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Pakistan, Russia Make Nice

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met during the 66th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met during the 66th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.

Lingering Cold War animosities between Russia and Pakistan seem to be residing, with both regional heavyweights looking to improve bilateral relations.

A sign of the warming ties came in the form of a landmark announcement this week by Pakistan's National Security Committee, which, for the first time, named the strengthening of the country's relations with Russia as one of its top foreign policy recommendations.

The recommendation, which was swiftly approved by the Pakistani parliament, signified growing support for closer ties between Moscow and Islamabad.

But it did not stop there. Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit confirmed that Vladimir Putin, early in his third term as president, plans to travel to Islamabad for high-level talks in September -- a first for a Russian head of state.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari paved the road for Putin's visit, which has not been confirmed by Russian officials, last year when he made the first official visit of a Pakistani head of state to Moscow in almost 40 years.

Not long ago, such occasions would have been unthinkable. Russia's staunch support for Pakistan's arch-rival, India, was a thorn in relations. So, too, was Pakistan's support for Afghan mujahedin rebel groups who fought the Soviet Union during its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But much has changed since then in South Asian politics.

Relations between long-term allies Pakistan and the United States have hit a low. The U.S.'s decision in May 2011 to enter Pakistan to conduct a raid on Osama bin Laden's compound without informing that country's authorities caused outrage, as did the deaths of over 28 soldiers in a U.S. drone attack in November that led Pakistan to close all its Afghan supply routes to NATO.

Some observers have been quick to point out a strategic shift in Pakistan's foreign policy toward the United States, while others insist that ties between Moscow and Islamabad have deepened as a result of Pakistan's widening rifts with Washington.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan, however, does not read too much into the situation.

"Possibly relations with Russia will strengthen a [little bit] after Putin's visit. [Pakistan] should have strengthened its relations with Russia long ago," Mohmand says. "This visit will likely increase trade, political contacts, but it does not mean that it can bring about change to Pakistan's foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States."

One particular source of concern for Pakistan has been the burgeoning relationship between India, Pakistan's neighbor and main rival, and the United States.

In recent years, India and the United States have held joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean, while a multibillion-dollar defense deal is on the cards as part of the new booming strategic relationship.

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's former foreign minister, says Russia may be forging stronger ties with Pakistan in order to capitalize on the rift in U.S.-Pakistan ties.

"As you know, India's relations had expanded with the United States, although it [India] had good ties with Russia," Aziz says. "It is no longer like the Cold War, obviously Russia is watching the Pakistan-U.S. tension and [might be thinking of restoring] some balance."

Whether or not Russia and Pakistan might become strategic partners is open to debate. But what is certain is that the two countries are aiming to forge greater economic ties, especially in the field of energy.

Russia has indicated its willingness to get involved in the proposed TAPI pipeline project that is envisioned to transport gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and on to Pakistan and India.

The pipeline, if built, could bring much needed gas to energy-starved India and Pakistan.

Russian investors are also interested in the Thar coal project in Sindh Province, which would involve developing a large energy complex with a capacity of producing 6,000 megawatts of coal-based electricity.

-- Frud Bezhan and Monawar Shah

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