Why Bilawal defended Imran’s Russia visit

The visit of Imran was part of that process and not the isolated event

Kamran Yousaf May 23, 2022
This writer is a senior foreign affairs correspondent at The Express Tribune

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari undertook a maiden visit to the United States last week as the country’s top diplomat. He visited New York primarily to attend the Food Security Conference; but according to diplomatic sources, the conference was just a cover-up, and the real purpose behind Bilawal’s visit was to hold a bilateral meeting with Secretary Anthony Blinken. It was the first meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries since September last year.

The visit was significant given the fact that the Pak-US relationship soared during the PTI government’s tenure because of differences between the two countries on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The US was not happy with Pakistan’s ‘neutral’ stance on the conflict. It was also dismayed by ex-PM Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow at a time when President Vladimir Putin was preparing to invade Ukraine. In fact, Imran is convinced that his Moscow visit was the reason behind his dismissal from power through a vote of no confidence allegedly orchestrated by the US.

It was against this backdrop that Bilawal — during a presser in New York — was asked whether he would defend Imran’s visit to Moscow. Notwithstanding his strong differences with the ex-PM, Bilawal defended Imran’s trip to Russia. The young foreign minister emphasised that no one had the “psychic power” to predict future events, suggesting that Imran would not know Russia would invade Ukraine the day he landed in Moscow. He went on to add that the West must not punish Pakistan for his “innocent act.”

Bilawal’s mature response to a tricky question drew lots of admiration from many as they pointed out that Bilawal did not let his political differences with Imran come in the way of defending Pakistan’s foreign policy. The question is: why did Bilawal defend Imran’s trip? Many PTI supporters insist he had no option since Imran went to Moscow in the better interest of Pakistan and that all the stakeholders were on board. Yes, it is true that the engagement with Russia is part of Pakistan’s wellconsidered decision taken not during the PTI government’s time but many years back. The visit of Imran was just a continuation of the process that began initially during the far end of General Musharraf’s rule. The turning point was 2011 when Pakistan’s relationship with the US had gone haywire. The Raymond Davis incident, the Osama bin Laden killing and Salala episode in 2011 contributed to Pakistan’s decision in diversifying its foreign policy options. The country’s Parliament in a unanimous resolution approved new policy guidelines that advocated reducing dependence on the US.

For this purpose, the policy guidelines called for reaching out to countries like Russia with which Pakistan has a bitter past because of the cold-war. Remember, Pakistan was in the US camp to contain Soviet Union, and ‘Afghan Jihad’ was part of that policy. But growing trust deficit with the US, coupled with Washington’s title towards India, Pakistan also decided to adjust to the new realities. It was because of this reason that successive governments, including of PPP and PML-N, pursued a policy of rapprochement with Russia. In 2015, Pakistan and Russia for the first time signed an agreement under which Moscow would lay a gas pipeline from Karachi to Kasur. In 2016, Russian troops for the first time landed on the Pakistani soil to conduct first-ever joint military exercises. The PTI government, when it took over, also carried forward the process

The visit of Imran was part of that process and not the isolated event. The difference between his policy and that of his predecessors was that they handled such sensitive diplomatic issues better than him. PPP and PML-N pursued rapprochement with Russia quietly to avoid any unnecessary hype but Imran used the Russia visit to extract political mileage at the expense of the country’s core foreign policy interest.


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