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Russia Debates on Expanding Defence Relations with Pakistan

On 31 July 2018, the Pakistan Navy and the Russian Navy signed a memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) aiming to enhance “bilateral naval collaboration.”[1] On its heels, discussion has emerged between Russian foreign policy analysts and observers regarding the current state of Russian-Pakistani defence ties and, if it is tenable, the potential scope for growth between the two countries. Konstantin Makienko, the Deputy Director of the Russian Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, outlined that Moscow should “promote [the] Su-35 as actively as possible to Pakistan” in response to India’s growing pursuit of weapons from the United States, Western Europe and Israel (in lieu of Russia).[2]

It must be stated that Makienko’s statement is an opinion of his think-tank, not a foreign policy shift from the Kremlin. The common observation of bilateral defence relations between Russia and Pakistan is that it is more limited in scope compared to Moscow’s other bilateral ties. Rather, Russia’s has focused its work with Pakistan to counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) cooperation.[3]

Simply, Russia’s goal is to maintain its position in India while carving a relatively small, but lucrative market in Pakistan (not just for defence goods, but for energy and other products and services). Thus far, the only big-ticket item of note sold by Russia to Pakistan has been the Mi-35M (i.e. four helicopters), which have been delivered to the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAA).[4] Pakistan is reportedly interested in procuring up to 20 Mi-35M.[5] Otherwise, the balance of Russia’s offerings to Pakistan have been centered on various COIN and CT goods, such as assault rifles and armoured vehicles.[6]

Interestingly, there is a report by a co-founder of one of the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) that had competed in the Pakistan Army’s new standard-issue assault rifle program claiming that Pakistan had ordered 140,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles from Russia.[7] In June 2016, the Russian News Agency TASS reported (citing an unnamed Pakistani official) that Pakistan would procure “a significant number of AK-103 assault rifles.”[8] If correct, this would align with the competing (and currently applied) view of ties.

Ivan Konovalov – i.e. the Director of the Center of Strategic Studies – advised that Moscow continue its targeted approach with Pakistan so as to both continue its (albeit lesser) presence in India as well as build a tenable niche market in Pakistan (for transport helicopters and other areas that would not affect the regional balance in South Asia.[9] On the surface, there is no point in risking the markedly larger – and more frequent – defence contracts in India for comparatively marginal gains in Pakistan.

However, could India’s withdrawal from the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program – which was poised to drive development spending of at least $8 billion US alone – have altered the situation to make deeper Russian-Pakistani defence relations tenable? Ultimately, Makienko’s concern stems from the loss of India as a key long-term partner for the FGFA/Su-57 and, in addition, its growing departure from Russia in its short-and-medium-term needs. Unless the Kremlin relaxes its policy to Islamabad, it even risks losing the Pakistani market to “Chinese, South Korean and even Turkish aircraft (or big-ticket items in general).”[10]

In fact, Makienko even referenced the fact that Pakistan ordered $2.5 billion US in arms from Turkey – i.e. the 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters and four MILGEM Ada corvettes – that Russian suppliers might have been able to compete for had Moscow approved of (and supported) them.[11] Makienko asserted that “…in the interests of the Indian partner, we (Russia) often renounced lucrative contracts in Pakistan.”[12] Instead, Makienko advised that Russia actively approach Pakistan, especially in terms of combat aircraft, in order to secure a long-term revenue source in lieu of the Indian market.[13]

India’s Defence Purchases from Russia are Still Lucrative

Be it sustaining its large Sukhoi Su-30MKI fleet, co-producing Kamov Ka-226 utility helicopters or moving ahead on the purchase of Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf long-range air defence systems, New Delhi’s defence purchases from Russia are still more extensive and lucrative than what Pakistan could, even at its optimal level of expenditure with the Russians (where it can secure exactly what it would prefer), generate.

