Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Russia just has to be one of the most surreal events in international diplomacy. By the time PM Khan’s plane touched down in Moscow, the Russian ‘strongman’ Vladimir Putin had already ordered his troops to invade neighbouring Ukraine. Then, as Khan was being walked out from the airport by a Russian official, he was heard telling the official, “What a time I have come, so much excitement.” It can’t get any more bizarre than this. Khan, as a PM, is not much of a traveller. He often seems nervous and awkward during foreign visits, despite his habit of claiming that he knows more about the country that he is visiting than anyone else. Maybe he says this because he fears that he might be called out for being naive and not very well-versed in the field of international relations. Yet, he is always called out.
If you look closely at how foreign heads of state and government behave around him, you will notice that they are able to gauge him instantly. His awkwardness and nervous smiles can be disarming, but they immediately give him away. Thus, his foreign counterparts often end up chit-chatting with him about ‘the weather,’ so to speak. When they have to really talk, we all know who they really talk to in or from Pakistan.
The PM is quite another story when he is in Pakistan, though. There are no nervous smiles or awkwardness. Here, he is in his element, unabashedly lambasting not only his local opponents, but foreign leaders as well. His outbursts in this respect often draw polite protests from foreign leaders that he has chastised, and embarrasses the military establishment (the real drivers of the country’s foreign policy). But his rush-of-blood in this context becomes Twitter trends that glorify him as a fearless anti-imperialist and all other kinds of ‘ists who “stood up to world powers.” That’s all that counts. Why do something like this in the presence of imperialists, if it can be done in front of a TV camera and then turned into a Twitter trend by an army of keyboard warriors, no?
But why did he end up in Russia when that country was threatening to invade its neighbour, Ukraine? A Russian invasion was always on the cards. And this is not a contained conflict, as was the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Experts are fearing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can spiral into triggering a deadly international conflict, perhaps even as vast as the Second World War (in Europe).
This is Khan’s solo flight. I do not think his erstwhile backers in the military establishment are too thrilled by it. More amusing still are the talking heads in certain segments of the local mainstream and social media who are dishing out international relations jargon to rationalise this entirely strange visit. “Balance,” “rebalance,” “new geopolitical alliance,” whatnot. This has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Pakistani PMs do not formulate geopolitical alliances, or balance this or rebalance that. At least, no PM has done this apart from Liaquat Ali Khan (d. 1951) and Z.A. Bhutto (d. 1979). Instead, this is almost entirely the domain of the military establishment, especially ever since the early 1980s. This establishment doesn’t mind having articulate and experienced PM as its civilian front, though. Khan is certainly not one of them.
But PMs can fantasise. This PM in particular. He began by dreaming of shaping a new ‘Islamic’ bloc with Turkey and Malaysia. This meant giving Saudi Arabia the boot. But as Khan began explaining his idea, it quickly become apparent that important features of blocs in this regard, such as trade, security, etc., were nowhere in the picture. Instead, at the centre of this fantasy was a burning passion to… fight Islamophobia. In Europe.
The brief images released by the media saw Khan ferociously fiddling with his beads and looking clueless, and Putin just sitting there, not talking much. He just wanted Khan there
The Saudis were not amused. And neither was the military establishment. Saudi Arabia has been one of the biggest donors of economic aid to Pakistan. Like it or not, but that’s that. The Saudis needn’t have to sulk, though. This incredible ‘bloc’ was never anything but a fantasy. Turkey, for example, has more robust economic ties with Israel than it does with Pakistan. And the guy from Malaysia who was entertaining PM Khan by going along this fantasy, was over 90 years of age and who is no more the PM of Malaysia. Then there is Europe which PM Khan believes is a cesspool of Islamophobia and depravity. It is a region which has some of Pakistan’s biggest export markets. The same region is now on the edge due to Putin’s jolly expansionist adventure.
