“Imran Khan’s visit has not really been noticed by the international community in terms of press coverage by main media outlets. Pakistan is not a major player in the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. It will probably be seen as a measure to rebalance the relationship that India has with Russia,” said a business leader requesting anonymity.

“Pakistan sometimes plays above its weight; other countries have gotten used to it and now just ignore its tactics,” he scoffed.

While the business community is divided about the reasons for the recent prime minister’s visit to Russia, all label it some level of idiocy with the difference lying in degrees. Most refused to go on the record, mainly because of the sensitivity of the topic but also because of the strength of abuse in the diatribe delivered against the government’s decision.

In monetary terms, neither country is a significant trading partner. Based on calculations of State Bank of Pakistan data, on average Pakistan exports to Russia amounted to $150 million on average over the last five years and $49m to Ukraine. Imports from Russia averaged around $277m and $200m from Ukraine.

In the best-case scenario, Imran Khan’s Russia visit is not significant enough to matter — at worst it will impact the country’s GSP Plus status and FATF standing, according to business leaders

“It was a bad time to go there,” said a prominent industrialist. “Russia just wanted to show that everything is very normal and the war is not affecting them making Pakistan a pawn in the larger scheme of things.”

“Edward Price, the US spokesman said we already informed Pakistan that in these difficult times we stand with Ukraine and yet, Pakistan appears to be standing next to Russia — and America’s policy is friends or foes,” he said, perturbed about the confused direction of Pakistan’s foreign policy as the conversation swiftly descended into a tirade against the current government. “India is more closely allied with the USA than it is with Russia now so how is this move strategic,” he questioned.

“Our case for GSP Plus renewal is coming up for the next 10 years and the formula can be tweaked against Pakistan. Furthermore, we are still on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) list,” said former ambassador to the World Trade Organisation Dr Manzoor Ahmed who was concerned about Pakistan’s weaknesses. China is a bit neutral in the dispute because of the cold Sino-US ties but being practical, our big neighbour will probably not intervene, he added.

Editorial: Pakistan can't be bracketed in the Russian ‘camp’ when global politics is again reverting to blocs

The timing of the visit has more to do with snubbing the United States, said an analyst requesting to stay off the record. It is not like that the over half a century of cool ties with Russia will change and it will take the place of China or the US as a strategic ally, he derided.

Think of Pakistan’s allies — the US is our biggest export market, we have access to the European Union because of GSP Plus and China is the biggest investor. Our close friends, such as Turkey have strongly condemned the attack. Saudi Arabia, being so close to the US, will also condemn the attack. We cannot afford to offend any of them. We should not pick a fight with Russia but we also need to understand that there is nothing overt that Russia can do for us, he said.

Downplaying the fallout, Abdul Aleem, the secretary-general of the Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce & Industry said the consequences will not be seriously damaging for Pakistan. “It will not be a showstopper because it is not like the West is treating us well right now. From the flights of Pakistan International Airlines being restricted to being on the FATF list, these are the kinds of punishments that are already being afflicted. But the visit itself was probably planned well beforehand and could not be cancelled.”

Whichever way the situation is interpreted — a measure to balance regional ties, a realigning of Pakistan’s relationship with strategic blocs, a snubbing of ties with the US, a pawn to give a façade of normalcy to Russia or just a preplanned trip that could not be cancelled, the simple truth is that Pakistan is not a big enough global player for this trip to matter much either way.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 28th, 2022

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