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Pakistan-Russia Relations: Tempering Expectations

Since 2015, Russia has emerged in Pakistani foreign relations and defence discourses as an alternative to the U.S., with whom Pakistan has been allied under the War on Terror since 2001-2002. Indeed, Pakistan’s Minister of Defence (MoD) Khurram Dastgir Khan listed Russia, along with China and Europe, as alternative sources for weapons and as a “regional recalibration of Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.”[1]

Following the thaw in bilateral ties and Russia lifting its nominal restrictions on supplying arms to Pakistan, various reports emerged of Pakistan expressing interest in big-ticket Russian hardware such as the Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E multi-role fighter and Mil Mi-28NE Night Hunter attack helicopter.[2][3][4] However, the only contract to emerge thus far has been a Pakistan Army order for four Mil Mi-35M assault helicopters from Russian Helicopters.[5]

In fact, despite the attention paid to the prospect of growth in bilateral defence ties, there has not been any substantive growth in this department. Recently, Russia’s new Ambassador to India, Nikolay Kudashev outlined that Russia’s ties “with Pakistan in the military sphere are of a very minimum nature … are strictly limited to anti-terrorism operations and are not comparable in any way to the scope of our relations with India.”[6] Granted, there is the aspect of Kudashev conveying an amenable message to New Delhi and need not reflect the Kremlin’s thoughts, but the current reality does not detract from Kudashev’s statements.

In fact, capacity-building for counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) operations has been the anchor of Russia’s engagement with Pakistan, with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating at a press conference in New Delhi in December 2017: “Yes, we understand Pakistan’s interest in solving this [terrorism], to get rid of terrorist groups which use its territory and we would be ready to support the Pakistani government in this regard.”[7] This cooperation has materialized in the annually-held bilateral CT/COIN-focused exercise – ‘Friendship’ – and the sale of Mi-35M assault helicopters. In November 2016, Russia’s state-owned armaments trading arm Rosoboronexport attended IDEAS (International Defence Exhibition and Seminar), Pakistan’s biennially-held defence exhibition, with an exhibit overtly tailored for internal security and CT/COIN. Lauding Rosoboronexport’s first foray into IDEAS, the company’s Head of Analysis and Long-Term Planning Boris Simakin stated: “We aim at broadening antiterrorist cooperation with Pakistan and other countries in the region. Rosoboronexport will provide materials proving [the] effectiveness of Russian products deployed against this global threat.”[8]

For Russia, presenting its relationship with Pakistan through the CT/COIN paradigm enables it to maintain its strong relations with India. Russia can argue – and seems to have successfully done so – that bringing Pakistan into the mix (in multilateral bodies such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) is necessary for propelling regional interests. In a sense, CT/COIN is being presented as a transcendant interest, one where all countries ought to be concerned in irrespective of other disputes. However, this avenue offers Russia access to the Pakistani market in a way that does not interfere with Russian interests in New Delhi. Besides CT/COIN-relevant hardware and services, it is unlikely that Russia is banking on Pakistan to become a customer of its marquee items, such as the S-400 and Su-35, in the foreseeable future.

Rather, it appears that Russia is chiefly pushing its energy interests in Pakistan. In December 2017, Russia and Pakistan had a $10 billion U.S. liquified natural gas (LNG) deal on the table.[9] Besides national bids, the Russian side also appears to be interested in Pakistan’s various provincial energy programs, as shown by a visit to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa by Inter RAO in January 2018.[10] It is unclear if the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can be of direct benefit to Russian businesses as it appears that Chinese companies are at the forefront of constructing CPEC’s programs. However, the indirect benefit of CPEC’s infrastructure and energy glut – i.e. supra-CPEC economic activity borne through new industries, investors and markets – may present opportunities for the Russians. However, it is currently too early to place such a bet.

On the other hand, as an energy buyer and potential source of activity – and long-term hard-currency revenue – for Russian businesses, Pakistan could aim to leverage the position to accrue gains in other areas. It need not be defence (though the Pakistan military would find that helpful), but foreign relations in the form of persistent support in international bodies, access to the Russian market for Pakistani suppliers and a general sense of legitimizing Pakistan’s policies, values and interests.

However, it would be disingenuous to approach Russian-Pakistani relations from the paradigm of ‘alignment’. First, Pakistan’s national security doctrine discourages ‘alignment’ and ‘alliances’. The principal driver of its nuclear weapons program has been the realization that other states and institutions will not absolutely guarantee Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Strong bilateral relations with other countries are a means to various ends, but not ends in of themselves.[11] For Pakistan, the better situation would be build a pantheon of strong bilateral partners and, in turn, tap into the unique strengths of each partner to best fulfill specific Pakistani interests. In this respect, Russia would (in Pakistan’s view) take its place along with Ukraine, Turkey, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany and many others as countries that can offer specific goods to Pakistan, but do not owe – nor are expected to owe – anything to Pakistan in times of crises.

