Why it was called off at the last moment; some thoughts and some facts.

By Raja G Mujtaba

A detailed discussion was held on PTV by S M Hali in his weekly program ‘Defence and Diplomacy.’ The video clippings of the same are placed below.

If Putin’s visit had taken place, this would have been a crown of my efforts since I was the one who started to talk about Russia-Pakistan relations a couple of years back. I missed no forum or opportunity where I did not raise this issue. I have always maintained that Pakistan needs to revisit its foreign policy and need to do so at the earliest.

In post 2014 scenario, Russian role in the region would gain more significance. The regional players like Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia that have contiguous borders with Afghanistan have more stakes than any other country. To make this role more permanent, it would also need Russian and Chinese participation to give it the desired stability.

In the same context, a quadrilateral summit was also planned in Islamabad. This would have been a historic meeting as many agreements would have been signed, some at bilateral level and some t quadrilateral. But the sudden putting of the visit raised many questions. Although, confusion surrounds in Moscow's hopes of establishing a stronger relations with Islamabad in advance of NATO's planned 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, after President Vladimir Putin abruptly canceled a visit to Islamabad planned for first week of October but strong signals have been sent out that Russia is committed to have stronger bilateral relations with Pakistan.

The summit on Afghanistan was postponed when in a letter to President Asif Zardari, President Putin expressed his inability to attend it. No reasons were given either by the Foreign Office or the Russian embassy in Islamabad for the cancellation of Mr. Putin’s much anticipated trip to Islamabad. There was also no statement from the Russian presidency or its foreign affairs ministry on the cancellation of the visit.

It was to be the first visit to Pakistan by any Soviet or Russian head of state, and a strong signal that something might be changing in the foreign-policy paradigms of a country that has openly regarded India as its major partner or the only partner in the region.

According to Christian Science Monitor, the Kremlin says Mr. Putin's trip to Pakistan was never officially confirmed and his working schedule this week is "too tight" to accommodate the two-day visit, which was to have included participation in a regular summit of regional leaders on Afghanistan and bilateral talks on trade, technical, and military cooperation with Pakistani President Asif Zardari. Taking advantage of these meetings, both countries had been quietly pushing their rapprochement for close to four years that is said to have covered a lot of ground. The endgame in Afghanistan was one of the major factors behind the developing Pak-Russia rapprochement that had been based on trade and security cooperation.

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To do the damage control, Putin dispatched Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Islamabad on Wednesday. It was an immediate step though may have been in haste but it was an effort to explain the change to Pakistani leaders and keep the door open for future warming of ties. The visit of Sergei Lavrov sent the right signals in all directions.  Analysts opine that Russia wants very much to engage with Pakistan, that it sees as an important regional player that cannot be ignored in dealing with whatever emerges in Afghanistan following US and NATO withdrawal in just about two years from now. The Russians fear a repeat of the turbulent 1990s, when narco-trafficking exploded across Central Asian Republics (CAR) along with Islamist movements based in Afghanistan triggered major civil strife in CAR. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign-policy journal says, "It remains to be seen what will happen, of course, but most in Moscow tend to view it through the prism of how things went when the USSR pulled its forces out of Afghanistan in 1989. There followed a string of disasters which nobody would like to see repeated."

"Pakistan will be a key player, and it follows that Russia must have an open channel to Pakistan, at the very least to know how they will react and what they will do," he adds.

A Russian take on Afghanistan 

Not everyone agrees that the outlook for Afghanistan after 2014 is chaos. Gen. Makhmud Gareyev, president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and a former adviser to the pro-Soviet leader of Afghanistan, President Najibullah, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces, argues that things are quite different now.

"The fact is that the new post-Soviet Russian government established contacts with the rebels, and left Najibullah without ammunition," says Gareyev.

"I firmly believe that Afghanistan could have been normalized if not for that…. The Americans talk about leaving, but they aren't really going to go. They'll do what they did in Iraq, leave some forces and regroup them. They'll try to keep bases in Central Asia and reinforce their presence in Pakistan. The Americans will still be around," he says.

