Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is set to arrive in Islamabad on Thursday on his first-ever visit to Pakistan since last year’s Russian invasion. The trip may strike many as curious, given that Pakistan isn’t a major player in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Ukraine Arms Likely on Agenda
Pakistan, like many non-Western countries, says it’s adopted a neutral position in the Russia-Ukraine war. But, compared to other countries in the Global South, it’s an outlier in one big way: it’s been providing Ukraine with weapons. Nothing fancy — mainly artillery shells — but Kyiv is burning through massive amounts of firepower and will take ammunition from wherever it can get it. (The U.S. decision to provide Ukraine with cluster bombs makes the coalition’s desperation clear.)
Kuleba — who may be joined by Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov — could ask for more arms during his visit, though that won’t be mentioned in any readout or local press reports.
The reason? Pakistan has yet to publicly acknowledge that it’s been providing Ukraine with arms. The weapons transfers have been covert, taking place indirectly through other European partners. The behind-the-scenes relationship was, however, acknowledged months ago by a European Union (EU) official in a television interview.
India AWOL on Ukraine
It does not appear that Kuleba will stop by New Delhi on this trip. Strikingly, Ukraine’s diplomatic engagement with India is taking place at a lower level. Emine Dzhaparova, the Ukrainian first deputy foreign minister, visited New Delhi in April. And last week, a mid-level Indian diplomat paid a visit to Ukraine.
India, whose leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made recent state visits to France and the United States — continues to remain an ally of Russia and has emerged as a major importer of Russian oil.
India is using its leadership of the G-20 this year to pronounce its rise as a global power. But it’s been absent when it comes to the biggest war Europe has seen since World War Two, seeing it as a sideshow. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has been dismissive of the Ukraine war, calling it one of “Europe’s problems.”
For his part, Kuleba has harshly criticized New Delhi for its import of Russian oil. He said last August, “Every barrel of Russian crude oil delivered to India has a good portion of Ukrainian blood in it.” Months later, he said India was “benefit[ting] from our suffering,” and called on New Delhi to play a stronger diplomatic role in the war.
Insurance for the Pakistan Army
Though Kuleba’s visit to Islamabad was requested by Kyiv, it is important for Pakistan — especially its powerful army, which is behind the secret provision of arms to Ukraine. The Pakistan Army has been given a cold shoulder by Washington in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. By arming Ukraine, Pakistan is sending a message to Western powers courting India: we can still be useful to you.
The Pakistan Army is also under criticism domestically and internationally for its crackdown on the party of ex-cricketer Imran Khan.
Pakistani intelligence services have been forcing defections from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party after violence targeting military installations that followed the violent arrest of the ex-cricketer by paramilitary forces on May 9.
This month, EU Ambassador to Pakistan Riina Kionka said that “the crackdown on PTI and supporters in the aftermath of May 9th is certainly something that we’re paying a lot of attention to.” Khan and others who remain with PTI could be tried under military courts.
Elements in the army and Pakistan’s current civilian government still fear Khan’s diminished PTI could do well in the polls, which must take place by November. As a result, some would like to see an unelected caretaker government rule Pakistan for an extended period. But Western powers are using quiet diplomatic pressure to force the government to commit to elections this year.
The EU, many of whose member states see the Ukraine war as an existential fight, has a powerful lever of influence over the Pakistani government: the trade preference deal known as the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+).
Pakistan’s GSP+ status with the EU — vital for its textile exports to the continent — is set to expire this year. The state of democracy and human rights in Pakistan are factors under consideration in the review. The Pakistan Army may be hoping that its support for the Ukrainian war effort will give it space to maneuver in its battle against Pakistan’s most popular politician.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.