Andrew Korybko

Perverted in the Western imagination as a backwards land of terrorism and poverty, the mainstream media myth about Pakistan carries little factual weight and purposely neglects the country’s rising geopolitical importance in Eurasia. Far from being a lost cause, the country is actually one of the supercontinent’s most important economic hopes, as it has the potential to connect the massive economies of the Eurasian Union, Iran, SAARC, and China, thereby inaugurating the closest thing to an integrated pan-Eurasian economic zone. Russia recognizes Pakistan’s prime geopolitical potential and has thus maneuvered to rapidly increase its full-spectrum relations with the South Asian gatekeeper. Russia’s overarching goal, as it is with all of its partners nowadays, is to provide a non-provocative balancing component to buffet Pakistan’s regional political position and assist with its peaceful integration into the multipolar Eurasian framework being constructed by the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership.

The first part of the article deals with the ‘zipper’ concept of how Pakistan can bring together four of Eurasia’s most prominent economic entities, and then it proceeds to an examination of the budding Russian-Pakistani Strategic Partnership. Part II looks at the topic from a completely different angle, and brainstorms the three most probable ways in which the US can attempt to offset everything that the multipolar is trying to build in Pakistan.

Zipping Together The Blocs

Pakistan is uniquely poised to zip together a variety of economic blocs, taking advantage of both its convenient geography and China’s grand investment vision to make it happen:

Eurasian Union:

The Russian-led trade organization also comprises Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The latter two theoretically move its potential economic reach closer to South Asia, but the unincorporated nature of Uzbekistan (which is doubtful to join in the near future) and the security problems in Afghanistan pose a major impediment to direct trade with South Asia. Two alternatives have thus developed to deal with these geopolitical obstacles and reach that regional market, and they are the North-South corridor between Russia-Iran-India via the Caspian and Arabian Seas and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC, to be analyzed shortly). Additionally, by bringing the Eurasian Union into contact with SAARC-member Pakistan, a steadfast and growing economy, it can provide a direct trade opening with the rest of the South Asian bloc.

Iran:

The Islamic Republic is expected to experience phenomenal economic growth after the sanctions are lifted at the beginning of next year, and all sides are rushing to cash in on the bonanza (especially the West). The Europeans will probably bring their investments directly into the country through financial instruments, but as the Chinese and Indians deal more closely with the real-sector economy, their interests are such that certain physical connective infrastructure must be created to facilitate bilateral trade in the post-sanctions environment.

Concerning the Chinese, this is the far-reaching Iran-Pakistan-China pipeline (itself an extension of CPEC, and both of which will be described at the end of this section), while for the Indians, this takes the form of both the Chabahar port investment and the undersea Iran-India gas pipeline. In terms of economic efficiency, it would make the most sense for the real-sector and energy trade between Tehran and New Delhi to be conducted through overland routes transiting Pakistan, but for obvious political reasons, this regretfully hasn’t materialized, and thus, Iran and SAARC-leader India’s economic relations must be carried out through the maritime sphere.

SAARC:

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) stretches from Pakistan to Bangladesh, with its largest economy obviously being India. This regional integrational platform has had considerable difficulty achieving its prime goal of closer economic relations among its members, but that doesn’t mean that the potential isn’t there. If the political differences between rivals Pakistan and India could be relaxed (perhaps within the SCO framework), then the organization would finally be able to cash in on its economic capability and fully integrate with itself and the rest of Eurasia.

SAARC, through its Indian and Bangladeshi members, could possibly increase trade with China through the BCIM corridor between the three and Myanmar, but the scope is limited to India’s Northeast and China’s Yunnan Province (although it of course provides a strong basis for future expansion). The project itself was intended to help grow India and China’s least developed but most promising regions, as well as tighten the economic interrelations between these Eurasian giants. Complementary to these objectives, the need for another corridor is thus apparent, which in this case would be satisfied through CPEC. The purpose behind India’s utilization of this secondary trade route to China would be to connect its most economically productive regions (the parts of the country west of the BCIM’s northeast regional scope) to two of China’s least advanced but most in need of development, Tibet and Xinjiang. While there is certainly the touchy issue of India’s de-facto recognition of Pakistani-administered Kashmir if its companies employ this route, the economic allure might be too tempting to resist.

