ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan would during his two-day official visit to Russia, which begins from Wednesday, seek to further cement bilateral relations with Moscow.

The Foreign Office on Monday announced the prime minister’s trip, saying Mr Khan will visit Russia on Feb 23-24 on the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He will be accompanied by a high-level delegation, including members of the cabinet, on the “official visit”, the FO said.

“The visit of the prime minister will contribute to further deepening of the multifaceted Pakistan-Russia bilateral relationship and enhancement of mutual cooperation in diverse fields,” it added.

The announcement was made amidst growing uncertainty about the visit due to fears of a likely war between Russia and Ukraine, and the evolving political scenario at home.

It will be the first bilateral visit by a Pakistani prime minister to Russia in nearly 23 years. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif last visited Moscow in 1999.

The FO said Mr Khan’s meeting with President Putin would be “the highlight of the visit”.

The two leaders would during their meeting review the state of bilateral cooperation, especially in the energy sector, besides exchanging views on regional and global issues. The FO identified Afghanistan and Islamophobia as the two issues that they are expected to discuss.

The visit in fact resulted from PM Khan’s call to President Putin on Jan 17 for praising him for his criticism of the incidents of blasphemy in Western countries.

The prime minister had on that occasion tweeted that he had called President Putin “primarily to express appreciation for his emphatic statement that freedom of speech could not be a pretext to abuse our Holy Prophet (PBUH). He is the first Western leader to show empathy & sensitivity to Muslim sentiment for their beloved Holy Prophet (PBUH)”.

Mr Putin appreciated Mr Khan’s gesture as it reinforced the perception that he was sympathetic to Muslim causes, especially in view of the Russia’s nearly 25 million strong Muslim community.

Relations between the former cold war foes have gradually improved over the past nearly 12 years. They were brought closer by developments in Afghanistan, transformation in geo-political environment and Russian concerns about terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

The upward trajectory in bilateral ties is visible from high-level engagements the two sides have held over these years and the institutional mechanisms they have established to sustain this momentum.

The two developments that in particular supported this rapprochement were the signing of a bilateral defence cooperation agreement in 2014 and Pakistan’s inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with Russian backing in 2017.

Both sides say their ties are marked by “mutual respect, trust and convergence of views on a range of international and regional issues”.

Although Islamabad-Moscow ties continue to remain security oriented, at the same time efforts are afoot for expanding economic cooperation. Russia is particularly interested in the energy sector and is likely to invest in the construction of the 1100km-long Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline that is planned for transporting gas from Karachi to Kasur. The two sides are currently negotiating shareholding and facilitation agreements of the project.

Balancing act

A meeting between Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Emine Dzheppar and Pakistan’s Ambassador retired Major Gen Noel Israel Khokhar on Monday. — Emine Dzheppar Twitter
A meeting between Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Emine Dzheppar and Pakistan’s Ambassador retired Major Gen Noel Israel Khokhar on Monday. — Emine Dzheppar Twitter

In an interesting balancing act ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s upcoming visit to Moscow, Pakistan on Monday expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Emine Dzheppar tweeted that Pakistan’s Ambassador retired Major Gen Noel Israel Khokhar met her and expressed support for her country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “Grateful to Pakistan for supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” she said.

The timing of the meeting is being seen as very significant as it took place days before PM Khan will be visiting Russia at a time of its heightened tensions with Ukraine.

Analysts have read it as a balancing act by Pakistan.

For over a decade now, Pakistan’s ambassador in Kyiv has been a retired military officer. Defence cooperation between Pakistan and Ukraine, particularly in the field of defence production, has been growing as several projects are under way on the basis of transfer of technology and joint ventures between both sides.

In 2020, Ukraine won the contract for repair of IL-78 air-refueller. Meanwhile, Ukrainian-built T-80UD tanks are crucial part of Pakistan’s armoured corps.

Ukraine has, moreover, emerged as a major market for wheat import for Pakistan. In 2020-21, Pakistan imported nearly 1.2 million tonnes of wheat from Ukraine.

Any escalation in the Ukraine-Russia crisis can, therefore, also impact Pakistan’s food security.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2022

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