Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began a two-day official visit Tuesday to Pakistan amid growing diplomatic, economic, and military ties between the two countries.
Pakistani and Russian officials said Lavrov’s delegation-level talks with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also will focus on ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Qureshi received the chief Russian diplomat and his delegation at the military base outside Islamabad, where the two leaders also held an initial interaction.
“Pakistan attaches great importance to its relations with Russia and the relationship is gradually expanding,” a post-meeting statement quoted the Pakistani foreign minister as telling the visitor.
Additionally, Lavrov, accompanied by Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, is scheduled to hold meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the country’s military leadership.
“There are plans to conduct a detailed discussion on the current status of bilateral relations and their development prospects, including opportunities for further strengthening trade, economic and counterterrorism cooperation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a pre-visit statement.
Foreign Minister Lavrov last visited Islamabad in 2012, and the ensuing years saw a marked improvement in Russia’s otherwise strained and mistrustful relations with Pakistan.
The distrust stemmed from Islamabad’s decision to side with the United States-backed Afghan armed resistance of the 1980s that forced Moscow to withdraw Soviet occupation forces from Afghanistan.
Bilateral trade between Russia and Pakistan last year hit an all-time high of $790 million, an increase of 46 percent, mainly due to large supplies of Russian wheat to help Islamabad bridge its domestic shortfalls.
Officials said both countries are working closely to increase business partnerships in the energy sector to open a fast-growing gas market for Russian energy companies.
Moscow and Islamabad signed an agreement in 2015 to build a 1,100-km pipeline in Pakistan linking the port of Karachi to the city of Lahore to transport 1.6 billion cubic meters of gas per day.
Russian and Pakistani officials say negotiations on the multi-billion dollar “flagship project” are ongoing “with a view to an early start of its practical implementation.”
The Russian foreign minister is visiting the region as a May 1 deadline approaches for American forces to exit Afghanistan in line with an agreement Washington signed with the Taliban insurgency in February 2020.
Lavrov landed in Pakistan after visiting India, where he stressed the need for the inclusion of the Taliban in any political settlement to end the civil war in Afghanistan.
“Any other way that foresees the exclusion of any group from this process will not deliver an implementable and sustainable peace agreement,” Lavrov told reporters in New Delhi before leaving for Islamabad.
Last month, Moscow hosted an Afghanistan conference, where representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban, along with senior Chinese, U.S. and Pakistani diplomats, explored ways to push Afghan peace efforts.
President Joe Biden’s administration is reviewing the deal with the Taliban and has also intensified efforts to push the two Afghan adversaries to urgently resume peace talks and negotiate a power-sharing deal.
Biden said last month it will be tough for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by May 1 for logistical reasons.
On Monday, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the president is continuing to consult internally with his national security team and U.S. partners and allies on the way forward.
“Well, he set the expectation it will be tough for a full withdrawal, for logistical reasons, by that timeline. And that certainly has—also something that we've conveyed clearly to our partners as well,” Psaki said when asked whether U.S. troops were expected to remain in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline.
The Taliban repeatedly has urged Washington to abide by the mutually agreed upon timeline and withdraw all foreign forces from the country. The insurgent group has threatened to resume attacks on U.S. and allied forces if the U.S. fails to honor the deadline.
The U.S.-Taliban deal binds the insurgents to immediately halt attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Russia both maintain close contacts with the Taliban.
Afghan officials accuse Islamabad of sheltering insurgents and helping them militarily, charges Pakistani officials reject and take credit instead of facilitating the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
Pakistan still hosts several million Afghan refugees and has long blamed the displaced population for serving as hiding place for Taliban fighters.