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Why the EU wants Pakistan to condemn Russia. (And why it probably won’t.)

by Shazad Ali

Russia-Pakistan relations

In December 2014, the EU envoy to Pakistan, Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, urged the country to condemn Russia over what he characterised as ‘violations by a very aggressive Russia against Ukraine’.

The EU ambassador, who was invited by the national assembly’s foreign affairs committee in Islamabad to speak on how to strengthen Pakistan-EU relations, went a step further by saying Pakistan should condemn Russia ‘if it wants to make a real gesture towards [the] EU’. While Wigemark clarified that his remarks were not intended to ask Pakistan to take ‘drastic measures’ in relations to its ties with Russia, they were nonetheless very unhelpful.

Wigemark’s intervention has been made at a time when there is a thaw in Pakistan-Russia relations after decades of animosity and mistrust. In the first visit of a Russian defence minister to Islamabad since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, last month Sergei Shoigu signed what is being called a milestone defence cooperation agreement between the two countries. There are also reports that Moscow has approved the sale of 20 Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan, which will help Islamabad in its fight against militants. In addition to military cooperation, Pakistan also aims to promote multi-dimensional cooperation with Russia, inviting investment in infrastructure and energy, and increasing bilateral trade.

While the new friendship with Moscow is attractive for Islamabad, Wigemark’s warning puts Pakistan in a difficult position. Islamabad has been a recipient of €600 million per year in bilateral and multilateral assistance from the EU and several European states. The Pakistan-EU trade volume, which stood at €8.35 billion in 2013, makes up 20% of Pakistan’s total trade. Pakistan’s export volume to the EU is also likely to increase following the much-awaited preferential market access that came into effect in 2014.

The EU’s rather hawkish position smacks of double standards. While the 28-member bloc wishes Pakistan to condemn Russia, it has not pressed India or China – two of the largest trading partners with the EU – to do the same. This is surprising, given that, for example, India recently once more welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to the country, and neither the EU nor the United States raised concerns over the signing of a series of major energy and defence agreements between Moscow and New Delhi.

It would seem that the EU does not want to risk hurting its financial interests by demanding that India or China condemn Russia. But in Pakistan’s case, the EU can make such a demand, as it has been a source of considerable financial assistance to the country, and now wants Pakistan to pay this back in kind. The EU may force Islamabad to buckle under pressure – as they say, you do not bite the hand that feeds you – but it will be a diplomatic blunder, and will unwittingly hurt its own interest in the long term.

Terrorism in the name of Islam is a global menace. Pakistan, Russia, Europe and the United States have all been affected by it. The EU’s insistence that Pakistan condemn Russia will hinder Pakistani forces in their fight against militants in their country. Russia is Pakistan’s new defence cooperation partner, and incendiary rhetoric against it from the Pakistani foreign office would certainly fracture relations between the two countries, ending cooperation aimed at combating terrorism. Furthermore, it is naïve to attempt to arm-twist Pakistan into criticising Russia at this critical juncture when Afghanistan is about to enter a new phase after the US/NATO drawdown. Doing so will only increase anti-Europe sentiment in Pakistan, and therefore risks increasing the terrorist threat to Europe.

The European Union’s recent demand that Pakistan condemn Russia over its intervention in Ukraine is a tactic designed to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the EU (and the United States) wants to corner Russia into political isolation and weaken its economy. On the other hand, it does not want to see growing Pakistan-Russia ties, and instead wants to keep Pakistan dependent on the West.

There may be a new Cold War brewing between the West and Russia; however, Pakistan must put its foot down and not become a pawn this time. Pakistan needs to learn how to strike a balance. More importantly, Pakistan must learn to be self-reliant. There is no ‘free lunch’ in international relations. Until it is rid of economic shackles, the country may be forced to comply with the wishes of those – from East or West – who offer financial help.

This article by Open Briefing contributing analyst Shazad Ali is an abridged version of one originally published by the International Policy Digest.