Playing Russian roulette with the foreign policy

Khan’s acolytes acclaim his public tirade against the EU, a declaration of independence from an imperialistic West


Saria Benazir Jadoon March 17, 2022
The writer is a graduate of law and international politics. She tweets @SariaBenazir

As the Prime Minister’s ship begins to sink, the captain and his team have started to cry foul. To them, the no-confidence motion that Pakistan’s opposition parties have been brewing for quite some time now smells like a conspiracy bankrolled by western powers who want to see the back of Imran Khan for courting Kremlin, espousing pan-Islamism and rebuffing the superpower. The narrative is as deceptive and dangerous as PTI’s politics and as futile as its foreign policy.

The ‘exciting’ times in which Khan landed in Moscow overlapped with Russia’s advance into Ukraine, setting the tanks rolling for the largest conventional military attack in Europe since World War II. The consequences of President Putin’s blatant attempt to redraw the map of the continent are bound to be devastating and far-reaching. What’s past is prologue. The blaze of war, presently confined to a national theatre, could well turn into a global conflagration engulfing many bystanders in its wake. As such, the global community is obliged to firefight with whatever equipment its members can individually and collectively muster. The UNGA resolution censuring Russia for aggression and calling for the withdrawal of its military forces from Ukraine was one such tool. Pakistan was in the company of 35 countries that abstained from the vote, citing ‘neutrality’ — a word synonymous with bestiality in the Prime Minister’s recently updated dictionary.

Khan’s acolytes acclaim his public tirade against the European Union, depicting it as a declaration of independence from an imperialistic West. In their opinion, why should Islamabad condemn Russia at the behest of an ungrateful, interventionist and duplicitous West that pushed Pakistan into the war on terror and never said thank you for its colossal contribution, laid countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria to waste and continues to turn its eyes away from the persecution of Muslims in Kashmir and elsewhere in India and the world. This is a pertinent question. However, the ostensibly pragmatic assertion that Pakistan’s foreign policy is grounded in national interest and has finally found its feet belies important realities and implications.

To begin with, Islamabad should denounce Moscow’s onslaught on Kyiv, not on someone’s dictation but because it is the right thing to do. The publication of the letter by EU envoys urging Pakistan to do so was a diplomatic debacle but the fact that Russia’s unprovoked military attack on Ukraine is a brazen breach of the Charter of the United Nations is clear as day. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every state, big or small, is the keystone of all international affairs and indispensible to international peace and security. NATO’s presence at its doorstep may have been provocative for Russia but not provocative enough to justify razing its neighbour to the ground. If anything, it only validates the latter’s trepidation and eagerness to join the alliance to protect its independence from an irredentist and revisionist power.

Second, the United States and its allies sure have a history of botched and brutal illegal military interventions and interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries. But this does not mean giving a pass to Russia for waging an unwarranted war. After all, two wrongs do not make a right.

Third, if Kashmir is the litmus test of our associations, Moscow has from the beginning unreservedly backed India’s stance on the dispute at the United Nations, and human rights do not matter much to it any way. For decades, the West remained favourably disposed to Islamabad’s viewpoint until New Delhi was able to exploit the war on terror to paint freedom fighters as jihadists. Tepid it is but western governments and organisations have been consistent in their condemnation of India’s atrocities in Kashmir and the dire state of its Muslims under Prime Minister Modi. Let us not forget that it was our Prime Minister’s desire to see his return to office, and creating a compelling narrative on Kashmir that the world can buy is Pakistan’s own job.

A cost-benefit analysis is also in order. Ministers speak of importing wheat and natural gas from Russia despite sanctions. Scarcity of both owes to our ineptitude and alternatives can be sought. While Pakistan wishes to deepen economic and military cooperation with Moscow, the outcome of its efforts cannot be determined but it does have a long history of dependency on the West in both realms. The United States and the European Union are the country’s largest export market and have the decisive vote at the IMF to which it has to go to over and over again to keep its economy afloat. Ukrainian tanks comprise a significant part of its armoured corps’ fleet. As a major non-NATO ally, besides China, Islamabad has always looked up to the West to obtain its much coveted military hardware. Also, most Pakistanis aspire to go to the West for education, jobs, business and leisure. Lastly, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent. Authoritarian leaders are bird of a feather and flock together. When they issue threats, they make good on them notwithstanding the political, economic and human cost for their adversaries or even themselves. Munich serves as a reminder that appeasement of fascists never works and imperils the stability of entire regions. With militant Hindu nationalists at the helm of affairs just next door, Pakistan must ask itself what it expects of the international community if India conjures up similar pretext to overrun its borders. Fallacy to assume it won’t dare to, only because we are a nuclear power.

Exploring new opportunities and making new friends is worth the effort but not by squandering gains of 75 years and antagonising erstwhile partners, as the PTI government has done by alienating even the country’s closest allies like China and Saudi Arabia. By denigrating the West, Imran Khan has effectively chosen a camp, albeit a rickety one. Jingoism will not assuage his dwindling political fortunes but it certainly jeopardises the interests of 220 million people of Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2022.

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