Within a few hours of Imran Khan’s arrival in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised military operation in Ukraine and warned west of unwitnessed consequences if it intervened. On the eve of Imran-Putin meeting, Russia has bombed Kyiv, Odessa, and its troops are entering Kharkiv. A full scale ground and aerial assault is underway, with an attempt to isolate Kyiv from eastern region of Ukraine. In response, US President Biden has held Putin responsible for bloodshed and cost to human life.
It is quite laughable that Pakistan’s Prime Minister is holed up in the Russian capital while Russia disrupts peace on the European continent. For days at stretch, there were calls for Imran Khan to cancel this visit to avoid embarrassment. Yet, he chose to go ahead.
Within moments of descending in Moscow, Imran made his first gaffe of this disastrous trip. Knowing full well that 200,000 Russian soldiers sat next to Ukrainian border, he termed the atmosphere had ‘excitement’. The atmosphere, in reality, was far from exciting. It was nightmarish, for the west and majority of the world.
From Russia’s vantage point, this visit is ideal. In fact, Vladimir Putin will host Imran for a luncheon to portray all is well and good. It will signal calm to his domestic audience while showing the west that normalcy has returned in Kremlin. The visit will allow Putin to appear as the unhinged strongman, ready to proceed bilateral cooperation with a nuclear state, mere hours after a full fledged invasion of Ukraine. An unfazed Putin, while the west is stormed, will be a feat for Imran’s counterpart.
It also helps Putin signal to New Delhi about a possible new ally. India, despite its participation in the QUAD, has refused to call out Russian aggression for what it is. Modi led government hasn’t even urged restraint or calm. It appears that India wishes to enjoy fruits of non alignment, just like it has for decades. But that position will get tougher by the day as the US pushes India to publicly denounce Russian aggression and use diplomatic channels to talk sense into Putin. New Delhi, on the contrary, will not want to anger Russia because it requires Russia to balance against China. Nor will it want Russia to grow closer to Pakistan.
The question then becomes: what is Pakistan getting out of this visit? The purported justification for this visit, amidst West-Russian tensions, was that Pakistan must adopt a policy of non-alignment. The justification was further fleshed out by claiming that Pakistan’s self interest is best met by continuing bilateral cooperation with Russia, come what may. This argument doesn’t qualify on economic grounds. Pakistan’s total bilateral trade with Russia stands at a paltry 400 million$, of which exports stand at 123 million$. On the contrary, our exports to European Union and United States stand at more than $11 billion combined. Foreign direct investment by European Union and United States stands above $4 billion. Add to that our increased reliance on the US for securing IMF funding and avoid FATF blacklisting, and it becomes crystal clear that Pakistan remains heavily dependant on the west. It was pointless to invite the US wrath and let history books testify that Putin was lunching with Pakistan’s Prime Minister while Europe was entering its worst phase since World War II. Russia’s insensitive defiance of international law by recognising Lohansk/Donetsk and western anger in response merited a cancellation from Imran.
It is no secret that Imran wants Pakistan to pivot to China and Russia somewhat, more so for ideological reasons than limiting dependency on the west. If this visit was aimed at securing Putin’s goodwill to gradually increase bilateral trade, foreign direct investment and enhance strategic cooperation, then it couldn’t have been more ill timed. Russia, too, is entering extremely tough economic times due to western sanctions, limited access to capital markets and exclusion from the banking system. In simpler terms, Russia or Russian-Chinese alliance (far from materialising at this point) cannot replace west for Pakistan.
Another justification for Imran’s visit surfaced from some pro-government commentators who began hyperbole. They began claiming that Imran’s visit at this critical juncture will place Islamabad on world’s radar. And that backdoor diplomacy channels will be initiated via Islamabad to halt a Russian invasion. As it turns out, that was delusional. This lot could not have been more wrong.
Perhaps, the only justification for this visit to Moscow seems Imran’s penchant for positive headlines. With a vote of no confidence headed his way and skyrocketing inflation, it has appeared all doom and gloom for the Imran-led government. All of a sudden, a visit to Moscow during a historic invasion has put Imran on centre stage. His entourage of ministers are already publicising his welcome in Russia as a sign of his stature. Imran has already gone on Russian TV to give a history lecture on war being an ineffective tool. In response to a question, a US state department official said that anybody meeting Putin must relay a message of restraint. This visit, despite being a strategic nightmare for Pakistan, is yielding meaningful headlines for Imran. And that is why Imran is in Russia right now.