Islamabad: Prime Minister Imran Khan is set to undertake a crucial visit to Russia later this month – the first by a Pakistani premier in over two decades for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, a media report said on Monday.

Khan is expected to visit Russia from February 23 to 26, The Express Tribune reported, quoting diplomatic sources.

His planned visit to Russia is expected to take place after his visit to China where he attended the Beijing Olympics and held talks with top Chinese leadership including President Xi Jinping. President Putin also attended the opening ceremony which was diplomatically boycotted by the US, European Union and several western countries over China’s alleged human rights policies in its restive Xinjiang province.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry refrained from confirming the report on Khan’s planned visit to Russia, saying the foreign affairs ministry should be approached for this purpose, the report said.

Khan’s visit to Moscow is believed to be a clear signal to the West, especially after he clearly said no to the US on giving military bases to it in Pakistan following America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and not receiving a phone call from US President Joe Biden since he assumed office in January 2021.

“The Prime Minister’s visit under the current circumstances is crucial, the paper quoted a diplomat as saying on condition of anonymity, while referring to the rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine and ultimately between Moscow and the West.

The diplomat further said Prime Minister Khan and Russian President Putin would exchange views on bilateral cooperation as well as regional and international issues of mutual interest.

On January 17, Khan spoke to Putin and exchanged views on bilateral cooperation as well as regional and international issues and also appreciated his “emphatic statement” that freedom of speech could not be a pretext to abuse the Prophet.

Khan said he also discussed with President Putin ways to move forward on trade and other mutually beneficial cooperation between Pakistan and Russia and invited each other to visit their respective countries.

He underscored that Pakistan’s bilateral relationship with Russia was on an upward trajectory, with an increased focus on trade and economic ties and energy cooperation.

Khan and Putin agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in different areas, increase high-level exchanges, and remain in close contact on matters relating to Afghanistan.

A Foreign Office statement had attributed to the prime minister that he looked forward to President Putin’s visit to Pakistan as well as his own visit to Russia at an appropriate time.

Now, the diplomatic sources have confirmed that the dates have been finalised and that Khan and President Putin would be meeting in the last week of February if there are no last minute changes.

Last month, it was reported that Islamabad and Moscow were in talks to finalise a plan for what would be a landmark visit of the Russian president to Pakistan this year.

The visit was being discussed by the two sides for the last two years but could not be materialised because of a variety of reasons, including the Covid-19 pandemic. For the visit, Moscow wanted to have something significant ready before Putin finally undertook his trip to Pakistan, according to the paper.

Pakistan’s defence ties with Russia have moved past the bitter Cold War hostilities in recent years and the chill in the relations between Pakistan and the US has further pushed the country towards Russia and China.

In April last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Islamabad after a gap of almost nine years. During the visit, he conveyed a message to Pakistani leadership on behalf of President Putin that Moscow was willing to extend all possible help to Islamabad.

The two countries are not just exploring options to deepen economic ties, but Russia is also keen to sell arms to Pakistan, something it avoided in the past because of India’s opposition.

The two countries have already been holding regular joint military exercises since 2016 in another sign of deepening ties between Moscow and Islamabad. Besides, the two countries also share the same view on key regional and international issues including Afghanistan.

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