When Russian military personnel had reached Pakistan amidst the latter's heightened tension with India in the wake of the terror attacks in Uri in September 2016 for the first-ever joint drill with the Pakistanis, the Indian establishment was alarmed by the growing bonhomie between Moscow and Islamabad, although the Russians had assured New Delhi that they would be conducting the drills in the disputed areas.
For the time being, it was fine but if we keep a track on the relations between Russia and Pakistan in the recent times, the former Cold War foes have certainly seen an upward movement in their bilateral relations. India might not yet worry too much about losing old ally Russia, but President Vladimir Putin's gesture during the BRICS summit in Goa in 2016 clearly indicated that Moscow no more judges Pakistan through the eyes of India as it happened during the heydays of the Cold War when Islamabad was a trusted friend of the United States.
In Goa, India had tried to corner Pakistan by trying to run a no-confidence against it with help of the Russians and Chinese but the guests did not oblige. It was expected from China but not from Russia. Moscow's response suggested that the dynamics of international politics has changed in the current times.
That the Russia-Pakistan relations are better than the past were reiterated by a recent report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. According to it, while a Russian military delegation visited the Asian country's lawless tribal areas last year, signposts featuring Russian language were put up in Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and also on highways near Islamabad and then, Russia event went on to appoint an honorary consul in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in February.
For the observers, these are significant developments not just in Pakistan-Russia relations but also for the regional dynamics.
Once, Soviet Russia & Pak were enemies over Afghanistan affairs
It's an irony that the same Afghanistan where the occupation by the erstwhile Soviet Union between 1979-89 had seen Pakistan helping the West to boost the mujaheedins to corner Moscow has played a vital role in bringing the Russians closer to the Pakistanis. In fact, Pakistan is witnessing a low in its relationship with the US over backing the Taliban in Afghanistan for strategic reasons.
Today, Afghanistan behind Russia-Pakistan bonhomie
The bonhomie between Russia and Pakistan has been facilitated by the Afghanistan problem. Both these countries have a shared interest in aligning with the Taliban as well as a suspicion towards the United States' role in the war-torn country.
While Pakistan backs Russia owing to the latter's willingness to embrace the Taliban, Moscow supports Islamabad against Washington's efforts to corner it by suggesting that all concerned parties should be taken aboard while devising a strategy to stabilise Afghanistan.
The reality is that with each passing day, as the possibility of the West winning the Afghanistan war is fading fast, countries like Russia and China are turning more assertive in countering the American influence in that strategically key country. Pakistan, which has found itself at the receiving end of the new power game, understandably goes to the camp it finds safer.
Both Russia and Pakistan back Taliban
Pakistan's foreign policy-makers find it tough to dump Afghanistan for as long as they are there, its defence against other powers like India from interfering in Kabul will remain strong. And when Islamabad finds a like-minded power in Russia also backing the Taliban, its worry of facing the wrath of the US-led West subsides.
For Russia, backing the Taliban is a strategy to not just put the US troops under pressure in Afghanistan but also to defend Afghanistan and regions closer to Russian borders from the Islamic State militants who have gone towards those directions after seeing unfavourable conditions in Iraq and Syria.
China has also brought Russia and Pakistan closer
Besides the solidarity emanating out from the common take on the Taliban and Afghanistan, the Russia-Pakistan bonding has also been cemented by another factor: China. Moscow has actively engaged Beijing in its mission to defuse the Afghanistan crisis and this has impressed Islamabad.
Pakistan was so pleased with the Sino-Russian friendship over Afghanistan that a former Pakistani envoy to Russia even said that Islamabad's relation with Russia improved as a direct consequence of Russia's bonhomie with China over addressing Kabul's problems.
Russia is yet to intervene militarily in Afghanistan like its predecessor Soviet Union had done but even if that happens in the future, Moscow's cooperation with Islamabad in military terms would make the ball-game in Afghanistan completely different.