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Imran Khan Russia visit was more about reducing ties with US – Pakistan’s looking East now

A popular understanding in Pakistan is that its first prime minister, Liaquat Khan, made a mistake by accepting America’s invitation before Moscow’s.

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As international media flashed news and analysis on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pakistan’s television channels remained preoccupied with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow. Since his return from a two-day trip to Russia, the discussion in the media has been aimed at presenting the visit purely as a successful bilateral engagement necessitated by Pakistan’s need to balance relations between the West and the East and create an independent foreign policy. Whether the objective of independence will get fulfilled depends a lot on Pakistan’s economic and political capacity that remains questionable. However, the visit itself, which has not resulted in noticeable dividends in terms of concrete deals, financial aid or contracts, is at best reflective of the country’s gradual and unplanned drift away from the West towards the East. The problem with this drift is that it may happen in an unplanned way without clear benefits.

Opinion inside Pakistan is divided between those who believe that the country will somehow not be punished by the Western bloc for the visit and others who think that the heavens are about to fall. Some were quick in pointing out that the US had started with punishing Pakistan with the recent penalty imposed by the US Federal Reserve Board on Pakistan’s National Bank of $20.4 million for anti-money laundering violation. The penalty is unrelated to the visit, but it highlights a pre-existing fact that Pakistan is no longer a frontline state and thus not critical enough for Washington to ignore its acts of omission.

But it’s not as if the US will encourage Pakistan building ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Indeed, Islamabad was told by Washington that it was watching the visit. The message was both a warning for Islamabad not to go too far with Russia and to be careful about how it conducts itself. However, Pakistan has lost its overall significance for the West for either Europe or America to be viewed as falling in the frontline of their battle with Russia. The lack of significance is evident from the fact, as pointed out by European sources, that General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was recently on a tour of Belgium, was unable to get an appointment with Josep Borrell, the high representative of the EU on foreign affairs and security, policy or get invited to the Munich Security Conference or the meeting of the EU group on the Indo-Pacific.

The policy shift or move towards an independent foreign policy that Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi talks about, hence, is driven more by a reduced engagement of the West with Pakistan. The US would certainly like to keep an eye on its former ally, which is visible from the comparatively increased navy-to-navy engagement or a Western mining firm returning to Pakistan as a partner for copper mining. But the dividend from the relationship is limited. Islamabad, on the other hand, may want to partner more visibly with China and Russia but is constrained due to its dependence on Western support in its engagement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral aid donors. There is also the issue of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the fact that Russia and China are still not a bloc that is ready to dole out cash as and when Islamabad wants.

Also read: Russia to Riyadh — Imran Khan now has a history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time

Why Russia matters

Russia, with whom Pakistan has limited engagement in terms of trade or economic support, is part of an old romance by segments of the strategic community, society and liberal elements. The EU and the US remain Pakistan’s largest trade partners as compared to Moscow or even Beijing. However, a popular understanding in Pakistan is that policymakers made the mistake of going on the wrong foot with Moscow dating in the early years of Pakistan when the first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, made the mistake of accepting an American invitation to visit rather than Moscow’s.

The bitterness over Russia’s role in creation of Bangladesh is viewed in the context of Pakistan’s inability to vow the former USSR away from India with whom it later signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation in 1971. The enmity with Moscow grew further after Pakistan willingly joined Washington in defeating Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The former chief of ISI, Lt General Hameed Gul would popularly say that it was Pakistan that defeated the USSR in Afghanistan with American help and then did the same with Americans with American help. A rapprochement with Russia was considered impossible.

The Cold War ice with Moscow did not begin to melt until after the end of the Soviet Union. By the mid-1990s, and against the advice of the Foreign Office, Pakistan’s military had begun dreaming of acquiring Russian military equipment. I recall my days at the naval headquarters when the three services of the armed forces were surer of Russian willingness to sell weapons to Pakistan than what the diplomats thought about the issue. The lack of resources and generous credit arrangement remained a major barrier.

Pakistan’s current relationship with Russia is fairly narrow, driven by shared interests in fighting terrorism, dealing with the Taliban or being in Beijing’s shadows. While the world keeps watching the highs and lows of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) relationship, the more important fact worth observing is that Pakistan’s armed forces are almost entirely Chinese in terms of its technological mainstay. Given the dearth of resources and increased trust deficit between the US and Pakistan, Beijing has emerged as the main source for major military modernisation. Russia certainly does not have any space in this equation. Some of the generals I spoke with, including the former head of Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt General (retd) Asad Durrani, has long expressed desire for Pakistan to form a power grouping with China and Russia.

Also read: Pakistan achieved nothing in Moscow, irked Washington on top: Report

Urge for independence

Durrani’s views pose an uphill challenge but also represent sentiments of a lobby within the security and foreign policy community that are suspicious of the United States and, as explained by author Samina Yasmeen, driven by an urge for independence.

Presenting Pakistan as not subscribing to camp politics or as a geo-economic hub is not a reversal of the policy of independence but insistence on such status. Pakistan’s signal to the US and the West is that it wants greater independence in pursuing relations. Thus, Imran Khan seemed insensitive to the Ukrainian crisis and verbally expressed his excitement on arriving in Moscow. A source that I spoke with in Islamabad was of the view that the prime minister was warned against the timing of the visit by both the Foreign Office and the GHQ. However, the visit was largely in sync with the establishment’s institutional drift. The visit reflected the ethos of the Bajwa doctrine that in itself is a variation on the older philosophy of General Aslam Beg of ‘strategic defiance’ (of the US).

Therefore, many friends of the establishment were eager to join the chorus of seeing nothing wrong with the timing of the visit. Showing even minimal support for Putin contradicts Pakistan’s position regarding ‘surgical strikes’ inside territories. There is a propensity to see gains when very little is visible. Khan could not risk showing clear support for Putin despite his visit indicating a shift in the country’s overall position towards Russia and that too at a critical time. Consequently, conversation with Europe will become harder. Pakistan may find it even more laborious to engage the West in a conversation over Afghanistan, which will now be less of a priority for Europe than Ukraine. Surely, there will be no immediate punishment over the visit. But there are no clear benefits either.

Khan did leave the country at the margins of increased diplomatic risk. As far as joining a China-Russia strategic grouping is concerned, the hazards have increased tremendously since Pakistan’s key trade partner Europe appears determined to fight a long-term battle against Putin. Walking onto a strategic minefield should not be an option.

Ayesha Siddiqa is Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is the author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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