The Indian-Iranian integration strategy via Pakistan was already discussed, so rounding out the last vector of how the country could help SAARC expand its external trade ties, one must look towards the Eurasian Union. As earlier spoken about, the North-South Corridor is a logistics network envisioned to eventually connect India and Russia, but as with Indian-Iranian trade, it would be much more efficient to cut out the bimodal form of transportation (sea to land) and deal exclusively with ground-based infrastructure. Thus, the possibility arises whereby Pakistan could find a place along an Indian railroad to Russia that also traverses through Iran and Central Asia. The latter part of the infrastructure network is already in place, since the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran section has recently been up and running. If connective lines can be built from India to Iran via Pakistan, then it’s entirely feasible that India could one day send export its products directly to Russia using this route, without having to go about the circuitous detour of sea-land-sea-land (Arabian Sea-Iran-Caspian Sea-Russia).

The Vision:

The catalyst for connecting the four blocs together via Pakistan’s geostrategic location is CPEC, China’s grand vision of establishing a trans-Pakistani trade corridor to cultivate a center of economic gravity that seals everything together.  The core of this strategy rests in expanding the Karakoram Highway between both countries and constructing parallel rail, industrial, and pipeline networks from the southern port of Gwadar all the way up to the Chinese border. As Pepe Escobar writes, the energy requirements of this grandiose project are expected to be filled by Iran via the larger Iran-Pakistan-China pipeline project, but a supportive component will also be the world’s largest solar farm that Beijing and Islamabad are also building as part of CPEC.

This vast multimodal integrational platform will de-facto extend China’s direct economic reach all the way to the Arabian Sea, thus circumventing the Strait of Malacca chokehold and more than compensating for the relative strategic losses that it’s suffered in Myanmar as of late. In a major sense, CPEC represents not only a geopolitical pivot for China, but also a geo-economic one as well, since it’ll position the country within easy access to the Mideast oil fields on which so much of its economy depends (despite Russia’s  increasingly important role as the Middle Kingdom’s strategic supplier).

Additionally, creating a system of real-sector trade infrastructure such as roads and rails between Central Asia (Eurasian Union) and Pakistan (SAARC) intersecting in Xinjiang would lead to enormous economic development in China’s most far-flung and vulnerable province that could also help soothe over the externally orchestrated destabilization that it’s lately found itself experiencing. Should Xinjiang succeed in becoming a significant Eurasian trading hub in connecting China, the Eurasian Union, SAARC, and Iran, then it would catapult in geo-economic significance and become an extension of the supercontinental and ultra-strategic Heartland region.

The Russian-Pakistani Strategic Partnership

South Asian geopolitics have traditionally been marked by the fraternal relations between Russia and India, ties which previously would have made any Russian-Pakistani strategic partnership unthinkable, but the evolving multipolar world has reworked the region’s political models and is making for some very exciting future possibilities. To introduce the dynamics taking place before the world’s eyes, Russia and Pakistan are clearly moving closer to one another, and this is occurring despite Russia being “India’s closest friend”. This trend might appear somewhat perplexing to one unaccustomed to the region’s happenings, so it’s worthwhile to succinctly describe the current state of play in South Asia so that one can better grasp why this development actually isn’t all that unexpected, and how it’s not motivated by any negative intentions towards India.

The State Of Play:

South Asia’s geopolitics were transformed by the end of the Cold War and the subsequent nuclear bipolarity that arose between India and Pakistan. The conclusion of the global ideological stand-off lessened the intensity of the Russian-Indian Strategic Partnership and the US’ dealings with Pakistan, as South Asia was no longer seen as a priority area of foreign policy focus by either superpower after that time. As a result, India began to drift westward at the same time that Pakistan was moving eastward, with New Delhi looking towards Washington while Islamabad embraced Beijing. This doesn’t mean that either of them completely turned their backs on their historical partners (Russia and the US, respectively), but that the changing global context forced them to adapt to a new reality of relations that continued the furtherance of their national self-interests.

