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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Russia looks at Pakistan with new eyes

Indrani Bagchi

Monday June 22, 2009

A week ago, a visit by Pervez Musharraf, former Pakistan president, to Russia alerted Indian authorities.The visit was facilitated by a private businessman, but India realized quite soon that Musharraf wasdoing some facilitation of his own, preparing the way for the visit of Pakistan army chief, Ashfaque Kayani today. Musharraf, who remains very much a part of Pakistan's military establishment reportedly had a very "productive" meeting with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.

The upshot of that meeting seems to be that Russia is willing to take another look at a defence relationship with Pakistan. Kayani went off on a short visit to Russia today, where he is to meet defence and foreign ministers and the army chief. The key question is, can this be the turning point in Russia's defence relationship with Pakistan? If Russia starts selling arms to Pakistan, it will actually be a hugeturnaround – in all these decades, Russia is probably the only country that did not sell weapons to Pakistan as India's chief supplier. Pakistan, though, sourced a lot of Russian-made stuff from Ukraine.

Russia also had historical issues with Pakistan. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the defeat was not so much at the hands of the Americans as the Pakistanis. That rankled for a long time. But in recent years, India has been shopping elsewhere for weapons.

Russia is now in the company of the Israelis, French and American weapons suppliers. Besides, New Delhi has now had persistent issues with big ticket acquisitions from Russia. So Russia could be feeling liberated from being a one-woman man with India. In fact, Indian officials have registered that Putin certainly feels there could be a commercial defence relationship with Pakistan. Russia's other big client is China, and right now, China is also in the business of helping out Pakistan against the Taliban and the target of US calls to "stabilize" Pakistan.

In the meantime, Russia's near abroad is in danger again, from Islamist militant groups in the Fergana valley (despite Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan cannot get a handle on the IMU, and Uzbek militants havebeen showing up in Pakistan, fighting alongside the Taliban). The argument therefore, is Pakistan needs to be assisted and supported in its fight against the Taliban because the scourge needs to be tackledin the central Asian states. Given this backdrop, Dmitry Medvedev's meeting with Asif Ali Zardari in Yekaterinburg during the SCO summit was significant. According to reports, Medvedev promised wholehearted support to Pakistan in its military operation.

The Indian government will be watching very carefully to see what kind of defence supplies end up in Pakistan from Russia. But also what it portends for India's oldest diplomatic friendship.

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