Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, arrived in Russia Wednesday for a crucial meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Officials said the two sides will review bilateral ties, including energy cooperation.
Pakistan’s state-run PTV broadcast live Khan’s arrival at the airport in Moscow, where he was received by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov.
"What a time I have come; so much excitement,” the prime minister told his host, Morgulov, in brief initial remarks, apparently referring to the Russia-Ukraine standoff.
Khan is the first foreign leader to visit Moscow since Putin recognized the independence of Ukraine’s breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk earlier this week and deployed troops there. Russia’s action escalated tensions with the West and drew new international sanctions against the country.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Putin’s meeting with Khan is scheduled for Thursday. “The leaders plan to discuss the main issues of bilateral cooperation, as well as topical regional affairs, including the developments in South Asia,” Peskov said. The trip marks the first visit to Russia by a Pakistani prime minister since 1999.
Energy Minister Hammad Azhar, accompanying Khan on the visit, said that several “potential (energy) projects” the two countries have already discussed in recent months will come under discussion, among other issues, in Thursday’s meeting.
Azhar said both sides will discuss “certain outstanding issues and further clarifications regarding those projects.” He did not elaborate.
The construction of a long-delayed, multi-billion-dollar, 1,100-kilometer gas pipeline in Pakistan, in partnership with Russian companies, is among the proposed initiatives.
Moscow and Islamabad had initially agreed to launch what is known as the North-South gas pipeline in 2015 to transport imported liquified natural gas (LNG) from the southern port city of Karachi to the country’s most populous northeastern province of Punjab.
Khan, while speaking to the state-owned RT television network on Tuesday, noted that earlier sanctions on Russian companies had prevented the two countries from launching the project.
"This North-South pipeline suffered. One of the reasons... was the companies we were negotiating with... turned out that U.S. had applied sanctions on them," Khan told the network on Tuesday.” So, the problem was to get a company that wasn’t sanctioned.”
Officials in Islamabad are maintaining that the two-day trip was taking place at the invitation of President Putin and planned before the Ukraine crisis escalated.
Khan himself dismissed suggestions, while talking to Russian media, that his visit had anything to do with Moscow’s escalating tensions with Europe and the United States over Ukraine.
“This [Ukraine crisis] does not concern us. We have a bilateral relationship with Russia, and we really want to strengthen it,” Khan told RT on Tuesday.
“Now, what we want to do is not become part of any bloc. We want to have trading relations with all countries,” the Pakistani leader stressed, saying he hopes the Ukraine crisis is resolved peacefully.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to speculate on the timing of Khan’s visit to Moscow. Price told reporters in response to a question by VOA that he was not in a position to offer an assessment on the timing of a foreign leader’s travel to another country.
“We believe it's the responsibility of every responsible country around the world to voice concern, to voice objection to what Putin appears to have in mind for Ukraine,” he said.
“We've communicated to Pakistan our position regarding Russia's further renewed invasion of Ukraine, and we have briefed them on our efforts to pursue diplomacy.”
Price reiterated the U.S. has a long-standing partnership and cooperation with Pakistan.
“We certainly hope when it comes to those shared interests, the aversion of a costly conflict, the aversion of a destabilizing conflict, that every country around the world would make that point clearly in unambiguous language, in their engagements with the Russian Federation,” he said.
Critics have questioned Khan’s assertions and said his visit to Russia under the circumstances could still trouble policymakers in Western countries, where Pakistan has much bigger and long-running economic stakes.
“With developments unfolding as quickly as they are, Pakistan risks painting itself into a corner if we are to see a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” said Elizabeth Threlkeld, the director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“The fact the visit is going forward will certainly be noticed in Western capitals, in the U.S., in the EU countries and blocs that far outstrip Russia's role in Pakistan's economy,” she added.
Pakistan and Russia were once bitter adversaries, as Islamabad closely aligned itself with the United States during the Cold War.
The Pakistani intelligence agency worked closely with the American CIA in arming and training Afghan fighters to successfully end a decade-long Russian occupation of Afghanistan in 1989.
Islamabad and Moscow, however, have restored ties in recent years, routinely holding joint military exercises and attempting to develop energy cooperation to help Pakistan overcome shortages.
Pakistan also has developed close economic and military ties with Ukraine in recent years and is a major importer of Ukrainian wheat.
Islamabad’s ties with Washington have recently been strained over allegations the South Asian major non-NATO ally covertly helped the Islamist Taliban in waging a deadly insurgency against U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban regained power last August.
Islamabad denies the accusations and blames what it says was a flawed U.S. military policy in dealing with the Afghan conflict that ultimately led to a chaotic withdrawal of international troops from the neighboring country in August after 20 years.
Russian and Pakistani officials acknowledge their efforts to deepen bilateral economic cooperation face multiple challenges. Several major Russian companies are under U.S. sanctions and are not able to invest in Pakistan.
Critics say meaningful bilateral defense cooperation also faces roadblocks, such as Russia’s longstanding ties with Pakistan’s bitter rival India, a major importer of Russian military hardware. They say Moscow does not want to upset New Delhi by offering any major defense-related, or for that matter, economic deals to Islamabad.
Combating regional terrorism and the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan seems to be what is primarily driving Russia’s diplomatic engagement with Pakistan, according to analysts.