Given their record of mistaking what they wish for as what is, Atlanticist media immediately reached the conclusion that Xi’s concerns were the same as Modi’s, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
Months before he initiated the Special Military Operation (aka war) against Ukraine, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin came to Delhi on a visit that barely lasted nine hours. Even during that brief period, it became clear that Putin was losing patience at the way in which the Ukrainian military and irregular “nationalist” groups such as the Azov Regiment were taking kinetic action against those parts of Ukraine that had broken away to form the Donetsk and Lugansk “republics”.
Such activities were being backed by NATO, which since 2014 had been conducting a proxy war against Russia, through the generous provisions of training, intelligence, weapons and other battlefield requisites to Ukrainian forces. Together with what may be called either mercenaries or “guest fighters” from parts of Europe, Ukrainian units sought to win back the territory lost to Russian-speaking separatists in 2014, the year that saw the forced exit and exile of President Viktor Yanukovych. The disquiet over developments in Ukraine manifested by Putin during his nine-hour 2021 visit to Delhi was interpreted in Washington, London, Berlin and Paris as evidence that his confidence was getting shaky.
Rather than hold back the Ukrainian forces from their assault on the newly declared Lugansk and Donbass republics, they were encouraged to deliver blow after blow, with artillery shelling and military probes into Russian-speaking territories multiplying as a consequence of the misreading within NATO of Putin’s determination to not repeat his earlier example of doing little when Kosovo was formally detached from Serbia in 2008. That same year, Putin launched a military campaign against Georgia by annexing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as separate “republics”.
NATO MISREAD PUTIN
Encouraged by NATO in his desire to reconquer the eastern territories lost to separatists in 2014, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy began a military campaign that was explicitly designed to extinguish the separate status of the territories earlier lost to the Donetsk and Lugansk “republics”. In days, these and additional territories gained by the Russian advance during 2022 will be recognized by Putin as becoming part of the Russian Federation. Thereafter, an attack on them would be regarded by the Kremlin as an attack on the Russian Federation itself.
Assistance by NATO to Ukraine in kinetic action against such territories would be regarded as a direct attack by the alliance on Russia for the first time in that organisation’s history. NATO’s serial misreading of the intentions of the Kremlin appear to be leading the world towards an unprecedented escalation of the Ukraine conflict. In 2014, the misreading of the intentions of one side by another converted what was to be just a Balkan war into a European conflict. In that conflict, Serbia was the catalyst. In this, it could be Ukraine.
Much of the misreading of Putin has come through reliance on information provided by oligarchs who claimed to know his mind. They fed policymakers in Washington particularly with the impression that Putin was deeply unpopular, and that there would soon be a public revolt against him. They were wrong. Just as the June 1941 attack by Germany unified the Russian people behind Stalin, the activation of a proxy war by NATO on Russia (in an echo of Cold War 1.0) is mobilising the Russian people behind their leadership. For Vladimir Putin, either he is seen to succeed in his mission, or he will be removed from the Kremlin.
WHAT XI WANTED OF PUTIN
After the Samarkand meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a public admission was made by President Vladimir Putin that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping had “concerns” about the war in Ukraine that Moscow “understood”. Unlike Xi, who even in this interaction was predictably reticent in public in matters of detail, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in full view of television cameras expressed to President Putin his view that “this was not the era of war”. It was a rebuke addressed as much to the Chinese as to the Russian leader, given that over the past six years, Xi Jinping has consistently upped the ante by taking aggressive actions in multiple theatres, including the Himalayan massif and more recently, Taiwan.
Given their record of mistaking what they wish for what is, Atlanticist media immediately reached the conclusion that Xi’s concerns were the same as Modi’s, namely seeking a speedy end of a war that has raged since February. According to impeccable sources in the capitals involved in the Xi-Putin conversation that took place on the sidelines of the SCO Summit, what had been conveyed by Xi to Putin was that he should adopt measures that would in a much faster way ensure an end to the war on terms favourable to Moscow. The mobilisation of 300,000 more troops and changes in the tactics and weaponry used thus far in the conflict indicate that Putin has operationalised this advice from his “no limits” partner.
