Towards a backdrop of quickly rising tensions between Russia and the West, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s long-planned February 23-24 go to to Moscow, the primary official state go to by a Pakistani head of presidency in 20 years, was at all times going to be a dangerous gambit.
However nobody absolutely predicted how controversial its timing would ultimately show to be.
On February 21, Russia recognised two breakaway areas in Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, as unbiased entities and ordered Russian troops to “preserve peace” there. Classifying the transfer as “the start of an invasion”, the US introduced a primary tranche of sanctions towards Russia, together with steps to starve the nation of financing. Regardless of these developments inserting your complete world on excessive alert, Prime Minister Khan selected to not cancel or postpone his Moscow go to. And when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin formally introduced the invasion of Ukraine simply earlier than dawn on February 24, eliciting swift world condemnation and sending worldwide markets right into a tailspin, Prime Minister Khan and his delegation had been simply settling of their resort rooms in Moscow.
It’s little shock that the Pakistani go to to Moscow, primarily supposed to spice up vitality and financial cooperation between the 2 sides and provides impetus to the multibillion-dollar Pakistan Stream Fuel Pipeline, instantly got here beneath hearth for its precarious timing. However additionally it is true that any eleventh-hour manoeuvring on the Pakistani aspect would have been fraught with difficulties.
The bilateral relationship between Islamabad and Moscow is just not with out vital scar tissue, left over from Pakistan’s alignment with the US through the Chilly Conflict, the deployment of Soviet troops in Afghanistan within the Eighties, and Russia’s shut defence ties with Pakistan’s nemesis India. And there’s a lot cause – each political and financial – for Pakistan to wish to capitalise on current efforts to reset the connection.
At present, the Pakistani management is trying to urgently stabilise the nation’s inflation-hit financial system by growing home productiveness and attracting overseas funding. To realize its financial objectives, Pakistan is conscious that it wants to keep up regional peace and keep away from getting entangled within the increasing mesh of world energy politics.
This need to keep up peaceable relations within the area has strengthened the Pakistani authorities’s expressed dedication to growing regional connectivity and inspired it to expedite work on the China-Pakistan Financial Hall, a core part of which incorporates the upgrading and rebranding of the nation’s maritime commerce routes by the ports of Karachi and Gwadar. Each Pakistan and China have maintained that these tasks and routes are and can stay regionally inclusive. Pakistan’s first-ever Nationwide Safety Coverage, unveiled earlier this yr, reaffirmed the federal government’s aspiration for regional integration and even contained tentative provisions for higher relations with its archrival India. The doc additionally known as for the “reimagining [the country’s] partnership with Russia in vitality, defence cooperation, and funding”.
On this context, Prime Minister Khan’s resolution to go ahead along with his scheduled assembly with Putin to reveal his need for stronger ties and additional collaboration with Russia might be seen as an inherently rational transfer. Russia has already agreed to put money into the Pakistan Stream Fuel Pipeline between Karachi and the town of Kasur in Punjab – a challenge price greater than $2bn that will significantly assist service Pakistan’s ever-increasing vitality calls for as soon as accomplished. On the political and safety entrance, Islamabad has cause to hunt nearer ties with Russia now, particularly after the US’s catastrophically executed withdrawal from Afghanistan in August final yr. In different phrases, whereas Prime Minister Khan had a lot to lose from backing out of his deliberate go to to Moscow on account of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he additionally had little to realize.
Moreover, in keeping with their need to concentrate on the financial system and good regional relations, Pakistani officers have lengthy expressed their nation’s need to avoid coalition-building workout routines harking back to Chilly Conflict bloc politics. They’ve repeatedly made it clear, for instance, that Pakistan’s relationship with neighbouring China, which has undergone vital deepening since 2016, shouldn’t be misconstrued by the West as a zero-sum alternative amidst rising Sino-US competitors. Prime Minister Khan’s resolution to go ahead along with his Moscow go to regardless of the escalation in Ukraine – and the coalition-building actions it paved the best way to – doubtless adopted the identical pondering.
