By Abdul Basit
Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan paid an official visit to Russia from the 23-24 of February this year. On the same day he was meeting President Putin in the Kremlin, Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
In the backdrop of rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine/NATO, and the intelligence gathered by the CIA about the imminence of the Russian invasion, Khan was conveyed messages from both Washington DC and London to postpone his visit. He refused to oblige as nothing could be said with certainty at that point in time. Since the visit was being planned weeks, if not months ahead, Pakistan did not want to be seen as siding with any side by deferring or cancelling an official visit.
Diplomatically speaking, Putin could have postponed the invasion in deference to the visit of the Pakistani premier, but he went ahead with the invasion as planned, creating avoidable embarrassment for Pakistan and its Prime Minister.
Khan was impugned not only by many Western countries for his “ill-timed visit” but also by the opposition in Pakistan. He continued to defend his decision however, saying that if he had known about the date of the invasion, he would have considered postponing the visit.
It goes without saying that Pakistan has always opposed aggression against a sovereign country. This was made clear by subsequent statements by Islamabad. However, now in opposition, Imran Khan is insisting he was removed from power because he refused to buckle under US pressure. In short, he says he was punished for pursuing “an independent foreign policy” and according to him, for agreeing to get oil and wheat from Russia at discounted prices.
Be that as it may, Pakistan-Russia relations have been moving rather glacially. While Pakistan, after the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, has been very keen to inject more and more substance into bilateral relations, Moscow has always been very cautious lest it end up offending India. So much so that President Putin has still not visited Pakistan. Even though he was scheduled to visit Islamabad in October 2012, the visit was cancelled at the eleventh hour. Instead, Putin sent his foreign minister on a day trip to keep Pakistan in good humor.
The only summit level visit that has so far taken place from Moscow to Islamabad was by Prime Minster Mikhail Fradkov in 2007. While the two countries also established the Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation and other relevant forums, overall bilateral relations could not gather much-needed momentum. For instance, trade between the two countries remains at around $500 million.
In the wake of 9/11 and the US/NATO action in Afghanistan, the two countries found counterterrorism and Afghanistan common grounds to cooperate on. The biggest gesture by Moscow was to supply 4 combat helicopters (MI-35) to Pakistan which obviously did not go down well with New Delhi despite Moscow’s explanation that the helicopters were to help Pakistan fight terrorism and could not be used against any other country. Another big step was to have yearly joint military exercises under the name “friendship” in 2016. Russia also finally lifted its demurral and Pakistan, along with India, became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017.
Russia agreed to build an 1,100 km Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline from Karachi to Kasur but the work could never actually begin. Similarly, Russia evinced interest in revamping and upgrading Karachi Steel Mills which was built in the 1970s with Soviet assistance. In this case too, work could never start.
Now that Russia is under multiple unilateral Western sanctions, prospects for Pakistan-Russia relations do not seem to be very encouraging. Though Pakistan abstained, along with China, India et al, on anti-Russia resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, Pakistan’s economic dependence on the West leaves little space for it to have substantive bilateral engagement with Russia.
In all likelihood, bilateral interaction will remain at a bare minimum in the foreseeable future. Pakistan is currently trying to repair its damaged relations with the US to get its economy back on rails. It can ill-afford to take any step vis-à-vis Russia that triggers The Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Much has been upended by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and it will take years to bring normalcy to diplomacy at all levels. Even if the invasion ends and a modus vivendi is reached, Pakistan will be keen to see whether Russia is ready to de-hyphenate its relations with Pakistan from India. In fact, some in Pakistan argue that Moscow has been using its variegated interaction with Islamabad to keep New Delhi under some pressure in the context of the growing US-India strategic partnership.
When all is said and done, there are constraints on both sides. Pakistan-Russia relations are unlikely to proceed apace. As we know, paradigms do not shift easily in international relations.
(Abdul Basit is DG, Islamabad Centre for Regional Studies. He was previously Pakistan ambassador to Germany and Pakistan High Commissioner for India.