"So much excitement," Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan remarked upon arriving in Moscow on February 23, the eve of Russia's large-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Khan's long-planned visit, the first by a Pakistani prime minister to Russia in more than two decades, was expected to enhance a strategic relationship with a global power.
Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are looking at increasing security cooperation in regard to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and economic collaboration to revive Pakistan's more than 1,000-kilometer gas pipeline, the completion of which has long been stalled.
A statement by Khan’s office after the February 24 meeting said he told Putin that Islamabad preferred diplomacy over conflict in regard to Ukraine. “The prime minister stressed that conflict was not in anyone’s interest,” it said.
A statement by the Kremlin, however, did not mention Ukraine. The two leaders "discussed the main aspects of bilateral cooperation and exchanged views on current regional topics, including developments in South Asia."
Even before Khan met with Putin, his visit was overshadowed by the widespread international condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
"It remains an ill-timed visit, which is not necessarily going to get Pakistan into trouble," Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan expert at the University of London, told RFE/RL. "But the country will have less sympathy in the West [because of the visit]."
Marvin Weinbaum, the Afghanistan and Pakistan studies director at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, says the “awkward” timing of Khan’s trip might torpedo its main objective of improving relations with Moscow.
“If much of the international community turns strongly against Russia and China refrains from supporting the invasion, any warming of the Pakistan-Russian relationship as a result of the visit would be difficult to sustain,” he told RFE/RL.
While Beijing has refrained from criticizing Russia, it has called for a peaceful solution through negotiations. European powers and the United States are leading an international outcry in condemning the Russian invasion and are likely to add more stringent sanctions to those recently imposed.
Weinbaum said Islamabad and Moscow are likely to collaborate on a crucial shared interest in preventing a spillover of the Islamist militant groups from Afghanistan. The Taliban-led government is not yet recognized by any country. Its neighbors are warily watching the hard-line Islamists continue to harbor militant factions and networks.
“Russia’s interest in cooperation is largely to enlist Pakistan in thwarting the ambitions of Islamic State and other terrorist organizations,” he says.
The Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), an archenemy of the Taliban, is also opposed to Russia and China. It has attracted a sizeable number of volunteers from the Muslim nations of Central Asia and even the Muslim-populated republics within Russia.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker in Pakistan, agrees.
He says the Kremlin would also like to nudge Islamabad into pressuring its longtime Afghan Taliban allies to form an inclusive government with increased representation for the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities, whose members now have little share in the upper echelons of the Taliban-led government that is dominated by hard-line Pashtun clerics.
"Russia is not pushing for democratic pluralism, but it doesn't want the ethnic groups connected to Central Asian countries to be deprived of a role in governing Afghanistan altogether," he told RFE/RL.
Andrei Serenko, an expert at Moscow’s Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, says Russian officials might be looking toward Pakistan after struggling to secure the Taliban’s cooperation in cracking down on drug trafficking and a possible spillover of militants into Central Asia.
"Pakistan's role as curator of the Taliban is well known, so Russia would like to try to use this potential,” he told the South China Morning Post.
Siddiqa says the visit is strategic and aimed at establishing new relations.
“Pakistan is trying to find a place for itself in larger global geopolitics,” she says. Long before the U.S. and NATO departure from Afghanistan last year, Islamabad had looked to protect and promote its interests by cultivating new relations with neighbors and regional powers.
Siddiqa says Islamabad has been eyeing deepening relations with China and Russia for a while. For decades, Islamabad has been a close ally of Beijing. Their partnership was strengthened by their common hostile relations with regional archrival India. Pakistan has attracted tens of billions of dollars in Chinese infrastructure and energy projects.
For nearly a decade, Islamabad has been attempting to redefine its historically hostile relations with Moscow, which is closely allied with New Delhi.
In recent years, successive Pakistani governments have attempted to cultivate better bilateral ties with Russia as India turned into a major U.S. ally as part of Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at preventing China's rise.
Weinbaum says that despite Islamabad's efforts and Khan's intention of not allying with any major powers, the country of 220 million people grappling with skyrocketing inflation and an economic downturn has few real choices in choosing its allies.
“For all that China can do for Pakistan, the country cannot succeed economically and perhaps strategically without also retaining its close ties with the West,” he says. “Pakistan has had a long history of successfully balancing its relationships with competing powers.”
Senior Pakistani officials have touted the idea of soliciting Russian financing and help in building a gas pipeline connecting the southern seaport city of Karachi to the eastern city of Lahore, more than 1,000 kilometers away in Punjab.
“We don’t have the expertise of the scale and size that is needed for this project,” Pakistani Energy Minister Hammad Azhar told The Third Pole, a website covering South Asia. “The project will remain [74 percent] majority-owned by Pakistan to begin with, so it could be a win-win.”
But Weinbaum says Islamabad is unlikely to extract major economic concessions from Moscow comparable to the U.S. military and development assistance it has received in the past or the Chinese investments collectively called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
“Given the level of trade between Pakistan and Russia, and Moscow’s own economic worries, there can be no economic gains from the relationship,” he says.