Russian officials met Pakistani counterparts in Islamabad to discuss regional issues and economic projects on 14 December, and agreed to hold similar talks in Moscow next year. The Kremlin is also due to host the Pakistani and Chinese Governments for a third round of discussions on Afghan security on 27 December. Islamabad’s heightened diplomatic engagement with Moscow follows a gradual increase in military cooperation over the last year. Notably, Russia agreed to the sale of four Mi-35 attack helicopters in August, and held its first ever joint military exercises with Pakistani troops in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the following month.
This has largely been driven by Islamabad’s desire to safeguard its influence in Afghanistan, which it believes will be jeopardised if, as it fears, India-US ties grow stronger under President-elect Trump. This would likely increase pressure for Islamabad to take action against Pakistan-based militants, including members of the Afghan Taliban, which New Delhi cites as a key source of regional instability. However, the Government’s willingness to do so will be limited since it tolerates the Taliban’s presence as a way of ensuring its continued relevance in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has therefore sought to enhance its relationship with the Russian Government, which has simultaneously made efforts to build ties with the Taliban in order to increase its own influence in South Asia. Given Washington’s level of investment in Afghanistan’s future stability, Moscow hopes that doing so will give it a lever to deter any US efforts to resist its support for the Syrian regime. The established links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the Haqqani Network, which are expected to be maintained under the new ISI Chief who was appointed on 11 December, make Pakistan a valuable ally to Moscow in this respect. Increased collaboration is therefore in both parties’ interests.
These shared aims will support not only political but also military cooperation between Moscow and Islamabad in the coming months, and the prospect of defence equipment sales provides the Kremlin with an additional, economic incentive to pursue a closer partnership. Growing cooperation in other sectors is also likely. Indeed, Moscow and Islamabad finalised a gas price for the Russian-backed liquid natural gas (LNG) pipeline between Lahore and Karachi on 1 December. Moscow is expected to provide USD 2 billion in funding for the project. Meanwhile, Russian involvement in the construction of a power plant in the North is reportedly under discussion. There is a risk that Russian projects, including the LNG pipeline, could be attacked by Sunni militants given their opposition to Moscow’s intervention in Syria. However, there are still relatively few Russia-linked targets in Pakistan, so this threat is not substantial at present and is only likely to increase gradually.