Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak prior to a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Heads of State in Bishkek on June 14, 2019. — AFP/File

'Tread with caution': Analysts comment on PM Imran's Russia trip amid Ukraine tensions

Many at home and abroad are questioning the timing of the visit.
Published February 23, 2022

Prime Minister Imran Khan is all set to arrive in Moscow today (Wednesday) at a time when the world is reeling with the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the West is slamming the Kremlin for what it calls an "invasion".

Read: Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin signal bigger confrontation ahead over Ukraine

The last Pakistani leader to visit Russia was former president Asif Ali Zardari in 2011. Prior to that, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had visited in March 1999.

PM Imran's visit is being viewed with anticipation by many and the government has termed it a prelude to a greater relationship with the country it fought in the 1980s during the US-led war in Afghanistan.

The premier's meeting with Russian President Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking place on Thursday. However, many at home and abroad are questioning the timing of the visit.

Top Pakistani government officials have termed the visit a rare opportunity to make headways in the energy sector and regional connectivity, while Russia seeks a greater role in Afghanistan post US-withdrawal.

Even though the prime minister had played down the timing of the visit and the effect it would have on the country's relations with the West, some analysts believe it is a double-edged sword and that the government must tread with caution.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Political Communication Dr Shahbaz Gill, who landed in Moscow ahead of the premier's visit, briefly interacted with journalists and said that Pakistan would primarily be looking towards making strides in the energy sector.

Speaking to DawnNewsTV on the show 'Live with Adil Shahzeb', National Security Adviser (NSA) Moeed Yusuf also downplayed the timing of PM Imran's visit.

“Yes there is a global tension but our visit is of a bilateral nature, and a similar path was adopted during the recent visit to China where the economy, economic indicators and connectivity were at the heart of that tour,” he remarked.

When asked about Pakistan's stance after the Ukraine crisis deepens, the NSA said that the message for Russia and the whole world was that it was not a zero-sum game and that there was no such demand from the Kremlin either.

Dr Yusuf went on to say that PM Imran — even before he became prime minister — had always been of the view that conflicts could not be solved by military action, especially with regards to Afghanistan.

Maleeha Lodhi, former ambassador to the US, the United Kingdom and the United Nations, talked about PM Imran's interview with Russia Today on the eve of his trip, noting that he was quite careful.

She called on the prime minister to act the same way in Moscow and suggested that Pakistan exercise neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Lodhi also said that the visit may perhaps lessen the bitterness of the past, especially when Russia's recent policy in South Asia had been even-handed.

Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, Dr Adil Najam, viewed PM Imran's visit as more of a strategic one.

However, he cautioned that all eyes would be on the premier and his actions would be viewed by the international community. He concluded that the visit could be an opportunity for Pakistan, though not an easy one so “no loose balls”.

Adam Weinstein, a researcher focusing on law and politics in South Asia, focused on the fact that US President Joe Biden had not phoned PM Imran since assuming office in early 2021.

"This is not intended to suggest that PM Imran would not have gone to Russia if President Biden had given him a call. But the reality is Putin has called Khan three times since August," he said.

"There is a cost to one-dimensional foreign policy towards regional powers and compartmentalising relations," he added.

Journalist Zarrar Khuhro said that the best that one could hope for would be for the trip to happen without "any major off-the-cuff gaffes and hope any fallout can be managed".

"Cancellation would of course carry its own fallout so obviously you can't do that," he said.

Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre, shared his views on the prime minister's trip to Russia in an extensive Twitter thread.

According to Younus, the timing of the trip "could not have been worse, but it is what it is". At the same time, he stressed that the trip was the result of years of diplomat efforts to strengthen ties between the two countries.

He said that the premier and his team must remain cognisant of the fact that Pakistan's core economic interests were aligned with the West. He also added that the Kremlin needed Pakistan's support in Afghanistan as it had "concerns related to radical Islamist violence in Afghanistan impacting Russia's periphery".

He noted that the evolving geopolitical situation required Pakistan to maintain a "nimble foreign policy focused on its core interests".

"Russia may help further these, but Pakistani leaders must walk a tightrope that balances Russia with its economically vital relations with the West."

Younus advised that press statements on the trip primarily focus on bilateral ties, adding that Pakistan should refrain from commenting on Russia-Ukraine tensions.

"A successful trip should help unlock Russian diplomatic support, including at the UN. It will also unlock military and economic assistance in the coming months," he concluded.

In an op-Ed for Dawn newspaper, author and journalist Zahid Hussain said that relations between the two countries had improved over the last few years.

"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," he wrote.

Noting the changing geopolitical situation due to the Ukraine crisis and beyond, Hussain called on Pakistan to exercise caution.

"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," he said.