The Khan-Putin call is a defining moment in Pak-Russian relations

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to call Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday was a defining moment in their countries’ bilateral relations, which have been rapidly improving over the past few years. According to the Kremlin’s official readout of the call:

“While discussing the situation in Afghanistan, both sides stressed the importance of maintaining peace and security in the country, preventing violence and establishing an inter-Afghan dialogue that would facilitate the formation of an inclusive government that takes into account the interests of all segments of the population.

It was agreed to coordinate approaches to the Afghan issue both in bilateral and multilateral formats. At the same time, it was noted that it would be appropriate to use the capabilities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in ensuring regional stability and the fight against terrorism and the drug threat.

The parties touched upon several topics on the bilateral agenda, including the development of trade and economic ties, and the implementation of joint projects in the energy and humanitarian spheres. Russian-Pakistani contacts at various levels will be intensified.”

This represents the first-ever tacit acknowledgment that Russia has come to rely on Pakistan to advance its interests, which in this context relate to stabilising Afghanistan after the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover earlier this month. This suggests that their developing partnership has finally begun to take on strategic dimensions.

The Afghan Crisis is arguably the top one in the world right now, but it’s only Pakistan and Russia that have any realistic chance to shape events in that country through their respective ties with the Taliban. Islamabad’s ones are well-known and cultivated over the decades while Moscow’s are relatively new and explained at length in my latest analysis for the Russian International Affairs Council titled “Russia & The Taliban: From Narrative Challenges To Opportunities”.

In short, one of the largely overlooked outcomes of the recent Russian-Pakistani partnership was Islamabad facilitating Moscow’s ties with the same group that the Kremlin still officially regards as terrorists but with whom it’s nevertheless pragmatically engaging in the interests of regional peace and security. The Eurasian Great Power considers the Taliban to be an anti-ISIS bulwark and hopes that it’ll stabilise Afghanistan as soon as possible so as to unlock its trans-regional connectivity potential and estimated $3 trillion worth of minerals.

The first-mentioned objective refers to February’s agreement to build the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway that Russia can then utilise to finally reach the Indian Ocean like it’s aimed to do for centuries already. As for the second, it wouldn’t just enrich Russia, but would provide much-needed revenue for the Taliban to redistribute throughout its impoverished society and reinvest in reconstructing Afghanistan. These objectives are mutually beneficial and complementary, hence why they’re being prioritised.

They can’t be accomplished without Pakistan’s support, however, though Islamabad obviously shares their aims. The South Asian state wants to utilise PAKAFUZ in order to serve as the Central Asian Republic’s (CARs) access point to the global marketplace and also hopes for Afghanistan to sustainably rebuild itself after the war finally ends. The influence that Pakistan and Russia nowadays have with the Taliban can ideally be leveraged to facilitate the group’s goal of assembling an inclusive government and ensuring that it cuts its ties with terrorists.

Such an outcome wouldn’t be the end point of the Russian-Pakistani partnership, but the beginning of the entirely new era of bilateral relations that they’re both striving towards. Russia aspires to incorporate Pakistan into its Greater Eurasian Partnership, to which end Afghanistan must first be stabilised and PAKAFUZ constructed. Upon those interconnected objectives being met, Moscow can then diversify economic ties with Islamabad beyond their Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline flagship project and into the commercial sphere.

For this to happen, Russia and Pakistan must work more closely than ever before in putting their influence with the Taliban to good use, which explains why President Putin initiated his call with Prime Minister Khan. This symbolically showed that Moscow is deferring to Islamabad’s expertise in this field in order to increase the chances of unlocking the mutual opportunities that they hope to tap into via Kabul. It also symbolically shows that these two former rivals have truly put the past behind them and are ready to chart a new future together.

Not only that, but it’s important to point out that President Putin called Prime Minister Khan before US President Joe Biden did, who has yet to talk to the Pakistani leader despite the South Asian state nominally being a so-called “Major Non-Nato Ally” and indispensable to America’s evacuation from Afghanistan. The Russian leader therefore showed that he respects his Pakistani counterpart much more than his American one does, which signifies just how seriously the strategic dynamics are shifting in South Asia.

Nevertheless, Russian-Indian relations still remain strong since President Putin spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi the day before calling his Pakistani counterpart so nobody should speculate that there will be any worsening of their ties as a result of the latest development. Rather, Russia is simply showing the world that it’s truly restored balance to its South Asian strategy, which builds upon the new model of regional engagement pioneered in April after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid his first trip to Pakistan in 9 years.

Russia has indisputably returned to South Asia ever since the start of the year, and in a more balanced way than ever before. While India will still remain the Kremlin’s top partner there, Pakistan will no longer be neglected like in the past. In fact, Russia nowadays needs Pakistan in order to advance its regional interests which finally align with Islamabad’s own, particularly in Afghanistan. Their mutual embrace of geo-economics has made their respective grand strategies of the Greater Eurasian Partnership and CPEC+ complementary through PAKAFUZ.

Considering the context in which President Putin initiated his call to Prime Minister Khan, which includes not just the Afghan Crisis in general but also Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s ongoing tour to each of Afghanistan’s neighbours apart from China, there’s no question that Russia nowadays relies on close coordination with Pakistan for achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan. This observation marks a defining moment in their relations and shows that they’ve finally begun to take on strategic dimensions.