a “long-term strategic partnership” between the US and Afghanistan that included “joint military permanent bases” (Synovitz 2005).
Despite unparalleled US influence in the 1990s and 2000s, regional powers could still cooperate separately from and occasionally in defiance of Washington. Since the mid-1990s, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan had met to coordinate on regional security challenges. While the five states publicly and privately discussed a “joint struggle against international terrorism, religious extremism, and national separatism,” they also decried—as stated in a declaration issued at a summit in Dushanbe in 2000—“intervention into internal affairs of other states…under the pretext of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘human rights protection’” (TASS 2000). In 2001 the grouping added Uzbekistan and took on its current name, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, or SCO (Pomfret 2001). In July 2005, just months after Senator McCain floated the idea of a permanent US military presence in Afghanistan, the SCO summit in Almaty called on “the relevant participating states of the antiterrorist coalition [operating in Afghanistan] to set a deadline” after which they would not maintain military bases in the region (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation 2005).
Pakistan—along with India—joined the grouping as an observer for the first time at that summit in 2005. Pakistan would remain an SCO observer until it secured full membership in 2017.1 The inclusion of both of these South Asian rivals was and is often understood as logrolling, with Russia supporting its traditional Indian partner and China doing the same for Pakistan. Adding both states substantially increased the breadth and heft of the SCO, but with a clear danger that “the hostile Indian-Pakistani relationship” might “complicate military and counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing and [make] it far more difficult to reach decisions by consensus” (Stronski and Sokolsky 2020, 18).
Pakistan’s full membership in the SCO arrived during a period of broader signals by Moscow of willingness to deepen its security and defense ties with Pakistan, which had been minimal since the 1970s. While traditionally Russia avoided jeopardizing its more significant security and defense relationship with India, concerns about growing US–India defense cooperation appear to have caused Russia to reconsider that past self-restraint.
While Russian visitors had indicated the possibility of defense sales to Pakistan as early as the mid-1990s, such post–Cold War transfers began modestly and involved only Mi-17 dual-use helicopters (Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily 2004; Kotov 1996). For several years, reportedly in response to Indian concerns, Russia withheld permission for Beijing to use Russian-origin RD-93 jet engines in China’s sale of its co-developed FC-1/JF-17 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. During the 2000s, though, China was Moscow’s largest defense customer, and Moscow eventually yielded to combined Chinese and Pakistani pressure, granting formal approval for the RD-93 re-export in 2007 (Kommersant 2007; Nation 2004; Raghuvanshi 2007).
Despite these moves, Russian officials were quick to reassure their Indian counterparts that Russia did not envision a much broader arms relationship with Pakistan. In 2012, when asked about future sales of weapons to Pakistan, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin told Indian reporters, “We are always cooperating with India to ensure safety of the region. We never created trouble for India in the region as compared to other countries. If someone says otherwise, spit in his face.” Less provocatively, he said, “We don’t do military business with your enemies. We don’t transfer any arms to them” (quoted in Dikshit 2012b).
In 2014, however, Russia’s ambassador to Islamabad said there was no formal embargo or ban on arms exports to Pakistan while acknowledging that the two states had been in negotiations to transfer the Mi-35 attack helicopter (Shaheen 2014). That deal was concluded in 2016, with Russian transfer of the systems in 2017 and their arrival in Pakistan by the following year (Daily Times 2018).
Russian commentators were sometimes explicit in linking these sales to New Delhi’s growing defense relationship with Washington. “India could have been more loyal to Russia in the field of military and technical cooperation and saved it from the disagreeable situation in which Moscow on its own has to search for markets to sell military equipment meant for Delhi,” an anonymous Russian diplomat told an Indian newspaper in 2012 (quoted in Dikshit 2012a)—in fact only days before Dmitry Rogozin’s seemingly contrary assurance that Pakistani sales would not occur. Similarly, Russian analyst Ruslan Pukhov said during this period, “Delhi’s attempts to diversify its supplies of new weapons—increasingly from Western countries—are making Russia flinch. Moscow has explained to Delhi, in no uncertain terms, that it can also diversify its military-technical ties by means of a rapprochement with Pakistan” (quoted in Strokan 2012). Even as specific sales were being contemplated publicly, Russian officials publicly stressed they did not see any problems for their India relationship in limited sales to Pakistan. “I do not think that the contacts under discussion will cause jealousy on the part of any of the two sides,” Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told journalists in September 2015 (Sputnik 2015). The ironic reading of Ryabkov’s statement is evident enough, since many observers reckoned that Russia’s outreach to Pakistan was intended to cause jealousy in India rather than to avoid it.
