Moscow-Islamabad relations are growing but mistrust persists.
Written by Paul Antonopoulos, independent geopolitical analyst
A Russian company has backed out from a deal with Pakistan after it discovered that the procurement of items was meant for the South Asian country’s Chashma nuclear plant. According to ANI, the Federal Service for Technical and Export Control (FSTEC) of Russia refused to issue a license for the exportation of six hand-foot-contamination monitors from Moscow’s Technocenter to the Hassan Scientific corporation in Lahore after it was discovered that the end-user was the Chashma Nuclear Power Generating Station.
Pakistan traditionally procures nuclear materials from private companies in Europe. However, this has changed due to the European Union’s ever-increasing control imposed by its regulatory bodies. Because of this, Pakistan has had to look elsewhere, including Russia, to procure such items. Now it appears that Pakistan will have to look elsewhere once again as Moscow has also been closely observing efforts by private Pakistani companies to procure such items for the Chashma nuclear plant.
According to an informed source quoted by ANI, “the Pakistani side felt that Russian regulatory authorities probably do not have as [much] stringent oversight. It is worth noting that when it comes to the procurement of dual-use nuclear products, the Pakistani state tends to overlook the nature of its bilateral relations with other countries. The steady building of relations with Russia did not deter Pakistan from procuring dual-use nuclear items from Russia discretely.”
Russia’s halt of exporting equipment for Pakistan’s Chashma nuclear plant comes despite the improving relations between the two countries. It is noted that traditionally, particularly during the Cold War period, Islamabad enjoyed close relations with Washington, whilst Moscow had closer relations with a non-aligned New Delhi.
This dynamic is beginning to shift though, especially as India becomes closer to the US in the belief that it will deter China’s supposed encroachment against its territory. At the same time, Pakistan is becoming increasingly closer to Russia, something especially unexpected when remembering the country’s key role in opposing the Soviets in the region, particularly during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989).
In 2007, Mikhail Fradkov became the first Russian prime minister to visit Pakistan in the post-Soviet-era and had “in-depth discussions” with President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. The major focus of the visit was to improve bilateral relations with particular emphasis on ways and means to enhance economic cooperation between the two countries. This meeting spurred on Moscow-Islamabad relations, with Russia having now invested billions of dollars in Pakistan, particularly in the energy and defense sector. As of early 2021, Pakistan has been supplied with Russian-made Mi-35 attack helicopters and the pair have signed contracts to deliver anti-tank systems, air defense weapons and small arms.
Yet, despite the growing relationship between Moscow and Islamabad, as well as India’s pivot towards the US in the context of tensions with China, it points to two realities: 1) Relations between Moscow and New Delhi still remain strong; 2) Moscow still does not fully trust Islamabad.
Russia still remains India’s top supplier of defense equipment and together they are engaged in joint production of naval frigates, fighter jets, helicopters and Brahmos cruise missiles. In addition, India has invested in Russia’s Far East and exports pharmaceuticals, electronic equipment and machines to Russia. In fact, the trade exchange in 2019-20 between the two countries amounted to $10.11 billion. Russia and India have set a bilateral trade target at $30 billion by 2025.
In 2018, trade exchanges between Russia and Pakistan amounted to only about $800 million. When observing their relations from this economic perspective, it suggests that despite India’s pivot towards the US, relations with Russia still remain strong and much more profitable and important than with Pakistan. Although Islamabad-Moscow relations are strengthening and becoming more profitable, there is still a long way until trust can be established, and the halting of exporting equipment for Pakistan’s Chashma nuclear plant points to this reality.
Moscow, just like New Delhi, is still concerned by Pakistan’s unapologetic and continued support for terrorist organizations like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Although prospects for Russo-Pakistani relations are extremely positive, it does not discount that Pakistan’s propriety to support terrorist organizations raises security concerns in the Kremlin, especially if terrorist organizations in Central Asia become further strengthened and emboldened to target Russia.
Although the two countries are working to overcome mistrust, Pakistan’s attempt to procure nuclear equipment without Russia’s knowledge will serve as another major setback. Despite India pivoting closer to the US, it is unlikely to affect its relations with Russia. In this context, Moscow will be satisfied and unwilling to backtrack on its relations with New Delhi, especially since they are rooted in history unlike its relatively recent relationship with Islamabad. None-the-less, Moscow will also want to continue developing its relations with Islamabad, but they are unlikely to reach great heights so long as Pakistan continues to support terrorist organizations.
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