News on Monday June 2 that Russia will ease its informal restrictions on selling Pakistan defence equipment is to be welcomed, as is the news that this may mean acquisition of the Mi-35 Hind. It is perhaps a result of the Russian reaction to the crises in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, where it has responded by adopting a more pragmatic foreign policy in which it appears Pakistan cannot be ignored.
It is uncertain if this will mean a totally balanced Russian relationship with India (its erstwhile South Asian strategic partner) and Pakistan. That is probably not the case, but it likely means an end to the days when India was able to blackmail Russia into not supplying defence equipment to Pakistan. India is actively seeking to diversify away from a reliance on Russian arms, and though this may or may not be successful, a string of Indian defence deals with Western and Israeli companies at the expense of Russian ones means Moscow is less inclined to be swayed by Indian pressure. This is despite Indo-Russian defence collaboration projects such as PAKFA for which India is still the main financer. Indo-Russian defence collaboration is therefore likely to remain reasonably strong regardless of developments with Pakistan.
It is important to clarify that there was no formal embargo as such on the sale of Russian defence equipment to Pakistan, as direct sales of Mi-17 Hip helicopters, and indirect sales of Klimov RD-93 engines were previously made. However, there was reluctance to sell certain types of weaponry, so enquiries made by former COAS Gen Pervez Kayani for the sale of Mi-35s was neither accepted nor declined. At the time Pakistan was looking replace or supplement its aging Cobra fleet, and aimed to acquire the Turkish T129 (if onward supply of the US engines was cleared), or the AH-1Z (depending on Congressional approval). Sale of a more advanced Russian helicopter such as the Mi-28 Havoc may not have been forthcoming therefore, but the Mi-35 in the support role and especially for COIN and support of the special forces in COIN operations may have been less controversial for the Russians to have agreed to. With the change in policy, this deal may now go through. In this context whether the small number of grounded Mi-35s in Pakistan will be returned to service is unknown, but it has been an option that has been previously explored even if nothing resulted from it to date.
Russian defence equipment may not be as capable as some western equivalents, but it is robust, simple enough to operate, and more affordable, both to acquire and to support. Russian approval for defence sales may also help with Sino-Pakistani defence co-operation particularly in clearing the supply of Russian origin sub-systems in Chinese weapon systems. Therefore Pakistan may hope to directly purchase defence equipment such the Pantsir-S1 air defence system, RPG-29 anti-tank weapons (that could possibly be produced under license), and perhaps more Mi-17s. Indirect sales could namely be of the Saturn Al-31F turbofan that powers the FC-20 variant of the Chengdu J-10B that Pakistan may or may not acquire from China.
It is probable therefore that despite the very favourable Sino-Pakistani defence co-operation, Pakistan may look to Russia to acquire defence systems that China is not yet capable or ready of supplying even if the deals may not be very lucrative for Moscow.