Pakistan’s military chief Saturday slammed Russia’s military attack on Ukraine, calling for immediate cessation of what he described as a “huge tragedy” being inflicted on a smaller country.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s rare criticism of Moscow evidently was at variance with that of his country’s embattled prime minister, Imran Khan, who has advocated Islamabad’s neutrality in the conflict and refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.
“Sadly, the Russian invasion against Ukraine is very unfortunate as thousands of people have been killed, millions made refugees and half of Ukraine destroyed,” Bajwa told an international security dialogue in Islamabad.
“Despite legitimate security concerns of Russia, its aggression against a smaller country cannot be condoned. Pakistan has consistently called for an immediate cease-fire and cessation of hostilities,” Bajwa said.
The general advocated support for an urgent dialogue between all sides to resolve the conflict, praising the Ukrainians for effectively resisting the Russian aggression.
Bajwa used the example of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in his televised speech to caution Pakistan’s massive arch-rival India against launching another war with his country.
“This has given a heart to smaller countries that they can still defend their territory with smaller but agile forces against an aggression by a bigger country by carrying out selective modernization in equipment and adopting noble ideas,” the Pakistani military chief said.
Critics noted Bajwa’s comments have marked a significant departure from the policy Prime Minister Khan has been advocating on the Ukraine crisis.
Khan, who faces an opposition-launched parliamentary no-confidence vote Sunday, maintains Pakistan made a mistake by joining the West during the Cold War and wants to remain neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict to have good ties with both the countries.
The Pakistani leader has refused to condemn Putin and publicly criticized Western diplomats in Islamabad for urging his government in a rare joint letter last month to denounce Moscow’s aggression against Kyiv.
“Why would we condemn Russia? Are we your slaves that we would do whatever you say?” he asked in televised speeches to large recent public rallies organized by his ruling party.
Khan visited Putin on the day Russian forces attacked Ukraine. The Pakistani leader defended his visit, saying it was planned long before the conflict erupted.
He alleged this week in an address to the Pakistani nation that the no-confidence vote seeking his ouster from power was being orchestrated by the United States to punish him for visiting Russia, charges Washington vehemently rejected.
On Friday, Khan told local ARY television that his government had formally protested to the U.S. for meddling in Pakistani politics.
“It’s evident now that the conspiracy has been hatched from abroad! Everyone knows it. We have handed a demarche to the American Embassy, telling them that you have interfered in [the no-confidence vote],” asserted the Pakistani leader.
When asked whether the embassy had received the demarche, a State Department spokesperson told VOA that “as a standard practice, we don’t comment on diplomatic correspondence.”
“In terms of U.S. involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs, there is no truth to these allegations,” the spokesperson said.
The political turmoil reportedly has strained Khan’s relationship with Bajwa, though both leaders deny any tensions.
In his Friday interview, Khan said Bajwa offered him the opportunity to resign, hold new elections or face the no-trust vote, and he decided to fight the vote in parliament.
Pakistan has suffered several military coups leading to long periods of dictatorial rule, and critics say the army continues to influence elected governments from behind, though Bajwa’s spokesman has rejected accusations they are behind the current turmoil. Khan recently lost his simple majority in parliament after dozens of his party’s lawmakers defected and key allies abandoned him to join the opposition.
In his Saturday speech, Bajwa apparently attempted to ease diplomatic tensions with Washington, saying his country wants to broaden and expand bilateral ties.
“We share a long history of excellent and strategic relationship with the United States, which remains our largest export market,” the army chief said. “Similarly, European Union, United Kingdom, the Gulf, Southeast Asia and Japan are also vital for our national development and progress,” he added.
However, Khan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, while addressing the same security conference after Bajwa, reiterated his government’s neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“Pakistan has maintained a principled and nonpartisan position on the matter,” Qureshi said, but he did not question or criticize the Russian aggression.
“We have consistently emphasized the fundamental principles of the U.N. Charter, including non-use and threat of use of force; respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states; and pacific settlement of disputes,” the Pakistani foreign minister said.
“We believe that a diplomatic solution through dialogue and negotiations is indispensable – and must be pursued as a matter of priority,” Qureshi said.