Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that Pakistan would be importing 2 million MT of wheat and buy natural gas at the conclusion of his trip to Moscow, which has been extensively criticised for its timing. Khan justified his trip as “routine” and in the interest of bilateral agreements Pakistan and Russia had planned on signing, specially given the low reserves of gas in Pakistan. Pakistan is undergoing an acute energy crisis and this has raised the importance of the Pakistan-Stream gas pipeline project which was started last year by a signature of an MoU between the two foreign ministers.
Landing in Moscow just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Khan was caught on camera gushing “What a time I have come, such excitement.” Whether Khan had advance intelligence that he would be the first leader to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin after he started on his Ukrainian invasion, or Imran Khan was there at that particular time on the encouragement of his Chinese allies, Khan’s timing was disastrous for Pakistan’s diplomacy, isolating it further from its traditional allies such as the United States and NATO. From the Chinese perspective however, the timing and Pakistan’s tacit support to Russia, gives birth to a new “triad”, pushing traditional allies India and Russia further apart and consolidating Pakistan in the Chinese camp further away from US influence than it has ever been. It also counters the west asian quad, a grouping created recently between the US, India and two new allies, Israel and the UAE. This annuls any risk this grouping would have for Iran, which is a Russian ally since the Islamic revolution and where China has deep economic interests. Pakistan is firmly anti-Israel and condemnation of Israel is only preceded by its anti-India policies.
During the cold war, Pakistan was firmly a US ally and even though over the past decades Islamabad and Beijing have developed a “all weather friendship”, Pakistan has managed to maintain its position with the West. It has had an irreplaceable role in the US war on terror in Afghanistan, a position now Khan regrets as a strategic mistake. At the same time the India-Russia partnership has suffered several blows, with the US-India relationship consolidating in the past years with the reinforcement of the Quad, as a deterrent to China in the Indo-Pacific.
Pakistan has quietly tried to counter the India-Russia balance by developing commercial and economic ties with Ukraine which haven’t been extremely successful. Imran Khan’s attempt to move Pakistan firmly into a China-Russia sphere may have more to do also with domestic politics. At the time when Khan was in Moscow, Gen. Qamar Jawed Bajwa, Pakistan’s powerful military chief, was in Brussels at the EU. While Khan was catering to his “anti-west” electorate, Bajwa was firmly trying to undo some of the damage. With the economy in shambles and Khan having run afoul of the military-intelligence nexus which actually runs Pakistan, one more reason for Khan to undertake such a risky visit would be to garner more support for his leadership.
On the chess board of South Asian politics, Khan’s visit started a new era of cooperation between Russia and Pakistan. This spells more trouble for Israel’s ally India specially in Afghanistan as India was often included in meetings on Afghanistan due to its relationship with Moscow.
An alliance in between Russia-China and Pakistan may now force India to move its alliances to the west, giving up its traditional non-alignment in global politics. India is hugely dependent on Russian arms and technology to defend itself from China. A part of this has been a remanent of the Cold War, another part has been the reluctance of the US and the EU to open doors of military technology to India and replace the Russians as India’s primary military suppliers. In any case, Indian reliance on Israel will increase, specially related to security and defense matters.
A “triad” in between India’s two mortal enemies (the only wars independent India has fought in 75 years are against Pakistan and China) and Russia, its largest defense supplier, spells danger for New Delhi’s national security strategy. It also should raise red flags in Israel and the UAE, other components of the new West Asian Quad. Much as China has offered itself as a peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine (and the West), Russia will return the favor in a potential Indo-China conflict. While India may not object to Russian intervention, a Sino-Russian alliance will be able to pressure India to keep its relationships with the west to a limit.
Critics are however skeptical on how much Moscow-Islamabad cooperation could takeoff after this new round of stringent sanctions on Russia. Pakistan’s economy is in shambles, and it depends extensively on US and IMF support. While the meeting in the Kremlin with Putin lasted three hours, Khan gave very limited details on Monday on national television while defending his trip. “Inshallah, the time will tell that we have had great discussions,” he said-without giving many more details.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised several questions in developing geopolitical alliances in Asia. First it has diverted the attention of the Biden White House from China and the Quad to NATO and Europe. It had taken years for European leaders to understand the need for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), now with war at their doorstep, the priority given to the Indo-Pacific may reduce tremendously in Europe.
The reality on the ground is that if China and Russia manage to recruit Pakistan into a triad, the dynamics in South Asia will change for good. India will then be at the mercy of a Sino-Russian alliance which may jointly keep pressure on India to reduce its alliance with the US and the West while Moscow plays the mediator in the perennial conflict in between Beijing and Delhi.
For Israel, Pakistan’s new friendship with Russia and voting against Russia will create friction in an essential relationship. Moscow’s support is key in the Middle East, especially Syria and increasingly in Iran for Jerusalem. If Israel alienates Russia, there will be a higher price to pay on the ground in Syria.
In New Delhi, Khan’s almost comic performance in Moscow will more be seen as a result of Vladimir Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s “no limit friendship” declaration in Beijing on the 4th of February. While India’s silence on publicly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be misunderstood by the West, India’s security establishment is definitely giving its historic Moscow connection and alliance a strong rethink after Imran Khan’s visit. All in all, the UAE’s abstention with India at the security council, starts creating a gap in between the four allies. In the long run, will Russia succeed in polarizing the world into a Sino-Russian sphere? If this were to happen, the maximum effects of the Ukrainian invasion and the bombs on Kiev would reverberate in the Middle East and South Asia in the years to come.