By M K Bhadrakumar
The building blocks of the historic visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pakistan in September have begun arriving in Islamabad. It is a poignant moment in the region's history and politics. This will be the first time a Russian president visits Pakistan since its birth in 1947.
The Russians are fabricating some hardy bricks for the mansion they hope to build in the region which forms a beachhead on the Indian Ocean - a mansion large enough for their friends in Pakistan and in the neighboring countries of India, Iran and Afghanistan to consort with them.
But then, the very sight of the Russian bricks infuriates the United States. The point is, this Russia House will stand bang on the way of the New Silk Road that the US has been planning, which also needs to run through Pakistan. If the access is blocked, it becomes problematic for the US to keep together the body and soul of the tens of thousands of its troops who were hoping to settle down in the Hindu Kush and Central Asia as pioneers in the "Wild West" of China's Xinjiang and on the "soft underbelly" of Russia.
In sum, the battle is joined for influencing Pakistan's future. The stakeholders are many and a keen struggle lies ahead, since at the core of it lies a host of other issues of profound consequence to world politics - energy security of the two big power-houses of Asia (China and India), the future of the New Middle East, and of course, the US strategy to contain Russia and China.
Moscow deputed a talented and vastly experienced diplomat to visit Pakistan in May to make an estimation of the lay of the land. He was a surveyor of great experience whose reputation is the stuff of legends in the Hindu Kush mountains - Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, Russia's point person for Afghanistan. By the choice of Kabulov, Moscow also gently stated its broad intentions as regards its architectural design, namely, that it is a mansion with Afghan characteristics.
Following up on Kabulov's visit, Russian experts began arriving in Pakistan. The proposals they brought are of momentous significance to the long-term security and stability of the region. Moscow has zeroed in on energy cooperation as the fulcrum of its nascent cooperation with Islamabad.
A six-year old idea reappears ...
This is a shrewd decision by Moscow since energy security is a key issue in Pakistan's political economy today, no less important than terrorism. Much of Pakistan gets only a few hours' electricity in a day and the people's rancor is visible. Moscow has assessed that energy security is integral to Pakistan's capacity to maintain "strategic autonomy" as a South Asian power of standing and, therefore, by assisting that country in this sphere, Russian geopolitical interests in a vast swathe of the Greater Middle East stretching from the Persian Gulf to China's Autonomous Region of Xinjiang would also be served.
Besides, in immediate terms, mutual understanding with Pakistan is becoming an imperative need for Russia in the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan, where the Western powers would have withdrawn the bulk of their troops but are nonetheless establishing an open-ended, sizeable military presence of tens of thousands of combat troops.
Russia and Pakistan are joined in their opposition to the long-term occupation of Afghanistan by the West; Russia hopes to influence Pakistani policies with regard to Afghanistan's future and, in turn, cooperation with Pakistan enhances the overall Russian resilience to play an effective role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and in providing security to Central Asia; and, equally, a strong relationship with Pakistan - in the field of energy security, in particular - can provide yet another underpinning for Russia's strategic ties with other key regional powers, especially China, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Last but not the least, Pakistan is a valuable interlocutor for Russia with regard to the activities and movements of the militants operating in North Caucasus.
Having said that, Russia weighs its options carefully and is averse to embarking on Soviet-era adventures that might be a drain on its resources. The priority of the Russian leadership lies in regenerating and innovating the economy and building the national strength, and in the case of Pakistan, Moscow estimates there could be an interesting partnership of much economic value to Russia and of mutual benefit.
All in all, Moscow's strategy is to develop new sinews of cooperation with Pakistan that are sustainable, durable, and which dovetail with Russia's vibrant strategic partnerships with China, India and Iran.
Put differently, the Russian approach becomes a necessary regional-policy "adjustment" or even a pre-requisite to the impending admission of Pakistan and India into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as full members. Putin is an action-oriented statesman and the unhappy part is that six long years have passed since he first proposed at the SCO summit in Shanghai in June 2006 the setting up of an energy club within the regional grouping comprising the energy producing countries of Russia, Iran and the Central Asian countries and the three big energy consuming countries of China, India and Pakistan.
