On 24 February 2022, 03:00 GMT (0600 hrs Moscow Time), Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the Kremlin’s decision of “military operation" in eastern Ukraine. The announcement shocked the whole world, drawing condemnations from across the world, with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres insisting that Putin’s adventurism “must stop now”. In the nearby Four Seasons Hotel in Moscow, however, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was busy enjoying his breakfast.
It reflects the immature political understanding of the Pakistani premier who chose to be in the Kremlin on the day when the whole world would look at Russia with disdain. Imran Khan may well be the first Pakistani prime minister to visit Moscow after Nawaz Sharif’s 1999 visit; however, the visit was not only an ill-timed one, to say the least, but also reflects badly on his carefully choreographed image over the years.
The Pakistani establishment may well justify it as an effort “to further [deepen the] multifaceted Pakistan-Russia bilateral relationship and [enhance] mutual cooperation in diverse fields," however, the fact remains that these words will weigh little in the face of any Putin-Khan photo spectacle of the so-called summit meeting, which was not even confirmed till the moment Khan arrived in Moscow. And talking about the cooperation, given the way things are shaping up and the kind of multilateral sanctions being announced by the US and its allies, it is very unlikely that sectors like energy which Pakistan eyes to seal deals in, will remain out of the sanctions ambit, and hence this attempt also appears doomed.
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In a way, it exposes the doublespeak that Pakistan and its leadership are accustomed to. On 21 February 2022, through its Kyiv ambassador, Major Gen (retd) Noel Israel Khokhar, Pakistan, expressed support to “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It may well have tried to play both the sides through such optics; however, what the world will note is that the Pakistani Prime Minister was in Moscow on the day the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, something that will be “perceived as an indirect Pakistani endorsement of Putin’s decree on eastern Ukraine," as Michael Kugelman argues. This is perhaps what the Russians had calculated beforehand, as Imran Khan’s presence allows a semblance of broader support to its actions beyond China.
Pakistani Journalist Kamran Khan even decries that Russians appear to have carefully choreographed Imran Khan’s visit to avenge the decades-old Pakistani adventurism in Afghanistan, which resulted in Soviet defeat and withdrawal by 15 February 1989. “Is Russia accounting Pakistan for decades of deeds? Putin seems to have deliberately chosen the date to meet Imran Khan on the day when he was to invade Ukraine. On this doomsday kind of an event, the Pakistani Prime Minister is standing shoulder to shoulder with Putin," he remarked. Therefore, it is highly likely that the Kremlin could showcase Imran Khan’s presence in Russia as support to its military actions in Ukraine.
Given that the war clouds have been hovering around for weeks now, one wonders what forced the Pakistani establishment to pursue these bilateral engagements knowing very well the potential costs it could incur on the country and tossing Pakistan’s already soiled image further. For a moment, if the escalation turns into a full-blown war drawing in Western powers, especially the United States, Islamabad, by being in the Kremlin at such a time has chosen its side with Russia even if it may gloat otherwise.
This also exposes the Pakistani Prime Minister’s poor leadership credentials, who not so long ago was propagated as an Oxford-returned charismatic leader, a messiah of the poor and an antidote to all the ills that Pakistan endures both domestically and externally. However, with his poor decisions, which have already ravaged the country’s economy, pushing many more Pakistanis into poverty, Imran Khan very well appears to have brought Pakistan to a position where it would find itself relegated as a pariah state soon, to be counted alongside North Korea and others. Its continued support to the terrorist organizations has already seen Islamabad on the grey list of Financial Action Task Forces (FATF) since June 2018, and this ill-timed adventurism will only bracket it further.
If Imran Khan’s continuation of the trip reflects anything, it is bad political optics unless the Prime Minister wanted Pakistan to get in bed with the Kremlin for any economic concessions from Russia that his elite circle may deem worth aspring for, even at the expense of a broader international consensus over Ukraine. The least his oligarchic establishment could have suggested would have been to reschedule the trip to the days ahead. The Pakistani leadership could have taken a lesson from neighbouring India in manoeuvring these complex terrains to secure its interests with Russia and the broader international community and not be seen as taking an open side.
It is also surprising to note how the Pakistani Army establishment, which is otherwise particular about the country’s foreign engagements, allowed this visit to go ahead, knowing very well the potential costs it could entail on the country in general and the military in particular, given the western military assistance it has relied on for decades. Or has the Pakistani Army played along to make sure to tumble the domestic image of Khan to allow other local political actors a breathing space to manoeuvre their political goalposts? This could give credence to rumours that Imran Khan has fallen out of the Army’s favour, something which was on public display in October 2021 as Islamabad and Rawalpindi wrangled over the appointment of the Director-General to its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a position held by Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, largely seen as a pro-Khan voice in the army circles. One can certainly presume that Rawalpindi General Headquarters may have envisioned this to further reduce the political space and exacerbate the political consternation for Imran Khan.
In conclusion, the ill-timed visit by Imran Khan to Moscow debunks the choreographed image of Khan as someone with fine diplomatic acumen and statesmanship. He rather seems to have been outflanked and outplayed by Putin. This may not only hasten Pakistan’s descent into the abyss at the international level but also ensnare Khan in his own populistic tropes as in normal times a deal or two would have been sold as a success of his charisma, but the way things are heading, the international opprobrium that Khan may suffer will bring his image down further at the domestic level.
Shaikh Waleed is a Delhi based Kashmiri Analyst specializing in Pakistan Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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