Islamabad, Pakistan – Days before Switzerland hosts a global summit aimed at thrashing out a path towards peace in Ukraine, Pakistan is trapped in a quandary – should it attend?

Pakistan has maintained a neutral stance on Russia’s war on Ukraine, and many analysts believe that the country of 236 million people has far too much at stake – from Ukrainian weapons to Russian oil – to skip the conclave. But others caution that Pakistan’s decision might partly be influenced by China’s move to boycott the summit, which Russia, too, will not be attending. China is arguably Pakistan’s most important strategic partner today.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry confirmed last month that it received an invitation from Swiss authorities for the two-day summit in Lucerne, starting on June 15. Yet it is still to decide whether to participate. “Still under discussion,” Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told Al Jazeera via WhatsApp on Thursday.

More than 160 countries have been invited to participate in the summit, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested Switzerland to host. At least 90 countries have confirmed participation. But Moscow and Beijing will not be joining the meeting.

Tughral Yamin, a former military official and senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies Islamabad (IPSI), said it was important for Pakistan to participate.

“Pakistan must attend the summit. It has stakes in the war. We have strong defence relations with Ukraine, whereas we are trying to build strong ties with Russia as well which can provide us oil, so attending this makes complete sense,” he told Al Jazeera.

Fahd Humayun, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University, concurred, pointing to how Pakistan has argued for an end to the war while maintaining a neutral position on the conflict.

“There is of course the imperative of not wanting to be seen as being aligned with any one party,” he said. “However, since this is a peace summit, there is also an opportunity for Pakistan to have a voice on an important regional issue and to signal that its attendance is not in any way tantamount to taking sides in the conflict,” Humayun told Al Jazeera.

“It will signal that we are partners in de-escalating a global conflict, rather than picking sides. That point can be deftly signalled in advance to all stakeholders,” he added.

Pakistan’s Russia-Ukraine tightrope walk

Pakistan has cultivated strong ties with Ukraine going back three decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Pakistan has bought several high-value Ukrainian weapons systems including tanks. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that Ukraine supplied weapons worth nearly $1.6bn to Pakistan until 2020.

However, recent years have seen Pakistan also strengthening relations with Russia, a country that it traditionally kept its distance from during the Cold War, when Islamabad was more closely aligned with the West.

Pakistan's former premier Imran Khan met Russian president Vladimir Putin in February 2022, the day war against Ukraine began. [Mikhail Klimentyev/EPA]
Pakistan’s former premier Imran Khan met Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022, the day the war against Ukraine began [Mikhail Klimentyev/EPA]

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who visited Russia on the day the war began in February 2022, later suggested that he was removed from power as part of a United States conspiracy because he was trying to bolster ties with Russia. The US has denied those allegations.

Following the start of the war, despite maintaining neutrality, multiple reports have suggested that Pakistan has supplied artillery ammunition to Ukraine. The Intercept, a US publication, alleged in a report last year that the US facilitated a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to Pakistan in exchange for arms supplied to Ukraine.

Pakistan has repeatedly denied these claims, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba endorsing Pakistan’s neutrality during his visit to Islamabad in July last year.

Meanwhile, even after Khan’s removal from the prime minister’s position, Pakistani leaders have kept up intense diplomatic engagements. Current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif met President Vladimir Putin twice in two months in late 2022, months after former premier Khan’s visit to Moscow.

Pakistan also signed a crude oil deal with Russia in April 2023, receiving the first shipment two months later, at a time when the West was pressuring countries to stop buying Russian oil.

Taimur Khan, a research associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) who specialises in ties with Russia, said Pakistan had an opportunity to benefit from Moscow’s pivot towards Asia at a time when its ties with the West are at their worst since the end of the Cold War.

But Khan said he was sceptical about the summit’s outcomes, because of Russia’s absence. “The summit is premised on the peace formula presented by President Zelenskyy, a formula that Russia out rightly rejects, and both the main parties to the conflict [Russia and Ukraine] not being genuinely interested in any peace talks due to the volatile and fluid situation on the battlefield,” he added.

The Swiss government has not invited Russia to the summit as yet, despite being open to extending an invitation. Russia has publicly dismissed the summit as “absurd” and an “idle pastime”.

But there’s another factor complicating Pakistan’s decision on whether to attend the Swiss summit, said analysts: China.

Will Pakistan do what China won’t?

On May 31 China made clear that it would not participate in the Swiss summit.

“China has always insisted that an international peace conference should be endorsed by both Russia and Ukraine, with the equal participation of all parties, and that all peace proposals should be discussed in a fair and equal manner. Otherwise, it will be difficult for it to play a substantive role in restoring peace,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.

The Ukraine-Russia war has entered its third year now. [Sergey Kozlov/EPA]
The Ukraine-Russia war has entered its third year now [Sergey Kozlov/EPA]

Khan, the ISSI scholar, said China’s position should not dictate Pakistan’s.

“If China has made the decision of not attending the summit for its own reasons, it does not mean that Pakistan should follow suit if it does not fulfil its interests,” he said.

Humayun, the Tufts University scholar, said that if Pakistan eventually chooses to not attend the summit, that decision ought not to affect its ties with the West.

“Should Pakistan choose not to attend, in principle, it ought not to impact relations with either the European Union or the US, which should understand that countries in the Global South (including India) have an independent set of compulsions which they are navigating, and prerogatives as sovereign countries,” he said.

Khan, the ISSI analyst, said that if Pakistan stays away from Lucerne, that decision also is unlikely to lead to economic consequences at a time when it needs assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where the US wields major influence.

“There is no doubt that Pakistan desperately needs economic assistance from partners and allies, as well as the IMF. However, I do not believe that it will have major economic repercussions for Pakistan if it chooses not to attend,” he said.

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