The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine is now proceeding with full ferocity. It is resulting in bloodshed, terror and chaos for the people of Ukraine. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, the continent of Europe is in the throes of a bloody conflict and the danger of a clash between the superpowers that could escalate into a nuclear confrontation. The Western military alliance of NATO, the European Union and in general the Western democracies have responded to the Russian action in Ukraine but their response is rather weak and muted, and even the UN appears to be powerless to do anything about it. In the UN General Assembly non-binding resolution condemning the Russian aggression, 141 out of 183 countries or 77% voted in favor; 35 countries including Pakistan and China abstained; and five countries namely Russia, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, and Belarus voted against. Once again, the UN appeared to be a toothless tiger and incapable of playing a positive role to bring an end to this devastating conflict. The question facing our government and the wise people of the foreign office is whether our stance towards this conflict is the right thing to do – and if it is in our own national interests.
It has been said that in international relations there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends but only permanent national interests. And in this new conflict in Europe, Pakistan must look after its permanent national interests. During the current government of Imran Khan, Pakistan is getting closer to the eastern countries such as China and Russia and away from the Western powers such as the US and European countries. This radical shift in foreign policy could be the result of greater common interests, more respect and friendship from the east, common goals, greater commercial benefits and trade relations or infrastructure developments such as the China-initiated CPEC. Pakistan may claim to be neutral and not a part of this bloc or that. But our actions relationships and economic relations indicate a definite and radical shift in our policy. We are now definitely looking more and more to the East. Our export markets are at present mostly in the West but if we continue in the present direction this is likely to change in the near future.
Building a new economic relationship with Russia at this stage makes little economic sense – or even political sense
Pakistan is a sovereign country and we must have an independent foreign policy free of any undue influence or dictation from any world power. China has been our all-weather friend since the last many decades and we are now warming up to Russia who has been rather hostile and was much closer to India in the past. Our policy planners must be aware of the fact that developments in world affairs are always very fluid. The situation does not remain static for long and we have to reassess and redefine our policy objectives according to the changing situation. The bloody invasion of Ukraine by Russia is definitely one such development in world affairs.
Russia may have legitimate security concerns regarding the expansion of NATO, but international law and the concept of sovereignty of countries obligates it to address these concerns through negotiations. A country does not just invade and destroy another simply because it wishes to, and has an army that is large enough to carry out such a wish. There are many other conflicts where large armies have done exactly that in smaller countries, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. None of their actions are defensible, and neither are Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pakistan’s image has not been very favourable on the world stage. On the 24th of February, PM Imran Khan had a three-hour meeting with President Putin on his official visit to Moscow, just when the Russian armoured units were rolling into Ukraine – leaving a trail of death and destruction. This was really bad timing and poor optics, and the reaction of the Prime Minister when he said that he “regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and hoped that diplomacy would avert a military conflict” gave the impression that he did not care – or even worse, for an uncharitable observer, that he condoned the Russian actions – and this did not win Pakistan good press in the West. Considering the morality of the case and our own economic and political interests, not condemning Russia and not supporting Ukraine can be seen as a reckless thing to do for Pakistan. The abstention by China was expected by the West, but they look upon Pakistan to see how we respond to such situations.
In future the harsh economic sanctions imposed on Russia will result in greater economic and political isolation in an effort to weaken it. Building a new economic relationship with Russia at this stage makes little economic sense – or even political sense. As compared to Russia, Ukraine is a country that has supported and stood by us in the past. We have enjoyed greater defense and economic cooperation from Ukraine. It was with the help of Ukraine that we developed our state-of-the-art Al-Khalid main battle tank, and later on, with their help we upgraded this weapons system to improve our defense capabilities.
As mentioned earlier, it goes without saying that Pakistan must formulate and follow an independent foreign policy based on our own national interests. Presently we appear to be closer to countries like Turkey and Russia, which are seen as part of an increasingly autocratic club in the world. What we need now is to build our trade and investment relations on practical realities and not on utopian dreams – and this also means keeping a safe distance from Russia’s war.