Second, Russia’s main geo-political interests stem from securing its frontiers, i.e. Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Pakistan is not a factor in the latter, while in the former, Russia’s emphasis is on stability and clearing the region of CT/COIN concerns. It is incorrect to see Russia in the same vein as the U.S., the latter is currently unique in its ability to simultaneously exert itself in multiple regions and to maintain as many strong alliances as well. The U.S. is also the only country whom Pakistan renders military services (through the War on Terror) to for prolonged periods of time. Certainly, there is a measure of influence in place – be it through fleeting military aid, ongoing civilian assistance or other mechanisms – that makes the U.S. the exception. In fact, despite having the White House openly chastise it and then freeze military aid, the Pakistani side is still openly pining to maintain an alliance with the U.S.[12] Clearly, Pakistan itself is not in a position to desire substantive change in its foreign relations outlook, so to expect it to displace that using another country – including China (much less Russia) – is unrealistic. That said, if there is an area where the U.S. could lose out to Russia, it would be in big-ticket arms sales to Pakistan.

From Russia’s standpoint, selling big-ticket arms to Pakistan will have India see the sale as disturbing South Asia’s conventional arms balance (which favours India). The ramifications of this could result in New Delhi pulling its business from Moscow. Not only does Pakistan lack the fiscal strength to fully compensate for India leaving, but it also requiring loans to back big-ticket purchases also make it an unideal customer. In addition, Pakistan’s lack of experience with interacting with the Russian defence industry may discourage it from parting with cash funds upfront, which could otherwise be spent on less ambiguous markets, such as China, Turkey and, above all, domestically. Overall, it is difficult to foresee Russia selling big-ticket items to Pakistan in the absence of loans to buffer the purchase for installments, and Moscow has limited incentive providing that with India providing sizable business in the present and near-term.

That said, Pakistan could pursue an alternative route – i.e. technical defence cooperation. The provision of the Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine and some design assistance made Russia a factor in the JF-17, which is now the mainstay multi-role fighter of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Through Project Azm – i.e. the PAF’s fifth-generation fighter program – the PAF could pursue specific (and lowkey) technical inputs from Russia. This can include building human capital, building relevant infrastructure, assisting in Pakistan with metallurgy, and electronics and materials development. Granted, the scope of such cooperation could be modest when all is said and done, but many modest inputs can amount to a sizable gain.

Besides weapons, Pakistan could look to capitalize upon Russia’s value as a bilateral partner in other areas, notably foreign relations, as a means to support its own national interests. This can include opening earnest talks with Moscow for building a strategy for Pakistan’s inclusion in key bodies, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and Nuclear Suppliers Group, though both are ultimately contingent on the U.S. Alternatively, Pakistan can also probe for Russian support in developing its own science, engineering and industrial bases in energy, infrastructure and transportation, among others. Like technical assistance for defence, progress in these areas would not be immediately apparent, but gains in this realm can amount to long-term economic benefit by reducing Pakistan’s industrial imports.

Overall, it appears that the utility of partnering with Russia is relatively limited, yet the attention it draws in Pakistan is disproportionately greater than the substance. Furthermore, this discourse occupies focus that could otherwise be spent on strengthening bilateral relations with countries that are actively – and openly – trying to support Pakistan with its defence requirements. This includes South Africa, which openly signed a memorandum-of-understanding to enhance defence relations, including in the spheres of technology development and procurement. This includes Ukraine, which is also openly willing to cooperate with Pakistan on defence. It also precludes the pursuit of opportunities in other countries, such as Brazil, and limits the scope of Pakistan’s relations to aligning with other states instead of carving a unique and path building upon many strong (albeit mutually opportunistic) partnerships.

[1] Michael Peel and Kiran Stacey. “Pakistan turns to Russia and China after US military aid freeze.” Financial Times. 29 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[2] “Pakistani official told what the acquisition of S-400 from the Russian Federation depends on.” RIA Novosti. 15 February 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[3] Farhan Bokhari. “Pakistani official confirms Su-35 talks.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 18 September 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[4] Nikolai Novichkov. “Pakistan reveals interest in Russian dual-control Mi-28NEs.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 31 March 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[5] Farhan Bokhari. “Pakistan buys initial batch of four Mi-35s.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 24 August 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[6] Suhasini Haidar. Dinakar Peri. “Russian military relations with Pakistan very minimal, says Russian envoy Nikolay Kudashev.” The Hindu. 09 February 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[7] Press Release. “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks at the Vivekananda International Foundation New Delhi, December 11, 2017.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. 11 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 11 February 2018).

[8] Press Release. “Rosoboronexport to Debut at IDEAS-2016 in Pakistan.” Rostec. 22 November 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[9] Zafar Bhutta. “Pakistan, Russia poised to sign $10b gas pipeline deals this week.” The Express Tribune. 19 December 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[10] “Russian consortium to arrive in Pakistan today.” The Express Tribune. 28 January 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[11] This is discussed in greater detail in the Quwa Premium article, ““China-Pakistan Relations: Difference between ‘Allies’ and ‘Partners’.” Quwa Premium 18 January 2018. URL:

[12] Discussed in greater detail in the Quwa Premium article, “Despite tension, US-Pakistan defence ties unlikely to end.” Quwa Premium. 05 January 2018. URL:

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