That Russia would invade Ukraine on the day President Putin was hosting the Pakistani prime minister in Moscow surprised nearly all in Pakistan. The US had been indicating the likelihood of a military attack by Russia on Ukraine. But most observers in Pakistan were skeptical of such a likelihood and felt that Ukraine-Russia tensions would probably continue to simmer. As soon as the invasion was announced, policymakers in Pakistan had to take a position — and fast. There were two contrasting schools of thought. The first argued that since Pakistan had recently adopted a policy to maintain ties with every significant global power, taking a policy line that would not undermine this opening with Russia made pragmatic sense. Proponents of this argument would suggest that the US had committed aggression against sovereign countries and was an unreliable friend. Much in line with this thought, the position that Pakistan adopted comprised two key elements: de-escalating the conflict and resolving it peacefully.

There was another prevailing view, however. The second school of thought claimed that Pakistan had enjoyed sustained periods of close engagement with the US, and even now, the US remained its largest trading partner. At the same time, political and economic cooperation with Russia was practically negligible. When Pakistan chose to abstain from the vote at the UN, advocates of this perspective were quick to question why Pakistan was seemingly provoking the US and Europe with its policy line.

But ultimately, it should not become a question of which side Pakistan should support. After all, Pakistan has good bilateral ties with the US and Russia. What should matter is whether Pakistan upholds the principles enshrined in the UN Charter.

In the age of unilateralism and doctrines of pre-emptive strikes, Pakistan must take a position based on the abiding principles of interstate conduct.

There has rightly been talk of Russia’s security concern that if Ukraine were to join NATO, it could bring NATO’s missiles to the Russian border and threaten Russia’s security. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is cited as a precedent — America reacted strongly to the Soviet decision to deploy missiles in Cuba, just 145 kilometers off the US coast. Still, Russian concerns were not considered earnestly, and the ambit of NATO gradually inched closer toward Russia’s borders.

Prima facie, the crisis could be resolved if the US and Europe extend assurances to Russia that Ukraine would not be included in NATO. However, the situation has now become more complicated. For starters, the Russian forces appear to be stuck in a protracted conflict and have yet to be able to achieve a swift victory. Ukraine’s people and armed forces, duly aided by European countries, have demonstrated resilience that Russia had not anticipated. Secondly, the humanitarian disaster has become acute, with millions of Ukrainians fleeing to neighboring countries.

Pressure is mounting on Russia to end its military operation and commence meaningful negotiations with Ukraine, with possible guarantees coming from three permanent members of the UN Security Council: the UK, France, and China.

The voting at the UN General Assembly indicated that 141 states supported Ukraine’s right to defend itself against the Russian invasion. There were some (35 to be exact) that chose to abstain. They included China, India, and Pakistan. The debate has entered another round at the Security Council and will also figure in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Pakistan must adopt the moral position of respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, call upon Russia to end its military operation, and urge all parties to resolve the conflict through talks. The question is not about whose side Pakistan is on but about the principles of interstate conduct.

In light of these changing global realities, Pakistan must reposition itself with a long-term view of where we want the country to go. We must leverage our geo-strategic location and rich natural resources, and human capital endowment to embark on a new path of sustained economic growth, using the full extent of foreign policy and financial tools.

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