In February, Geo News, a leading Pakistani news outlet, published an interview with a European Union official in Islamabad in which she acknowledged that Pakistan has been providing “military assistance” to Ukraine.
Hours later, these references were scrubbed from the article without explanation. But they remain visible on the Internet Archive, in the Google cache of the channel’s official Facebook page, and even in the URL of the article itself.
Pakistan’s support for Ukraine is an open secret. Since last year, Pakistani defense manufacturers have been supplying Ukraine with short-range artillery and other military hardware, according to open-source Ukraine watchers and reports in publications such as Le Monde.
Pakistan’s arms sales — as flight records suggest — are delivered to Ukraine indirectly through third parties among Kyiv’s European allies. The arms supplied by Pakistan to Ukraine are modest compared to the Javelin missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers, and Bradley tanks that make up the tens of billions of dollars in military assistance provided by the West. But Pakistan, along with Azerbaijan, is among the few non-Western countries supplying lethal aid to Kyiv.
So why is Pakistan arming Ukraine?
Well, for starters, Ukraine desperately needs arms. Like Russia, it’s been burning through massive amounts of firepower. In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “Artillery is the No. 1 of what we need — both systems and ammunition, as well as shells in large quantities — to stop Russia.” Western manufacturers have had to ramp up defense production to levels unseen in decades to replenish stockpiles and meet Ukrainian needs.
Pakistan can supply Ukraine with some weapons it needs in its war of attrition with Russia. The state-owned Pakistan Ordnance Factories manufactures artillery like the 122mm Yarmuk rockets that are compatible with Ukraine’s Soviet standard multiple-launch rocket systems.
These sales may also help cash-strapped Pakistan earn foreign exchange reserves amid a balance of payments crisis and pay for its own weapons imports. But the risk of leakages is high given the opaque nature of these transactions and Pakistan’s endemic corruption.
For Pakistan, there are also strategic considerations involved. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army has been keen to tilt back toward the West, worried it could get trapped with China in the emerging Cold War. Many Western policymakers see the Russia-Ukraine war as of paramount importance to the survival of the current world order (though this consensus is breaking down). So what better way for Pakistan to get back in the West’s good graces than to help Ukraine shore up its firepower?
Sensing an opportunity, weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Pakistan’s then-army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa contradicted his government’s neutral stance on the war by stating that Russia’s “aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned.”
The Ukraine-Russia power imbalance referenced by Bajwa mirrors that between Pakistan and India. But the West is unlikely to side with Islamabad in the same way against Indian aggression given New Delhi’s perceived importance as a counterweight to Beijing. Western governments also meekly responded to India’s unilateral annexation of the disputed region of Kashmir in 2019.
Aware of this, Bajwa’s personal ambitions were also at play. The then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, who happened to arrive in Moscow on the day Putin announced the Ukraine invasion, was facing growing threats of a vote of no confidence by opposition forces. The campaign to remove Khan from office was backed by Bajwa, who, months later, sought a second extension to his tenure as army chief (and ultimately failed). Pakistan’s support for Ukraine, which continues past Bajwa’s retirement last year, was in part linked to the powerful general’s campaign to portray himself as indispensable to the U.S. and other Western governments.
Bajwa’s successor appears to be continuing with the Western tilt. Locked in a dispute with now ex-Prime Minister Khan, Pakistan’s generals may think their support for Ukraine could cause Western governments to think twice about sanctioning them should they choose to fully take power.
Pakistan’s indirect weapons transfers to Ukraine have made neighboring India anxious. New Delhi fears Islamabad could once again become friends with Washington. Actively courted by the U.S. and its NATO allies, India has thumbed its nose at Western pressure to side with it on the question of Ukraine. Indian officials have instead described the Russia-Ukraine war as a mere “European conflict.” And New Delhi has ramped up imports of Russian oil. India’s stubborn embrace of Russia creates an opening to the West that Pakistan can potentially exploit.
Mindful of this vulnerability, state-aligned “private” Indian news outlets have now redirected their messaging away from the West toward China and Russia, propagating disinformation that “perfidious” Pakistan will send mercenaries to Ukraine to fight on the side of the West.
It may serve Pakistan’s interests to exploit the contradictions of the West’s embrace of an obstinate non-aligned India. But Pakistan’s modest support for Ukraine is not without risks.
Russia, a longtime ally of Pakistan’s archrival India, has the ability to engage in “gray zone” tactics to undermine its perceived adversaries in Pakistan. Pakistan also relies on Russian engines for its JF-17 fighter jet co-manufactured with China. And Islamabad, a net energy importer facing default, may have missed a crucial opportunity to import discounted Russian fuel last year as India had as a result of its eagerness to win the praise of the West.
To be clear, Russia is no ally of Pakistan. Moscow remains New Delhi’s largest military supplier, with roughly $13 billion in arms transactions in the past five years, according to Russian news agencies. Pakistan’s modest support for Ukraine is a drop in the bucket compared to the arsenal supplied to India by Russia.
Pakistan has also enjoyed good ties with Ukraine, which has sold it $1.7 billion in arms since 1997, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That’s less than 10 percent of the $22 billion in arms Pakistan has imported since then, but they include some big-ticket items like hundreds of TU-80D main battle tanks.
Yet, with inflation near all-time highs, it would have made more sense for Pakistan’s rulers to prioritize securing cheaper energy supplies over earning geopolitical brownie points.
This article was updated to correct the percentage of arms transfers (in value) from Ukraine to Pakistan since 1997. It is less than 10 percent of Pakistan’s total imports in that period, not less than one percent, as the article previously stated.
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.