Pakistan performs a fine balancing act, again

The Ukrainians themselves have not shied away from stating that they have received military support from Pakistan (Photo: AFP)
The Ukrainians themselves have not shied away from stating that they have received military support from Pakistan (Photo: AFP)

Summary

  • If reports that Pakistan has been supplying weapons supplies to Ukraine while hobnobbing with Russia are true, it represents another instance of the country’s famed ability to balance the demands of key global players while extracting concessions and resources from each

Several media reports of late have said that Pakistan has been supplying weapons to Ukraine for that country’s resistance against the Russian invasion. Most such reports seem to originate from the Indian media but there is the occasional non-Indian source that goes into some detail about such transfers. 

Pakistan’s defence relationship with Ukraine, over three decades old, is valued at some$1.6 billion but the flow has largely been towards Pakistan, in the form of T-80 UD battle tanks. It is these tanks, and some artillery ammunition, that Pakistan is suspected of sending to Ukraine. The government in Islamabad and Pakistani analysts have regularly denied such reports, but the planned visit of the Ukrainian foreign minister to Islamabad later this week suggests that there is more afoot.

Pakistan is not a major political player on the international stage and its views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict hold little weight. Unlike Russia, which needs all the public support and visibility it can get in the global arena, the Ukrainians do not lack international support or visibility. Their minister’s visit to Pakistan must, therefore, be about more practical matters such as arms and ammunition supplies. The Ukrainians themselves have not shied away from stating that they have received military support from Pakistan.

At the same time, Pakistan has not officially condemned Russia’s invasion. In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised Islamabad for its neutral stance in a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart in Moscow. In fact, the invasion was launched when then Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Moscow, winding up a two-day visit. That visit – the first by a Pakistani Prime Minister in over two decades – was itself the result of a steady uptick in ties with Russia in recent years, even as the Americans were still using Pakistan as a key base for their Afghan operations and the Chinese launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Pakistan and Russia had already been holding regular joint military exercises since 2016 and Khan was pushing for Russian investment in the multibillion-dollar Pakistan Stream gas pipeline between Karachi and Kasur in Punjab province. Lavrov renewed this promise in January and again on the sidelines of the SCO foreign ministers meeting in Goa. Pakistan is already negotiating to buy a second shipment of discounted Russian crude oil.

For India, meanwhile, the larger issue is Pakistan’s ability to remain in the global spotlight despite its poor international image, sinking economy and fractious domestic politics.

If the reports that Pakistan has been supplying weapons supplies to Ukraine while hobnobbing with Moscow are true, it represents another instance of the country’s famed ability to not just balance the demands of key global players but also extract concessions and resources from each.

Pakistan famously played midwife as the US and communist China secretly engaged in talks to establish official ties. And for decades, the country manoeuvred adroitly to benefit from economic and military aid from both countries during the Cold War and for most of this century, despite increasing Sino-US tensions. Even though Pakistan has long seemed destined for the doghouse, given its duplicity in the war on terror, this has not quite happened despite America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Pakistan’s weapons support for Ukraine – likely carried out in coordination with the Americans – will further reduce the chances of it becoming a pariah.

With China and Pakistan recently signing a$4.8 billion agreement for a new 1,200 MW nuclear power plant in Chashma in Punjab province – in violation of Nuclear Suppliers Group rules – the Americans may be trying to keep communication lines with Islamabad and Rawalpindi open. From New Delhi’s perspective, however, it looks like the Americans are still playing all sides in South Asia and increasing the space for both Pakistani mischief and Chinese assertiveness in the region.

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