All was going well before it wasn’t. There was excitement and elation, before there weren’t. That’s the thing about fantasy and reality. In your own la la land, you can be a mediator of superpowers or imagine yourself stopping a war or even drawing your own borders from Germany to Japan. But in reality, you might be welcomed by your host with a hostile invasion of his neighbour. What are the odds?
Some were still in the process of celebrating the mammoth moment when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan set foot in Russia, that too in a black shalwar kameez. In that moment, nothing mattered beyond the handsomeness and breaking and setting of records— “first in two decades”, “game-changer”, “never before”. Never again. Everything became historic indeed when Russia began its war on Ukraine simultaneously on the same day.
On his arrival at the Moscow airport, PM Imran Khan was delighted at his timing. “So much excitement,” he said. That “excitement” increased manifold when the PM and his entourage were found in a war capital. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started, many wondered if Khan would cut his visit short. Then came a one-on-one meeting with President Vladimir Putin, and this time a rather sombre-looking PM Khan posed for the cameras on a day when the entire world was condemning Russian for its actions. Exciting times to share the space with Putin?
So much for Pakistan going bloc-free. The criticism is not that Pakistan shouldn’t pursue its relationship with Russia but given the escalating Ukrainian situation for months, Imran Khan was sleepwalking into a diplomatic embarrassment. The sarkari spin-masters argue: the prime minister was unaware that Putin would invade Ukraine on his arrival.
Sure, let’s add this to a long list of things the ever-so-aware PM, who knows more about everything under the sky, didn’t know. If Ukraine was part of India, then probably he’d know. By the way, what are intelligence agencies for?
The prime minister and his team went with a lot of fanfare but returned rather quietly. Unlike the historic 2019 return from the United States when Khan felt he had won the 1992 World Cup all over again.
Wrong time, wrong place
Constantly, for one year now, we have been preached how Naya Pakistan doesn’t believe in blocs and camps anymore. No more fighting others’ wars, no more being used as a hired gun, and no more being asked to do more. But no one was buying this new-found national conscience. When the dollars dried from one side, it was time to pick another.
This is, however, not the first time that PM Khan found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Back in 2018, after the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Khan travelled to be part of the Saudi investment conference in Riyadh at a time when major world leaders and organisations had boycotted the event. His viewpoint was that Pakistan cannot afford to snub Saudi Arabia over the murder of Khashoggi, talking about the dire need for loans at the time.
In case of Russia, given the unfolding of events and economic sanctions, Pakistan scored no bilateral deal, let alone the much-talked-about gas pipeline project with Khan’s visit. The gas project is much like Khan’s gas dreams at home, where he hoped against hope that gas might be found while drilling off Pakistan’s shores and our 50 years of gas problems will be solved. But, of course, no reserves were discovered off Karachi coast.
From Ukraine, Pakistan covered 60 per cent of its wheat imports last year, but there is fear of food inflation in the aftermath of the conflict. Brace yourself for the next 100 days of speeches— you’ll probably be told that Russia and Ukraine are responsible for food inflation.
Cheerleaders on steroids
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Russia visit has led to a ‘with us or against us’ debate between supporters and critics. Emotions are running high on what is the best way to deal with Russia at this time. The cons of the visit have been highlighted — Putin used Khan and made most of this opportunity to embarrass Pakistan; “In foreign affairs, hum [Pakistan] mamoo ban gaye” (We were made a fool); “Russia settled decades-old score with Pakistan by invading Ukraine on the day it invited Imran Khan. Putin showed a finger to Khan.”
Then there have been those who left no stone unturned to praise Putin, going as far as invoking Quranic interpretations to describe the future acts of the Russian president. Then in excitement of another level, it was declared “Ukraine mein dhamaka, Putin attacks Russia.” Wait, what? On steroids have been the YouTubers who declared that Putin meeting Khan with a small table between them was a signal to the world that Putin loves Khan and did not sit the Pakistan PM across a big table like Western visitors. No one told the sarkari cheerleaders that the four-metre table between others and Putin were placed when the Russian Covid test was refused by visiting leaders due to fears of DNA theft. But let’s hail small-table diplomacy for now.
If you want to blame anyone for all of this, blame US President Joe Biden. Had he called Khan like Putin did thrice in as many months, it would have been a different story altogether. But lovers will tell haters that Biden is jealous and the purpose of the visit has been served. That’s the thing about living in fantasies.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.