Saturday, 22 November 2014
General Sergei Shoygu, the first Russian defence minister to visit Pakistan since 1969 (the then Soviet Union) was in Islamabad this week to personally convey his government's decision to sell Pakistan 20 Mi-35 helicopters. For its relatively cheap operational cost and enhanced orientation for mountain warfare Pakistan wanted Mi-35 for deployment in military operations against terrorists in tribal areas. But Moscow was hesitant to go for the deal given the long-frozen Pak-Russia bilateral relationship and New Delhi's stiff resistance. Now that the world has moved beyond the Cold War era; the United States is about to pull out of Afghanistan and New Delhi is cozying up to Washington the Russian leadership too is thinking its geopolitics, possibly giving preference to geo-economics over geo-strategic interests. Perhaps, the EU's pressure over the Ukraine crisis and threats of food sanctions contributed to Moscow's new strategy to look south and east; and reach Pakistan where its footprints in the shape of Pakistan Steel Mills and Oil and Gas Development Corporation remain indelible. No wonder then the defence co-operation agreement General Shoygu signed with his counterpart Khwaja Asif has been termed a "milestone" in a statement by Pakistan government, with a huge potential to translate this relationship into "tangible terms" to strengthen military-to-military relationship. "Apart from promoting bilateral defence relations the [minister's] visit will enable both countries to join hands in bringing peace and stability to the region," the statement added. Not only has Moscow lifted arms embargo, by sending a 41-member high-powered delegation headed by its defence minister, the Putin government has also shown willingness to overlook the bitter past and prepare for a mutually beneficial multidimensional bilateralism. The Russian move, in the words of The Moscow Times, amounts to "ending years of division over Islamabad's close ties with US and Moscow's with India". The question whether or not the Mi-35 helicopters will obviate the desideratum to put up with CIA's drones has no plausible answer. But the message Moscow gives does invite a pertinent question: How good is a strategic partnership bereft of transactional content?