Certainly, in a press release issued simply earlier than Putin and Khan’s one-to-one assembly on February 24, Pakistan’s overseas ministry mentioned Prime Minister Khan “regrets” the “newest state of affairs” between Russia and Ukraine and had hoped “diplomacy may avert a navy battle”. The assertion expressed Pakistan’s opposition to the invasion however shunned outrightly condemning Moscow, demonstrating Islamabad’s need to keep up cautious neutrality on the rising tensions between Russia and the West.
That Prime Minister Khan’s long-awaited go to to Moscow was overshadowed by the invasion of Ukraine, nonetheless, has doubtless solely elevated Pakistan’s wariness of the numerous geopolitical tradeoffs that strategic closeness with Moscow entails. Tensions with the West however, Russia additionally at present occurs to be the biggest arms exporter to India. The Indian Air Pressure is within the strategy of deploying Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system batteries on its western border with Pakistan as a method to thrust back airborne threats, and Indian Air Pressure officers and personnel have been receiving Russian coaching on these new methods. India’s defence and safety closeness to Russia dates again to the Soviet period, again when the Kremlin actively backed India within the 1971 battle that price Pakistan its jap wing. Pakistan is thus cautious of turning into too shut or depending on Russia however doesn’t wish to hurt strengthening relations and push this world energy additional into the arms of India both.
Whereas it values its rising ties with Russia for a number of intersecting causes, Pakistan’s authorities can be not prepared to surrender on its tremulous however vital relationship with the West.
Regardless of a current dampening of relations, epitomised most notably by the absence of any direct communication to this point between Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Joe Biden, Pakistan’s management recognises the need of maintaining the Pakistan-US relationship off the ventilator. In spite of everything, the US is Pakistan’s largest export market and a number one potential investor in regional connectivity tasks such because the 1,300-megawatt CASA-1000 vitality challenge that provides electrical energy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, the IMF not too long ago accredited a $1bn disbursement to Pakistan beneath a $6bn mortgage programme that’s prone to be spent financing imports and servicing overseas debt to forestall the Pakistani rupee from depreciating additional.
On the strategic entrance, a lot of Pakistan’s navy tools continues to learn from American logistical and technical servicing. Moreover, regardless of its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan continues to view the US as a obligatory if reluctant regional safety collaborator, because it not too long ago demonstrated by inviting the US state division’s particular consultant on Afghanistan to a Pakistan-convened Organisation of Islamic Cooperation emergency assembly on Afghanistan.
It’s, nonetheless, can be not misplaced on Pakistani management that US insurance policies in the direction of South Asia are formed by strategic concerns that always run counter to Pakistan’s personal. The US strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific, for instance, has elevated India right into a bulwark place towards China, weakening Pakistan’s hand towards its hostile neighbour and inspiring it to hunt different avenues of help to guard the fragile strategic steadiness within the area.
All in all, regardless of receiving vocal criticism from some quarters within the West, by going ahead along with his go to to Russia amid the invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Khan appears to have taken a calculated danger in keeping with what Pakistan sees as its present strategic, financial and political pursuits.
It’s nonetheless not clear whether or not President Putin will settle for Prime Minister Khan’s invitation to go to Pakistan later this yr. Whereas 5 US presidents have visited Pakistan since 1947, a Russian head of state has but to make the journey – so if Putin does conform to make the journey to Islamabad, he could be the primary Russian chief to take action, and can ship an vital message about the way forward for Russo-Pak relations.
With an invasion of Ukraine beneath means and the US having now exited Afghanistan, Russia will undoubtedly even be paying nearer consideration to its southern flank than ever earlier than, and can doubtless wish to hold an in depth eye on the Taliban regime in Kabul. To this finish, Moscow might nicely see nearer contact with Islamabad as a method to shoring up contact with Afghanistan’s new management.
Pakistan’s personal relationship with the Taliban is, in fact, not uncomplicated, however to this point it has tried to work in tandem with China, Russia and the US to assist construct a regional consensus that may undergird stability in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood. Ultimately, Islamabad seems prepared and capable of work with Moscow – regardless of some underlying geopolitical contradictions – to stabilise South Asia, promote regional integration, and avert a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, at the same time as one, paradoxically, could also be starting in Eurasia.
The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.