Off to Russia?


Reports that Prime Minister Imran Khan will visit Russia later this month, confirmed by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, signal a serious shift in the geopolitical and diplomatic priorities of Islamabad. The PM is expected to go there with a high-powered delegation to discuss trade, security, the $2 billion Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP), and Afghanistan, but the optics, as well as the significance of the visit, go much deeper. For, just alongside this news also appeared the headline about US President Joe Biden expecting a Russian invasion of Ukraine “any day now”, as Washington and like-minded European capitals fine-tune plans to sanction the Kremlin and the Russian elite.
These are also times when Russia and China have formally formed a power bloc to rival the US and its allies, and a 21st century Cold War is already underway. Surely Putin didn’t go to Beijing just for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, it was a show of force on the part of two of America’s principal targets and also a way for them to show that membership to the alliance is now open. Let’s not forget that this is happening also when Washington and Islamabad are about as far apart diplomatically as they have been in the last few decades, at least since the onset of the so-called war against terrorism. And for the PM to follow his “absolutely not” to the US request for bases in the country by openly standing with China and also warming up to Russia is a very clear political statement; that Pakistan is resetting its core alliances.
Yet such things are easier said than done. A critical part of the Russia-China faction is Iran, also a target of western hostilities and sanctions. Pakistan’s entry into the fold would stretch the arc right across the region. But that’s not yet been possible because our most reliable donor, USA, has problems with both China and Russia and our dear friend, and also the last-resort donor, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, doesn’t really want us to warm up to Iran beyond a certain, neighbourly limit. These are also not steps that can be taken half-heartedly, especially in the present environment. Upsetting Washington could, and most likely will also make future loans from international lenders a lot more difficult, and expensive. That, of course, is always one of our main priorities. Pakistan has also asked President Putin to come here sometime this year, which means the government has given these issues serious consideration. How this plays out will become clear very soon.