Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in a file photo. Image: Facebook

PESHAWAR – Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow coincident with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have been bad diplomatic luck as the trip was planned well in advance of the war.

But the optics of Khan meeting with Putin as tanks rolled into Ukraine signaled to the US and European Union (EU) that Islamabad is firmly in Moscow’s orb at the outset of a new Cold War.

Officially, Pakistan says it has not taken sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and that it advocates for a “diplomatic” solution. But Khan has taken flak at home and in the West for going ahead with the planned visit despite having credible intelligence that Putin’s invasion was imminent.  

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the US had communicated its position to Pakistan regarding Russia’s designs on Ukraine well ahead of Khan’s two-day trip to Moscow. “We believe it’s a responsibility of everyone to voice concern, to show indignations to what Putin appears to have in mind for Ukraine,” Price said.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi acknowledged on February 25 that a senior-level contact was made by the United States and Pakistan responded by explaining its objectives for the visit.

“They asked us an innocent question and we responded politely,” he quipped, saying the visit was well-thought-out and in line with Pakistan’s recent shift in foreign policy focus from geopolitics to geo-economics.

“Pakistan is caught between a rock and a hard place by a geopolitical earthquake in a faraway Eastern Europe that has no relevance for Islamabad. It is a big challenge how to strike a balance between the expectation of friends in the EU and the US and a geopolitical realignment necessitating burgeoning relations with Russia,” Jan Achakzai, a former adviser to Pakistan’s Balochistan government and a political analyst, told Asia Times.   

He said that the world has now formally entered into a new Cold War with the clear emergence of two opposed camps following Russia’s military action – with one side imposing sanctions on Russia, seen in the EU and US, and the others either coming to Moscow’s aid, such as Belarus, or remaining non-committal.

In this handout photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan Army, attend a meeting at the staff’s headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: Vladimir Astapkovich / Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik via AFP

Pakistan-Russia relations have been growing in recent years in line with new geopolitical configurations, including Russia’s warming ties with Pakistan’s trusted ally and economic patron China as well as slackening India-Russia relations as New Delhi leans increasingly towards the West.

Pakistan-Russia ties have improved significantly since Moscow lifted an arms embargo on Islamabad in 2014 to help improve its anti-terrorist capabilities. In particular, the emergence of Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan served to accelerate improved bilateral relations, analysts and observers said.

Achakzai said that the Russian Federation’s decision to recognize the rebel territories of Ukraine will have profound implications for the international order in the years ahead.

“After the Russian move in Ukraine, the entire European bloc will feel threatened and small Eastern European countries will be seeking US weapons and its security umbrella. After the end of the Afghan war, the US Industrial-Military Complex has suddenly become a new market to sell weapons and create a role for the US as a net security provider,” Achakzai viewed.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, wrote in a recent article for international media, “Pakistan needs to build up its relations with Russia without severing its economic ties with the US and Western blocs and a growing defense relationship with Ukraine.

“Islamabad’s balancing act is less intricate than New Delhi’s: Its relationship with the United States is tenuous, and it has long sought to leverage its alliance with China to work more closely with Russia, especially in Afghanistan and Central Asia. But Islamabad must be careful not to edge too close to Moscow, given its commercial relationships with Europe and its desire to play a greater role on the global stage.”

Pakistan depends heavily on Ukraine for energy, food commodities, steel and defense procurements. Strategically, the Pakistan military has contracts with Ukrainian state arms conglomerate Ukroboronprom for the modernization of 320 T-80UD tanks. Economically, Pakistan imported about 39% of its total wheat requirements from Ukraine.

The Russia-Ukraine war is already hitting Pakistan’s economy hard. The local currency fell by 1.36 rupees, or 0.77%, against the dollar last week, a depreciation that promises to add more pressure on already high inflation and an all-time high current account deficit of US$2.5 billion.

A money changer counts Pakistani Rupee notes in Karachi in a file photo. Photo: Agencies

The burgeoning deficit has increased the country’s dependence on foreign loans to meet its financial requirements in a situation when imports are growing faster than exports.

Pakistan’s Adviser to the Prime Minister on Commerce and Investment Abdul Razak Dawood informed journalists on February 25 that the country’s total export volume with Moscow was less than $1 billion and that Khan’s visit aimed to shape future trade and economic ties with the Russian Federation.

At the same time, Dawood said he hoped that Khan’s visit in the middle of the Russia-Ukraine conflict would not affect Pakistan’s exports to Europe and the US.

“Less than 1% of our exports go to Russia. Pakistan’s exports to Russia include citrus ($60 million), non-knit men’s suits ($20 million) and leather apparel ($17 million). In so far as imports into Pakistan are concerned, 0.9% of our imports come from Russia – cereals $287 million, vegetables $138 million and rubbers $29 million. Russia has little or no role in Pakistan’s economy,” Farrukh Saleem, an Islamabad-based political economist, analyst and columnist, told Asia Times.

Farrukh said that Russia is not an important player in the world’s economic chessboard, producing a mere 3% of the global GDP. “The US economy is 12 times bigger than Russia’s. Even the Indian economy is almost double that of Russia’s…Russia’s share in global exports stands at a paltry 2.5%,” he added.

One of the prime objectives of Khan’s visit to Russia was to invigorate the country’s $2.5 billion 1,100-kilometer-long Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP) project reaching from Port Qassim, Karachi to Kasur in Punjab and to be built by Russia.

Russia and Pakistan have pipeline designs but construction progress has been slow. Photo: Sputnik / Alexey Kudenko

Gas-deficient Pakistan signed an agreement with Russia in 2015 and then again in 2021 but the project could not be started due to ownership and control issues.

Germany, which is the largest consumer of Russian gas, halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline just before Khan landed in Moscow. Russia recently agreed upon a 30-year contract to supply gas to China, coinciding with President Putin’s visit during the Beijing Winter Olympics.

As Russia seeks new clients for its construction technology and fossil fuels and Pakistan desperate for a secure and cheap supply of natural gas, Khan’s visit could be mutually beneficial for Pakistan and Russia – as long as Islamabad isn’t punished by the US and EU for drawing closer to Moscow at a time of war.