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Pakistan Vows Neutrality in Ukraine Crisis, Insists Ties with US on Track

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attends a political rally in Sindh, Pakistan. (Courtesy Pakistani Foreign Minister's Office)
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attends a political rally in Sindh, Pakistan. (Courtesy Pakistani Foreign Minister's Office)

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi dismissed suggestions his country’s “neutral” stance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is straining Islamabad’s relationship with the United States or the West at large, in an interview Sunday with VOA.

The South Asian nuclear-armed Muslim country has resisted Western pressure to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, instead advocating dialogue and diplomacy to end the crisis.

Pakistan has argued that it needs to step back from global bloc politics to improve ties with all countries, including Russia, and to tackle its own domestic economic challenges.

“We do not want to be part of any camp. We have paid a price for being in camps. That is why we are very carefully treading. We don’t want to compromise our neutrality, and that’s why we abstained,” Qureshi told VOA.

“The only sensible course is a diplomatic solution,” Qureshi stressed, while speaking by phone from southern Sindh province, where he was attending a political rally of his ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaaf party.

Pakistan, a key non-NATO ally of Washington, abstained last week from voting from both a U.N. Security Council resolution “deploring” Russia’s aggression against its neighbor and a General Assembly vote condemning the invasion. So did 34 other nations, including India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Western diplomatic missions in Pakistan on the eve of the General Assembly vote had collectively urged the host country to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and support international calls for Moscow to immediately stop the war.

Qureshi said that claims that his country has put itself in "Russia camp” were “false” and “misreading” of Islamabad’s stated neutrality in respect to the Ukraine crisis.

“I think our relationship with the United States is a good one. We consider the United States an important partner and we would like continued support from the U.S.,” he noted.

“I have asked for a call with [U.S.] Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken and I was told that he is traveling for the next seven days. But I would be more than happy explain Pakistan’s perspective [on Ukraine] to him,” Qureshi added.

He also contradicted reports that Pakistan’s diplomatic tensions with Washington have increased in the wake of last month’s visit by Prime Minister Imran Khan to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Khan was already in Moscow when Putin ordered his military to attack Ukraine. But the trip reportedly did not go down well in Washington.

“We have briefed the government of Pakistan on the impact that Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine could have on regional and global security,” a State Department spokesperson was quoted on Saturday as telling Pakistani English-language Dawn newspaper.

Qureshi-Lavrov talk

Qureshi said he spoke to Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov by telephone Saturday and “underlined” Islamabad’s “concern at the latest situation in Ukraine.” He told VOA Lavrov conveyed to him that Moscow was not “averse to the idea of negotiations” with Kyiv “on reaching some sort of a conclusion.”

The chief Pakistani diplomat said his Russian counterpart had “noted” that a “positive outcome” of two rounds of talks with Ukrainian officials was the agreement on establishing a “humanitarian corridor” to allow residents from two Ukrainian cities that were surrounded by Russian forces to evacuate. Qureshi and Lavrov spoke before Russian forces attacked the evacuation corridors.

“We are ready for the third round of talks. Our people are there. In fact, we are waiting for the Ukrainian representatives to come and begin the talks,” Qureshi quoted Lavrov as telling him.

Khan has defended his trip to Moscow, the first by a Pakistani prime minister in 23 years, saying his country’s economic interests required him to do so.

The Pakistani leader avoided criticizing Putin in a statement issued after his meeting with the Russian president. The statement said Khan “regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict.”

Islamabad sided with Washington during the Cold War and played an instrumental role in arming and training U.S.-funded Afghan resistance in the 1980s to the decade-long Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, left, meets with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in February. (Courtesy Pakistani Foreign Minister's Office)
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, left, meets with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in February. (Courtesy Pakistani Foreign Minister's Office)

However, Pakistan’s traditionally uneasy relationship with the United States has lately come under increased pressure over allegations that covert support from the Pakistani military helped the Taliban to sustain their insurgency against U.S.-led international forces in neighboring Afghanistan for 20 years and retake power last August. Pakistan rejects those allegations.

Russia and Pakistan, once bitter adversaries, have in recent years moved to restore ties, that analysts say is an outcome of the South Asia country’s frosty relations with the United States.

“A leader of lesser mettle would have thought of abandoning the visit and plunging back into a past of adversity,” Raoof Hasan, a special assistant to Khan on Information, wrote in an article published Friday on the prime minister’s landmark visit to Moscow.

“Instead of backing off, Prime Minister Khan used the opportunity to reiterate his deep belief in peaceful resolution of conflicts,” Hasan said in the commentary published by The News, a local newspaper.

For their part, U.S. officials maintain they view their “partnership with a prosperous, with a democratic Pakistan as critical” to Washington’s interests. They say the United States is Pakistan’s largest trade partner and it considers the South Asian nation “an important regional” country.

U.S. officials acknowledge that Pakistan continues to play a crucial role in assisting international efforts aimed at evacuating Afghans at risk since the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. A dialogue between Washington and Islamabad is also taking place on how to jointly counter terrorism threats emanating from Afghan soil.

Pakistani officials say Khan is preparing to make “important visits” to Western countries after hosting a meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Islamabad later this month. But they have not yet disclosed further details about the expected visits.