Cozying up to Comrade Putin?

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Prime Minister Imran Khan should be careful, as he cozies up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, that he doesn’t walk into a minefield that’s easy to get into but near about impossible to come out of without losing a pound of flesh; at the very least. The two sides have been moving slowly closer for six or seven years now, but two phone calls between Islamabad and Moscow in four months was unheard of even before the Soviet jihad. There are of course those who argued that if it was our warm waters that the Russians were really after then we should have given it to them, which would not be very different from how the Syrians gave them the strategic Turtous port; in return for a whole lot of strategic advantages. Of course we’ll never know whether that really made more sense than tying our fate with Washington or not. But more or less the same bunch now argues that we should still, especially now, pivot towards the Russia-China-Iran axis that is not just solidifying across the region but also testing the fresh waters of non-dollar regional trade which also involves oil.

But that’s a very tricky call right now. Prime Minister Khan and President Putin are due to meet at the opening ceremony of the winter Olympics in Beijing early next month, where they’re sure to hog the spotlight because the US is leading a western country boycott of the event in reaction to China’s alleged human rights violations. And that’s happening when China is also importing oil from Iran in blatant defiance of US sanctions; effectively calling Washington’s bluff. Add to that the heightened threat of war over Ukraine because of a breakdown, effectively, of talks between Russia, America and Nato, and you know just why markets all the way from Brent crude to US Treasuries are rattling right now. They are clearly factoring in that when, not if, push comes to shove, these countries will stand with each other for the simple fact that they have nothing to lose. They’re also bracing for more financial as well as political tension because Europe gets much of its gas from Russia through Ukraine. And markets are the best out there at putting two and two together because Big Money’s money is always involved.

Pakistan and Russia surely have enough on the table to cultivate further common ground. There’s the gas pipeline. Pakistan needs lots of gas and Russia has lots of it, so a lot of people must be thinking about working out a win-win situation. There’s also Afghanistan. Both countries played a part in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. And both are calling for resumption of aid to that country. Both calls from Islamabad to Moscow, in fact, revolved around Afghanistan. But perhaps Pakistan and Russia are also the two countries that know best just how America is going to react to such possibilities. It’s already unhappy enough with how close CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) has brought us to China to make India its principal regional ally in its Pivot to Asia policy. And it will pull whatever FATF (Financial Action Task Force) and IMF (International Monetary Fund)-like strings it has to in order rule out anything that the Kremlin might find pleasing.

President Putin once implied that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy/catastrophe of the 20th century. His critics at home accuse him of imposing a Soviet-style clampdown on all sorts of political dissent while his detractors outside the country fear that he might want to extend present-day Russia’s influence over former client states once again. Either way, he has certainly turbo-charged Russia’s oil earnings as well as diplomatic outreach; particularly in the Middle East which US foreign policy had begun taking for granted. Russia’s intervention in Syria, for instance, exposed the so-called Arab Spring and defeated a project that had drawn billions of dollars from countries on both sides of the Atlantic and the Arabian Sea.

Now Moscow and Beijing, with Tehran never far behind, are picking a calculated fight with Washington. It’s already tightened the oil market, with prices further buoyed by the uncertainty caused by the Houthi drone strike on an Abu Dhabi oil facility. And prices will quickly flirt with the $100 per barrel if a spark is lit anywhere from Ukraine to Yemen; which is going to be very bad news for countries like Pakistan. How wise, then, is the PM’s idea of enlightening Putin about his Riyasat-e-Madina ideals when they sit down to talk about Afghanistan in China? The Russian Bear is sure to offer a very warm embrace; one that will test whether or not Pakistan is prepared for such a big shift. But a country that needs loans to survive and more loans to pay back old loans is likely to disappoint Comrade Putin about its place in his big plans for the region.

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