Whether the Mi-35 sales were a warning shot to New Delhi or merely a prelude of things to come is difficult to establish given their recency. That helicopter transfer appears to have violated a red line against the provision of combat aircraft that Indian officials viewed as applying to the attack helicopter transfer, though not necessarily the dual-use Mi-17s provided earlier (Laskar 2014). Pakistan has expressed interest in Russian fighter aircraft recurrently since the 1990s, but nothing remotely as provocative as modern fighter systems has been transferred. There have been some reports that Pakistan might upgrade their Ukrainian-origin T-80 tanks in Russia, but this would be an incremental improvement of existing systems rather than a new capability (Interfax 2018).
The Mi-35 acquisition was not the only sign of closer Russia–Pakistan partnership that emerged alongside worsening US–Pakistan relations over Afghanistan and troubled US–Russian relations following the February 2014 invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. During a visit by the Russian defense minister to Pakistan in late 2014—the first such visit since 1969, during the last brief period of Soviet–Pakistani defense cooperation—a bilateral military cooperation agreement was signed (Syed 2014; TASS 2014). In 2018, Pakistan and Russia signed additional agreements for enhanced naval cooperation and to permit Pakistani officers to attend Russian military training institutions—which were viewed contemporaneously as a reaction to the Trump administration’s decision to halt US military exchange programs with Pakistan (Gul 2018; Kaura 2018).
Russia–Pakistan exercises also began at a meaningful pace. The Arabian Monsoon naval exercise series reportedly centers on counter-narcotics operations and has occurred regularly since 2014 (News International 2018, 2021a). In 2021, Russian vessels joined the Pakistan Navy’s multilateral Aman (Peace) exercise, which focuses on transnational threats, just before that year’s bilateral Arabian Monsoon exercise (TASS 2021). These militaries have also held counterterrorism and special-forces-focused Druzhba (Friendship) exercises at least six times since 2016 (Express Tribune 2021).
The more visible Pakistan–Russia security engagement coincided with shifting Russian views on the Taliban. Moscow had been wary of the Taliban when they emerged in the 1990s. After the US invasion in 2001 and in the context of worsening US–Russian relations, Russia also grew wary of an enduring American footprint in Central Asia. The Taliban insurgency’s potential to prevent that inevitably made the movement more palatable to Moscow. Then, beginning in the mid-2010s, Russia expressed increasing public concern that the Islamic State and its Afghan affiliate, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK), was a growing danger to Russian interests. The Taliban’s feud with the ISK brought Russian interests into greater alignment with the Taliban, and contributed to growing Russian support of Pakistani efforts to facilitate talks with the Taliban in the waning years of the Ghani government in Kabul. India was skeptical throughout and found itself “at odds” with the Russian policy trajectory on Afghanistan (Paliwal 2007).
India has also expressed skepticism about Pakistan–Russia security cooperation more broadly. India’s ambassador to Russia, Pankaj Saran, told the Russian media in October 2016, shortly after the first Druzhba exercise, “We have conveyed our views to the Russian side that military cooperation with Pakistan which is a state that sponsors and practices terrorism as a matter of state policy is a wrong approach and it will only create further problems” (quoted in Jacob 2016). India’s stated concerns may be one reason the publicly disclosed scope of the military exercises has thus far been so non-provocative, focusing on missions such as counterterrorism or counter-narcotics that are comparatively benign.
It is certainly possible that the Ukraine invasion could halt or pause even the relatively low-level Pakistan–Russia bilateral defense relationship. Re-equipping Russian forces, rather than arming new customers like Pakistan, may be a priority for the Russian defense industry, especially as it struggles to produce or otherwise procure items it previously would have drawn from suppliers that have now sanctioned Moscow. It remains uncertain whether Russia can maintain even its modest exercise series with Pakistan, given the enormous Russian troop and equipment commitments in Ukraine. Finally, whether Pakistan will be willing to continue high-visibility associations with the Russian military in this environment is far from certain. Pakistan’s own fiscal situation is under profound strain in 2022, in part because of the post-Ukraine international economic environment, limiting the allure of any substantial defense acquisitions, including Russian-origin defense hardware.
