Red carpet welcome, handshake despite the Covid pandemic, no long bizarre table in between them and over three-hour long meeting, all these were great optics for the Pakistani prime minister visiting one of the most powerful countries in the world.
Naturally, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s supporters would drive home the point that their leader is respected by the outside world. This was of course the first bilateral visit by a Pakistani prime minister to Moscow in 23 years.
But the timing of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin could put Pakistan in trouble. The explanation from the Foreign Office was that the visit was planned before the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
At one point there was a thought to postpone the visit, citing the domestic political situation as opposition parties were gearing up for a no-confidence move against the prime minister. But after in-house deliberations, it was decided not to put off the trip.
Nevertheless, Pakistan hoped that during the prime minister’s stay in Moscow there won’t be any unforeseen event such as the start of the military conflict.
When Prime Minister Imran Khan landed in Moscow and was given a red carpet welcome, the Pakistani delegation did not expect the next morning they would wake up with the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Could the Russian president have delayed the military operation against Ukraine for a day or two to allow the visiting Pakistani prime minister complete his visit without much trouble? Critics – both inside and outside Pakistan – started suggesting that the prime minister should immediately cancel the trip and return home after the launch of the invasion.
Some Western media outlets did initially run stories of Pakistan’s move to call off the trip but Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who was with the prime minister, was quick to rebut all such rumours.
The trip went ahead as planned and the Putin-Imran meeting’s schedule was extended from 1 hour to 3 hours. This, observers believe, could be an attempt by President Vladimir Putin to show to the world that for him it was business as usual despite ordering a full scale invasion of Ukraine.
The visit of the prime minister was not the beginning of rapprochement between Pakistan and Russia, as some of his supporters tend to believe but was part of the several years of efforts by the two sides to bury their bitter past and adjust to the new realities.
Had there been no Ukrainian conflict, the outcome of the visit would have certainly been different but given the new scenario Pakistan now will have to walk a tightrope.
For decades Pakistan’s economic and strategic interests were tied to the West, particularly the US. And this dependence often left Pakistan at the mercy of US-led global financial institutions.
That was the reason that Pakistan felt it necessary in recent years to diversify its foreign policy options, something that pushed Islamabad to deepen ties with China and reach out to Russia.
Pakistan has also been laying a greater emphasis on geo-economics and the main purpose of the prime minister’s visit to Russia was to seek greater engagement on the economic front.
The two sides have been discussing a $2.5 billion Pakistan Steam Gas Pipeline project since 2015. Because of the possible US sanctions on the Russian companies the project made no or little progress until both sides sorted out such details.
The 1,100 kilometres long pipeline from Karachi to Kasur will be laid with the cooperation of Russia.
But will the project go ahead or at least reach its fruition in the foreseeable future? The new sanctions imposed by the US and other Western countries would make that extremely difficult if not impossible. The Russian gas pipeline may face the same fate as happened in the case of Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.
Nevertheless, the visit of Prime Minister Imran would go down in the history books with his supporters and critics having their own interpretations. What Pakistan gets out of this visit and what are the long-term ramifications only time will tell.
This article first appeared in The Express Tribunne. Click here to go to original.