Pakistan-Russia relations have been warming in recnt years. Image: iStock

On his debut visit to Moscow this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was seen laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates Russian soldiers sacrificed during World War II, as President Vladimir Putin had just initiated his “special military operations” dispatching troops into Ukraine.

So as world media went abuzz over the Russian “invasion” of Ukraine, world markets began to rumble and tumble and several Western nations announced severe economic sanctions on Moscow, Russian state media and Pakistani television began broadcasting images of Khan and Putin shaking hands and sitting down together in an impressive Kremlin setting.

Indeed, on his landing in Moscow, as Ukrainians were scurrying for safety, Imran Khan made his first misstep by publicly describing the day of his arrival in Moscow as an “exciting time,” which resulted in some unsavory social-media comments and memes.

Further, not only had US State Department spokesman Ned Price communicated the expectation that Khan would voice objections to what Putin was doing in Ukraine, but on the eve of his visit the Pakistani prime minister had himself shared his concern to the Russian-backed broadcaster RT about the possibility of Western sanctions impacting the emerging prospects of Russo-Pakistani cooperation.

Obviously, caught between the opposing expectations of his host and of his largest trading and defense partners – the United States and the European Union – Khan was seen trying to strike a fine line, saying he regretted the Kiev-Moscow conflict and that it should be resolved “through dialogue and diplomacy,” which was neither here nor there for his hosts. 

Especially after boycotting US President Joe Biden’s Summit of Democracies last December and now the Ukraine crisis being linked at home to the ongoing steep rise in petroleum prices this month, Pakistani media had already called it “the worst time” for Khan to be seen shaking hands with Putin.

Given this curious quandary unfolding rather propitiously, his team sought to focus on regional security and bilateral ties to avoid any gaffe or pitfalls for this evolving rapprochement between former adversaries.

Bilateral ties

The most important among these bilateral ties was Pakistan seeking “the speedy completion” of Imran Khan’s ambitious US$2.5 billion, 1,100-kilometer Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP) from Karachi to Lahore. 

In the wake of Western economic sanctions threatening to curtail Russia’s energy exports, its main source of foreign exchange, the Pakistani side hoped to present itself as an attractive alternative for energy partnership. However, after the halting of Moscow’s ambitions $11 billion Nord Stream 2 project with Germany, these parleys perhaps could not clinch any takeaways worth sharing.

All is not lost, however, as Russia remains the world’s second-largest producer of natural gas, and with Pakistan’s gas reserves showing a major decline during last 10 years and in view of Pakistan’s increasing energy demand, the two sides should find each other attractive.

Still, one has to be conscious of Pakistan being located in a volatile region where politics keeps intervening.

As history shows, mega-projects like the PSGP often fall prey to financial bottlenecks and other urgent priorities for limited national resources. Then there are multiple technical hurdles of sharing ownership between partner nations and in agreeing on the complex build-operate-transfer provisions and price per unit.

Another project, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, had begun even earlier than the PSGP, in the early 1990s, and is still nowhere in sight.

In such circumstances, Russia perhaps chose to be cautious and restrain itself to relying on its time-tested friend China, which only this month signed a 30-year contract for a new gas pipeline and to settle new gas sales in euros, further strengthening the energy alliance between Moscow and Beijing. This is over and above the famous 30-year, $400 billion gas supply deal that the two signed in 2014. 

As well, Pakistan has alternative suppliers where its energy partnerships may appear relatively reliable and easy. Qatar, for instance, has long-term contracts with Pakistan and already supplies annually more than 4.5 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Ukraine crisis

Without doubt, Imran Khan’s presence in Moscow in the midst of the Ukraine crisis is bound to be read as implying his implicit endorsement of Russian side. However, cancellation of the visit at the last minute would have had “its own fallout.” 

At the least the visit called for maintaining a delicate balancing act, as Khan could not be seen siding with any one party during this conflict. He was the first foreign leader to visit Moscow after Putin recognized the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine, and Russia may not any time soon receive any other foreign dignitaries.  

As a result, the world’s focus on this visit will linger longer than had been expected.

At home as well the visit will have consequences. On the eve of his visit, Imran Khan’s advisers had sought to clarify that his trip to Moscow had been planned much in advance of the Ukraine crisis. Indeed, Pakistan has wanted to host a visit by Putin for quite some time.

But media reports were also speculating how this invitation for Imran Khan to visit Moscow was sought by Pakistan rather than being extended by Russia, which reveals a double whammy for domestic politics.

Turning the tide

To begin with, the visit was expected to be an inflection point in Pakistan’s shift from being allied to the US to demarcating a clear closer axis around China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Malaysia. This marks a major shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy.  

Until 2016 when they signed a defense cooperation agreement and began joint military exercises, Pakistan’s relations with Moscow had been minimal to say the least. Starting in the 1950s, Pakistan had been an important ally of the US, and the 2001 US intervention in Afghanistan had made it the frontline state and later a major non-NATO ally. 

These ties deteriorated during Donald Trump’s presidency, triggering an open process of thawing relations with Moscow with defense and energy cooperation emerging as their cardinal link, and China has played an important bridging role in this shift. 

Former president Asif Ali Zardari and then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif also visited Moscow in  2011 and 1999 respectively, but perhaps India’s growing proximity to and defense partnership with the US has also been a trigger for this shift. 

In 2014 when India was negotiating for Apache attack helicopters with the US, Pakistan signed deal with Russia for Mi-35 helicopters. In 2016 Moscow and Islamabad signed a defense cooperation agreement and carried out their first military exercises. 

The indulgences from President Putin have increased rapidly. For instance last year, he publicly expressed his displeasure at the insulting of the Prophet Muhammad, which he believed did not count as an expression of artistic freedom, resulting in a call from Imran Khan to thank him. Since then Islamophobia has come to be a topic of their parleys where both seem to agree.

What makes these developments especially impactful is that unlike US President Joe Biden, who has not spoken to Imran Khan even once since taking office, President Putin has spoken to the Pakistani prime minister three times in the last six months since the Taliban’s takeover in Kabul.

This surely alludes to Putin’s interest in engaging Pakistan after the American exit from Afghanistan, which promises to endure beyond this relatively lackluster visit by Khan to Moscow. 

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.