BABER ALI BHATTI — Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa is expected to visit Russia within the week. As the army chief, it would be his first visit to Moscow. A Pakistan foreign office spokesperson has confirmed this visit and further mentioned that “Regular high-level exchanges between the two sides in the past few years have set the stage for translating political goodwill into a substantial partnership in particular, in the field of defense,”. This visit is expected to be fruitful in the defense arena as implied by the foreign office giving the field of defense as a focus of visit.
Former army Chief General Raheel Sharif also visited Moscow in the year 2015. The visit resulted in the first ever mutual military venture between Pakistan and Russia. Consequently, the first military exercise, Druzhba-216 (Friendship-2016), was held between Pakistan and Russia in 2016. This military drill lasted for two weeks, at a time when Indo-Pak tensions were particularly high. That military drill not only strengthened Pakistan-Russia military ties but also provided a conducive environment for trust building.
Similarly, before Raheel’s visit, former army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani also visited Russia. As a result of that visit, Russia and Pakistan signed a landmark defense agreement and Russia lifted an embargo on weapons exports to Pakistan. Such initiatives by Pakistan have cemented relations between the two countries, and may make Russia and Pakistan major regional allies in the future.
Bajwa’s visit is primarily aimed at reinforcing military relations and boosting defence relations via DRUZBA 2017, a two week long joint exercise between the Special Forces of Pakistan and the Russian military. The event has already been initiated in Russia and senior military officials from both countries observed the ceremony. However, the defense landscape has multiple avenues to be explored and worked on mutually. Therefore, this visit is expected to be focusing on other defense avenues along with joint military drills.
The striking point here is that Russia is quite concerned about the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. IS in Afghanistan has major consequences for Central Asia and Russian territories with Muslim populations. In this regard, the Pakistan military have had a fair amount of exposure and experience in counter-terrorism. The Pakistan Army’s experience in countering guerrilla warfare in Pakistan’s rough borderlands with Afghanistan has enough significance to be shared with other states. Therefore, a counter-terrorism alliance may also be one of the points of focus in this visit. It is also noteworthy that the Russian Deputy Chief of General Staff visited Waziristan a few months ago with his military delegation and observed Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts.
To counter the scourge of terrorism, efforts at regional level are imperative. The Pakistan army extensively operated in this manner in it’s counter terrorism efforts and can provide primary assistance and training to other countries in the region. Keeping in view this geographical status and Russian counter-terrorism concerns, Pakistan may build a regional alliance which includes Russia to improve it’s international diplomatic standing. This is a significant possibility. After the Crimea episode between Ukraine and Russia, hostilities between Russia and the west are on the upswing. Trump’s new South Asia policy has also tensed diplomatic relations between Pakistan and the USA. Ergo, Pakistan and Russia are quite suited for an alliance to counter the West’s interests in the region. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can also provide a regional structure through which both countries can operate.
In the foreseeable future, Pakistan and Russia may find multiple grounds to carry joint ventures. The US has surpassed Russia as the largest arms exporter to India in the last few years. Interestingly, Pakistan is still an untapped market for Russian arms and military equipment. Russia can utilise Pakistan’s markets for economic gains. In order to acquire Russian equipment, Pakistan usually passes through China which is not yet known for manufacturing heavy aircraft engines. By cutting out China as a middle man, Pakistan can gain huge economic benefits.
Keeping these points in view, this visit seems to be fairly significant. Especially when the US is rapidly changing its position. Such visits and exchange visits of military delegations can open-up various doors of regional cooperation between the two countries. Moreover, these visits have a role to play in rebuilding the bridges burnt between the two countries during the Cold War and the Russian War in Afghanistan.