Confusion surrounds the Kremlin's hopes of establishing a tighter relationship with Pakistan, in advance of NATO's planned 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, after President Vladimir Putin abruptly canceled a visit to Islamabad planned for this week.
It would have been the first visit to Pakistan by any Soviet or Russian head of state, and a strong signal that something might be changing in the foreign-policy calculus of a country that has always strictly regarded India as its No. 1 regional partner.
The Kremlin says Mr. Putin's trip to Pakistan was never officially confirmed and his working schedule this week is "too tight" to accommodate the two-day visit, which was to have included participation in a regular summit of regional leaders on Afghanistan and bilateral talks on trade, technical, and military cooperation with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
However, Putin dispatched Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Islamabad Wednesday in what looked like a hastily arranged effort to explain the change to Pakistani leaders and keep the door open for future warming of ties. Experts say that an increasingly anxious Russia wants very much to engage with Pakistan, and sees it as an indispensable regional player in dealing with whatever emerges in Afghanistan following NATO's pullout in barely two years. The Russians fear a repeat of the turbulent 1990s, when narcotrafficking exploded across former Soviet Central Asia and militant Islamist movements based in Afghanistan triggered major civil strife in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
"It remains to be seen what will happen, of course, but most in Moscow tend to view it through the prism of how things went when the USSR pulled its forces out of Afghanistan in 1989. There followed a string of disasters which nobody would like to see repeated," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign-policy journal.
"Pakistan will be a key player, and it follows that Russia must have an open channel to Pakistan, at the very least to know how they will react and what they will do," he adds.
A Russian take on Afghanistan
Not everyone agrees that the outlook for Afghanistan after 2014 is chaos. Gen. Makhmud Gareyev, president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and a former adviser to the pro-Soviet leader of Afghanistan, President Najibullah, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces, argues that things are quite different now.
"The fact is that the new post-Soviet Russian government established contacts with the rebels, and left Najibullah without ammunition," says Gareyev.
"I firmly believe that Afghanistan could have been normalized if not for that.... The Americans talk about leaving, but they aren't really going to go. They'll do what they did in Iraq, leave some forces and regroup them. They'll try to keep bases in Central Asia and reinforce their presence in Pakistan. The Americans will still be around," he says.
"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.
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.