"This doesn’t mean things will be OK. The Taliban will continue killing, and drugs will still pour out of Afghanistan. There will be lots of problems," he adds.

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Although the brief spell of Taliban in Afghanistan ensured a crime free society including opium trade and gun running. However the western media has been too harsh to them by painting them as evil.

Putin's visit would have been an opportunity to begin building bridges with Pakistan. He was to have attended the regular quadrilateral meeting on Afghanistan, comprising of leaders from Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Previous summits, held in various regional capitals, were always attended by Putin’s predecessor, former President Dmitry Medvedev, who has met with Mr. Zardari six times in the past three years – though never in Pakistan.

Uncertainty why Putin canceled

Russian experts say they are at a loss to explain why Putin ducked out of the meeting, a move that seems to have seriously set back Moscow's timetable and led to a wave of injured feelings and perplexed speculation in the Pakistani media.

"One possible explanation is that Putin is a very specific guy, who feels like he can write his own rules and do things his own way," says Sergei Strokan, foreign-affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. He points out that Putin last May refused to attend a summit of the Group of Eight advanced countries, despite the fact that President Obama had specifically moved the meeting's venue to accommodate him. Putin never offered any more detailed explanation other than that he was "too busy."

"So far there is no clear statement from the Kremlin as to when, if ever, the visit will take place. It's hard to see what's going on here, but the fact that Lavrov has gone to Pakistan suggests that there is a strong feeling in Moscow that if we miss the chance to develop stronger relations with Pakistan now, we may pay for it with deep complications down the road," Mr. Strokan adds.

Pipeline politics?

Some experts suggest that pipeline politics may lie at the root of the mystery. Russia's powerful state-run natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, is seen as deeply involved in plans to export Iranian, Russian, and Central Asian gas to the lucrative markets of South Asia via two projects that are currently on the drawing boards. First, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline, which analysts say Gazprom has a strong interest in, has apparently been stalled by Pakistan due to US objections. Second, the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which experts say Gazprom wants to build and own, may also be an unresolved issue between Moscow and Islamabad.

"There is a lot of talk behind the scenes about these pipelines, and it's obvious that interests are lining up. It may be a hidden explanation for the confused diplomacy we're seeing at the moment," says Strokan. "But everything will depend upon regional stability. You can't build pipelines through Afghanistan if there isn't reliable security there."

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There is a consensus amongst the experts that time maybe running out to find some regional formula to handle the worst-case scenario for post-NATO Afghanistan that Moscow seems to believe in.

"From the moment NATO troops are partially withdrawn from Afghanistan, Russia wants that country to be controllable," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

"The fear in Moscow is that radical Islamism will spread, drug trafficking will explode, and Russia will be left to pick up the pieces. We know there's no hope for stability there without Pakistan's active participation, and we need to be talking seriously with them," he adds.

According to the Foreign Office, the Summit (Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan & Afghanistan) planned in Islamabad from 2-3 Oct is being rescheduled,  now new dates would be announced.

While the Russian foreign minister was visiting Islamabad, General Ashfaq Kayani was in Moscow. During the same period, the Russian defence minister was to visit India, a visit he put off due to Kayani's presence in Moscow. The details of the visit are not yet known but certinly it did have to build some strong ties in defence cooperation.

Accords likely to have been signed during visit

According to an earlier Foreign Office statement, the inter-governmental commission (IGC) on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation had approved in a meeting on Sept 10 the text of memorandums of understanding that may have been signed during Putin’s trip.

Moscow has shown special interest in energy projects, including Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Russia, it is learnt, had agreed to invest $500 million in the CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia) electricity transmission project, besides helping Pakistan in upgradation of Pakistan Steels Mills. Russian energy giant, the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, has been interested in laying the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

The visit could not have been put off under American or Indian pressure because Putin would take none. He is quite independent in his decisions; when he can avoid G-8 meeting and not meeting Obama there he would not care for any pressures. Putin is a dynamic and a charismatic personality who is taken as the father of modern Russia. However Pakistan would be well advised not to put any conditions on Russia as for her relations with India. Chess players know when to give a check.