Interpreting The Valdai Club’s Piece On Russian-Pakistani Relations Post-Pulwama

Eurasia Future is publishing the full and unedited version of the piece that Andrew Korybko recently released at Pakistan Politico because the author believes that the changes that were made without his knowledge altered the original meaning of his analysis about this very sensitive topic and removed important references to his previous work that are indispensable for helping the reader better understand the larger strategic context involved.

The Valdai Club, Russia’s most prestigious think tank, published a thought-provoking and visionary piece on Russian-Pakistani relations in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and the latest round of Indo-Pak hostilities that it provoked.

One of the most profound geopolitical consequences of the Pulwama attack and the latest round of Indo-Pak hostilities that it provoked is that Russia emerged as a non-partisan player interested in “balancing” between both South Asian Great Powers.  Foreign Minister Lavrov’s mediation offer proved that Russia is no longer taking India’s side like it has historically done, which prompted me to publish a piece at Eurasia Future declaring that “Russia Officially Returns To South Asia” and reminding readers of  around a dozen of my relevant analyses that in hindsight accurately forecast this groundbreaking development. I wasn’t the only one who reached this conclusion, however, since Mr. Oleg Barabanov – a programme director at the Valdai Club (Russia’s most prestigious think tank), a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, which is run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences – also published a thought-provoking and visionary piece on Russia’s new approach to South Asia and its specific relations with Pakistan.

The article, “Russia and the Search for Balance Between India and Pakistan”, was released by the Valdai Club a few days after my Eurasia Future one and touched on many of the same points, adding a lot of credibility to their conclusions by virtue of the fact that a second expert independently arrived at very similar ones, namely that Russia is now “balancing” between India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, Mr. Barabanov also shared some unique insight that deserves to be reported on, interpreted, constructively critiqued, and built upon, hence the reason for this present analysis. To begin with, he laments that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) didn’t stop the hostilities from commencing, warning that the latest tensions represent a dual test “of the organization’s solidity and efficacy” and also of “whether the accession of India and Pakistan was justified.”

His view is that the SCO’s trust-building and dispute-resolving mechanisms that were used during the Old Cold War between the USSR and China, and subsequently between the former Soviet Republics and the People’s Republic after 1991, can be of relevance to India and Pakistan as well. This hints at a desire to see the bloc multilaterally facilitate a solution to their problems and presumably also the core issue of Kashmir too, which could prospectively involve Russia and China exerting positive peacemaking influence on their traditional Indian and Pakistani partners, respectively.  This might be an overly optimistic scenario because it overlooks India’s refusal to abide by the UNSC’s extant multilateralization of the Kashmir Conflict and doesn’t account for the historical differences of this issue when compared to the border ones between the former Soviet Republics and China. Mr. Barabanov might have also implicitly recognized this, and that could be why he used the milestone of Pakistani’s 2015 SCO membership as a lead-in to talking about Russian-Pakistani relations.

Channeling the constructivist theory of International Relations, the programme director opines about the importance of perceptions in shaping Russia’s relations with India and Pakistan, reminding the reader about how positively the former is regarded in his homeland as compared to the latter. That, however, is changing, as he mentions how Russia and Pakistan are now cooperating on Afghanistan, partaking in yearly joint anti-terrorist exercises and now most recently the Aman multilateral naval drills, and “the expert dialogue between their think tanks is gaining momentum”. The last-mentioned point might even hint at the interest of his host institution, the Valdai Club, to expand its professional contacts in Pakistan, too. One of the reasons for this might be Mr. Barabanov’s visionary thinking about how bilateral ties could take on a multilateral continental importance if CPEC is extended to Russia and ultimately connects the Arctic Ocean with the Arabian Sea via a “trans-Eurasian meridian network” that corresponds with the CPEC+ model I earlier elaborated upon in my piece about “Pakistan: The Global Pivot State”.

The esteemed expert then describes how the US’ geostrategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific could destabilize this broader region but paradoxically “serve as an additional external impetus for Russia-Pakistan dialogue”, especially if some in the Indian expert community continue to “express mistrust of Russia because of what they consider the excessively close Russia-China partnership”. Mr. Barabanov notes that this Indian misperception has led to Russia “losing its independent political image in India”, remarking that “viewing Russia exclusively through the prism of Indo-Chinese divergences does not promote trust.” While India’s trust in Russia is declining, Russia’s trust in Pakistan could increase as a potential counterbalance to this trend if both sides “conduct purposeful and fairly sensitive work, learn to hear each other and openly discuss complicated historical problems without bias and look for ways to overcome them.” He predicts that this effort to “promote mutual public confidence” and “develop bilateral people-to-people ties and exchanges” will also be greatly aided by Prime Minister Khan’s recent initiative to open up the country’s tourism industry.

In concluding his article, Mr. Barabanov envisages that Russia could use the SCO as its platform for “balancing” between India and Pakistan via a much larger expansion of the approach that it’s currently employing between Armenia and Azerbaijan on a bilateral basis or even in Syria between the various external parties to the conflict, the overall principle model of which I described last year in my analysis about “Russia’s Grand Strategy In Afro-Eurasia (And What Could Go Wrong)”. To get to the point where this is viable in the Indo-Pak context, though, the whole point of the programme director’s piece seems to be that Russia and Pakistan must first prioritize expert coordination at the think tank level and people-to-people ties in order to “create a mutual positive image in the public opinion of the two countries” that could succeed in reshaping outdated views to accurately reflect new geostrategic realities. To this end, my piece last summer about “The Roadmap To ‘Rusi-Pakistani Yaar Yaar’” can hopefully provide a useful sense of direction.

 I wrote that both Great Powers should follow in China’s footsteps by building Friendship Centers in one another’s countries that could serve as multifunctional platforms for comprehensively enhancing the strategic partnership that both sides later officially declared their intent to eventually achieve in November of last year. In parallel with this, I also wrote that their think tanks should expand cooperation with one another, proposing that Valdai Club and Pakistan House might take the lead in this respect to further Track II diplomacy. As for the “public diplomacy” dimension of their strategic partnership, it would be helpful if the publicly funded Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) entered into partnerships with its international and domestic Russian counterparts of RT and Rossiya-1 respectively to create documentaries on CPEC and Russia’s Muslim heritage, as well as host programs on the Afghan War. The last-mentioned could be framed as “then vs. now” or “from rivals to partners” to fulfill Mr. Barabanov’s suggestion that they “openly discuss complicated historical problems without bias and look for ways to overcome them.”

Keeping in mind all of what has been discussed thus far, it can be confidently predicted that Russian-Pakistani relations will rapidly grow in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and the Indo-Pak tensions that they provoked as Moscow seeks to spread its “balancing” model to South Asia, partly to counter the negative influence that the US is currently exerting on India in parallel with some prominent experts in New Delhi viewing relations with Russia through the zero-sum prism of “Indo-Chinese divergences”. Moreover, it can’t be overlooked just how unprecedented it is that a think tank as prestigious as the Valdai Club would publish such a forward-looking policy proposal by an expert as prestigious as Mr. Barabanov about how Russia must prioritize its relations with Pakistan in order to strike a balance between its new ties with Islamabad and its decades-old ones with New Delhi.  This is the strongest signal yet of just how serious Russia is about its strategic partnership with Pakistan and should definitely be reciprocated by the Pakistani side as soon as possible.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

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