Beyond The Rhetoric: Pakistan’s Engagement With Russia Will Remain Limited

For over a decade, Pakistani leaders hoped that Russia might help it diversify its reliance on China and especially the United States. The challenge is U.S. economic tools are still powerful enough to complicate any such deal.

This week, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, a flurry of news reports followed Shehbaz Sharif’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization gathering. Most of them were focused on the symbolism of the meeting, rather than on the substantive issues that had been discussed. After all, Sharif’s predecessor, Imran Khan, had alleged that his outreach to Putin in February had been a trigger for an international conspiracy to oust his government from power. Sharif’s jovial exchanges with Putin at the summit seemed in tension with that claim. Meanwhile, the Indian media fixated on Sharif’s struggle to keep his earphone affixed so that simultaneous translation could occur.

To the extent that there were substantive stories of their meeting, most focused on Putin’s statement that Russian natural gas for Pakistan was a possibility to be explored, with some infrastructure already in place to permit such supply. The statement seems entirely logical. Russia has considerable natural gas, traditional buyers for that gas are constrained by Russia’s own coercive efforts toward Europe and international sanctions, and Pakistan has enormous unfulfilled gas demand. In fact, the statement may have triggered déjà vu in some Pakistani readers. Wasn’t there some deal for a pipeline already in place? Perhaps more than one deal?

The American cartoonist, Charles Schultz, was fond of drawing a recurring bit in his multidecade comic strip, “Charlie Brown.” The eponymous protagonist would come across the character Lucy with her football. She would offer to let Charlie kick the ball by holding it for him. As he approached speedily to kick it with mighty force she would yank the ball away at the last second, causing Charlie to fall clumsily. The gag, repeated dozens of times in the comic’s run, became a metaphor for gullibility.

There is a similar credulous dynamic in news stories of Russia-Pakistan pipelines. “Breakthrough: Pakistan to Award Gas Pipeline Contracts to Russia,” read an Express Tribune headline more than a decade ago. That 2012 story was hardly the first hoping Russia could enter the scene and offer Pakistan some solution to its perennial natural gas shortage. And since that “breakthrough” there have been many such news stories and hopeful headlines that some new multibillion development involving Russia could transform Pakistan’s energy landscape. So far, the Russia-Pakistan engagement has produced headlines and meetings, but no pipelines.

Afghan stability is easier to posit than it is to achieve. Long, overland pipelines involve enormous capital investments and financiers of such projects do not like geopolitical risks of such scale.

News accounts struggle with this stagnant reality. There is little progress, but a cascade of promises of a bright future. A slight of hand—an elision of what is being proposed—is often involved in such accounts. Are we discussing a pipeline of natural gas from Russia? This was Putin’s emphasis at Samarkand. The Russian president stated, according to the official TASS news agency account, “The issue is about pipeline gas supplies from Russia to Pakistan, which is also possible, which means part of [the] infrastructure has already been created, meaning Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan.” This is a restatement of an old dream. Petroleum industry executives, journalists, and think tank analysts have spent three decades pondering pipelines from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia into South Asia’s growing energy markets. A Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) routing gained special notoriety in the late 1990s, providing one of the few reasons for outside powers to favorably interact with the then-nascent Taliban regime in Kabul. As Putin alluded, a network of gas pipelines already ties together those post-Soviet states with Russia, so once the TAP piece is built, adding Russia complicates the acronym but does not pose an infrastructural impossibility. A Russia-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan routing is also possible—at least geographically—as Putin’s statement indicates.

Yet all such routings involve Afghanistan and the reality of Pakistan’s northern neighbor has stymied pipeline optimists. Putin was not blind to this. He observed at the summit, “We have to solve the Afghan issue… Of course, there are problems connected with political stability.” He added, “I hope this problem can also be solved” through “Pakistan’s influence on the situation.”

Yet after nearly fifty years of turmoil, it is abundantly clear that Afghan stability is easier to posit than it is to achieve. Long, overland pipelines involve enormous capital investments and financiers of such projects do not like geopolitical risks of such scale. Russia’s involvement in any such venture would add to rather than subtract from the list of geopolitical dangers that investors would tally.

The U.S. brought sanctions against a key Russian firm involved in the planned construction of the Pakistan pipeline.

This in turn substantially derailed the project.

The tale of other pipelines involving Pakistan illustrates just that point. Russia was initially considered as a technical partner to permit Iranian gas to flow to the Pakistani market. Russia could provide the engineering expertise while being comparatively immune to Western sanctions. This proved not to be the case, and U.S. pressures on Iran slowed Iran-Pakistan pipeline developments. So a different Russian role was imagined. Russia could provide pipeline expertise for a route from Karachi, where liquified natural gas could be offloaded at a terminal there and re-gasified, to Kasur outside Lahore. Compared to TAPI or Iran-Pakistan pipelines, the North-South pipeline involved directly no third parties to make life difficult.

Russia’s actions made life difficult instead. Moscow’s moves to seize the Crimean Peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014 led to Western sanctions. By December 2015, the U.S. brought sanctions against a key Russian firm involved in the planned construction of the Pakistan pipeline, RT Global Resources. This in turn substantially derailed the project.  Even after a replacement for the sanctioned firm was found, several other sticking points appear to have prevented Prime Minister Khan from announcing progress on the pipeline during his 2022 Moscow visit. Sharif fared little better in Samarkand. The project was mentioned but no milestones were announced.

For over a decade, Pakistani leaders hoped that Russia might help it diversify its reliance on China and especially the United States. The challenge is U.S. economic tools are still powerful enough to complicate any deal with Russia, and Russia’s own wealth and capabilities have thus far proven to be insufficient to escape those complications. While it is a cliché, it is also true: Russian pipelines in Pakistan have proven to be a pipe dream. The dream is alluring, but shows few signs of materializing.