However, the S-400 program had caught a snag when the US had sought to restrict its allies from such purchases from Russia through legislation, i.e. ‘Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’ (CAATSA). CAATSA seeks to prevent US allies such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam and others from procuring Russian arms, Iranian oil and other goods that could adversely affect US geo-strategic interests.[14]

Granted, the US introduced a waiver to enable India, Indonesia and Vietnam procure Russian arms under CAATSA, albeit with certification (of undertaking specific measures) from the White House.[15] The waiver is expected to enable India to finalize its S-400 purchase, but there is a caveat that could affect long-term exchanges between Russia and India. In his statement regarding CAATSA and the waiver, US Secretary of State Jim Mattis stated, “[The waiver] allows nations to build a closer security relationship with the US as they continue to transition from reliance on Russian military equipment.”[16]

By adding, “continue to transition from reliance on Russian military equipment,” the US has introduced an expectation that the waiver is not to be an exception to the rule, but a means to more smoothly transition the countries in question – such as India – from relying on Russia to find an acceptable alternative. In fact, the US had reportedly offered the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system to India.[17] But it is also erroneous to just frame India’s purchases in terms of imports, it also has a burgeoning domestic line of products and services that will also be a factor in the coming years. Thus, the case for Moscow to look at Pakistan as a potential long-term market is valid unless Russia secures a program as large in scope and spending as the FGFA in India. However, a program of that scope would imply reliance on Russia (even as an equal partner), which – based on Mattis’ statement – may not be tenable in the long-term.

Where Does Pakistan Stand?

Makienko stated, “…against the backdrop of India’s hesitation about the project of a 5th generation fighter, it is necessary to promote our Su-35 as actively as possible to Pakistan.”[18] Talk of Pakistan being interested in the Su-35 stemmed from two reports citing Pakistani officials. In 2015, a Pakistani official told IHS Jane’s that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was interested in the Su-35.[19] In November 2016, the PAF informed IHS Jane’s of an “intermediate” fighter program to bridge the PAF’s Air Staff Requirements (ASR) between the present and the forthcoming next-generation fighter program.[20] The idea was to procure 30 to 40 fighters through the 2020s.[21] IHS Jane’s was told that the leading candidates were the Su-35 and Chengdu J-10.[22]

Indeed, the idea of a twin-engine, heavyweight fighter was welcomed (from a technical and operational standpoint) by analyst, historian and retired PAF Air Commodore Kaiser Tufail when he spoke to Quwa in March 2018. In April, Pakistan’s previous Minister of Defence (MoD) Khurram Dastgir had told the Russian News Agency RIA Novosti that Islamabad and Moscow were in “the initial stage of negotiations” over the Su-35.[23] However, he cautioned that the process was tentative and, if tenable, would require a “few years” in order to come to fruition.[24] Thus, there appears to be grounds for the Su-35 discussion, though it is now unclear if the PAF is still pursuing the avenue in light of Pakistan’s fiscal constraints.

For Russia, securing a Pakistani contract would certainly require financial flexibility. Such concessions can involve a line-of-credit or loan, commercial offsets and/or bartering. The latter two were incorporated to Indonesia’s $1.14 billion US contract for 11 Su-35s.[25] In theory, each of these can be used to support a Su-35 sale to Pakistan, but at this stage, it is unclear if either side is engaged on this issue. However, with the US cutting its military aid to Pakistan by 75%[26] and Pakistan showing unwillingness to spend its national funds on US arms, CAASTA or the like might not be as much of an issue for Pakistan as it will ultimately become for India (and by consequence, India’s dealings with Russia).

However, while much attention is being paid to potential big-ticket transactions, it should be noted that growth bilateral defence ties need not be confined to purchases. Rather, with the PAF aiming to produce its own FGFA under Project Azm, a range of Russian suppliers could find opportunities – which are opaque and less conspicuous – in Pakistan in materials, aircraft design and engineering, and propulsion. In fact, it would be an approach with precedence considering how the Klimov RD-93 powers the JF-17.

Interestingly, Rostec had offered the United Arab Emirates an option to jointly develop a lightweight next-generation fighter in February 2017.[27] According to Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), its Aviation Design Institute (AvDI) is responsible for securing the “core multidisciplinary technologies required for any advanced air vehicle,” including “aerodynamics, antennas, fly-by-wire, payloads, sensor fusion, stealth [and] structures.”[28] PAC requires AvDI to secure both short-term solutions and pursue long-term research and development work in those domains.

Engagement on this front could be a mutually-beneficial boon for both Russia and Pakistan. It would equip the latter with the technologies and expertise it needs to bring its FGFA to fruition, while the latter scales its ongoing development work, thus making its own next-generation projects more affordable.

