Friend or Foe?

Despite a chequered history, both Pakistan and Russia should now aim to improve their diplomatic ties and bring their trade relations to greater heights.

By Dr. Moonis Ahmar | January 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The mending of fences in Pakistan-Russia relations is a reality despite historical discords and animosities between both countries. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan paid an ill-timed visit to Moscow in February 2022 and the current Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif met the Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) Summit held in Tashkent in September 2022. Without a doubt, marked improvement in Pakistan-Russia relations in the recent past will shape and strengthen their ties in the years to come.

Before Imran Khan, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had paid a visit to Moscow in 1999. On the other hand, no Russian president has visited Pakistan since ages because in 2012 President Putin cancelled his visit to Islamabad and instead sent his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. However, as things currently stand, what are the prospects of Pakistan-Russia relations in the light of events in Ukraine and to what extent the United States will sustain its efforts to prevent import of oil and gas from Russia?

Chequered history of Pakistan-Soviet relations since the cancellation of visit to Moscow by Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali khan in 1950 and its joining anti-Soviet U.S led alliances till the collapse of USSR reflected deep rooted mistrust and antagonism reaching its peak during the 1971 India-Pakistan war and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. A chain of events after the Soviet disunion and the emergence of Russian Federation as a successor state of USSR shaped new dynamics of Pakistan-Russia relations, particularly the role of China in this regard. Even during the Soviet days, there were pleasant phases in Pakistan-Soviet ties when Moscow built Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi, conducted oil and gas exploration and constructed Gaddu Thermel power plant.

During the reign of President Vladimir Putin, one can notice marked improvement in Pakistan-Russia ties as Moscow’s reservations on Chechnya and Afghanistan were somehow mitigated. According to the reports: “Pakistan and Russia have developed a “new” interest in serving mutual national objectives. Rostec is a state-controlled Russian company that became a stakeholder of the PakStream Gas Pipeline Project (PSGP). The 1,100 kilometre PSGP is scheduled to be complete in 2023 and will transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) from terminals in Karachi and Gwadar to Lahore. According to an agreement signed in July 2021, Moscow has given Islamabad a majority stake in the project (74 percent) and pledged to help Pakistan with expertise and funding. The PSGP is one of the largest Russian investments in Pakistan since the Soviet Union assisted in developing the Oil and Gas Development Company and Pakistan Steel Mills in the 1960s and 1970s”.

Furthermore, Pakistan is deficient in oil, gas and now in wheat, and the best possible option to overcome the shortage crisis is to import such items from Moscow. For instance, Pakistan has a gas shortfall of 1.5 billion cubic feet per day, which is expected to double by 2025. Authorities have estimated that domestic gas supplies will drop from 3.51 bcfd in 2019 to 1.67 bcfd in 2028, necessitating an increase in LNG imports to meet demand. With the signing of a “shareholders’ agreement” in July 2021, Russia and Pakistan have outlined the roadmap for future cooperation, including the construction of a US$2.5 billion (S$3.4 billion) natural gas pipeline in Pakistan. This project, promised in 2019, is a part of a Russian investment package worth of US$14 billion (S$18.7 billion) in Pakistan’s energy sector.

During the visit of the then Prime Minister Imran Khan to Moscow the day when Russia attacked Ukraine, Imran Khan stated: “We went there because we have to import 2 million tonnes of wheat from Russia. Secondly, we have signed agreements with them to import natural gas because Pakistan’s own gas reserves are depleting. Inshallah (God willing), the time will tell that we have had great discussions,” the Pakistani leader said, referring to his three-hour meeting with Putin. He shared no further details. He also remarked about his visit to Moscow that: “What a time I have come, so much excitement,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was heard saying at the airport as he arrived in Moscow ahead of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin when Russian forces had attacked Ukraine.

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