What many people remember on the mention of Pakistan-Russia relations is the 1979 war in Afghanistan in which the two stood on opposing sides of the war field.  Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, was marching into Kabul in support of the Afghan Communist Party while Pakistan, then allied with the US, was supporting the insurgency movement in Afghanistan and providing the mujahideen with funding and equipment. The Afghan War continued in the 1980s, but the Soviet Union soon collapsed.

In its place now is Russia, and it once again stands to meet Pakistan in the south Russian city of Astrakhan, this time as a participant in joint military exercises. The list of participating countries in the Kavkaz 2020 event includes Belarus, China and Azerbaijan. The event will consist of war games, military drills, joint training and will provide an opportunity for participating countries to display their military technology and skill. There will also be maintenance & repair exercises and deployment drills as well as the use of significant artillery and rocket equipment across the nineteen firing ranges assigned for the event.

Pakistan and Russia have previously participated together in similar joint military events along with other countries in a series of regional drills from 2018-2019, including in the TSENTR 2019. However, this year the exercises will be one member short. India has announced that it does not plan to participate in the drills due to difficulties posed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. While it did plan on sending infantry as well as naval and air forces to Russia for Kavkaz 2020, it has now chosen to withdraw from the event.

Some anonymous officials have stated that the reason for withdrawal may actually be the rising Sino-Indian tensions along the Himalayan border zone as well as the prospect of participating in the military practice with Pakistan. However, the Kavkaz 2020 has already obtained a sure victory due to the sheer number of participants it has secured for the event. There are estimated to be around 150,000 military personnel contesting. This will be instrumental in sending a message to the West, a statement that speaks of the alliance in Central Asia.

In light of New Delhi’s strengthening relationship with the US President Donald Trump, India’s retraction will surely make Moscow uneasy, significantly since it undermines the show of alliance Russia aims the West to note. India is, however, unlikely to foster such a strain and would soon emphasize the strategic military relationship between Russia and India.

However, it currently does provide Pakistan a window to strengthen ties with Russia and ensure itself an alliance in Central Asia. The military drills not only offer the opportunity to enhance the Pakistan-Russia friendship but also find allies amongst the contestants present in the arena, including the Armenia-Azerbaijan duo, which is engaged in a long-term territorial dispute.

Russia allies with Armenia, while Pakistan refuses to acknowledge the state of Armenia in favor of Azerbaijan. Despite this, the presence of all these players in the same field is enough of a step towards a possible diplomatic settlement in the future. Belarus, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is particularly keen on improving relationships with Pakistan as well as finding allies in the region due to it being under Western pressure.

Another participant in the Kavkaz is Tajikistan, which houses India’s only off-country air force base, the Farkhor air-base, located dangerously close to Pakistan’s northern border. There is no official joint-military deal between Pakistan and Tajikistan; therefore, the two meetings under such a setting could provide for a possible coalition in the future, a coalition that would not only strengthen Pakistan’s relationship to its culturally and historically bonded neighbor but would also counter the India-Tajikistan relationship.

While joint military exercises are typically a show of strength to enemy states as well as a show of alliance, they also present an opportunity to further build on such partnerships. The Kavkaz 2020 can be predicted to reap golden opportunities for Pakistan if the country plays its cards right. In the absence of India and the participation of a range of Central Asian states, Pakistan has an open arena to aim for establishing diplomatic ties with its geographically close nations.

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