Pakistan’s fence-sitting on Ukraine is being noticed internationally
11 Mar 2022|

The past two weeks or so haven’t been great for Pakistan on the world stage.

On 24 February, Prime Minister Imran Khan, on an official visit to Russia, held a three-hour meeting with President Vladimir Putin as Russian tanks were rolling across the international border into Ukraine. Compounding the poor timing and the bad optics of his visit was Khan’s bland reaction to Russia’s unprovoked military action—an act that singlehandedly ripped up the rules-based security system that had guaranteed peace in Europe since World War II. He said that he ‘regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine’ and hoped that ‘diplomacy could avert a military conflict’. This left the impression that, at best, he didn’t care or, at worst, condoned Russia’s military action. Either way, it didn’t look good.

Incidentally, but importantly in the South Asian context, Pakistan’s arch-enemy India effectively took the same position as Islamabad. New Delhi, which holds a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, abstained on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite being a leader of the non-alignment movement during the Cold War, India has had a long relationship with Russia going back to the 1950s. And still today, some 70% of its military inventory is Russian. So it’s not surprising that even with its deepening relationship with Washington, New Delhi doesn’t want to jeopardise its important relationship with Moscow.

Khan defended the timing of his Moscow trip—the first by a Pakistani prime minister in 20 years—by saying that it had long been planned and that it was in Pakistan’s economic interest for it to go ahead with it. Two main economic items were on the agenda for negotiation: Pakistan’s intention to buy two million tons of wheat and to negotiate the construction of a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline in Pakistan that was first agreed to in 2014. Given the severe and comprehensive Western financial sanctions Russia has been yoked with, both of these deals are now in serious jeopardy. Moreover, as part of the gas deal Pakistan is required to put up three-quarters of the funds—money it simply doesn’t have.

Khan’s visit didn’t go unnoticed in Western capitals, particularly in Washington, nor did Pakistan’s failure to condemn the Russian military assault on Ukraine. Accordingly, the heads of the foreign missions of several European countries, Japan, Canada and Australia signed a joint letter urging Pakistan to condemn the Russian aggression in the special session of the UN General Assembly that was convened to vote on a resolution demanding that Russia ‘immediately, completely and unconditionally’ withdraw its military forces from Ukraine. Ignoring these Western pleas, Pakistan decided to abstain, saying that it ‘had decided not to take sides on this issue’. Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, Munir Akram, said that Pakistan hoped that ‘diplomacy could avert military conflict’, as Russia was pummelling Ukrainian cities. He gave the impression that Russia and Ukraine were equally to blame for the situation.

This ‘neutral’ position on Ukraine aligns with Khan’s statement during his Moscow visit that, ‘What we want to do is not become part of any bloc.’ Upon his return to Pakistan, he stressed in a televised address to the nation that he wanted a ‘free and independent’ foreign policy. This is a theme he has highlighted often, arguing that Pakistan’s long relationship with the US—now frosty—had come at a very high price. Needless to say, Washington’s tilt towards India over the last 20 years provided an additional incentive for Pakistan to turn to the east.

This ‘independent’ policy position will be challenging to maintain in the wake of the 5,000-word Russia–China joint statement of 4 February, which says, inter alia, that the ‘friendship between the two states has no limits’, and the joint statement between China and Pakistan, which reaffirms the 60-year-old ‘close strategic ties and deep-rooted friendship’ between the two countries. While Pakistan’s relationship with Russia is more recent, it is one that has developed quickly in the military and energy fields.

This triangular network is increasingly becoming a de facto strategic entente, with a strong anti-Western bias. It’s a development that won’t have gone unnoticed by the four members of the Indo-Pacific-focused Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The second international issue that has put the focus on Pakistan was the decision by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—a 39-member intergovernmental watchdog for money laundering and terrorist financing—to keep Pakistan on the ‘grey list’ at its February–March meeting. This is despite the fact that Pakistan complied with 26 of the 27 action points imposed on it in June 2018, when it was first placed on the list. Similarly, it was found compliant with six of the seven action points of the Asia–Pacific Group, part of the global network of nine FATF-style regional bodies.

The decision not to put Pakistan on the ‘white list’ comes as no surprise, particularly given that India is a member of the FATF and the Asia–Pacific Group and is determined to keep Pakistan on the grey list. Being on that list limits Islamabad’s ability to access foreign funds to assist with its developmental and budgetary needs. Given the country’s paltry economic state, this is bad news for Khan, whose popular standing is already shaky despite his recent decision to drop the prices of petrol, diesel and electricity. The FATF’s next meeting will be in June.

On a more optimistic note, a third, happier event has put Pakistan on the international map—the Australian cricket team’s tour in Pakistan, the first in almost a quarter of a century. While the security situation had significantly improved recently, terrorists nevertheless managed to detonate themselves in a Shiite mosque in Peshawar on 4 March, killing almost 60 people and wounding close to 200—one of Pakistan’s worst terror attacks. The Islamic State in Khorasan has claimed responsibility for the attack. The aim was clearly to disrupt the cricket tour. Still, the hosts are keen to avenge their 1998 defeat to the Australians, who won that test series 1–0. Such a victory would be sweet indeed.

Sadly, however, and despite the dark cloud of terrorism hanging over the country, it may well take more than a successful Australian cricket tour for Pakistan to get back into the West’s good books.