The United States, which PM Khan could only understand through an unhinged man such as Donald Trump, has suddenly become evil again after Trump’s departure. Khan does not like President Biden. The feeling is mutual. So, in his bid to formulate yet another ‘geopolitical’ fantasy, Khan decided to give the US the boot. Of course, that boot is just too tiny for a behemoth such as the US. But the pretence to use it against a superpower can still make a great Twitter trend. Remember, #AbsolutelyNot ? And how it made so many drawing-room talking heads and keyboard warriors feel ‘proud,’ even though many were or have relatives living in the US as citizens?
The US is Pakistan’s biggest trading partner. Almost 20% of total Pakistani exports go to that country. And guess what: the US is now threatening to go to war against Russia. Meanwhile, Russia as a trading partner of Pakistan is nowhere close to what the US and Europe offer the country in terms of not only export markets, but also aid. So then, what was/is that geopolitical fantasy that Khan wanted to threaten the US and Europe with?
Though this fantasy was most likely once explored by the country’s actual makers of foreign policy, they decided to drop it and regenerate the country’s ties with the US and Europe. That is the pragmatic thing to do. And states are pragmatic.
But the fantasy soon caught the fancy of drawing room ‘anti-imperialists’ and ‘anti-colonialists.’ Again, many are citizens of European countries and the US, and if not, certainly aspire to become one. And none of them are your usual leftist lot, as such.
They are often a curious urban middle-class fusion of populism, lifestyle liberalism, Islamism and authoritarianism. They carry a busload of fantasies riddled with fancy schemes and dreams, as if they were playing a parlour game. And one such game was about ‘rebalancing’ the geopolitics of the region through an alliance between Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran. Right then.
Here are some facts: China indeed is an all-weather ally. It is also an important economic partner. But it’s not big on being a donor. Also, recently it isn’t very happy with Pakistan. We fail to keep their people safe here from Islamist terrorists and Baloch insurgents. CPEC now is like a dream gone sour. Iran is neither a friend nor an enemy. It is a country that is facing international isolation. It doesn’t even figure in the list of Pakistan’s top 15 trading partners. Truth is, it is suspicious of Pakistan. And of how Pakistan treats its Shia communities. Russia, well, is not much of anything to Pakistan. When it was the Soviet Union, it wanted to destroy Pakistan. Twice. Once in 1961 and then across the 1980s. When it became Russia, there were efforts by Pakistan to strike more cordial relations with it. The relations are cordial but they hardly go beyond exchanges of pleasantries.
There is this theory doing the rounds. It suggests that Putin, the clever amoral politician, lured Khan to visit Russia without telling him that he was about to invade Ukraine. Why would he do that? Well, apparently to use him as a decoy to distract the Europeans and the Americans. There is no proof of this. But who knows? Whatever was Putin’s motive, it needs to be investigated. The Western media is too busy covering the coming war. So the army of media personnel that Khan took with him should (discreetly) try to answer this question. Of course, once they are done handing out statements given to them by those who took them along, and after they’ve taken their share of selfies in Moscow.
But personally, I do think Khan was lured. Maybe to become a decoy or maybe not, but Putin understood the naïveté that informs Khan’s politics. Khan, facing plunging approval ratings at home, heading a crumbling regime, and facing a possible ouster, suddenly decided to come across as a great statesman hobnobbing with international giants and having his say in giant conflicts. This was not only his way of initiating the aforementioned geopolitical fantasy that is still resonating in him, but to also return and claim that he made Pakistan an international player.
Yet while he walked the streets of Moscow, laying wreathes and sight-seeing, Putin was bombing Ukraine and readying to start talks with European leaders. Then Khan finally met Putin. But both cancelled the press conference that the two leaders were scheduled to hold. So, what did they talk about? The brief images released by the media saw Khan ferociously fiddling with his beads and looking clueless, and Putin just sitting there, not talking much. He just wanted Khan there. And do you know why I think Khan was lured? In December 2021, Putin, as if out of nowhere, released a statement against blasphemy. 25% of Russians are declared atheists. Right on cue, PM Khan, the self-appointed crusader against Islamphobia, commended Putin. Khan was bagged.
In years to come, one can expect an interesting account of a Pakistani PM arriving in Russia as the latter was setting up an international armed conflict in which Pakistan had no historic role nor stake. And the account is likely to be a satire. Intentional or otherwise.