By 2015, this process had progressed to the point that Pakistan is a stalwart Chinese ally and India is a civilizational pole balancing between the US and Russia. Prime Minister Modi has been practicing multipolarity to its theoretical fullest, strengthening his country’s militarytechnical partnership with Russia at the same time as it economically and strategically pivots towards supporting American objectives vis-à-vis the containment of China. From India’s perspective, Pakistan is a proxy of China and undermines its western border security, while China and Pakistan see India as an American partner managing both of them on Washington’s Lead From Behind behalf. The antagonism between both South Asian states hasn’t subsided, but they seem to be willing to give multilateral Eurasian institutionalism a chance as evidenced by their joint admission to the SCO.

The Kremlin’s Calculations:

In terms of how this all relates to Russia, Moscow has strong ties with Beijing and New Delhi, thus bestowing it with the potential to intermediate between the two and ensure that bilateral tension doesn’t spill over into something worse. What Russia doesn’t have is the ability to do the same between India and Pakistan, thus inviting a non-Eurasian super polity (the US) into the mix and giving it plenty of opportunity to divide and conquer according to the present geopolitical circumstances. The thinking goes that if Russia were to compensate for its diplomatic ‘blind spot’ with Pakistan and reinvigorate the bilateral relationship with Islamabad, then it could mirror the role that it plays between India and China in also helping to balance the tension between India and Pakistan.

If successful, then this strategy would progressively press the US out of the playing field, as although India will still retain its current level of ties with the US (or something similar to it), it would have less of a need for it in the sense of counterbalancing Pakistan, since both itself and Islamabad would have the same trusted partner, Russia, which would work to keep tensions between the two as low as possible (like how it does with India and China). The lack of trust between India and Pakistan is the weakest link in the ‘zipper’ vision, since even though it could still survive without the SAARC component and profit greatly, all of its parts (and especially the Eurasian Union) would be stronger with India’s physical incorporation into this unified infrastructural framework. With this future awareness in mind, and combined with its multipolar ideology and Great Power revival, Russia has a clear impetus to diplomatically and strategically intercede to the best of its capacity in keeping Indian-Pakistan tensions at a minimum in order to maximize the economic benefit of their peaceful collaboration.

Russian Moves:

The above paragraphs explain the reasoning behind Russia’s decision to initiate a strategic partnership with Pakistan, so it’s now time to look at exactly what sorts of moves Moscow has made in this direction. The first step that really got observers talking was Russia’s decision in June 2014 to begin discussions with Pakistan about the sale of attack helicopters to assist with drug-combating efforts. Being described as a “paradigm shift”, some thought that it was motivated by Russia’s concerns that Afghanistan’s destabilization will rapidly move cross-border after the NATO drawdown at the end of that year, but as was described previously, it can also be strongly inferred that another strategic motivation was to eventually balance India and Pakistan and make the multipolar world even more cohesive as a result.

It’s not just military relations that are deepening between the two, as Russia plans to put its technical expertise to work in building a portion of the Iran-Pakistan-China gas pipeline in the near future.

Sensing enormous economic opportunities and seeing the writing on the wall for what will transpire after CPEC is completed, Pakistan expressed its eagerness to seal a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Union, signifying how serious it takes the evolving partnership between the two. Rounding out the new relationship and adding a soft power touch, both sides are preparing for their first-ever cultural exchange year, and in a symbolic sign of what’s likely to come, Pakistan’s national military band performed at the Moscow International Music Festival. There should thus be no doubt at this point about the commitment of both sides to deepening relations with the other, and their mutual interactions are far from a passing trend or temporary convergence of business interests. Like the article argues, both sides understand the larger significance of what they’re doing, which in the overall sense of things is to facilitate their shared vision of an integrated and multipolar Eurasia.

