Building New Bridges
Pakistan is mounting efforts to find big power patronage in its immediate region.
The political relationship between Pakistan and what was then the Soviet Union dates back to 1948. Since then, relations between the two countries have been ‘rising and falling,’ as expressed by one former diplomat and they have remained in opposite camps in terms of global politics. Bilateral relations ebbed to a low point in May 1960 when, during a speech in the UN in the wake of the U2 incident, the former Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev threatened to wipe Peshawar off the face of the earth.
In the next decade or so, Pakistan moved to alleviate Soviet concerns in 1968 by serving notice on the US government, just days ahead of Premier Nicolai Kosygin’s visit to Rawalpindi, for premature termination of lease of communication facilities in Badaber near Peshawar, which was due to expire in July 1969. To some extent, this helped in removing the Soviet Union’s doubts about Pakistan’s obligations with respect to its military pacts with the west.
On its part, the Soviet Union softened its stance on Kashmir and, for the record, in 1964, it was the last time that it stated in the UN that Kashmir was an integral part of India. Since then it has refrained from holding this view in public pronouncements and communiqués. Even India admits that it can no longer rely on unqualified Russian support in its dispute with Pakistan.
But in 1971 the strategic Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation soured bilateral relations
between Pakistan and the Soviet Union, as the balance of regional power tipped in favor of India when it succeeded in dismembering Pakistan. The acrimony continues to this day. In the 1980s, Pakistan-Soviet Union relations further nosedived following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan actively supported the Afghan Mujahedeen and this led to a retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan a decade later. The dissolution of the Soviet Union formally came about in 1991
In 2003, Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf visited Russia at the invitation of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, followed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's reciprocal visit to Pakistan in 2007. These visits paved the way for improvement of bilateral relations through signing of agreements for enhancing economic cooperation and trade and for educational and scientific exchanges.
In the wake of the US exit from Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan has made good use of the window of opportunity in moving closer to Russia. The move may have been previously fraught with dangers as it could jeopardize Pakistan’s close ties with the US on which it had depended for military and economic aid for many decades.
The US has also leaned on Pakistan for its successful exit from Afghanistan and this has created an environment in which Pakistan can take initiatives towards establishing a relatively strong economic and trade relationship with Russia as compared to the past when Pakistan was considered a hot zone by the international community. This relationship further deepened when Russia gave its approval to China for the export of Russian design engines for Pakistan’s Block-II JF-17 Thunders. This was crucial if Pakistan were to meet its pressing air power requirements as well as develop a potential for unhindered export of the jets.
Russia’s recent ‘political approval’ for sale of Mi-35 ‘Hind E’ helicopters will further cement these ties. Pakistan had been interested in this helicopter since 2009 because of its proven battlefield track, but the deal got a boost after a recent visit of Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif to Russia where he had important discussions with the Russian authorities. There are other helicopters in this category like the South African Rooivalk, Eurocopter Tiger and the Apache from the US but they are either not battle-tested, are too expensive or are not available for acquisition due to political expediency.
The growing ties with Russia is a major breakthrough for Pakistan which some years ago would have been considered too far-etched. Russia has over-ruled objections from India in this respect. India has been a major customer of Russian military equipment for years and still occupies an important position in the equation in spite of the latest Indian shift towards the US and other western sources for its ambitious defense procurement program.
The exact number of Russian helicopters to be acquired by Pakistan is not known though HIS Jane’s has reported that up to 20 helicopters could be sold to Pakistan, starting with delivery of the first batch of 4 machines in the not too distant future. The manufacturing of Mi-35 ‘ Hind E’ started in 2005. It is a state-of-the -art attack helicopter in the inventory of the Russian Air Force squadrons and is an important weapons system. Other countries that have procured the helicopter in recent years are Venezuela, Brazil and Azerbaijan.
The Mi-35 ‘ Hind E’ is a comprehensive and modernized version of its predecessor Mi-24 Hind. To a large extent, modifications in the Mi-35 ‘Hind E’ have addressed those limitations that were previously experienced in high altitude operations or high ambient temperatures environments in Afghanistan. Strengthening of armor around vulnerable areas such as engine bay, fuel tanks and cockpit has given the choppers greater combat resilience and improved the survivability factor in intense battlefield conditions.
To assist the cockpit crew in round the clock operations, the M-35 ‘Hind E’ has an impressive array of aids like the latest navigation and avionics suit. For accurate ordinance deliveries, it is equipped with a target sight system which includes a thermal imager and TV channels, laser range finder and location finder. The helicopter is rugged and can operate from unprepared surfaces or poorly equipped airfields and is equally effective using guided or unguided weapons in regular or challenging climatic conditions. The Pakistan Army, which is the major operator of helicopters in the country’s defense forces, has previously used Russian helicopters, notably the Mi-8 and more recently Mi-17s and the army is satisfied with the performance of these machines.
The recent success against Taliban notwithstanding, the country’s counter-insurgency operations in the inhospitable and difficult mountainous terrain in the north could be stretched for years in which the Mi-35 ‘Hind E’ could play a very important role. India has two squadrons of Mi-24 Hind helicopters in its inventory which were used during the Kargil war. Pakistan’s acquisition of around twenty of these helicopters will greatly help plug gaps in its defense against India in any regular war or misadventure under the Indian doctrine of ‘Cold Start’.
The most important indicator of Pakistan-Russian relations in the evolving global geo-political situation is that in times of crisis, ‘friends’ in the neighborhood can be more helpful than ‘distant close friends’. The fluctutation in Pakistan-Russia relations appear to be on the rise again and it is hoped they will continue to grow. Pakistan’s new overtures of friendship towards Russia must be seen in that light and must be regarded as the country’s fresh efforts towards building bridges of friendship in its own neighbourhood rather than depending on assistance from a power that is located continents and oceans away.