Pakistan Walks Thin Line Between Russia, Ukraine

Few countries are more conflicted by the latest war in Europe than Pakistan, which purchases military tanks from Ukraine and has just agreed to import 2 million tons of wheat from Russia.

A key non-NATO ally of the United States, Pakistan abstained from voting Wednesday on the U.N. General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. So did 34 other countries, including three in South Asia: India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Pakistani U.N. representative Munir Akram said Pakistan abstained because the resolution did not address some of Russia’s security concerns.

Pakistan’s abstention was all but assured when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the Kremlin last week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

Khan avoided condemning Russia in a televised address on Monday, instead defending the highly criticized trip to Moscow and promising the nation that Pakistan would acquire 2 million tons of wheat from Russia. Khan avoided discussing his country’s defense and commercial agreements with Ukraine.

In a news conference the next day, Ukraine’s ambassador in Islamabad, Markian Chchuk, reminded Pakistan it had imported 1.3 million tons of wheat from Ukraine the previous year. He noted the Ukrainian wheat helped Pakistan’s food security.

“We hope that our Pakistani partners will take a proactive stance in condemning the war and make decisive steps urging Russians to de-escalate tension and stop its aggression,” the Ukrainian ambassador said.

Beyond grain, Pakistan has a great deal of trade with Ukraine, a defense partner since the late 1990s. Neither Khan nor Chchuk mentioned that in his remarks.

Since late 1997, Pakistan has been a major recipient of Ukraine’s advanced T-80UD tanks. According to Jane’s, a leading publication on global defense matters, some 320 Ukrainian tanks have been deployed in Pakistan’s tank force since then.

In an interview with Voice of America’s Deewa Service, retired Pakistani Air Marshal Shahid Latif said, “Before the Soviet Union’s collapse, Ukraine’s technology was the best in the bloc. Pakistan had gotten tanks from China, but Ukraine-made tanks are best in its capabilities.”

Last year, Jane’s reported that Pakistan had agreed to pay Ukraine $85.6 million for the repair and maintenance of 320 Ukrainian T-80US tanks in 2021. The tanks make up a significant portion of the Pakistan armored corps’ non-Chinese tank fleet.

Amjad Shoaib, a retired lieutenant general in the Pakistan army, told VOA, “We have Al-Zarrar and T-80UD tanks. We also have modern Chinese tanks, but you can say the T-80UD tanks are our main battle tanks.”

While Pakistan’s government and military do not disclose the exact number or cost of weapons imported, a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a watchdog for arms control, armaments and disarmament, put the value of the Ukraine-Pakistan defense contracts at $1.6 billion from 1991 to 2020.

The bilateral defense agreements between the two countries are not one-sided. In May 2021, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, was greeted with an honor guard by a Ukrainian military force in Kyiv.

The two countries had agreed to improve military-to-military ties, particularly in defense production, according to a statement issued later by the Pakistan army. Later, Bajwa toured military sites in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which currently is under Russian siege and is the country’s tank-manufacturing heartland.

Pakistan signed a deal with Ukraine in September 2021 for the maintenance of its Ilyushin IL-78 refueling tankers, according to the Ukrainian newspaper Kyiv Post. The value of the deal had not been disclosed by Kyiv authorities, according to the newspaper, although the Ukrainian foreign arms trade agency had mentioned the two countries signed 12 working contracts for a total of $150 million.

Without praising Russia, which was once an opponent for Pakistan in the 1980s, Khan has expressed remorse for Pakistan’s support for the U.S. in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan during the first two decades of the 21st century.

“The most embarrassing part was that a country was fighting in support of a country that was bombing it,” Khan said in his address to the nation, referring to the hundreds of drone attacks in Pakistan against militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions.

The drone campaign and targeted operations killed a number of top terrorists in Pakistan, including al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

This story originated in VOA’s Deewa Service, with contributions by Malik Waqar Ahmad from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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