ISLAMABAD—Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Monday that his country will import about 2 million tons of wheat from Russia and buy natural gas as well under bilateral agreements the two sides signed last week during his official trip to Moscow.
Khan pressed on with his two-day visit and met with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Thursday, hours after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, with Western countries pushing to isolate the Russian leader for his actions.
On Monday, the Pakistani prime minister defended his trip and responded to critics in a televised speech to the nation, saying Pakistan’s economic interests required him to do so.
“We went there because we have to import 2 million tons of wheat from Russia. Secondly, we have signed agreements with them to import natural gas because Pakistan’s own gas reserves are depleting,” Khan said.
“Inshallah (God willing), the time will tell that we have had great discussions,” the Pakistani leader said, referring to his three-hour meeting with Putin. He shared no further details.
Critics, however, are skeptical about Moscow-Islamabad economic collaboration, citing tougher international sanctions slapped on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
On Thursday, Putin warmly received Khan at the Kremlin in front of cameras, shook hands and sat just next to the visitor for what Pakistani officials said were wide-ranging consultations on bilateral, regional and international issues.
“The Prime Minister regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict,” a post-meeting statement quoted Khan as telling Putin.
Pakistani officials and Khan himself maintained that the Moscow visit was planned long before the Ukraine crisis erupted and was aimed solely at reviewing bilateral trade relations, including energy cooperation.
Pakistan’s frosty relations with the United States, analysts say, have pushed the South Asian nation closer to its giant neighbors China and Russia in recent years.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who accompanied Khan on the visit, said after the delegation returned to Pakistan that Washington had contacted Islamabad ahead of the Moscow trip.
“[U.S. officials] presented their position and we explained to them the purpose of the trip and went ahead with it,” Qureshi told reporters when asked whether the U.S. was opposed to the visit. “I’m convinced after the visit that we did the right thing.”
Speaking on the eve of Khan’s trip to Russia, a U.S. State Department spokesman, when asked about it, said Washington believed that Pakistan, like “every responsible” country, would voice objection to Putin’s actions.
But Pakistani leaders have avoided criticizing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and stressed the need for seeking a negotiated settlement to the crisis.
Islamabad also has developed close economic and military ties with Ukraine in recent years, with Pakistan being a major importer of Ukrainian wheat.
Qureshi spoke to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Sunday and reiterated Islamabad’s “serious concern at the situation, underscoring the importance of de-escalation, and stressing the indispensability of diplomacy.”
Pakistan sided with the U.S. during the Cold War and played an instrumental role in arming as well as training Washington-funded resistance to the decadelong Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980s.
While Islamabad’s often uneasy relations with Washington have lately strained over the country’s backing of the Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan, ties between India and the U.S. have solidified in recent years due to shared concerns stemming from China’s growing influence in the region.
India, Islamabad’s bitter foe, had close ties with Russia during the Cold War, as Moscow was a major arms exporter to New Delhi.
Moscow has restored ties with Islamabad in recent years, however. The two countries routinely hold joint military exercises and are working to deepen energy cooperation to help Pakistan overcome shortages.
Khan in his address Monday reiterated that Pakistan’s decision to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan was an outcome of “the wrong foreign policy” of his predecessors.
“I maintained from day one that we should not have taken part [in the U.S.-led war],” he said, adding that Pakistan suffered 80,000 casualties because of an Islamist retaliation and incurred billions of dollars in economic losses.
“The most embarrassing part was that a country was fighting in support of a country that was bombing it,” Khan said, referring to U.S. drone strikes against suspected militant hideouts in Pakistani areas near the Afghan border.
Khan also announced a cut in fuel and electricity prices to help offset a steep rise in the global oil market because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
He promised to freeze the new prices until the next budget in June. Critics said the move could result from opposition protests over rising inflation that officials blame on the coronavirus outbreak and tough economic reforms the government is undertaking in line with a $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund.
By Ayaz Gul