The cancellation of the visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Islamabad on Tuesday does not come as a surprise. The terse announcement in Islamabad didn’t attribute any reasons, but it stands to reason that Moscow is weighing in on the merits and imperatives of such a major initiative toward Pakistan at the present juncture.
The visit was occasioned by the summit meeting of the quadrilateral forum of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan which was scheduled to take place in Islamabad and now stands postponed indefinitely. The forum itself was a Russian initiative and at any rate Putin’s visit would have been a historic occasion since no Russian leader has ever visited Pakistan.
The Kremlin’s decision can be seen in many lights. The quadrilateral forum has lost its fizz. Russian-Tajik ties are meandering; Afghan-Pakistani ties are tense; Tajik-Pakistani ties are indifferent. So, where is the scope for Moscow to galvanize regional cooperation? And Putin is a purposive statesman who won’t like to measure life in coffee spoons.
Then, there is continuing strategic ambiguity about the US’ regional strategy in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Things may become clearer only after the election in November in the US. Alongside, US-Pak relations, Afghan peace talks, etc. are also in a state of animated suspense. Most important, the jury is still out whether Pakistan is willing to turn conclusively away from its past policy of power projection into Afghanistan.
Kabul is threatening to haul Islamabad over the coal in the UN Security Council if the shelling of Afghan territory by Pakistani military continues. Obviously, Moscow needs to think it over before taking a major initiative toward Pakistan. On the whole,regional security situation is in flux. It cannot be lost on Moscow that the unannounced visit to Kabul last Saturday by China’s top leader Zhou Yangkang, who is in charge of security, implies at the very minimum that the post-2014 Afghan situation following the NATO’s withdrawal is fraught with all sorts of regional realignments
Of course, Islamabad will be greatly disappointed. This is the second time that Pakistan’s attempt to create negotiating space vis-a-vis the US is suffering a setback. Earlier, China rebuffed the Pakistani overture; now Russia is following suit. But then, why should China or Russia butt in? The former American ambassador Cameron Munter made a fascinating speech at the Carnegie earlier this week where he said the current US-Pak discord is a matter of “competing narratives”.
It seems Pakistani elite harbors the grouse that the US has been treating it as a “one-night stand” whereas it deserves the predictability and conjugal bliss of a marriage; while, the US feels embittered that Pakistan is disloyal, perfidious and could indulge in adultery. Munter, of course, exuded the confidence that a way out needs to be found and it will be.
Presumably, again, we have to wait till November to know what exactly is going on in the Pakistani mind about its so-called “strategic choices”. There is pervasive gloom about the latest tidings
from the Hindu Kush, which should make Moscow really worried. This is a bit like what John Donne wrote - “Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls….”
Meanwhile, it cannot come as surprise that Moscow wouldn’t want to be treated as an “one-night stand” by the Pakistanis, either.