Improving ties with Moscow

Published February 23, 2022
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan is visiting Moscow on the latter’s invitation amidst rising tensions in a region on the brink of a full-scale military conflict that can have massive global implications. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognise the independence of two breakaway Ukrainian territories and to send Russian troops there has turned the situation even more volatile and has increased the threat of a wider conflagration. The latest development there presents a serious diplomatic predicament for the prime minister as Pakistan would not like to be perceived as siding with any one party during a possible conflict.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine could create a very challenging situation for our foreign policy officials. It would require a delicate balancing act on Pakistan’s part, given its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The darkening war clouds in the region will cast a long shadow over the prime minister’s two-day stay in Moscow. Heightening tensions between Russia and the US in the Ukraine stand-off has further complicated the situation.

It will be the first trip to Moscow of a Pakistani leader in more than two decades and, as such, it highlights the warming of relations between the two nations in times of fast-changing geopolitics. The timing of the visit is of great importance in view of the emerging political realignment in the region.

Relations between Moscow and Islamabad have improved over the last few years and there has been increasing bilateral interaction at the senior official level. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Islamabad last April after nearly nine years.

With war clouds hovering over Europe, Pakistan’s foreign policy must maintain a delicate balance.

Besides growth in trade and economic relations there has been a significant increase in security cooperation between the two countries. For instance, they have regularly conducted joint military exercises since 2016 and in 2018, when army chief Gen Bajwa visited Russia, they formed a joint military commission.

To a large extent, these warmer ties have also been the result of Pakistan’s strained relations with the US that compelled the former country to expand its foreign policy options. This factor has led to both, deeper strategic relations with China and improvement in ties with Russia. Also, the growing US policy of confrontation with Beijing and Moscow has shaped regional realignments.

Read more: Echoes of the Cold War

Pakistan may emphasise a position of neutrality but global developments of late, which have also included the Afghan situation after the departure of US troops, have brought it closer to the Beijing-Moscow axis.

Islamabad and Moscow have similar views on Afghanistan among other regional issues. Under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, both capitals have pledged to tackle together the growing threats that emanates from the militant Islamic State in the region. It is likely that the discussions between the two leaders will focus on economic cooperation and developments in the region after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But the latest move by President Putin could shift the focus entirely. Moscow has not only recognised the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which were created by separatist movements in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but has also challenged the legitimacy of Ukraine itself as a sovereign nation.

The tension between the two nations had been building up over Ukraine’s inclination to join the Nato alliance. Russia sees the Western plan to expand the defence treaty to eastern Europe and particularly to the former Soviet states as a deliberate move to encircle it. Moscow’s security concerns over Nato’s eastward expansion appeared to be valid.

For Moscow, it has also been a violation of an earlier understanding that the US and its Western allies would not intervene in Russia’s area of influence. The tension worsened after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the latter’s annexation by it in 2014. But a UN resolution has rejected the annexation and considers the area to be a part of Ukraine. It also led to the imposition of some financial sanctions against Russia by the US.

The Ukrainian crisis took a more serious turn after Russia deployed thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border as fighting between the Ukrainian forces and the separatists intensified. Moscow had until now refuted the American claim that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. But President Putin’s speech on Monday has brought matters to a head, increasing the possibility of conflict. It also seems to have bridged the gap between the US and some of its Western allies who had been sceptical of President Biden’s aggressive approach towards Russia and had sought a diplomatic solution to the crisis. But the latest action has not drawn any support from the international community. America has imposed fresh sanctions on Russia with the latter’s recognition of the breakaway regions.

Such an aggressive stance by President Putin may also put Russia’s allies particularly China in a diplomatic quandary. The two have cemented their alliance in the face of the Biden administration’s confrontationist policies towards them. President Putin and Chinese President Xi after their meeting in Beijing recently had issued a joint statement that their partnership had “no limits”. In that statement, China openly joined Russia in opposing a further expansion of Nato.

On the other hand, Beijing has also been supporting Ukraine’ s sovereignty. Speaking at a security conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi while supporting Russia in saying that Nato’s enlargement was destabilising the continent also stressed that Ukraine’s sovereignty should be “respected and safeguarded”. The statement is certainly at variance with President Putin’s questioning Ukraine’s right to exist as a sate.

Any military action against Ukraine may strain the alliance. Moreover, China is Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. Pakistan too has close relations with Ukraine with whom it has forged a strong security cooperation.

Read more: Ahead of PM Imran's Russia visit, Pakistan does balancing act with Ukraine

Pakistan has its own place in changing geopolitical dynamics but caution is needed if the country is to safeguard its interests. Improving relations with Moscow is to be welcomed but it is also crucial that it maintains a balance in foreign ties so that it doesn’t end up favouring one side over the other.

The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2022

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