By M K Bhadrakumar
The building blocks of the historic visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pakistan in September have begun arriving in Islamabad. It is a poignant moment in the region’s history and politics. This will be the first time a Russian president visits Pakistan since its birth in 1947.
The Russians are fabricating some hardy bricks for the mansion they hope to build in the region which forms a beachhead on the Indian Ocean – a mansion large enough for their friends in Pakistan and in the neighboring countries of India, Iran and Afghanistan to consort with them.
But then, the very sight of the Russian bricks infuriates the United States. The point is, this Russia House will stand bang on the way of the New Silk Road that the US has been planning, which also needs to run through Pakistan. If the access is blocked, it becomes problematic for the US to keep together the body and soul of the tens of thousands of its troops who were hoping to settle down in the Hindu Kush and Central Asia as pioneers in the “Wild West” of China’s Xinjiang and on the “soft underbelly” of Russia.
In sum, the battle is joined for influencing Pakistan’s future. The stakeholders are many and a keen struggle lies ahead, since at the core of it lies a host of other issues of profound consequence to world politics – energy security of the two big power-houses of Asia (China and India), the future of the New Middle East, and of course, the US strategy to contain Russia and China.
Moscow deputed a talented and vastly experienced diplomat to visit Pakistan in May to make an estimation of the lay of the land. He was a surveyor of great experience whose reputation is the stuff of legends in the Hindu Kush mountains – Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s point person for Afghanistan. By the choice of Kabulov, Moscow also gently stated its broad intentions as regards its architectural design, namely, that it is a mansion with Afghan characteristics.
Following up on Kabulov’s visit, Russian experts began arriving in Pakistan. The proposals they brought are of momentous significance to the long-term security and stability of the region. Moscow has zeroed in on energy cooperation as the fulcrum of its nascent cooperation with Islamabad.
A six-year old idea reappears …
This is a shrewd decision by Moscow since energy security is a key issue in Pakistan’s political economy today, no less important than terrorism. Much of Pakistan gets only a few hours’ electricity in a day and the people’s rancor is visible. Moscow has assessed that energy security is integral to Pakistan’s capacity to maintain “strategic autonomy” as a South Asian power of standing and, therefore, by assisting that country in this sphere, Russian geopolitical interests in a vast swathe of the Greater Middle East stretching from the Persian Gulf to China’s Autonomous Region of Xinjiang would also be served.
Besides, in immediate terms, mutual understanding with Pakistan is becoming an imperative need for Russia in the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan, where the Western powers would have withdrawn the bulk of their troops but are nonetheless establishing an open-ended, sizeable military presence of tens of thousands of combat troops.
Russia and Pakistan are joined in their opposition to the long-term occupation of Afghanistan by the West; Russia hopes to influence Pakistani policies with regard to Afghanistan’s future and, in turn, cooperation with Pakistan enhances the overall Russian resilience to play an effective role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and in providing security to Central Asia; and, equally, a strong relationship with Pakistan – in the field of energy security, in particular – can provide yet another underpinning for Russia’s strategic ties with other key regional powers, especially China, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Last but not the least, Pakistan is a valuable interlocutor for Russia with regard to the activities and movements of the militants operating in North Caucasus.
Having said that, Russia weighs its options carefully and is averse to embarking on Soviet-era adventures that might be a drain on its resources. The priority of the Russian leadership lies in regenerating and innovating the economy and building the national strength, and in the case of Pakistan, Moscow estimates there could be an interesting partnership of much economic value to Russia and of mutual benefit.
All in all, Moscow’s strategy is to develop new sinews of cooperation with Pakistan that are sustainable, durable, and which dovetail with Russia’s vibrant strategic partnerships with China, India and Iran.
Put differently, the Russian approach becomes a necessary regional-policy “adjustment” or even a pre-requisite to the impending admission of Pakistan and India into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as full members. Putin is an action-oriented statesman and the unhappy part is that six long years have passed since he first proposed at the SCO summit in Shanghai in June 2006 the setting up of an energy club within the regional grouping comprising the energy producing countries of Russia, Iran and the Central Asian countries and the three big energy consuming countries of China, India and Pakistan.
It was at the very same Shanghai summit of the SCO that Putin came out openly for the first time to say that Russia’s energy leviathan Gazprom was willing to take part in the construction of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Putin said in his address, “Gazprom is ready to take part and provide technological and, if necessary, financial assistance, and we are willing to provide an unlimited amount of it, especially for a project that is certain to take off.”
Putin’s idea is that the oil and gas exporters within the SCO have been competing for promising markets (such as China or India), and to coordinate the moves SCO needs an energy club, which will act as a coordination center uniting both energy producers and the three key consumers.
One major Central Asian player who has stayed out of the SCO so far has been Turkmenistan, and it is a bit awkward to speak of an energy club in the region that doesn’t include such a large-scale gas producer. Russia also has some gas disputes with Turkmenistan – with which, however China has a warm relationship built around energy cooperation.
A little-noticed development of great significance was that Chinese President Hu Jintao invited the Turkmen president to visit Beijing at the time of the SCO summit last month – and the latter accepted. Suffice to say, China is keen to harmonize its regional policies with Russia and would even lend a hand to Moscow’s efforts to coordinate the impulses of energy security amongst and within the SCO member countries and observer countries.
A stunning thing is that the proposals brought by the Russian experts in the past week to Islamabad essentially pick up the threads of Putin’s 2006 proposal. According to the details available so far, Moscow has made the following proposals to Islamabad: · Russia can offer financial and technical assistance for Pakistan’s multi-billion dollar gas and power import projects that are in the pipeline.