IT was a tough choice. But Prime Minister Imran Khan made the right one by going to Russia. Here’s why:
1- The visit to Moscow and meeting with President Vladimir Putin was finalised in January after many months of back and forth by the two governments. It is true that the Russia-Ukraine tension had begun to build up late last year, and it is also true that by January Western governments were warning that Russian invasion could happen any moment, but it is also true that diplomatic efforts were underway to find a solution. There was really no way for Pakistan, and for any other country for that matter, to know when Putin would pull the trigger. The only option for Pakistan was to call off the visit two days before the scheduled meeting when Putin had delivered his address to the nation. But was this really an option?
2- Not if one takes into account the years of efforts — nearly two decades long — that Pakistan has put into realigning its relationship with Russia. This strategic move started after 9/11 and was sustained through the eras of all the governments that came and went during this period. The visits of the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif (pre-9/11) and president Asif Zardari were equally significant in the broader context of re-tooling this important relationship, especially given the cold ties during the Cold War times.
3- At the heart of this logic is that in the age of global realignments, Pakistan should get a firmer grip on regional dynamics. Russia and China both have huge footprints in our region of relevance that includes Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran, the Gulf region and the larger Middle East. India of course is central to our policy. Its traditionally strong ties with Russia have in the past remained a stumbling block for Islamabad to break the ice with Moscow. But post 9/11 the situation has changed to an extent and Pakistan’s attempts to build deeper engagement with Russia have paid dividends.
4- New Delhi is not amused. In his last visit to the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had visited India and was scheduled to visit Pakistan after that. According to officials in Islamabad, the Indians tried their best to persuade Lavrov to not go to Pakistan because that would, in their logic, bring about some equivalence in ties as far as optics was concerned. Lavrov not only shrugged off these Indian urgings but made sure to spend enough days in Islamabad to signify that he was not just flying in and out. If Islamabad has been making an effort to build a healthy relationship with Moscow, it is being reciprocated.
If Islamabad has been making an effort to build a healthy relationship with Moscow, it is being reciprocated.
5- In Islamabad senior officials have been mapping the power dynamics in the region and how they are affecting, and can affect in the coming years, Pakistan’s vital interests. Beyond Afghanistan, India and the Middle East, there is discussion on how trade, connectivity and investments across the Eurasian continent can benefit Pakistan in the coming years. These officials say Pakistan needs to deeply integrate itself in this developing matrix. Russia is the biggest player in terms of energy, including LNG, and now owns 26 per cent stake in the Pak Stream project that involves building a gas pipeline from Karachi to Kasur (Pakistan owns the other 74pc equity). “We are trying to build our relationship with Russia based on regional realities and our own interests,” says an official.
6- The two governments had been trying to get a meeting of their leaders since 2019 when they met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The planned meeting in September 2020 at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could not take place as the event got cancelled due to Covid-19. Another one scheduled in 2021 at the SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan also fell through as Putin cancelled his trip at the last minute because an official in his delegation contracted Covid-19. In January this year Khan called Putin to thank him for his statement on Islamophobia and in that conversation, according to sources in the PM House, it was agreed that they would meet in Beijing during the inauguration of the Winter Olympics. Russian senior officials shortly thereafter informed their Pakistani counterparts that they could invite PM Khan to Moscow in February and asked Pakistan to propose dates. Feb 24 was finally agreed upon.
7- By early February, the Ukraine crisis had started to build up. Pakistan was watching the developments closely. However, diplomatic traffic in Moscow was plying fairly regularly. French President Emmanuel Macron flew into Moscow to meet Putin in an attempt to de-escalate the brewing crisis. But there were other leaders who came to Russia on pre-scheduled visits. These included leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
8- Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in his press conference on Friday that he had consulted various relevant people, including former foreign secretaries and ambassadors who had served in Moscow, and based on this discussion has concluded that the visit should indeed proceed as planned. While this may be true, it does not mean that Western governments will not express their displeasure through various means. The cost-benefit analysis for Pakistan is a tricky one. But cancelling out a scheduled visit on the last day to a country that Pakistan has been engaging with so consistently and with such deliberate focus could have adversely impacted years of hard work. It was a risk. But it was worth it.
9- The optics in the Western context were not good, that is obvious. However, Pakistan now needs to engage with Western governments with urgency and focus to explain its side of the story. Not an easy task this, but an essential one.
10.The Foreign Office has done well to pull off this important visit. PM Imran Khan’s three-and-a-half-hour one-on-one meeting with Putin — including lunch — should lead to better prospects ahead for the two countries even though the Ukraine crises will keep the global pot boiling for some time.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2022