During his visit to Russia – the first by a Pakistani Prime Minister in 23 years – PM Imran Khan was accorded a red-carpet welcome and given a warm handshake despite the Covid pandemic. The meeting originally planned for one hour continued for three hours, indicating that the chemistry between the two leaders worked well.
It is pertinent to mention here that the two governments had been trying to arrange a meeting of their leaders since 2019 when they met in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The planned meeting in September 2020 at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could not take place as the event was cancelled due to Covid-19. Another meeting scheduled in 2021 at the SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, also did not materialise as President Putin cancelled his trip at the last minute because an official in his delegation contracted Covid-19. In January this year, Imran Khan called Putin to thank him for his statement on Islamophobia and during the conversation, it was agreed that they would meet in Beijing during the inauguration of the Winter Olympics. Russian senior officials shortly thereafter informed their Pakistani counterparts that they could invite PM Khan to Moscow in February and asked Pakistan to propose dates. Feb 24 was finally agreed upon.
To put the PM’s visit to Moscow in perspective, it has taken Pakistan more than a decade to build a relationship of mutual trust with Russia. In the 50s and 60s Pakistan was firmly in the Western camp but since the late 90s Islamabad has been trying to realign its ties with Russia. We are living in a multipolar world and the best way to survive in the new milieu is to diversify our options and realign our ties keeping in mind the fast moving international and regional dynamics. Pakistan is situated next to Russia and China both of which have emerged as formidable rivals to the erstwhile sole superpower America. While India is now firmly in the US camp, Pakistan while maintaining its ties with Western allies, is rightly attaching greater importance to Russia, Central and West Asia.
Prime Minister Imran Khan set the tone of Pakistan’s new foreign policy direction, before his landmark visit to Russia, by saying Islamabad will desist from being part of any conflict, and will be an equal partner in peace and development. In an interview to Russia Today, as a curtain-raiser before his visit, the PM made it clear that trade relations with all the countries are indispensable to lift its populace out of poverty.
According to reports, during the Imran-Putin meeting all matters of common interest including trade, regional connectivity and investments across the Eurasian continent came under discussion. Russia is among the biggest players in the energy sector, including LNG, and now owns 26 per cent stakes in the Pak Stream project that involves building a gas pipeline from Karachi to Kasur (Pakistan owns the other 74pc equity).
A Foreign Office statement, issued after the meeting between the two leaders in Moscow, said that Prime Minister Imran Khan told Russian President Vladimir Putin that disputes should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy as he regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine. It said that Imran Khan stressed that conflict was not in anyone’s interest, and that the developing countries were always hit the hardest economically in case of conflict. He underlined Pakistan’s belief that disputes should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, according to the Foreign Office.
According to the statement, the two leaders held wide-ranging consultations on bilateral relations as well as regional and international issues of mutual interest. Recalling the telephone conversations between the two leaders during the recent months, the Prime Minister expressed confidence that the positive trajectory of bilateral relations would continue to move forward in the future. He underscored Pakistan’s commitment to forge a long-term, multidimensional relationship with Russia.
In the regional context, the Pakistan PM underlined the urgency of addressing the humanitarian crisis and preventing potential economic meltdown in Afghanistan. He reiterated that Pakistan would continue to work with the international community for a stable, peaceful and connected Afghanistan. In this regard, he underscored the ongoing cooperation and coordination between Pakistan and Russia at various international and regional fora, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
On the situation in South Asia, the Prime Minister highlighted the serious human rights situation in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJ&K) and underscored the imperative of peaceful resolution of the dispute. The Prime Minister also highlighted the developments detrimental to regional peace and stability and stressed the need for measures that would help keep the regional balance. Expressing concern on rising trends of extremism and Islamophobia in the world, the Prime Minister emphasised the need for interfaith harmony and coexistence.
Expressing satisfaction over the current level of cooperation in the fields of energy, trade, investment, railways etc, both sides agreed that an Inter-Governmental Commission (IGC) was the pivotal platform to further advance specific projects. Following the meeting, the Prime Minister had an interactive session with notable businessmen of Pakistan and Russia. The Prime Minister stated that Pakistan as a market of more than 220 million provided opportunities for trade and investment.
The visit of PM Imran Khan to Russia built upon and consolidated several years of efforts by the two sides to bury the past and adjust to the new political and economic realities. For decades Pakistan’s economic and strategic interests were tied to the West, particularly the US. The dependence put Pakistan at the mercy of US-led global financial institutions.This was the reason why Pakistan felt it necessary to diversify its foreign policy options, deepen ties with China and reach out to Russia. Lately, Pakistan has also been laying greater emphasis on geo-economics. Against this background, the Prime Minister’s visit to Russia would make for greater engagement on the economic front.