Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Is Putin Eyeing Pakistan?

Might Putin, looking to burnish his place in history, be tempted to seize an enticing opportunity to pull Pakistan into the Russian orbit?

Put yourself, for a moment, in Putin's shoes. Does he look, as he rides bareback (I refer to him, not the horse) in one of his photo-ops, like the kind of man who wants to lead his country from its former superpower status into obscurity? We can safely assume that Putin and national security team are inspecting the world on a daily basis, searching for strategic opportunities, and they do not need me to inform them that one they and their Moscow predecessors have been glancing at for generations is now fairly begging to be seized.

Pakistan desperately needs friends, allies, and economic partners. Pakistan needs a pipeline to import Iranian gas but evidently cannot pay for that pipeline, and Iran certainly does not have much extra cash at the moment, given U.S. economic warfare against it. Putin could give Pakistan a much desired full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, improving Islamabad's negotiating position vis-a-vis an increasingly angry Washington; help fund the pipeline, thus consolidating an emerging Russian-Iranian-Pakistani relationship and simultaneously doing New Delhi, which also wants Iranian gas, a favor. Earning points from Islamabad and New Delhi simultaneously is not an easy thing to do. This much alone make a deal with Islamabad enticing. But there is much more.

Imagine, and I am just guessing that Putin has easily enough imagination to see all this in an instant, that rising Russian-Pakistani economic ties lead to security ties, perhaps including Russian investment in Pakistan's Baluchi port of Gwadar--Pakistan's first deep water port--alongside on-going Chinese investment there. It really is not all that hard to see the day when a modest Russian pipeline investment could transform into a Russian strategic presence on the Indian Ocean. Neatly leapfrogging the Afghan quagmire that first trapped the Russians themselves and helped bring down the old Soviet Union and has now trapped the last superpower standing, Russia could suddenly become Pakistan's new friend just at the moment when heavy-handed American insistence on using drones to attack Pakistani border villages makes Lady Pakistan vulnerable to Russian courting.

For Putin, of course, this is not about romance but cold strategic calculation, the lure of achieving a Russian dream that goes back to Catherine, and--for the former KGB officer--surely a bit of payback for the old Russian defeat in Afghanistan.

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