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‘World Cannot Afford another Cold War’

by Sumeera Riaz

File photo of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

In exclusive interview, Pakistan P.M. Imran Khan outlines the aims for his upcoming visit to Moscow and hopes dialogue will help resolve differences between Russia and Ukraine

Prime Minister Imran Khan is set to travel to Moscow on Wednesday (Feb. 23) at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin—the first such visit by a Pakistani leader in 23 years. Once bitter rivals due to their opposing views during the Cold War, the two countries have moved toward normalization of ties in recent years, bolstered somewhat by a fraying of relations between Islamabad and Washington.

Ahead of the upcoming trip, the prime minister spoke with Newsweek Pakistan via email and hoped for peace to prevail in the brewing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. He also stressed that the true purpose of the trip, which was organized well ahead of the Ukrainian standoff, is to “engage with Russia on areas of mutual interests,” especially in the economic domain. The complete interview follows:

This is the first visit to Russia by a Pakistani prime minister in 23 years. What do you feel makes this trip so significant?

This trip signifies Pakistan’s foreign policy posture of enjoying cordial and mutually beneficial relations with all major powers.

There is immense economic potential in Pakistan-Russian ties, which has remained untapped. Pakistan sees Russia as a potential partner in regional connectivity projects, as well as an investor in Pakistan’s different sectors, especially energy. I hope this trip will prove to be a springboard to push bilateral relations between Islamabad and Moscow to new heights.

I am very much looking forward to the visit.

Under the new National Security Policy, Pakistan is shifting toward a geo-economics model. What are some of the priorities for the country in its future dealings with Moscow?

The geo-economic vision leverages Pakistan’s geographical location for regional connectivity and development partnerships. It envisages Pakistan as the hub of greater regional economic integration.

Pakistan’s geo-economic vision entails greater connectivity with Central Asian Republics and Russia. Moreover, our economic policies provide ample opportunities for Russian investment in different sectors in Pakistan.

Pakistan and Russia are already working on energy pipeline projects to streamline gas transmission. Besides future investments and partnerships, both countries will try to expedite work on existing projects.

The upcoming trip is expected to cover a gamut of bilateral ties, including trade, diplomacy and international politics. What sector would be the major focus of your talks?

There are plenty of issues that concern both Pakistan and Russia.

Both countries will engage on a spectrum of issues, including strengthening economic ties, energy and trade matters, and security and regional cooperation, particularly through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In addition, both Pakistan and Russia are engaged in averting the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and common challenges that may emanate if Afghanistan is not stabilized.

The U.S. claims that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is imminent and there is great fear of any potential conflict expanding beyond its borders. How do you see the timing of your visit impacting the global perception of Pakistan, particularly in the West?

Pakistan and Russia had been trying to increase their bilateral ties for some time now, and this visit was planned well before the emergence of the current phase of Ukrainian crisis. I received the invitation from President Putin much earlier.

The purpose of the visit is to engage with Russia on areas of mutual interests, especially in the economic domain.

What is Pakistan’s official position on the Ukraine crisis? What do you hope to convey to President Vladimir Putin about the conflict during your talks with him? Any message to the rest of the global community?

We believe in an equitable world order where the legitimate interests of all countries are protected. We can only meet our shared global challenges like climate change and poverty through international cooperation. We hope that dialogue will help resolve any differences. Pakistan stands for diplomacy, not conflict.

If a conflict were to break out, it risks further raising global commodity prices and adding to the current wave of inflation. Does the government have any plans to reduce the impact of such a development on the average citizen?

If a conflict were to break out, no country would be immune from its possible repercussions. Pakistan is no exception. Global supply chains will be affected. Energy crisis and commodity prices may increase, thereby burdening developing countries disproportionately.

There are concerns that this visit could be perceived by some as Pakistan siding with Russia against the U.S. in a new ‘Cold War.’ What are your comments about such fears?

As clearly articulated in the National Security Policy, Pakistan does not believe in camp politics.

Pakistan’s national interests are served by having cordial and good relations with all major powers. Rather than operating in a Cold War mentality, Pakistan seeks to capitalize on its geo-economic location to become a melting pot of economic interests and establish development partnerships with regional states and major powers.

The world cannot afford another Cold War.

The sole purpose of the visit is to engage on issues of bilateral and regional nature because Pakistan and Russia are fully committed to improving our ties as we believe this is in our mutual interest.

How major a role do you believe Russia can play in helping ensure stability in Afghanistan?

Being a major power and due to its geographical and historical affinity, Russia has a significant role to play in ensuring stability in Afghanistan.

Pakistan and Russia have engaged through bilateral and multilateral forums on the issue of Afghanistan. Both countries realize that a humanitarian crisis will only exacerbate the sufferings of common Afghan people and a destabilized Afghanistan will amplify security challenges for both Pakistan and Russia.

Besides working together to avert a humanitarian crisis and evolve a regional consensus on this issue, Pakistan has constantly tried to impress upon the world that disengagement will mean greater challenges for the region and the world.

Do you believe that Russia can serve as a mediator between Pakistan and India over the issue of Kashmir, as Moscow had previously helped the two nations after the 1965 war?

Pakistan welcomes all efforts by any country in helping end the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir and help resolve the Kashmir dispute in accordance with UNSC resolutions.

The internationally recognized dispute of Jammu and Kashmir is the core issue between Pakistan and India. It is the responsibility of the world and international powers not to turn a deaf ear to the humanitarian catastrophe playing out in Indian-occupied Kashmir. The world had promised the Kashmiri people their right to self-determination through multiple UNSC resolutions.

Unfortunately, India is in the grip of an extremist Hindutva ideology based on racial superiority which is threatening the rights of all its minorities as well as regional peace and stability. This very ideology has made Kashmiri identity a particular target through illegal and unilateral attempts to alter Indian-occupied Kashmir’s demography, while continuing human rights violations and committing war crimes against the Kashmiri people.

President Vladimir Putin has supported your stance against Islamophobia. How do you hope to take this conversation forward during your visit to Russia?

Pakistan appreciates and welcomes President’s Putin stance against Islamophobia. I have personally conveyed my regards to President Putin for his timely and much needed stance on an issue that deeply affects the entire Muslim world.

In recent years, Muslims have witnessed increased amount of discrimination. In our immediate neighbor, religious minorities, especially Muslims, are facing crimes of hate and there are leaders calling for their genocide.

At a time when the world faces challenges like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic demanding collective action and cooperation, hatred because of religion will further divide the world.

We hope the world realizes the genuine apprehensions and threats Muslims face collectively. I will continue to stand against Islamophobia and champion the cause through dialogue and intellectual debate.

Precisely for this reason, my government recently established the Rehmatul-lil-Alameen Authority to create awareness about the true spirit of Islam and counter Islamophobia.

Pakistan and Russia are already working together on the Gas Stream Pipeline. Do you expect any further progress on this during your visit? Is there any possibility of Moscow helping Pakistan overcome its energy crisis?

The completion of this project is a priority for Pakistan and we are committed to it. The pipeline will not only help alleviate Pakistan’s energy deficit, but will also lead to internal streamlining of gas transmission.

Are there any plans to muster Russian support for the revitalization of the Pakistan Steel Mills, as it had helped to establish it? Any other aspects of the economic agenda you would be taking with you that you would like to share?

Pakistan seeks to have a broad-based relationship with Russia. The core focus is to strengthen economic ties, increase trade, expedite work on existing energy projects and identify new areas of mutual cooperation in economic, cultural and security cooperation.

Pakistan has already undertaken some measures to revive PSM, but Pakistan would welcome any support from Russia in this sector as well.

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