ISLAMABAD - Russia reaffirmed Wednesday it will enhance security cooperation with Pakistan by strengthening the South Asian nation's "potential" to fight terrorism, which is to include supplying Islamabad with the "relevant military" hardware.
"We believe this [cooperation] serves interests of all states of the region," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in the Pakistani capital before concluding his landmark two-day official visit.
In his talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Lavrov said the two countries agreed to increase the frequency of their joint military drills and maritime exercises to fight terrorism and piracy.
The chief Russian diplomat last visited Pakistan in 2012, and the ensuing years saw a marked improvement in Moscow's otherwise strained and mistrustful relations with Islamabad.
The distrust stemmed from Islamabad's decision to side with the U.S.-backed Afghan armed resistance of the 1980s that forced Moscow to withdraw Soviet occupation forces from Afghanistan.
Lavrov said Wednesday that Russia and Pakistan are working closely to help in peace-building efforts in neighboring Afghanistan. He said both sides agreed to "further facilitate" a deal through an "inclusive political dialogue to put an end to the civil war" between Afghan's warring parties in the conflict-torn country.
"We are, just like our Pakistani partners, seriously worried about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, and by the rise of terrorist activities and the march of ISIL (an acronym for Islamic State) in north and east of the country," Lavrov said.
Moscow maintains contacts with the Afghan government and the Taliban waging a deadly insurgency against the U.S.-backed Kabul administration.
Russia has hosted several Afghan peace meetings in recent months, with envoys of Kabul and the Taliban among the attendees.
The latest gathering happened last month in Moscow, where senior diplomats from the United States, China and Pakistan also were in attendance, together with representatives of the Afghan adversaries.
Qureshi, while speaking alongside Lavrov, described the March 18 Moscow meeting as "successful" and said he discussed with his Russian counterpart the possibility of arranging another such conference to further the Afghan peace process.
Islamabad traditionally also maintains close ties with the Taliban and has long been accused by Kabul of sheltering insurgent leaders on Pakistani soil.
Pakistan rejects the charges and is credited with bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table for peace talks with Washington that culminated in a landmark agreement in February 2020.
President Joe Biden's new administration, however, has been reviewing the U.S.-Taliban deal, which requires all American and NATO-led foreign troops to leave Afghanistan by May 1.
The reassessment stems from concerns the Taliban have not eased violence, and hostilities will intensify if international forces withdraw from the country in the absence of a political deal between warring Afghans.
Biden said last month it will be tough for the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by May 1 for logistical reasons, prompting the Taliban to threaten they would resume attacks on foreign troops in the country if Washington fails to honor the deal.
Lavrov and Qureshi both reported Wednesday that construction by Russia of a 1,100-kilometer gas pipeline will begin soon in Pakistan.
The pipeline, linking the southern port city of Karachi to the eastern city of Lahore, will cost an estimated $2 billion and is expected to transport up to 12.4 billion cubic meters of gas annually.
"We are making necessary efforts to start the construction of the north-south gas pipeline — the flagship project in the energy sector," the Russian foreign minister said. "We hope that all remaining technical issues will be agreed upon in the very near future."
The project, officials say, will open a fast-growing gas market for Russian energy companies.
The steady growth in bilateral ties saw trade between Russia and Pakistan last year hitting 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.
Qureshi said Islamabad also intends to buy about 5 million doses of the Russian-developed Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine to boost Pakistan's efforts with its recently launched program to inoculate its population against the pandemic.
Lavrov said Russia also will look into a request put forward by Pakistan to help the country ultimately manufacture the vaccine.
Before departing Pakistan, the Russian foreign minister also met with Prime Minister Imran Khan and the country's military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Khan reaffirmed Pakistan's resolve to "expeditiously conclude the requisite legal process" for the gas pipeline project and begin work as quickly as possible, the prime minister's office said in a statement.
"Pakistan values its relations with Russia and reciprocates the desire for enhanced bilateral military cooperation," a military statement quoted Bajwa as telling Lavrov.
"We have no hostile designs toward any country and will keep on working toward a cooperative regional framework based on sovereign equality and mutual progress," the Pakistani army chief asserted.