It was at the very same Shanghai summit of the SCO that Putin came out openly for the first time to say that Russia's energy leviathan Gazprom was willing to take part in the construction of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Putin said in his address, "Gazprom is ready to take part and provide technological and, if necessary, financial assistance, and we are willing to provide an unlimited amount of it, especially for a project that is certain to take off."
Putin's idea is that the oil and gas exporters within the SCO have been competing for promising markets (such as China or India), and to coordinate the moves SCO needs an energy club, which will act as a coordination center uniting both energy producers and the three key consumers.
One major Central Asian player who has stayed out of the SCO so far has been Turkmenistan, and it is a bit awkward to speak of an energy club in the region that doesn't include such a large-scale gas producer. Russia also has some gas disputes with Turkmenistan - with which, however China has a warm relationship built around energy cooperation.
A little-noticed development of great significance was that Chinese President Hu Jintao invited the Turkmen president to visit Beijing at the time of the SCO summit last month - and the latter accepted. Suffice to say, China is keen to harmonize its regional policies with Russia and would even lend a hand to Moscow's efforts to coordinate the impulses of energy security amongst and within the SCO member countries and observer countries.
A stunning thing is that the proposals brought by the Russian experts in the past week to Islamabad essentially pick up the threads of Putin's 2006 proposal. According to the details available so far, Moscow has made the following proposals to Islamabad:
Unsurprisingly, Islamabad has eagerly responded to the Russian proposals. The following understanding seems to have been reached at the talks, which concluded in Islamabad on Wednesday:
... which infuriates the overlord
These developments constitute a daunting challenge to the US' regional strategies in Asia and the Middle East. The ramifications are quite far-reaching. First and foremost, Pakistan's "defection" from the Western camp all but amounts to a crippling blow to the US' New Silk Road Initiative aimed at rolling back the Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia. Along with that, the US' dreams of getting access to the vast mineral resources of Central Asia and Afghanistan would also suffer setback.
Indeed, energy security is the Achilles heel of Pakistan's political economy, and it debilitates Pakistan's capacity to develop a strategic autonomy that safeguards its vital interests and core concerns and, conversely, the current level of acute energy deficiency makes Pakistan very vulnerable to US pressures. Therefore, the helping hand from Russia, even if it is self-seeking, would have serious geopolitical implications for the US regional strategies insofar as it results in augmenting Pakistan's independence and resilience and creating space for it to navigate its way through a particularly difficult and dangerous corridor of time when it is beset with existential problems.
Again, a coming together of the energy producing and energy consuming countries of Asia is the ultimate nightmare scenario for the US, which fears exclusion from the ensuing matrix of regional cooperation involving countries that happen to be spearheading the fastest-growing region in the world economy. The entire US strategy in the post-Soviet era had aimed at forestalling such a catastrophic eventuality that might put paid to the US efforts to get embedded in the "Eurasian heartland", which includes or overlooks some of the major regional powers in the coming decades - Russia, China, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan and Iran. (Turkey's admission as a "dialogue partner" of the SCO - at China's behest - at the Beijing summit last month further unnerves the US.)
To be sure, a host of other issues also arise. The Russian moves in Pakistan effectively outflank the US' policies to isolate Iran. If hostilities erupt between the US and Iran, Washington faces almost near-total isolation in the region between the Persian Gulf and Malacca Strait. On the other hand, the IP project (which seems a priority for Russia and China alike) would have a devastating impact on the US' Iran policy, as it would manifoldly enhance Iran's strategic prowess. The US will factor in that it is a matter of time before China gets connected to the IP gas pipeline. These communication links effectively help China also to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Strait.
Worst of all, Washington is unsure of India's approach to the emergent geopolitical shift that Russia is triggering. India and Russia have traditionally enjoyed mutual trust and confidence. India and Iran also enjoy fundamentally strong ties, which have even withstood the US pressure. India is independently working on the normalization of its ties with China, and the two countries have made appreciable headway in this direction. (Curiously, the Indian and Chinese state-sector energy companies recently concluded a memorandum of understanding agreeing not to outbid each other in third countries and to cooperate across-the-board including in the two countries' domestic sector.)
Most important, energy security is becoming a gnawing worry for the Indian leadership as the economy expands rapidly and the need for assured access to reasonably priced energy sources is becoming an all-consuming passion in the country's external policies. (India's External Affairs Minister S M Krishna is heading for Tajikistan, which is the energy source of the CASA project, on Tuesday.)
