Former Cold War rivals Russia and Pakistan are moving forward with their first-ever joint military exercises, an event that signals the two nations are working more closely together to combat terrorism in their respective countries.
The exercise is small in size – only 70 Russian soldiers and officers joining 130 Pakistani counterparts. But the implications are huge.
Called Friendship 2016, the Russian troops arrived in Rawalpindi on Friday aboard an Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane, according to Radio Pakistan. The exercise will continue through October 10.
“It is planned that the Russian and Pakistani military servicemen will share their experience and employ teamwork in fighting in mountainous areas, particularly destroying illegal armed groups,” the Russian news service TASS reported.
TASS also reported that personnel from a mechanized infantry unit of the Russian Southern Military Command’s Mountain Mobile Brigade are part of the exercise.
“The Southern Military Command’s mechanized infantry servicemen are fully equipped and have their mountain gear with them, as well as ammunition for their standard weapons,” TASS stated, quoting the military command’s media service.
The exercise’s name is symbolic, indicating a lessening of tensions between Moscow and Islamabad that started last year when Russia lifted its arms ban against Pakistan.
The result was the sale of four MiG Mi-35 attack helicopters – the first sale of its kind between the two countries – to help replace Pakistan’s aging fleet of U.S.-made AH-1 Cobras. In addition, Pakistani army, navy, and air force representatives visited Russia during the last year to consult with their opposite numbers.
This is in stark contrast from the days when Pakistan under the leadership Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was an ally of the United States that helped transport arms and men into the fight against Soviet forces after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. In recent years, the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan cooled after Washington accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye to Taliban fighters using Pakistan as a refuge.
Pakistan denies that it is sheltering the Taliban. In the meantime, the United States improved ties with India, Pakistan’s bitter enemy.
At first, the location of at least some of the war games was both in doubt and controversial. Initial reports indicated that the exercises would be held in what the United Nation’s calls Pakistan-administered Kashmir, an area on the border between India and Pakistan marked by tension since 1947.
Pakistan calls the area Azad Kashmir; India refers to the area as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
According to a clarification issued by the Russians, “The Russia-Pakistan anti-terror exercise is not being held and will not be held in any point of so-called ‘Azad Kashmir’ or in any other sensitive or problematic areas like Gilgit and Baltistan. The only venue of the exercise is Cherat.”
Cherat is about 34 miles southeast of Peshawar and located at about 4,500 feet in the Khattak Range. It serves as a base for the Special Services Group, the primary special operations force of the Pakistan Army.
Meanwhile, Russia is still moving forward with long-standing joint exercises with India called Indra 2016, hosting more than 500 Indian soldiers in Vladivostok. Russia and India have held the counterterrorism exercises together since 2003.