ISLAMABAD - Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Thursday – the first world leader to visit Russia since the Ukraine crisis erupted and the first Pakistani leader to visit the country in an official capacity in 23 years.
Khan, accompanied by a high-level delegation that includes federal ministers, is in the Russian capital for two days.
According to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Russia will be an important milestone in relations between the two countries. During the visit, there are prospects for progress in some other agreements between the two countries, including the North-South gas pipeline.”
The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline, also known as the North-South gas pipeline, is a proposed project stretching from the port city of Karachi to Kasur, in Pakistan’s Punjab Province. The 1,100-kilometer (680-mile) long conduit is to be built by Russia under a contract from the government of Pakistan.
Khan is holding wide-ranging discussions with President Vladimir Putin on bilateral, regional, and international topics during the visit, the Foreign Office spokesperson said in a statement.
“Pakistan and Russia enjoy friendly relations marked by mutual respect, trust, and convergence of views on a range of international and regional issues,” the spokesperson added.
“During the visit, both leaders will review the entire array of bilateral relations including energy cooperation. They will also have a wide-ranging exchange of views on major regional and international issues, including Islamophobia and the situation in Afghanistan,” the spokesperson said.
Khan was to be hosted by the Russian president for a working lunch on Thursday. Initially, this was not planned, and the duration of their meeting has been increased as well.
Pakistan is a flagship country for China’s Belt& Road initiative. Islamabad enjoyed closed ties with Washington during the Cold War, and Pakistan played a pivotal role in the safe evacuation of US-led troops from Afghanistan last year.
But after the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, relations between the United States and Pakistan seem to have cooled.
Khan, however, during an exclusive interview with Russian state-run RT television on Tuesday evening, said Pakistan does not want to become part of any bloc, rather it desires trading relations with all countries to lift the people out of poverty.
Pakistan has suffered in the past because of this politics of bloc, he said.
Greater cooperation between the US, China, and Russia will benefit mankind much more than conflict, the prime minister said.
Khan expressed hope for a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine issue, adding that military conflicts do not solve problems.
He also said he “would love to debate with [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi on TV.” It would be beneficial for the 1.7 billion people in the subcontinent if differences could be resolved through debate, Khan said.
Energy Minister Hammad Azhar told The Media Line that Pakistan and Russia “are working together on energy-related projects.
“Various countries around the world are benefiting from the skill of Russian experts in this sector, so Pakistan needs to strengthen its energy cooperation with Russia. During the visit it will be discussed and formulated with top Russian officials,” Azhar said.
Khan’s visit comes amid the spiraling Russia-Ukraine conflict and diplomatic efforts to prevent all-out war. However, Pakistani officials are optimistic that Khan’s visit will help to build new cooperation with Russia.
Some observers have expressed surprise that Khan is visiting Russia at a time when Putin is facing worldwide criticism over Ukraine.
Experts also say that Khan’s visit will bring Moscow and Islamabad closer together and have a positive impact on the region.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Khan himself is under intense pressure from opposition parties that are getting ready to launch a no-confidence motion against him.
Abdul Basit, a leading analyst, is a former ambassador to Germany and high commissioner to India. He also served as a Foreign Office spokesperson.
Basit told The Media Line, “Pakistan and Russia have been trying to augment bilateral relations and the visit should help to generate the much-needed momentum.
“The countries also have concerns vis-à-vis the developing situation in Afghanistan. The economic meltdown in Afghanistan will inevitably result in anarchy and chaos and more space for violence and terrorism,” he added.
Pakistan and Russia must coordinate and intensify their efforts to stave off such a situation, given the possible dire consequences, he said.
“The prime minister’s visit should be seen in this perspective rather than jumping the gun and misinterpreting its objectives in the context of the Ukraine crisis,” Basit said.
Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based retired Pakistan Navy captain and a seasoned security analyst, told The Media Line the international system “is transitioning from a unipolar world to bipolar/multipolar world. The days of US arrogance and unilateralism are nearing an end, as it has been the case with all Great Powers [historically]. It is correctly said that power has a shelf life.”
Safvi added, “Visiting Russia is yet another courageous decision, making a statement that Pakistan would like to become a bridge in resolving the Ukrainian crisis between the US-led allies’ Western group and Russia.
“Khan’s visit will definitely pave a way to a new dimension in enhancing economic ties to mutual benefit,” he continued.
“In the context of the prevailing cold war between the United States and China, China has always sought to improve relations with countries in the region, and it is China that has persuaded Russia to improve relations with Pakistan. So China has played a key role in bringing the two countries together,” Safvi said.
Adil Farooq Raja, a Rawalpindi-based regional security and geopolitical analyst, told The Media Line, “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow at this critical juncture is an indication of the changing world order. It also sends out a strong message that the country has an independent foreign policy.
Raja noted that “the refusal of US President Joe Biden to meet or talk with PM Imran Khan ever since he took office might have contributed to expediting this major shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy.”
“Domestically, Imran Khan’s government does face challenges from the opposition parties, but the latter have failed to secure any substantive achievements against the government,” he continued.
“The Pakistani military establishment’s seemingly unconditional support for the Khan-led government is also a critical factor in the internal stability and international credibility of his government,” Raja said.
Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based national security analyst and South Asian expert, sees things quite differently.
“Imran Khan has stated in recent days that Pakistan will remain neutral in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. However, actions speak louder than words; despite distancing Pakistan from the issue as per his comments, Khan is showing overt support for Moscow by choosing to travel there in the middle of a major controversy,” Tsukerman told The Media Line. “It sends a completely different message to the United States and the international community as well.
The timing of the visit signals that it is about a lot more than the generic discussions about the strengthening of bilateral relations as Khan has attempted to portray it, she said.
“Although normally the strengthening of bilateral relations is beneficial not only for the countries involved but for their respective regions, in this case, the political fallout is going to be spectacular, as Pakistan will inevitably be perceived as moving into Russia’s sphere of influence and distancing itself even more from its once-close relations with the United States,” Tsukerman said.