It seemed like the diplomatic version of an ambush. On 2 June, Sergey Chemezov, the CEO of the Russian State-run company Rostec, told Voice of Russia radio that Moscow was lifting its — undeclared — arms embargo against Pakistan and was negotiating the delivery of Mi-25 helicopter gunships to the country.
While some strategic experts called it a landmark development, to most Indians, it appeared to be a stab in the back by a long-time ally. In Indian eyes, Russia has been India’s strategic partner for over 40 years, whereas Pakistan is a faithful American client State. Besides, Pakistan has used every weapon supplied by its western backers against India.
But that thinking is so 2013. The US’ retreat from West Asia and its pivot to the Asia-Pacific has created several low-hanging opportunities for Russia in the region. Pakistan is one of them. In fact, for the first time ever, Russian and Pakistan interests have converged — in the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban.
America’s slow-motion exit from Afghanistan has got the jihadis salivating at the prospect of regaining power. While the Taliban may not have won more than a handful of battles in America’s longest war, in the popular Afghan narrative they have defeated yet another superpower. If, and when, they storm the gates of Kabul, the emboldened Islamists are likely to target Pakistan next.
This has set off the alarm bells in Moscow. The Russians are paranoid about waves of Islamic guerrillas attacking their soft underbelly in Central Asia.
“First, they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan… If things turn out badly, in about 10 years, our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organised Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan,” the then Russian deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin warned with uncanny insight way back in 2009.
The Pakistanis are worried too. Not only will they lose the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation that the US doles out for the use of Pakistani military bases, Islamabad feels it is being abandoned in the midst of its do-or-die struggle with the Islamists.
Although it is a fact that they uncorked the Islamist genie in the first place, for once the Pakistanis are right in saying they are bigger victims of terror than India. For instance, in a joint attack in 2011, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda almost completely destroyed the Karachi naval base.
So, like it or not, Pakistan is really at the frontlines in the battle against the Taliban. The Pakistanis are, therefore, looking at extricating themselves from the US-created mess. The Russian gambit neatly dovetails into Pakistan’s requirement. Moscow has already entered into a deal with India where New Delhi pays for Russian weapons to the Afghan military. The arms deal with Pakistan completes this pincer manoeuvre that surrounds the Taliban.
The reason why the Russians have offered the Mi-25 helicopter from their vast arsenal is significant. Known as the world’s only “assault helicopter”, for its combination of firepower and troop-carrying capability, it has been highly effective in Afghanistan’s harsh environment.
While a handful of gunships to Pakistan won’t change the military balance vis-à-vis India, the Mi-25 can be the game-changer in battles with guerillas up in the mountains. Also, in Afghanistan where airfields are as rare as hen’s teeth, helicopters are the only way to get out and about. By supplying these gunships to Pakistan, the Russians get the Pakistanis to continue with the job of clearing up Islamist opposition.
Boris Volkhonsky, head of the Asian sector of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, told RIA Novosti that although India has always tended to react badly to the idea of arms being supplied to Pakistan, he doesn’t expect collaboration between Moscow and Islamabad to cause problems. “I do not think India will have any objections,” Volkhonsky said. “After all, India and Pakistan both buy weapons from the US, and this has not bothered them.”
And finally, to those claiming this is a landmark deal or a strategic decision, here is news: The Russians sold 70 Mi-17 transport helicopters to Pakistan between 1996 and 2010.