The Ukraine crisis and Pakistan

The writer says Pakistan’s geopolitical relevance to both Russia and China will be enhanced, especially for possible trade and communications corridors.


March 14, 2022

ISLAMABAD – THE Russian invasion of Ukraine is a point of inflection in world affairs, similar to the US outreach to China in the early 1970s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The situation is unfolding. There are many imponderables including how it will impact Russia itself. Its consequential character is obvious but the direction is not clear. Pakistan should be concerned about what the development portends for the future.

Russia has ostensibly acted to secure its periphery. It has done so like a great power which accords primacy to its perceived interests rather than show sensitivity to the principles of inter-state relations set out in the UN Charter. The invasion of Ukraine has been preceded by deep differences between Moscow and the West led by Washington with barely concealed ambition to bring into the fold of its political and security system not just the erstwhile Warsaw Pact countries but also Ukraine and Georgia which had once been Soviet territories. President Putin had repeatedly urged that Ukraine must not be part of Nato.

The quasi-ideological underpinning of this ambition was the belief in the emergence of a US-led unipolar world which did not countenance any sphere of influence, security or economic, by a rival power. For almost three decades, the US has enjoyed unprecedented economic and military preponderance globally. This propelled the expansion of Nato to the doorsteps of Russia, taking advantage of the desire of the East Europeans themselves even though in contravention of the reported verbal assurance given to Moscow at the time of the reunification of Germany. The US challenged Russia in the Middle East, and organised the Quad enlisting Japan and India as partners in a wider Indo-Pacific strategy. The economic rise of China and signs of a resurgent Russia are viewed as a threat. Nonetheless, uni-polarism was inherently destabilising in a world moving towards multipolarity. On the other hand, the Russian invasion displays utter disregard for UN Charter principles and international law. Russia faced no imminent threat to justify its action which is a fatal blow to aspirations for world peace based on principles and diplomacy and discourse among states. President Putin should have exercised a number of other less egregious options short of armed aggression against Ukraine.

How has Pakistan navigated this early phase of the crisis and what challenges lie ahead?

The United States and Europe have reacted with most stringent economic sanctions, including the scuttling of the mega Nord Stream Gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, and steps to buttress the security of the eastern flank of Nato and support to Ukraine. Even if the security dimension remains confined to Central Europe and Ukraine, the global economic map will change with new walls blocking the erstwhile free flow of dollar-based finances and trade. This portends a new world order in which so far the United States appears to have a strong position. Europe has pulled together behind the United States as never before.

Beyond the European theatre which will now demand greater attention on the part of the United States, the US capacity for proactive security initiatives elsewhere particularly in Asia-Pacific will diminish. This will increase comfort space for China.

There are some diplomatic initiatives to arrest the conflict although their prospects remain clouded or unclear. Israel is trying mediation. Turkey offered a venue for talks between the Russian and the Ukrainian foreign ministers which reportedly discussed the resulting humanitarian crisis. In substance, Russia demands nothing short of a total surrender, while Ukrainians who are putting up remarkable resistance ask for a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal. There is a faint hope that Moscow may be content with Ukrainian neutrality and firm assurances that Nato will not further expand. Perhaps China, given the congruence of its interests with Russia especially in Central Asia, together with some EU countries can play a role. For any solution, however, Moscow will have to abandon its desire to absorb the entire or parts of Ukraine and replace the elected Ukrainian government and Washington will have to suppress its impulse to retain unipolar primacy.

How has Pakistan navigated this early phase of the crisis and what challenges lie ahead? Are there any opportunities?

Pakistan’s decision to maintain the prime minister’s visit was sound, given the fact that for years Pakistan had been trying to inject trust and facility in our relations with Moscow. Similarly, our decision to abstain was a logical choice following the Chinese and the Indian vote in the Security Council. Pakistan has been fairly pragmatic in its decisions when a situation involved major powers. In January 1980, as a lead country to negotiate a resolution in the Security Council on the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, we successfully resisted naming the Soviet Union and asked for the withdrawal of “foreign troops”. Our official criticism of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the American interventions in Syria and Libya was circumspect.

Principles are important, but nations weigh their core interests when taking decisions in fraught and critical situations. The démarche by EU ambassadors was understandable, but they overreached in making public their communication with the Foreign Office. There was no similar action in New Delhi. How could they entertain greater expectations from Islamabad given their opposition to Pakistan’s interests in FATF or the Nuclear Suppliers Group or their near indifference to the plight of Kashmiris and the Hindutva-discriminated Indian Muslims? Regardless of this indiscretion which only deserved a riposte by the Foreign Office, we should maintain a clear emphasis in our statements in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and avoidance of violence targeting civilians, while calling for recourse to diplomacy and to a peaceful resolution. But dragging this policy on to public platforms for domestic political advantage is inadvisable.

Are there any opportunities for Pakistan? Arguably, Pakistan’s geopolitical relevance to both Russia and China will be enhanced, especially for possible trade and communications corridors. Afghanistan remains an obstacle. Also, unlike the countries endowed by Providence with oil, we will need capacities to leverage our location to build national strength. Mere aspiration is not enough. So far our domestic politics has shown inexcusable apathy towards this imperative as reflected in the sad predicament of our economy and education. Lastly, Pakistan is safe today because nuclear deterrence is an integral part of its security: a lesson reinforced by the Ukrainian crisis.

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