Pakistani Premier Imran Khan chose to meet with President Putin in Moscow, just as Russian forces were invading Ukraine. DW analyzes why the visit is likely to strain Islamabad’s ties with Washington and Brussels.
A Brussels-based analyst told DW that ‘EU diplomatic circles have not taken Khan’s Russia trip well’
“What a time I have come, so much excitement,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was heard saying at the airport as he arrived in Moscow on Wednesday ahead of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Khan’s statement would prove to be ill-timed, as hours after his arrival, Russia carried out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The West has condemned President Putin with one voice and imposed strict sanctions on Moscow. Russian forces are bombing Ukrainian cities and are closing in on the capital Kyiv. There is definitely more anger than “excitement” about the situation in the West.
However, with Khan’s visit, Pakistan’s leadership seems to be demonstrating its naivete vis-a-vis the gravity of global politics in the aftermath of Russia’s unilateral invasion of Ukraine.
Pakistani officials have insisted that Khan’s Moscow trip had nothing to do with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The visit was scheduled much earlier, and Khan and Putin said they discussed bilateral and South Asian affairs during their Thursday meeting.
But experts point out that the timing of Khan’s Russia trip was a “diplomatic disaster.”
Although Khan is not a huge player in global politics, his meeting with Putin during the Ukraine invasion has carried some immense symbolic value — mostly in favor of Russia.
Pakistan moving toward US rivals
Regardless of what Khan’s ministers have said about Pakistan’s “neutrality,” geopolitical analysts are watching as the world becomes more clearly divided between the Western and China-Russia camps. Islamabad’s close ties with Beijing are no secret, but Pakistani authorities maintain that they want good relations with both China and the US.
Khan’s visit to the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall also raised eyebrows
However, the time for “neutrality” from South Asian countries like Pakistan and India is almost over after Russia’s Ukraine attack, according to security observers.
“The trip, while overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, represented a key milestone for a relationship that has quietly grown in recent years,” said Micheal Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, to DW.
“It also amplifies the direction that Pakistan’s foreign policy is taking; one that is increasingly aligning with US rivals and hence suggests the limits of expanding US-Pakistan relations in the years ahead,” he added.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price was quite clear on this issue.
“We believe it’s a responsibility of every responsible country around the world to voice concern, to voice objection, to what Putin appears to have in mind for Ukraine,” Price said on Wednesday, responding to a question about Khan’s meeting with Putin.
Pakistan receives substantial military aid from Washington, and its economy is heavily dependent on the International Monetary Fund’s loans.
Whether or not Khan has calculated potential repercussions of his Moscow visit, it could have serious consequences for his country’s economy.
A ‘wrong signal’ to the West
Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a Brussels-based Pakistani journalist and an expert on South Asian diplomatic affairs, told DW that Khan’s Russia visit will “isolate Pakistan more among the international community.”
“Regardless of what he says, by going to Moscow, Khan has conveyed a message to Europe and the US that he has decided to side with Russia in the Ukraine conflict,” Farooqi said.
“He could have easily rescheduled his trip, but possibly, he wanted to put pressure on Washington,” he said, adding that even India, which has historically been close to Russia, has so far abstained from taking sides in the conflict.
“EU diplomatic circles have not taken Khan’s Russia trip well,” according to Farooqi.