On 17 September 2018, in his maiden address to parliament, President Arif Alvi said that Pakistan was yearning to place “special importance on ties with Russia and Turkey for regional stability.” In the statement, the inclusion of Russia took many by surprise.
Just after three days, on September 20, the US imposed sanctions on the military procurement branch of China for buying Russian weapons such as fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles. This act was an upshot of the sanctions imposed by the US on Russia for the latter’s annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and alleged meddling in US politics during the presidential elections in 2016. The proscriptions were slapped under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) passed in 2017 to target Russia, Iran and North Korea with the instrument of economic and political sanctions. The CAATSA is meant to dissuade any country from buying weapons from Russia. In Asia, India, China and Vietnam are interested in the purchase of Russian weapons.
Earlier, on 1 January, 2018, the tweet of US President Donald Trump admonished Pakistan for falling short of US expectations. Through the tweet, Trump also reproved Pakistan by saying that the US leaders were not fools to be deceived by lies and deceits. Perhaps, this was the first time that the core of Pak-US relations were exposed. The revelation invited the attention of the world and discomfiture for Pakistan. Strategically, bringing the matter to the public was also important to let Afghanistan and India know what was being cooked in the Pak-US kitchen. In the wake of the tweet, on January 5, the US suspended Pakistan’s security assistance amounting to about $ 2 billion.
The refusal to provide any more military aid to Pakistan was tantamount to rendering Pakistan vulnerable to regional stresses and threats. All countries, including Russia, came to know that Pakistan was ingratiating itself with them after being scorned by the US. The reactive sense in Pakistan’s gambit is still open to manipulation by any country including Russia. Nevertheless, the basis of the estrangement between Pakistan and the US is the US’s insistence on stamping out the militant hideouts from Pakistan’s land quickly. The implied message of the tweet was that Pakistan was harbouring militants and nurturing their sanctuaries deliberately.
On August 8, Pakistan entered into a military cooperation agreement with Russia authorizing officers from Pakistan’s armed forces to seek advanced military training in Russia. The agreement was a corollary to the bilateral defence cooperation pact signed in 2014, when the US-sponsored financial assistance under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act of 2009 ended. However, on August 10, the US suspended Pakistan from joining its International Military Education and Training (IMET) program and, consequently, sixty-six officers of the Pakistan armed forces would miss the opportunity for seeking benefit of the program this year at the US Army War College, the US Naval War College, and the Naval Staff College.
On September 2, the US cancelled $ 300 million military assistance to Pakistan in the context of clearing the bills on the expenditures incurred during the war on terror, though this is being restored. In its wake, on September 5, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Islamabad and exhorted Pakistan to undertake a sustained and decisive action against militant hideouts on its land, though Pakistan maintained that the solution lay in resetting Pak-US relations on new terms. Pakistan conveyed that it would focus on just shared (bilateral) interests, and not on any unilateral interest of the US liking. That is, Pakistan would prefer to watch its own interests, and where its interests coincided with the US interests, it would act, but not otherwise. This is an significant stance of Pakistan because when, under President Trump, the US wants to conclude the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has veered off course the agreed target set in 2001 when Pakistan joined the war on terror. The same also means that Pakistan has disentangled itself from the war on terror unilaterally. Pakistan’s ambitious agenda to reset the terms of engagement is fraught with the challenge of timing.
On September 6, Pompeo visited New Delhi and, on the sidelines of his meeting with Indian officials, he encouraged two plus-two dialogue (two foreign ministers and two defence ministers, one each from the US and India), which resulted in signing an agreement called the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). The agreement will enable India to procure specialized equipment for encrypted communications installed on the US-made military platforms bought by India. It was also an attempt to persuade India not to buy military equipment from Russia.
In due course, to mitigate the situation, China came to the rescue of Pakistan, but China could not go beyond lauding Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror. Nevertheless, the US is of the view that appreciating Pakistan’s efforts in the war on terror is one thing, and expecting from Pakistan to eliminate terrorist hubs from its land is a different thing. The US thinks that Pakistan is taking refuge in the first area and doing ineffectually in the second area.
In the Pak-US context, Pakistan is facing the challenge of living with the allegation of harbouring militants on its land. Further, Pakistan thinks that it has a geo-strategic edge in the region to decide or not in favour of Russia. Pakistan exercises the option that, to counterbalance the US, it can side with Russia. The presumption behind this perceived oscillation is not just that Russia can substitute for the US, but it is also that Russia does not have a basic conflict of interest with Pakistan.
Currently, Pakistan is like a subsidiary state in quest of its master. The reason is that the forty long years of the Cold War (1947 to 1991) inured Pakistan to thrive under a master looking for a rentier state. Pakistan has yet to wean off its dependency habits.