Closing The Corridor

As ambitious as CPEC and the ‘zipper’ plan are, there remain three primary categories of complications that could get in the way and ruin the entire Eurasian enterprise, or at the very least, deal a heavy integrational blow to it either through Pakistan’s domestic destabilization and/or India’s refusal to participate:

Diplomatic Clumsiness:

One of the major strategic risks to pan-Eurasian integration inherent to Russia and Pakistan’s budding relationship is that Moscow risks pushing New Delhi closer into the hands of Washington. This could realistically occur through the unintentional creation of a security dilemma (provoked by the US and its information proxies) and an exaggerated Indian threat assessment of Russia’s activities. If the Indian political establishment feels that Russia is ‘sliding away’ towards the China-Pakistan ‘axis’ (as it views it), then it’ll conversely speed up its strategic dealings with the US. This would consequently negate one of the main reasons behind the Russian-Pakistan strategic partnership, which as stated, is to place Moscow in a position to intermediate between New Delhi and Islamabad and keep regional relations stable enough so as to jump start the envisioned multilateral economic partnership.

If Russia somehow bungles the entire thing (or what would be more likely, the US sabotages it through the mechanisms that will be described soon), then it would be worse off than if it hadn’t even begun what in hindsight would then look like its failed Pakistani gambit. This is because it would have lost a major strategic partner in India while only gaining a lesser one through Pakistan, which it must be said will never see its relations with Russia as being on an equal level as those that it has with China. Therefore, the most important thing that Russia must do throughout this entire process is take heed in proceeding delicately and with consideration to how influential decision makers in the Indian establishment are viewing its evolving partnership with Pakistan. Additionally, since it’s expected that the US will try to split Russia and India through Pakistan in a similar way as it did with Russia and the EU through Ukraine (although for different reasons and through incomparable contexts), Moscow must be aware of Washington’s information warfare against it on this front and needs to remain in steady contact with its closest counterparts in New Delhi so as to dispel any false inferences when they arise and reassure its partners of the lasting integrity of the fraternal Russian-Indian relationship.

American Influence:

Following off of the inferences hinted at above, it’s absolutely expected that the US will continue to insert itself between Russia and India with the intent of dividing the two once and for all. There are two specific ways in which it can do this other than the generalized information war that should be taken as a given. The first thing that most readers may not be aware of is just how significant of an inroad the US has made in supplying the Indian defense industry, having now become its largest arms supplier since 2014 and supplying 12% of the country’s total stock. This is still a far throw away from Russia’s whopping 70% of market dominance, but as India’s aging Soviet-era weaponry is replaced with newer American and Israeli munitions (Tel Aviv’s largest arms customer is India), the emerging trend is obviously not to Russia’s favor, and could have potentially played a part in influencing its decision to resume arms exports to Pakistan (which initiated the growing strategic partnership in the first place). The saliency in this underreported military development is that the US is making itself more integral to India’s national security, and this coincides with New Delhi’s strategic overlap with the US in containing China. The longer this progresses, the further the US will embed itself into India’s deep state apparatus, with all of the misfortunate foreign policy consequences for the multipolar world.

The second and potentially most direct means by which the US can influence India away from Russia is through the personal rapport shared between Modi and Obama. The two leaders have publicly expressed their mutual chemistry for one another, with Obama even writing a short fluff piece about Modi for Time Magazine last spring. Their close interpersonal relations first made public headlines after Modi’s visit to Washington last fall, where the two strolled along the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and appeared quite chummy with one another. When Obama visited India to attend its Republic Day parade in January, the media was in such a state of ecstasy that they even termed the political couple “Mobama”. Although the entire friendship could be an exaggerated charade for political purposes, there’s nothing tangible to indicate that this is the case, since by all measures, the two leaders really do appear to be honest friends and get along quite well with one another. By itself, this doesn’t pose any worries for Russia, but the problem predictably arises when Obama leverages his friendship with Modi in order to enact certain policy shifts from India, such as his encouragement of the Prime Minister’s Act East policy solely because of the unstated reason that can aggravate relations with China. When Obama finally attempts to resort to personal diplomacy with Modi in order to encourage him to ‘adjust’ India’s relations with Russia in a comparable manner, that’s precisely the moment when Russian interests are most endangered by the US ‘winning over’ India into viewing the Russian-Pakistan strategic partnership as a threat. The only suitable deterrent to this scenario is for Putin to continually reinforce his relationship with Modi so that the latter is insusceptible to being tricked by Obama into doubting the Russian President’s intentions.

