Weighing in on the Prime Minister’s Visit to Moscow

The recent visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan elicited varied responses from observers across the world. Most labelled Pakistan’s overture as “ill-timed”, taking into account the unfolding of events in Ukraine, while conveniently overlooking the fact that these visits are planned well in advance. The two-day visit was meant to discuss bilateral collaboration. However, considering the past trajectory between Russia and Pakistan and the fact that significant developments occurred only a couple of days before the meeting, it is crucial to ponder whether such a last-minute cancellation of an official visit was a possibility for Islamabad.

History has never allowed Pakistan to draw closer to Russia, starting from the annulment of the former’s first Prime Minister’s official visit, the stationing of Soviet troops in Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, to Islamabad’s policy alignment with Washington during the War on Terror. Following the initial debacle and the damage caused during the Cold War, Moscow and Islamabad have been cautious in warming up to each other. However, following the changing geostrategic dynamics in the last decade, Pakistan has inched closer to Russia via top-level diplomatic and political dialogue. Besides, Russo-Indian defence ties also add to the regional calculus. Moreover, as an ally of Pakistan, China has played a vital role in bringing the two together.

On the other hand, Pakistan has observed explicit detachment from the West, primarily the United States, as the latter is determined to pursue a dynamic that is solely targeted around Afghanistan and counterterrorism. At the same time, there is a common understanding in Pakistan that the United States has put its weight behind India, while many find the lack of a courtesy call following Biden’s entrance into presidential office as demeaning. Nonetheless, a week before his trip, Prime Minister Khan, in a statement, had made it clear that his administration has a very explicit understanding of the idea that Pakistan will maintain its neutral posture and will not join any camps.

Besides, the Prime Minister stated in an interview to Newsweek Pakistan on 21 February 2022 that his visit was lined up long before the materialisation of the “current phase of Ukrainian crisis”, and he was invited by Russian President Vladimir Putin long before that. On 21 February, President Putin recognised Donetsk and Luhansk, a couple of breakaway areas of Ukraine, as independent regions. Notwithstanding the deteriorating situation between Ukraine and Russia since January, it was not possible to calculate that President Vladimir Putin would finally take the decision to carry out an invasion.

The Prime Minister stated in an interview to Newsweek Pakistan on 21 February 2022 that his visit was lined up long before the materialisation of the “current phase of Ukrainian crisis”, and he was invited by Russian President Vladimir Putin long before that.

Irrespective of Washington distancing itself from Islamabad, the country seeks better connectivity with Russia and the states of Central Asia, following the shift to geo-economics. Similarly, there are abundant avenues for Russia to invest in Pakistan, considering the latter’s economic policies. Likewise, the economic scenario in Pakistan provides the country with enough impetus to look for varied investors and further build upon the gradually-bettering ties with Russia.

According to the press release by the Prime Minister’s Office, Prime Minister Imran Khan, during his meeting with the Russian President, reiterated the significance of the Pakistan-Stream Gas Pipeline project between the two states. The project, also called the North-South gas pipeline, is Pakistan’s collaborative effort with Russian firms. 26 per cent of the pipeline project will be financed by Russia, while the rest of 74 per cent is to be furnished by Pakistan. Collaboration on future projects in the domain of energy was also discussed during the high-level meeting. Primarily, Islamabad highlighted its dedication to formulating a “long-term, multidimensional” association with Moscow.

Prime Minister Khan also considered the state of affairs between Ukraine and Russia as regretful, expressing that Islamabad wished that diplomatic channels could prevent a military confrontation. He stressed Pakistan’s faith that conflicts ought to be sorted via negotiations and diplomatic means. The enormous economic impact of disputes on developing states was also underlined.

Following the trip, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also put the general perception that the high-level trip was not thought out carefully to rest. He stated that the goal was to “maximise the diplomatic space for Pakistan”. High-level government officials labelled it a rare opportunity for Pakistan to make a stride in energy and improve connectivity in the region.

West’s reservation might be placated by Pakistan’s earlier statements regarding non-alignment and the need to avoid military confrontation. However, had Pakistan backed out of the scheduled meeting last minute, Russia would have surely kept a grudge for a very long time to come, given their past. On the other hand, regardless of the limited volume of investment and opportunities that Russia is currently offering, Pakistan has shown its commitment to diversifying avenues of regional connectivity for long term geo-economic benefits.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan is Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is also Visiting Faculty at the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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