Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamabad seemed to be betting that Russia is the best guarantor of its interest in the South and Central Asia region. However, after the much talked-about bonhomie during former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s tenure, it looks like Pakistan has turned against Russia, clandestinely helping Britain to ferry weapons systems on a daily basis from Rawalpindi, the country’s 4th largest city, to Ukraine. This could also upset China, which has been supporting Russia in the war with Ukraine.
Various flight-tracking websites have shown Britain’s Royal Air Force carrying out daily sorties of C-17 Globemaster heavy lift aircraft from Romania to Pakistan Air Force’s Nur Khan airbase in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, since August 6th, five days before Pakistan Army chief, General Javed Bajwa, landed in the UK. Bajwa was given a rare special honour of becoming the representative of the Queen during the sovereign’s parade at the Military Academy Sandhurst, becoming also the first Pakistani to address the passing out parade at the academy. It is safe to assume that these special honours are offered not without a quid pro quo.
Pakistan is a large regional state, as well as a member of the informal ‘club’ of states that possess nuclear weapons. Islamabad’s role as a policymaker is of great importance in terms of maintaining security and stability in South Asia and the Middle East. In recent years, Pakistan has pursued an independent and balanced foreign policy, strengthening ties with Russia and China. Islamabad has repeatedly stressed that the sovereign foreign policy agenda of the country is fully consistent with the national interests of Pakistan. Naturally, the events of recent months have introduced a new dynamic into the politics of both Moscow and Islamabad. Pakistan was going through a period of internal political instability. In April, former PM Imran Khan was ousted from power after a no-confidence vote was passed by the country’s parliament. Khan directly accused the United States of being behind the campaign to overthrow and discredit him, with civil confrontation persisting between his supporters and the new government to this day.
It is clear that relations between Russia and Pakistan are not developing in isolation from the regional context. Five years ago, Pakistan became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This gave Russia and other countries in the region the opportunity to develop cooperation with Pakistan in the fight against terrorism. Relations between Pakistan and India are traditionally complex. Both countries have objective interests in developing cooperation with Russia. Moscow has made it clear that it does not view relations with each of these countries as actions against a third country. The SCO mechanisms, which simultaneously include India and Pakistan, can play a positive role in preventing the escalation of the conflict and possibly reducing tension.
This secret cooperation between Britain and Pakistan could indicate a dramatic shift in Pakistan’s geo-political leanings–a balancing of its alliance with China with a more robust relationship with the West, which had fractured during the past few years. The Army chief last year called for a geo-economic strategy in view of Pakistan’s dire economic condition and the sword of FATF (Financial Action Task Force) sanctions hanging low and close. The General is now keen on visiting the US, a clear sign of Pakistan Army’s calculated move to sort out the chaos the country has fallen into in recent years. Bajwa has been making a point, publicly, to show that the army was leading the rescue of the country from an impending economic collapse. Although there is no hue and cry over the clandestine airlift of weapons in Pakistan, there is mounting evidence of massive movement of arms for Ukraine from Rawalpindi. The Boeing C-17A Globemaster III of the RAF with the call sign ‘ZZ173’ can carry up to 77,000 kg of cargo. There is no clarity on the kind of weapons or ammunition ferried from Pakistan to Romania’s Avram Iancu Cluj International Airport via RAF base Akrotiri, but the possibility of Pakistan sending 155mm artillery ammunition made at Pakistan ordinance factory to Ukraine via Romania cannot be discounted. There are several munitions manufactured by Pakistan which can be of use to Ukraine.