Playing Dirty

Being the divide-and-conquer master that it is, the US undoubtedly has a few dirty tricks up its sleeve for preventing Pakistan from fulfilling its geo-economic destiny:

Seccessionism:

The Baluchistan separatist issue is an ever-present thorn in Pakistan’s side. The country’s largest province, it’s scarcely populated but is important for its geostrategic location (it abuts Iran and is home to Gwadar port) and mineral reserves. It’s also been the scene of an off-and-on secessionist war that’s at times employed terrorist tactics, such as last month when an armed group attacked an airport. Pakistan insists that India is behind the latest spate of terrorism there, but whether or not that’s the case, the likelihood of American involvement in strategically guiding the events must also be considered.

This isn’t just because of the competitive advantages that the US would procure vis-à-vis destabilizing Gwadar and the source of CPEC, nor solely due to the political benefits of a fragmented and domestically distracted Pakistan. What really drives American interest in fostering a full-scale Baluch separatist war against Pakistan is the transnational nature that such a campaign would inevitably have, as the region of Baluchistan technically transcends the Iranian-Pakistani border and is present in both states.

Therefore, the US could draw the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan into the fray, which would have the combined effect of also endangering India’s Chabahar port and upsetting plans to link it to the regional capital and rail hub of Zahedan (and by extension, onwards to the Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan-Russia line). By keeping India’s Iranian- and Russian-directed infrastructure investments under America’s thumb via Baluch proxy, the US can also exert a sharper degree of influence over New Delhi (as well as Tehran). Tellingly, it should also be mentioned that Ralph Peters’ infamous “Blood Borders” map detailing “How A Better Middle East Would Look” specifically earmarks a “Free Baluchistan” carved out of Iranian and Pakistani territory as one of its key components.

Terrorism:

While the Baluch separatist scenario has certainly proved itself capable of resorting to terrorist tactics, what will be described in this section is the more ‘traditional’ terrorist threat that Pakistan has been defending against, which is militant Islamic radicalism. Its existence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the hideouts that it has across the border in Afghanistan have proved to be an impactful factor of destabilization in Pakistan over the past decade, and it’s also the reason why the military can’t fully concentrate on the Baluch separatists and quickly snuff them out.

As dangerous as this threat already is, it can actually get much worse, and that’s because of the presence of ISIL in Afghanistan and its expansive neo-Caliphate ideology. The group is already present in the three provinces of Farah (west), Helmand (south), and Nangarhar (east), with the last one being the most important in terms of how it relates to Pakistan. ISIL has proclaimed its intention to eliminate the Durand Line and “annex” the ‘state of Hind’ (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar), so it’s likely to use Nangarhar province as a staging ground for pushing deeper into Pakistan as it attempts to further this (unrealistic) goal. If more Taliban fighters defect to the up-and-coming group and this eventually comes to affect Pakistani-based militants as well, then it’s possible that a rear fifth column of fighters could suddenly ‘pop up’ in the country at a moment’s notice, creating a transnational ‘mini-Caliphate’ between Nangarhar and parts of FATA and evoking strong shades of ISIL’s prior successes along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The southern-eastern vector isn’t the only direction that ISIL can go in expanding past Afghanistan, however, as the defection of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of Tajikistan’s internal special forces, to the terrorists back in May indicates that they might have gained invaluable intelligence about that country that could be exploited in the near future. For example, if anti-government terrorists such as the followers of the late former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda succeed in destabilizing the state even more than they already have, then an opening might develop for ISIL to apply Khalimov’s knowledge in infiltrating the country from Afghanistan and entrenching itself in the most ‘ideal’ location (likely the barely populated Gorno-Badakhstan autonomous region). If this occurs concurrently with unrest in Southern Kyrgyzstan potentially stemming from a Color Revolution attempt during the upcoming general elections (which the US might provoke as revenge for Kyrgyzstan denouncing its cooperation agreement with the US, among other reasons), then it’s possible that a quadrilateral South-Central Asian Caliphate could emerge along the largely inaccessible and heavily fortified Pamir and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, with Pakistan being the southern peg of this vile construction.

