The limitation with the past is that it cannot be reconstructed but the plasticity with the future is that it can be shaped up. This is true in the case of the emerging ties between Pakistan and the Russian Federation (or Russia). The generation that witnessed or got embroiled in the conflict — which was indirect — between Pakistan and Russia in Afghanistan might have disappeared by now but the generation that envisions the future is present. For the rest of the world, the theory of the clash of civilisations — in which the world is divided along ideological fault lines — may still be relevant but the theory is getting beside the point when the context is Pak-Russia relations today.
It seems that both Pakistan and Russia have reached the conclusion that the past should not dictate the present. That is, both countries should not remain prisoners to the past, and instead, both should construct a new kind of future. To meet this end, both countries have tried to figure out the common ground of interest. The yearning to cooperate with each other, after putting the past behind, was translated into the first-ever strategic dialogue at the foreign secretary level that took place between Pakistan and Russia in Moscow in August 2013. The dialogue focused on four major areas — political, economic, diplomatic, and defence relations — to begin with.
Theoretically, the use of the phrase “common ground of interest” may be apposite but, practically, the narrative of relations flows from a developed country to a developing one: from Russia to Pakistan. This is the point where many critics have tried to see Pak-Russia strategic dialogue in comparison with Pak-US strategic dialogue. The comparison is drawn in the sense of the former dialogue overtaking the latter one as if the latter dialogue had overrun its shelf life. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Pakistani diplomats still think in terms of substitution: developing relations with one country at the expense of another, or fostering ties with one country after severing ties with another. Those who were educated and trained in diplomacy in the Cold War era (1949-1989) are perhaps still infatuated with this craft of replacement.
Interestingly, in any whiff of disagreement between the United States and Russia on Syria, the revival of the Cold War has been visualised and projected, even in the circles of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, without realising the fact that the world has long outgrown the Cold War mindset. Now a lingering disagreement is avoided, and a lasting covenant is sought, whether the field is political or economic. Secondly, now economic realities are preferred to political ones: economic needs take precedence over political essentials. Thirdly, now multilateralism is preferred to bilateralism: no two countries can grow in isolation of the world — be they Pakistan and Russia or Pakistan and China. The peremptory realities such as interdependence have become subservient to multilateralism and not to bilateralism — not to mention a solo flight in the world. In this regard, the inauguration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in June 2001, and the inclusion of both Pakistan and India into the SCO in July 2015 is a relevant example for expressing the needs of the prevalent time, despite all kinds of varied differences between the member countries.
Contrary to the past when Afghanistan was a common ground of conflict between Pakistan and Russia, the major shared ground of interest presently between both of them is still Afghanistan. That is, Afghanistan — a recalcitrant Afghanistan — has emerged as a common factor between the past and the present of both Pakistan and Russia, though the context of looking at and getting associated with Afghanistan has changed drastically. A glimpse of the shared interest points out that both Pakistan and Russia consider Afghanistan a regional liability to live with or even dispense with, instead of seeking any benefit from it. Interestingly, the issues of mutual interest identified between Pakistan and Russia in August 2013 were counterterrorism, drug-trafficking and global security, and all of them insinuate Afghanistan, albeit maybe inadvertently. However, both Pakistan and Russia have realised that they cannot inch forward unless Afghanistan is independent of the elements of Islamic State (also known as ISIS). On the other hand, Afghanistan is still not offering much to both Pakistan and Russia; instead, it has been implicitly demanding from both to expiate for the past, even if they cannot redeem the past.
Those who think that another round of the Cold War is possible in the world derive the strength of their argument from the fact that the Russia of today is still concerned with the plight of its former Middle Eastern allies such as Syria and Iraq, though to balance its diplomatic approach Russia has also shown its concern about Egypt and Iran. It seems that Russia is still carrying a burden of the bond of Cold War associations between its progenitor, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle Eastern allies. After Afghanistan, the region of the Middle East is also a common identifiable ground of interest between Pakistan and Russia, though because of disparate reasons. Pakistan seeks its kind of ideological relation — which sprouts from religion — with them, while Russia looks for its kind of ideological relation — which springs from politics — with the Middle Eastern countries.
Pakistan and the Middle Eastern allies of Russia are cognizant of the fact that the reduction of the former Soviet Union to today’s Russia has not rendered Russia bereft of resources, both natural and or man-made. This is the point where some analysts think that Russia is still a significant player in the Middle East, and there is no gainsaying the fact that Russia is capable of making the world multipolar. Attaching hopes to and cooperating with Russia may prompt it to expand or revive its regional and global roles to the benefit of its supporters.
The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at email@example.com