Did Imran Khan's Moscow visit lead to his downfall?

Did Imran Khan's Moscow visit lead to his downfall?
Imran Khan controversially visited Moscow amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a move that he believes he was reprimanded for by the US that facilitated the no-confidence vote against him and his subsequent ousting, writes Syed Fazl-e-Haider.
5 min read
03 Jun, 2022
Khan's visit was scheduled long before the Ukraine conflict, but that it was not cancelled in wake of Russia's invasion of the Ukraine sent a message to Western powers, writes Syed Fazl-e-Haider. [GETTY]

A few days before his removal from office, Imran Khan in his televised address to the nation revealed that during a meeting with Pakistan's ambassador to the US, an American official had said that the former PM should not have gone to Russia.

Imran Khan was ousted on April 10 through a vote of no-confidence in parliament. Khan accused the US of hatching a conspiracy to topple his government and of channelling funds to some opposition leaders in order to influence the turnout of the vote. Khan claims that this was due to his independent foreign policy and particularly his visit to Moscow that raised eyebrows in Washington.

This visit, which took place in February, was of strategic significance and timing. It came at a time when Russia and the West were facing off over Ukraine and when the world seemed to be returning to the politics of the Cold War era. The trip therefore raised questions about Pakistan's neutrality over the Ukraine crisis.

It is worth mentioning that the Kremlin supported Khan's allegations against Washington and lambasted the attempt by the US for regime change in Islamabad. Russia considered it to be "shameless interference" in the internal affairs of Pakistan with the aim of punishing "disobedient" Khan.

''Khan's visit to Moscow had therefore clearly sent the wrong message to the West. Because whilst Khan's visit was scheduled long before the Ukraine conflict, it was not cancelled in wake of Russia's invasion.''

The spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova said, “[i]mmediately after the announcement of the working visit of Imran Khan to Moscow on February 23-24 this year, the Americans and their Western associates began to exert rude pressure on the prime minister, demanding an ultimatum to cancel the trip.” 

'Regime change' in Pakistan has historically been brought about by the direct or indirect intervention of the country's powerful military establishment, which has ruled over the country for almost half of its 75-year long history. It has been the military generals who have been the real 'makers and breakers' of the king in power in Islamabad. 

The big question arises here: Was Pakistan's powerful security establishment not on the same page with the political government when it came to former prime minister Khan's visit to Moscow in February and the country's stand on Ukraine? 

Khan insists that there was civil-military consensus on his Moscow trip and the Ukraine crisis, but the country's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa's statement tells a different story.

There was a difference between the Khan's position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and that of General Bajwa. Khan abstained from condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine discarding the US pressure. He was toeing China’s line, given it is a close friend of Pakistan.

Contrary to the policy of the Khan government, Pakistan's military establishment vehemently condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and termed it a tragedy. On April 2, while speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, General Bajwa expressed serious concern over the conflict and declared that Russia's aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned. 

Bajwa also wished to expand relations with the US at a time when the former PM was accusing the country of hatching a conspiracy against him. 

While Khan wanted to pursue an independent and bold foreign policy, the establishment has been in favour of a 'balanced' approach— the one that would not strengthen relations with a nation at the expense of Pakistan’s relations with others.

Pakistan has astutely maintained a balance in its relations with the US and China over the past decades. Islamabad played the role of US frontline ally in the war on terror for 20 years after its invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11. This was whilst maintaining an all-weather friendship with China.

Since the end of the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Pakistan did its best to avoid getting involved in the bloc politics of big powers.

Khan's visit to Moscow had therefore clearly sent the wrong message to the West. Because whilst Khan's visit was scheduled long before the Ukraine conflict, it was not cancelled in wake of Russia's invasion.

On the other hand, the cancellation of the trip would have sent the wrong message to Moscow at a time when the US and its Western allies were lambasting Russia's attack and imposing sanctions. A withdrawal from the visit would have shown complicity.

Historically, Imran Khan was a child of the establishment, from his electoral win to his appointment as prime minister in 2018. Now, Khan seems to have turned his guns on the military establishment for not helping defeat a no-confidence vote against his government.

The establishment has been keeping him in power over the past three and half years, but this time it decided to remain neutral in the power game. However, they will have to reconcile with the fact that Khan enjoys widespread support from the masses and has demonstrated that he is not withdrawing following political defeat.

Once an asset, Khan has now become a liability for the establishment. The question is, will they ‘deal’ with Khan and his party in the same way that other defiant political parties were in the past- either crushed or fragmented into several factions? Does his populist support change anything?

Khan's ouster also raises questions about the fate of the Moscow-Islamabad romance. Khan has made it clear that he will present himself in the next elections and run on an independent foreign policy ticket. If victorious, his return to power could further strengthen Pakistan's relations with Russia, most likely at the expense of its relations with the US.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including 'Economic Development of Balochistan'.

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