The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pakistan’s prime minister couldn’t have picked a worse time to make friends with Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 24. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is famous for his dramatic political turnarounds. He seems to take pride in his own reversals, prompting some to give him the nickname of “U-turn Khan. ”

But his latest policy shift has been a great shock for me and others who have known Khan since he started his political career in the 90s. Back then he positioned himself as a stalwart defender of human rights. Yet now he has become the first foreign leader to meet Putin after his attack on Ukraine, even gushing about the presumed honor.

I remember how Khan once organized a demonstration in Islamabad against the Russian Army’s massacres in Chechnya. His British ex-wife Jemima Goldsmith and their two sons also participated in the protest. Khan gave a speech assailing Moscow, and his supporters chanted “death to Russia. “ Later in the same day, he called me at the paper where I was then working and proposed an editorial against Russian human rights violations in Chechnya, which we later published

Has Khan forgotten that it was Putin, during his term as Russian prime minister, who launched Moscow’s second war against Chechnya in 1999? Not long after that war began, a former rebel Chechen leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, switched sides and helped Putin reassert Moscow’s control over the republic. Later Kadyrov, became president of Chechnya (with the help of a fraudulent election). He was assassinated and years later, his son Ramzan, who is still in charge today, took power.

Ramzan Kadyrov was blacklisted by the U.S. government in 2020 for his involvement in massive human rights violations. Yet during his visit to Moscow, Khan even made a point of meeting with the man some have called the “butcher of Chechnya. ”

All this has been astonishing to watch. Yet there remains the bigger question of why Khan decided to betray Ukraine, which has actually taken Pakistan’s side over the years by supporting Islamabad’s stance on Kashmir.

It’s possible to understand why India is not criticizing Russia over the Ukraine invasion. Delhi and Moscow a friendly relationship that dates back to Soviet times; today Russia is India’s biggest arms supplier. Russia has taken India’s side many times at the U.N. Security Council, repeatedly vetoing resolutions criticizing Delhi on Kashmir. Many Indians now support Putin because they think his stance on Ukraine is similar to India’s stance on Kashmir. One Indian website published an article saying that Putin should “just change [the] Russia map to include Ukraine, like we did with Kashmir. ”

Indians can’t forget that Ukraine opposed India on the Security Council when Delhi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy in 2019. The following year, India opposed a Ukrainian-sponsored Security Council resolution criticizing Russia for human rights abuses in Crimea. The Indians also wanted to punish Ukraine for its arm deals with Pakistan. Just last year, Pakistan awarded an $85 million contract to Ukraine for modernizing the T-80UD tanks it had purchased from Kyiv in the 1990s.

And yet this past week Pakistan joined the 35 countries that abstained from voting against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly. Khan has been trying to play the anti-West card for all it’s worth: when 23 E.U. countries issued a statement calling on Pakistan to condemn the Russian invasion, he lashed out at them, asking why they hadn’t criticized India for violating international law on Kashmir. Even so, his policy toward Russia has now brought him into the same diplomatic camp as India, which also abstained from the UNGA vote.

One might also ask whether his pro-Moscow policy really furthers Pakistan’s national interests. Some Pakistani observers have pointed out that Pakistan’s trade relationship with Europe and the United States is far more important than its business ties with Russia. So why embrace Moscow? One reason might be that he’s exploiting anti-Western sentiments to defuse a no-confidence move against him in the parliament.

The government claims that Khan is pursuing a “balanced and sovereign foreign policy” by not taking sides in an international conflict. But how does this square with Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally of the United States? And how can Khan ignore Russia’s presumed violations of international law in the name of “balance?” I wonder if the prime minister is fully aware of the true consequences of his policy of fake neutrality. Our relations with the United States are almost certain to deteriorate even farther as a result. None of this will help us to restore our troubled standing in the international community.

A top Indian official recently taunted Ukraine for selling weapons to Pakistan. Yet Imran Khan is also appeasing the Indians by selling out Kyiv. Perhaps President Biden has hurt the prime minister’s ego by not paying enough attention to him — but this is hardly a reason for undermining Pakistan’s national interests. Khan is not only standing with Putin, but he is also effectively supporting India, which punished Ukraine for its principled stand on Kashmir. By doing so, the prime minister has lost a huge opportunity to isolate India from the West. Khan’s new romance with Putin is a big blow to Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Loading...