The Ukraine Invasion, Pakistani Turmoil, and the Future of Russia–Pakistan Relations
Imran Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister in August 2018. While he managed to improve relations with the US toward the end of the Trump administration, he had no success in building personal rapport with Joe Biden after the latter took office in 2021. Khan’s senior officials appeared to grow increasingly irritated that Biden was unwilling even to give Khan the courtesy of a publicized telephone call. Khan’s national security advisor, Moeed Yusuf, said in early August 2021, “If a phone call is a concession, if a security relationship is a concession, Pakistan has options” (quoted in Manson 2021). By the end of the month, Pakistan and Russia announced that Khan and Putin had spoken on the phone, the first of several such calls prior to Khan’s February 2022 visit to Moscow (Khan 2021). That visit was supposed to be Khan’s historic moment, but the symbolism was overtaken by the Ukraine crisis, and any substantive cooperation—or, at a minimum, tangible public deliverables or agreements—was derailed entirely by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which occurred just as Khan was arriving in Moscow.
Khan, for his part, was struggling with a multifaceted political crisis at home—a crisis he publicly blamed on US anger regarding his Russia outreach. After he returned from Moscow that crisis brought with it the collapse of his government, through a successful no-confidence motion that Khan attributed to a Pakistan Army–led conspiracy against him (motivated, he suggested, by the army’s desire to assuage US concerns). The evidentiary basis for Khan’s beliefs is beyond the scope of this article, but despite Khan’s allegations, the Pakistan Army is not inherently hostile to Russia. Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa made an official visit to Moscow in April 2018, and generally oversaw the continued improvement in the relationship in more recent years. While General Bajwa felt compelled to give public remarks opposing the Ukraine invasion, they were measured in tone. As American analyst Tamanna Salikuddin has written, “Bajwa’s statements on Ukraine at the Islamabad dialogue were clearly aimed at mollifying the United States while still keeping the door open to Russia” (Cookman et al. 2022).
But the collapse of Khan’s government did not quell Pakistan’s political instability. The new coalition government inherited an economic crisis that was in substantial part attributable to the commodity and energy shortages triggered by the Russian invasion. Perceived economic mismanagement, combined with public sympathy for Imran Khan, has left the new government on shaky ground, making Imran Khan’s return possible if not probable at some future date.
If he does return, Khan may be intrigued by the possibility of defying US pressure by again embracing Russia. Yet it is impossible to tell whether Russia will be in a position to reciprocate. Will Vladimir Putin still be in charge? Will Russia be an economic mess because of the global sanctions regime? Will Russia’s relationship with China grow even closer in the face of Western pressure over Ukraine? While some scenarios make closer Pakistan–Russia relations more likely than others, the current state of great power politics is too fluid to permit accurate predictions.
Pakistan is too small to mold the structure of international politics by itself. It is forced to navigate within a structure set by others, working to carve out the best deal it can. Pakistani policy is not entirely reactive, but Pakistan’s enduring strategic goals of competing with India and ensuring a non-hostile regime in Afghanistan require resources beyond those Pakistan can muster on its own. Achieving its stated foreign policy goals then requires not just adroit foreign policy but also good luck. If Russia emerges as a de facto client state of China, then Russia’s India ties are likely to weaken, and its Pakistan ties may improve. But Russia’s ability to help Pakistan independently will be reduced as Moscow’s own stature in international politics is diminished by its Ukraine missteps. Otherwise, the Russia–Pakistan relationship is likely to remain what it has been for some time: a modest source of aid, technology, and arms for Pakistan to cultivate when its relationship with Washington is sour.
The Russia–Pakistan relationship has not transformed Pakistan’s situation in the past and is unlikely to do so in the future. Russia does not offer an escape from Pakistan’s grand strategic predicaments. Those who argue that Moscow can do so a re ignoring the geopolitical and geoeconomic constraints facing Russia and Pakistan in the twenty-first century.
Published online: October 31, 2022
Mongolia received SCO observer status before India or Pakistan. Iran also joined as an observer in 2005.