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Pakistan's Prime Minister Meets Putin as Russia Attacks Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 24, 2022. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 24, 2022. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

President Vladimir Putin of Russia hosted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan for "wide-ranging consultations" Thursday, covering bilateral relations and regional as well as international issues of "mutual interest."

Khan arrived in Moscow the previous day on a long-planned two-day "working" visit, the first by a Pakistani prime minister in 23 years, hours before Russian forces attacked Ukraine.

Pakistani officials said Thursday's three-hour meeting was held at the Kremlin, where the two leaders also discussed the Ukraine crisis.

"The prime minister regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict," Khan's office quoted him in a post-meeting statement as telling Putin.

Khan "stressed that conflict was not in anyone's interest" and noted "the developing countries were always hit the hardest economically in case of conflict." He went on to underline Pakistan's "belief" that disputes should be settled through dialogue and diplomacy, according to the statement.

The Russian president's office said in a brief statement the two sides "discussed the main aspects of bilateral cooperation and exchanged views on current regional topics, including developments in South Asia."

Khan is the first foreign leader to have visited Moscow since Putin recognized the independence of Ukraine's breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk earlier this week and had Russian forces invade the country early Thursday.

The military deployment escalated tensions with the West and drew international condemnation and sanctions against Russia, with the United States promising to impose tougher new sanctions.

Before meeting with Putin, Khan attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in Moscow.

While responding to a question about Khan's visit, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Wednesday that Washington believed that Pakistan, like "every responsible" country, would voice objection to Putin's action. Price noted that the U.S. has a long-standing partnership and history of cooperation with Pakistan.

"And we certainly hope that every country around the world would make that point clearly, in unambiguous language, in their engagements with the Russian Federation," Price said.

Energy issues

Senior Pakistani officials who accompanied Khan on the visit said the discussions on bilateral issues focused specifically on enhancing energy cooperation. The two sides said they also resolved "90%" of the issues related to a proposed multibillion-dollar gas pipeline, known as Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline, that Islamabad wants to construct in partnership with Moscow.

"The prime minister reaffirmed the importance of Pakistan-Stream Gas Pipeline as a flagship economic project between Pakistan and Russia and also discussed cooperation on prospective energy-related projects," said the statement issued by Khan's office.

The project has suffered delays since the two countries first agreed to it in 2015. Technical disputes and earlier U.S. sanctions on Russia are blamed for the delay. The 1,100-kilometer pipeline would transport imported liquified natural gas from Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi to the country's most populous northeastern province of Punjab.

Some critics called Khan's visit ill-timed in light of Russia's aggression against Ukraine. But Khan dismissed those suggestions in an interview he gave to the state-run Russia Today channel in the run-up to his trip.

"This [Ukraine crisis] does not concern us. We have a bilateral relationship with Russia, and we really want to strengthen it. What we want to do is not become part of any bloc," Khan said.

'Mission accomplished'

"All things considered, Imran Khan's visit to Russia could have been much worse, given the dreadful timing," said Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Center in Washington. "Limited visuals, measured comments, no gaffes, and so on. This won't appease those that wanted him to postpone, but mission accomplished."

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 decadelong Russian occupation of Afghanistan in 1989.

Islamabad and Moscow have restored ties in recent years, however. They routinely hold joint military exercises and are attempting to develop energy cooperation to help Pakistan overcome shortages.

Pakistan also maintains close economic and military ties with Ukraine and is a major importer of Ukrainian wheat.