By S. M. Hali

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last minute cancellation of his or for that matter any Russian President’s first ever visit to Pakistan, has not only left a bad taste in the mouth, bud bred doubts regarding the bilateral Russo-Pakistan relations. The cancellation of Putin’s scheduled visit to Islamabad, has forced the postponement of a quadrilateral summit involving Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan planned for October 2-3, 2012. The instrument of cancellation was a letter from Mr. Putin to his Pakistani counterpart, without assigning any reasons. The Russian Chancellery at Islamabad also failed to provide any cogent reason for the unceremonious termination of the visit.

Pakistan, in the near past has been trying to reset its relations with Russia in accordance with its newfound “look-East” policy and diversifying its affiliation beyond the US. Both China and Russia figure prominently in this foreign policy re-designation.  China is already Pakistan’s all-weather time tested ally but relationship with Russia has been complicated. Erstwhile USSR was ignored much to its chagrin, when Pakistan opted to join the US-led camp in the Cold War era and signed anti-Communism defence pacts SEATO and CENTO. Matters came to a head when Pakistan opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, supporting the Afghan Mujahedeen in their guerrilla movement, which ultimately led to the retreat of USSR from Afghanistan and its later disintegration.  Russia, which emerged as the successor of the Soviet Union also inherited the animosity towards Pakistan.

Although it has managed to establish bonds with the other Central Asian States, which regained independence, after the demise of USSR, Russia has been a tough kettle of fish. Recent overtures by Pakistan have managed to heal some of the wounds Pakistan was focused on the expected visit by Mr. Putin. The cancellation has come as a major setback in the formalization of the reset in Pakistan’s foreign policy imperatives.

  Afghanistan Needs A Hero

Vladimir Putin’s letter does not shed much light on the rationale behind the cancellation but his emphasis on advancing “mutually beneficial trade and economic projects” does provide some clues. Analysts opine that President Putin was not pleased with Pakistan’s luke-warm response to Russian interest in the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. The project did not receive endorsement from the US and India, which was initially a part of the project, backed out, reportedly under US’ duress. Russia’s deputy minister for energy and representatives of leading energy giant Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly, attended the Pak-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on September 10. At the meeting, Gazprom representatives gave a presentation on the pipeline and reiterated the interest during a meeting with President Zardari. Unfortunately, no firm commitments were given to the Russian delegation which wanted to secure the project without bidding. A fly on the wall during the discussions, revealed that Pakistanis had contended that exemption from bidding would violate the rules of the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority.  The Russians however, reportedly, weren’t convinced. Gazprom also has interests in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project. This particular project does have US backing but cannot hope for fruition till the security situation prevalent in Afghanistan improves.

One of Russian economic and strategic goals is the implant of its energy footprint in the region. Putin’s government has been keen to invest $500 million in CASA-1,000 (Central Asia-South Asia) electricity transmission project. These were some of the economic constraints, which may have contributed to the cancellation.

Conspiracy theorists have put forward the rationale that since Mr. Putin is visiting Tajikistan in the week he was due in Pakistan, is an indicator that the cancellation of the visit to Islamabad had to do more with something bilateral. Some doomsday scenario soothsayers insist that the US may have applied pressure directly on Russia or through India to call off the visit. Such a justification is difficult to comprehend, since in 1997, it was then US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphael, who had visited Pakistan and urged Islamabad to improve ties with Moscow. India may fit the shoe because it may be apprehensive that Pakistan may acquire weapons at its cost or Pak-Russo ties maybe at India’s cost. Russia was once the top arms supplier to India but now Israel and the US are also in the game. Indo-Russo associations are deep and for Pakistan to replace India in the Russian bear hug is not a distinct possibility.

  Pakistan: Fissile Material Quandary

Vladimir Putin’s letter to Asif Zardari ends on a sanguine note as he has invited him to visit Moscow instead. It is hoped that the fissure is not deep and can be bridged.