Russia keeps door open to Pakistan after Putin cancels trip
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Islamabad yesterday in an apparent effort to smooth feathers ruffled in Pakistan by Putin's last- minute cancellation of his own scheduled visit.
(Page 2 of 2)
"Which doesn't mean things will be OK. The Taliban will continue killing, and drugs will still pour out of Afghanistan. There will be lots of problems," he adds.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Russians vs. Putin
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Putin's planned visit this week would have been the perfect opportunity to officially begin building bridges with Pakistan. He was to have attended the regular quadrilateral meeting on Afghanistan, which includes the leaders of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Previous summits, held in various regional capitals, were always attended by then-President Dmitry Medvedev, who has met with Mr. Zardari six times in the past three years – though never in Pakistan.
Uncertainty why Putin canceled
Russian experts say they are at a loss to explain why Putin ducked out of the meeting, a move that seems to have seriously set back Moscow's timetable and led to a wave of injured feelings and perplexed speculation in the Pakistani media.
"One possible explanation is that Putin is a very specific guy, who feels like he can write his own rules and do things his own way," says Sergei Strokan, foreign-affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. He points out that Putin last May refused to attend a summit of the Group of Eight advanced countries, despite the fact that President Obama had specifically moved the meeting's venue to accommodate him. Putin never offered any more detailed explanation other than that he was "too busy."
"So far there is no clear statement from the Kremlin as to when, if ever, the visit will take place. It's hard to see what's going on here, but the fact that Lavrov has gone to Pakistan suggests that there is a strong feeling in Moscow that if we miss the chance to develop stronger relations with Pakistan now, we may pay for it with deep complications down the road," Mr. Strokan adds.
Some experts suggest that pipeline politics may lie at the root of the mystery. Russia's powerful state-run natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, is seen as deeply involved in plans to export Iranian, Russian, and Central Asian gas to the lucrative markets of South Asia via two projects that are currently on the drawing boards. First, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, which analysts say Gazprom has a strong interest in, has apparently been stalled by Pakistan due to US objections. Second, the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which experts say Gazprom wants to build and own, may also be an unresolved issue between Moscow and Islamabad.
"There is a lot of talk behind the scenes about these pipelines, and it's obvious that interests are lining up. It may be a hidden explanation for the confused diplomacy we're seeing at the moment," says Strokan. "But everything will depend upon regional stability. You can't build pipelines through Afghanistan if there isn't reliable security there."
Experts say that time may be running out to find some kind of regional formula to handle the worst-case scenario for post-NATO Afghanistan that Moscow seems to believe in.
"From the moment NATO troops are partially withdrawn from Afghanistan, Russia wants that country to be controllable," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
"The fear in Moscow is that radical Islamism will spread, drug trafficking with explode, and Russia will be left to pick up the pieces. We know there's no hope for stability there without Pakistan's active participation, and we need to be talking seriously with them," he adds.