The US' diplomatic and politico-military options to counter the Russian moves in Pakistan would lie principally in the direction of influencing the policies of Pakistan and India. The US is pursuing a mixed approach toward Pakistan, alternating soft signals with a flexing of muscle that is vaguely assuming threatening overtones already. At one point recently, it all but seemed that the US would render an apology of sorts for the massacre of Pakistani troops in a US military strike last November on the Afghan-Pakistan border following which the reopening of the Pakistani transit routes for the NATO convoys could be expected within the month of June.
However, following the Russian-Pakistani confabulations, the US line has hardened. Another attack has taken place on Monday on Pakistani troops (18 of whom were brutally beheaded) by militant groups of obscure background operating from "safe havens" inside Afghanistan. It doesn't need much ingenuity to work out that the US forces in Afghanistan prefer to look away from what these militants are doing right beneath their nose. (Curiously, these militant "safe havens" also happen to be in the region through which the CASA transmission lines from Tajikistan will have to pass.)
At any rate, on Wednesday, the US' commander in Afghanistan, John Allen, came down to the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi to propose to the Pakistani army chief Parvez Kayani that the two sides could undertake "joint operations" against the militants operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
This is indeed going to be a cat-and-mouse game. The signs are ominous. The relentless drone attacks through the recent months have destabilized Pakistan's tribal areas adjacent to the border with Afghanistan. The drones are causing a lot of civilian casualties, so much so that the United Nations officials begin to wonder if these wanton killings would constitute "war crimes".
The drone attacks infuriate the people who live in the tribal areas and in turn are fueling anti-government sentiments, while Islamabad looks helpless in stopping the US from violating the country's territorial integrity. Quite obviously, Pakistan is hunkering down, and the US won't allow that to continue. The indications are that the US will step up pressure on Pakistan and escalate the tensions in a calibrated way.
A paradigm shift
The heart of the matter is that Pakistan's "strategic defiance" has taken the US by surprise. The US always counted on the perceived comprador mentality of the Pakistani elites and has been somewhat thrown off balance in discovering that those very same elites (the military leadership, in particular) are no longer what they were supposed to be.
Of course, this is a flawed perspective and at the root of it lies Washington's unwillingness to countenance an honest appraisal as to why this paradigm shift has occurred at all. The US doesn't have to look far to realize the complexities. The latest survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, released on Wednesday, shows that 74% of Pakistanis "hate" the US and hold President Barack Obama in exceptionally low esteem. Interestingly, the most popular Pakistani politician today is Imran Khan (70%), whose main plank is that Pakistan should pull out of the war in Afghanistan and demand that the US troops should pack up their gear and leave the region for good with their war machinery.
The US faces a more complicated challenge with regard to India. Washington has audaciously complimented New Delhi recently by naming India as the "lynchpin" in its Asia-Pacific strategies. But to the discomfiture of the US, India's response has so far been one of deafening silence, while demonstratively distancing itself from any perceived "ganging-up" against China. On the other hand, a crucial mass is steadily accruing in the Sino-Indian normalization. Equally, India has been carefully sequestering its dialogue process with Pakistan from the chill and vagaries of the US-Pakistan standoff. Even with regard to Iran, India has drawn a bottom line and made it clear that it won't be pushed around - and the current signs are that Washington has finally got the point.
Having said that, the US will endeavor to butt into the India-Pakistan dialogue and try to turn its focus away from a broad-based approach in a constructive spirit to the highly emotive issues of Pakistan's support of terrorism and the fidayeen attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, which deeply scarred the Indian psyche and still arouse Indian suspicions regarding Pakistani intentions.
With regard to energy security, the US has encouraged Saudi Arabia to offer a big hand to India, with the hope of encouraging it to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil and in overall terms to wean India away from the IP gas pipeline project. Ideally, Washington would seek a cozy three-way embrace between the US, India and Saudi Arabia, which would keep the Indians away from the alluring thoughts of an SCO energy club.
But the US is unsure, as the Indians also have their preferences and a passion for keeping their thoughts to themselves while making independent choices about how to go about realizing their national objectives in a complicated regional scenario....