On April 6-7, 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pakistan, is first visit to the country in nine years, and held talks with his counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureishi. The visit appeared to go well and appeared to represent a seismic shift in relations on the Indian subcontinent. Since Soviet times, India has been the country most assiduously courted by Russia. Pakistan was championed by both the United States and China, because of its size, its leadership in the Non-aligned movement, and its espousal of a socialist economy. In the Soviet Union's disastrous war in Afghanistan, Pakistan served as the rear base for the Islamic fighters, who eventually drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
Now things have changed drastically, to the point that during a February, 2021 webinar jointly hosted in Moscow by the Pakistan Institute for Strategic Assessments and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Pakistani Ambassador to Russia Shaukat Ali Khan for the first time described the two countries' relations as the building of "strategic trust." Perhaps anticipating the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is interested in closer ties with both the Taliban and with the Taliban's most important state sponsor, Pakistan . Although, Russia lacks China's economic clout, it can still help Pakistan in the energy field and also make the country a hub of its vaccine diplomacy by establishing production facilities.
Relations with third-countries are an impediment to the further consolidation of relations. While Moscow realizes that India under Narendra Modi is drifting towards Washington it still wants to keep its relations solid as evidenced by the sale of the advanced S-400 air defense system to New Delhi. Pakistan for its part is not downgrading ties with Ukraine with whom Russia's relations are particularly tense at the moment.
MEMRI's report on the Lavrov visit to Pakistan and its implications follows below:
Lavrov meets with Pakistani Foreign Minister Qoreishi (Source: Tass.ru)
Afghanistan On Russia's Mind
While Lavrov has been frequently critical of the United States, he has pulled his punches regarding the US role in Afghanistan, because the US presence served Russia's presence in occupying Islamic militants, who could otherwise menace Russia's periphery. With the US on its way out of Afghanistan Russia is looking for other options. An article on the visit, by Diana Kovaleva in Rg.ru was titled "Lavrov: Russia Is Ready to Strengthen Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Potential". Lavrov said: “We agreed to continue the regular “Druzhba” [“Friendship”] joint tactical exercises in the mountainous areas, as well as the “Araviyski musson” [“Arabian Monsoon”] naval counter-terrorism and counter-piracy exercises." The Russian Foreign Minister noted that both sides were concerned that terrorists are strengthening their positions in the north and east of Afghanistan.
Both sides however pledged to provide support for Afghanistan in the creation of inclusive power structures diplomatic parlance for including the Taliban, an organization that is still officially banned in Russia. “We agreed to continue promoting conditions [to help] the parties to the conflict find constructive solutions which will end the civil war in Afghanistan, via agreements providing for the formation of inclusive power structures." said Lavrov. China and India reportedly were cool to the idea because they do not relish seeing the Taliban in a power sharing agreement.  The Afghan endgame featured in discussions that Lavrov held with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the Pakistani Chief-of- Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa. Russia has been active in promoting a conciliation in Afghanistan by hosting consultations in Moscow on March 18, 2021. on an Afghan settlement with the participation of special representatives from China, the United States and Pakistan, as well as delegates from Turkey and Qatar. This was to lead to a conference in Turkey. Accompanying Lavrov on his visit to Pakistan was Vladimir Putin's point man for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, who was there to test the waters in Pakistan, the Taliban's main patron. Kabulov let slip that the conference still lacked an agenda: "Russia, as well the other parties has not yet received an official invitation to the meeting...in order to participate in the conference one first needs to develop a precise agenda for the meeting."
Zamir Kabulov (Source: Ria.ru)
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Russia's Energy Card
One resource that Russia is plentifully endowed with is energy, and Lavrov gave the following optimistic assessment on a natural gas pipeline linking Pakistani ports and running over a 1000 km from Pakistan's southern ports of Karachi and Gwadar to Lahore in the country's north. “Moscow reckons that the remaining technical issues preventing the start of the Pakistan Stream gas pipeline construction (prior called “North-South”) will be resolved with Islamabad in the near future,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov also noted with satisfaction the sharp increase in bilateral trade.  Additionally, the talks discussed the use of nuclear energy in medicine and industry.
Contemplated Route of Pakistan Stream (Source: Construction.ru)
Another Target For Russia's Vaccine Diplomacy
Russia has been using its relatively cheap Sputnik V anti-Covid vaccine to good effect diplomatically including in sowing discord within the EU. Russia has delivered or pledged 200,000 doses of the vaccine to Pakistan. Lavrov also dangled the possibility that production of the vaccine could take place in Pakistan. Lavrov called this a "promising initiative", but he warned that Russia's first obligation was to those countries that had previously signed agreements with Russia, including India.
Relations With Other Countries Constitute An Impediment
While relations between Russia and Pakistan are blossoming, Russia seeks to avoid giving New Delhi and Washington the impression that a Sino-Pakistan-Russia alliance is in the making. India is quite unhappy with the joint Russian-Pakistani military exercises. Pakistan, for its part is not foreclosing other options. Pakistan's Chief-of- Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa will be making his first visit to Ukraine this month at the invitation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. The Ukrainian invitation is twofold: It wants the guest to visit a display of Ukrainian military hardware in the expectation that he will be interested in purchase and cooperation agreements with Kiev. Secondly, the move complements Kiev's Eastern diplomacy that has seen visits to Qatar and Turkey in an effort to establish a balance against Russia. In the context of the recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the acceptance of the invitation is seen by some Russian observers as an "unfriendly act."