[1] “Naval Vice Chief calls on Commander-in-Chief Russian Federation Navy.” Associated Press of Pakistan. 31 July 2018. URL: https://www.app.com.pk/naval-vice-chief-calls-on-commander-in-chief-russian-federation-navy/ (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[2] Maxim Kislyakov. “Weapons of Russia: sales growth or stagnation?” Army Standard. 01 August 2018. URL: https://armystandard.ru/news/t/20187311343-yPmsY.html (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[3]  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: http://www.mid.ru/en/press_service/minister_speeches/-/asset_publisher/7OvQR5KJWVmR/content/id/2984577 (Last Accessed: 11 February 2018).

[4] Farhan Bokhari. “Pakistan buys initial batch of four Mi-35s.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 24 August 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20160426120052/http:/www.janes.com/article/53758/pakistan-buys-initial-batch-of-four-mi-35s (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Press Release. “Rosoboronexport to Debut at IDEAS-2016 in Pakistan.” Rostec. 22 November 2016. URL: http://roe.ru/eng/press-service/news/rosoboronexport-to-debut-at-ideas-2016-in-pakistan/ (Last Accessed: 12 February 2018).

[7] John Kennedy. “General Staff Requirement (GSR) New Assault Rifle.” Soldier Systems. 16 July 2018. URL: http://soldiersystems.net/2018/07/16/general-staff-requirement-gsr-new-assault-rifle/ (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[8] “Pakistan intends to purchase Russian AK-103 assault rifles.” TASS. 13 June 2016. URL: http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/3359963 (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[9] Anton Kulikov. “Russia to punish India with Pakistan’s help for failing 5th-generation fighter project. Pravda. 03 August 2018. URL: http://www.pravdareport.com/world/asia/03-08-2018/141340-russia_india_pakistan-0/ (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[10] Maxim Kislyakov. Army Standard. August 2018.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “With CAATSA, the U.S. is Trying to Make Russia Hurt.” Stratfor. 28 May 2018. URL: https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/caatsa-us-trying-make-russia-hurt (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[15] “India set to get US waiver on missile deal with Russia.” Times of India. 25 July 2018. URL: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/india-set-to-get-us-waiver-on-missile-deal-with-russia/articleshow/65126545.cms (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[16] “US Seeks Waiver On Nations Buying Arms From Russia, India Not Mentioned.” NDTV. 22 July 2018. URL: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/us-seeks-waiver-on-nations-buying-weapons-from-russia-india-not-mentioned-1887498 (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[17] Pranab Dhal Samanta. “US may offer air defence system to block S-400 missile deal with Russia.” The Economic Times. 27 June 2018. URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/us-may-offer-air-defence-system-to-block-s-400-deal-with-russia/articleshow/64753870.cms (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[18] Maxim Kislyakov. Army Standard. August 2018.

[19] Farhan Bokhari. “Pakistan official confirms Su-35 talks.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 18 September 2015. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20151124073015/http://www.janes.com/article/54532/pakistani-official-confirms-su-35-talks (Last Accessed: 23 December 2017).

[20] Farhan Bokhari. “Briefing: Defending the borders.” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 02 November 2016.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Pakistan and Russia can conclude an agreement on the purchase of Su-35 fighters”. RIA Novosti. 05 April 2018. URL: https://ria.ru/defense_safety/20180405/1518018204.html

[24] Ibid.

[25]Jon Grevatt. “Indonesia outlines details of Su-35 offset programme.” IHS Jane’s Defence Industry. 23 August 2017. URL: https://www.janes.com/article/73295/indonesia-outlines-details-of-su-35-offset-programme (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[26] “US cuts Pakistan defence aid by 75% to $150m, counter terrorism rider junked.” Khaleej Times. 2 August 2018. URL: https://www.khaleejtimes.com/international/americas/us-cuts-pakistan-defence-aid-by-75-to-150m-counter-terrorism-rider-junked (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[27] Jill Aitoro. “Russia’s Rostec to co-develop 5th-gen fighter with UAE.” Defense News. 20 February 2017. URL: https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/idex/2017/02/20/russia-s-rostec-to-co-develop-5th-gen-fighter-with-uae/ (Last Accessed: 06 August 2018).

[28]  Promotional Information. “Aviation Research, Indigenization and Development.” Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. 2018. URL: http://www.pac.org.pk/avrid (Last Accessed: 31 July 2018).

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