Color Revolution 1.5:

The last disruptive scenario that could derail Pakistan’s geo-economic destiny is a Color Revolution against Prime Minister Sharif or any of his successors. The violent protests against him right around this time last year prompted the BBC to jump the gun by prematurely declaring that he’s “cornered”, with the Washington Post echoing the apparently imminent overthrow of his administration by describing him as “cling[ing] to power”. The doom and gloom scenario didn’t pan out, however, and the protests eventually dissipated into nothing, but the lesson learnt was that a Color Revolution scenario is disturbingly real in one of the world’s most populous and geostrategic countries.

At this stage, it’s not yet possible to foretell the exact contours of how the follow-up attack will look, but if the newest wave of Color Revolution attempts is any indication (some of which may potentially be test runs to refine the political technology prior to a more serious implementation), then it might likely embrace “anti-corruption” slogans and be led by an amorphous and superficially apolitical “civil society”. This structural innovation allows the coup’s leaders to readjust their social infrastructure (leadership, members, slogans, etc.) on the fly a lot more efficiently than if they followed the comparatively rigid practices of their predecessors in organizing the event around clearly defined political parties led by a few well-known (and easily compromised) individuals.

Color Revolution 1.5 (epitomized by “Electric Yerevan”, and which is what would likely be deployed in Pakistan if the US places the order) is thus halfway between the comparatively ‘docile’ Color Revolution 1.0 of 2003 Georgia and the out-of-control Hybrid War mayhem of Color Revolution 2.0 in EuroMaidan. Being positioned right between these two extremes, it can proceed either way, for example, towards 1.0 if it sputters out like in Armenia (or wants to misleadingly give that impression), or towards 2.0 if it dangerously intensifies like it did in Syria. Therefore, Color Revolution 1.5 could become a dangerous innovation to regime change strategy if its chaotic dynamics of alternation can be mastered, and the US commits to fully supporting one of its iterations after the necessary field data from Macedonia, Armenia, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Moldova has been processed and applied (perhaps to one of these relatively smaller targets before being perfected and repackaged to Pakistan).

Concluding Thoughts

One of the primary themes of the 21st century is shaping up to be Eurasian integration, in the sense of establishing a supercontinental-wide economic space. The EU is presently being kept out of this exciting process out of its own prerogative, having succumbed to American pressure to mistakenly believe that its economic future resides in the trans-Atlantic direction instead of the trans-Eurasian one. Nonetheless, the rest of the main continental economic powers – the Eurasian Union, Iran, SAARC, and China – stand poised for closer integration with one another owing to the infrastructural overlap that Pakistan’s geostrategic location provides.

Understanding the pivotal importance of Pakistan and also eager to build a foundation of political trust with its leadership so as to better assist in managing Pakistani-Indian tensions, Moscow took the bold step in reaching to Islamabad and soliciting a strategic partnership. The quick pace that it’s developed over the past year suggests that this revolutionary relationship is a natural fit for both partners, but their solidifying partnership has incited the US’ geopolitical jealousy, which is keen to call upon a mixed bag of secessionist, terrorist, and Color Revolution destabilizations to offset Pakistan’s catalytic role in bringing Eurasia together. If these threats can properly be defended against, perhaps with unified trilateral assistance from Russia, China, and Iran, then Pakistan can prevail in becoming Eurasia’s economic ‘zipper’ and linking these (and perhaps even SAARC’s) economies together in an emboldened multipolar future.

This series was inspired by a conversation with Tayyab Baloch during the BRICS and SCO Summits in Ufa.