In recent days, as part of an attempt to gain the Pakistani public’s support for Ukraine, Britain’s new high commissioner in Islamabad has made a series of rather obtuse remarks on the war.
On Thursday, the British envoy, Jane Marriott, co-authored an op-ed with her Ukrainian counterpart in a Pakistani English-language news outlet in which they called on Pakistan “to continue to support” Ukraine.
Curiously, they neglected to mention how exactly Pakistan has been supporting Ukraine. That support has not been at the diplomatic level. Pakistan, like India and much of the Global South, has abstained from United Nations votes condemning Russia.
So how exactly has Pakistan been helping Ukraine? Well, a European Union official let the cat out of the bag in February when she recognized in an interview with a Pakistani news outlet that Pakistan was providing “military assistance” to Ukraine.
The web article was later scrubbed of references to military aid. But Pakistan’s covert arming of Ukraine with 120mm, 122mm, and 155mm artillery rockets through Western partners, including the United Kingdom, has not only been an open secret since last year, it’s also controversial.
Why Pakistan’s Support for Ukraine Is Controversial
In early 2022, the then-prime minister and now-imprisoned Imran Khan publicly called for a neutral stance on the Ukraine war. He found himself in Moscow when President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion. Days later EU envoys publicly pressed Khan’s government to condemn the Russian invasion. Khan responded with defiance. At a public rally, he asked the EU if Pakistan was their “slave.”
Behind the scenes, there was also intense pressure from the United States. A leaked Pakistani diplomatic cable published by The Intercept this month revealed that the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia told Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington that Khan’s removal would be welcomed by the Biden administration as it believed — incorrectly — that the Moscow visit was his idea only.
In his final days in power, Khan reiterated his government’s neutrality on Ukraine at an international policy summit in Islamabad, only to be publicly contradicted hours later by the then-army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who condemned the Russian invasion.
Days later, Bajwa greenlighted Khan’s ouster through a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly.
Pakistan’s “support” for Ukraine is controversial because it’s secret, triggers the Pakistani public’s fears of getting caught up in someone else’s war again, and is tied to the political turmoil and growing repression the country has seen since last year.
Since this May, the Pakistan Army has gone into overdrive seeking to dismantle Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), abducting Khan’s allies to force their resignations from the party.
This month, Khan was arrested and convicted in a sham trial to prevent him from leading PTI in general elections. He remains imprisoned along with thousands of his supporters.
The West has been virtually silent on Pakistan’s democratic backsliding. It feeds into Pakistani suspicions of a quid pro quo they’re familiar with: the Pakistan Army supports the West in a major geopolitical conflict; in exchange, the West pays a blind eye to the Pakistan Army’s consolidation of power.
Pakistan, Global South Pay Price for ‘Ukrainism’
In a subsequent interview with the Pakistani press, Marriott — the British envoy — hailed the Pakistan Army and also spoke of opportunities for “skilled labor in Pakistan” to take part in “the reconstruction of Ukraine.”
The export of labor is a major source of foreign exchange for Pakistan. But given that much of Pakistan, ravaged by last year’s floods and decades of conflict, still needs reconstruction, to speak of the rebuilding of a foreign, European land reflects a condescending, almost perverse “Ukrainism” in which the outcome of this European war trumps all other considerations, not just for Europe, but also for poor, developing countries like Pakistan.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine sent food and fuel prices in Pakistan through the roof. Western powers pressed Khan’s successors not to import discounted Russian oil until a price cap was imposed. They obliged.
Today, inflation in Pakistan remains around 30 percent. Skyrocketing electricity bills are driving ordinary Pakistanis to suicide.
The West also responded tepidly to epic floods that submerged a third of Pakistan last year. Pakistan was no anomaly. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, many of the world’s most vulnerable people — including Rohingya refugees and Somalis facing historic drought — have struggled to get support due to “donor fatigue.” And yet, every other week, it seems, the Biden administration announces billions more in support for Ukraine.
The suffering of the Ukrainian people as a result of Russia’s illegal invasion is undeniable. But Western interlocutors fail to persuade publics in the Global South to take their side on the Ukraine war in part because their arguments are premised on demoting the interests of developing countries to those of Europe and their own suffering to that of the Ukrainians.
While India has simply used the Ukraine war as an opportunity to maximize its self-interest, its top diplomat, S. Jaishankar rightly said last year that “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”
There is a world beyond Ukraine. Rather than infantilize publics in the Global South, Western interlocutors need to do a lot more listening.
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.