Such a mobilisation was ordered for the Russian Army only twice before in history, first in July 1914 during World War I and subsequently in June 1941 after Germany invaded the USSR. Rather than going against Xi’s wishes, such a move only confirms that the CCP General Secretary advised President Putin to go all out in ensuring a rapid and favourable outcome to the conflict. Not a surprise, considering that the conflict is giving the PRC access at discounted prices to oil, gas and food grains, the prices of which have shot up worldwide as a consequence of the sanctions by NATO powers against Russia. Not for the first time, media pundits in Atlanticist outlets got a story wrong, in this case by making the erroneous assumption that Xi told his Russian counterpart to cut his losses and end the war immediately in the way that Prime Minister Modi had.
PUTIN’S UKRAINE PLAN NO SECRET TO XI
In the face of the logic of the Sino-Russian alliance, pundits in US and European media, government and academe continue to believe that Putin did not divulge to Xi his plan of beginning an outright war on Ukraine, in the meeting they had just a couple of days before the President of the Russian Federation launched the 2022 Ukraine-Russia war. In actuality, Putin got an assurance from his Chinese counterpart that, no matter what the public posture, the PRC would provide a lifeline to Russia sufficient to overcome the impact of Atlanticist sanctions.
But for massively increased purchases by China of Russian resources, Putin would have been unable to finance what has become a long and costly conflict. Even while delighted at the misreading of western media of the CCP leadership’s position on the 2022 war, briefings and statements designed to mislead Atlanticist countries in particular have continued from Beijing in a steady flow. These have obscured the reality that Xi has been in favour of the NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine continuing until any chance of reconciliation between Russia and the Atlanticist powers ends, thereby making Moscow even more dependent on Beijing than it already was.
TAKE PUTIN SERIOUSLY ABOUT NUKES
In this 2022 version of the 1962 game of “chicken” played between the US and Russia, it is disconcerting but unsurprising that senior levels within military HQ in Moscow are examining the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield not only in Ukraine but in Poland, the country that in 1939 was influential in persuading Neville Chamberlain and Eduard Daladier to ignore Joseph Stalin’s request that France, the USSR and the UK immediately join forces against Germany, a situation in which Soviet troops would need to march through Poland to attack Germany.
Among the more hawkish elements of the Russian military, the calculation is that NATO would lack the will to respond in kind to the use by Russia of nuclear weapons, a move that would achieve Xi’s objective of permanently fracturing the relationship between Moscow and Paris, Washington, Berlin and London. Given the pressure that Putin is under from those around him who seek a Chechenesque conclusion to the conflict, warnings of a possible use of nuclear weapons may not be a bluff, according to those aware of the thinking in the Kremlin. These are the sources who had first warned in the closing months of 2021 that Putin was losing patience with the way in which NATO was seeking to ensure that Ukrainian forces re-occupy the Donbass and Lugansk “republics” that have now been marked for incorporation into Russia on the Crimea model.
While the leader of a democracy may on retirement face pesky prosecutors levelling mostly unprovable charges against him, the leader of an authoritarian state may after a fall from grace lose his freedom, if not his life. The manner in which military planners in NATO ignore the fact that they are dealing with a Head of State & Military who has a briefcase with nuclear codes always close by may prove to be their most consequential error in the saga over the future of Ukraine that began with the ouster of President Yanukovych in 2014 and the grooming of Ukraine to be to Russia what GHQ Rawalpindi-controlled Pakistan is to India.
PUTIN UNDER PRESSURE TO INCREASE EFFORTS
Atlanticist media narratives, despite freedom of the press, usually hew closely to the spin that their governments seek to communicate to their public. For months, this analyst has cautioned that the Atlanticist view that Putin is the hard-liner is wrong. In fact, a complaint since May 2022 that is finally coming out in the open is that he has been too cautious in his war aims and in the way in which he achieves them.
The Putin who oversaw military operations in Chechnya (the factor that secured him his present job) has been absent in the Ukraine conflict. Outlets such as BBC, DW or CNN are filled with horror stories about Russian “atrocities” on civilians, the reality is that the President of the Russian Federation has sought to hold back his troops from going all out against the opposing side. The argument taking place within the precincts of the Kremlin is that Russia under Putin is anyway being demonised for its “brutality”, so why not let loose the dogs of war and actually earn the reputation that has been placed on Putin’s head from the very start of this conflict? An early sign of such a shift may come from the planned Russian response to efforts by Ukrainian forces to sabotage efforts at holding a vote in the referendums that are planned as a preliminary to annexation of those territories by Russia.
Such a response is unlikely to stop at the boundaries of the Russian-speaking zones sought to be absorbed, but is likely to be witnessed in other zones as well, especially those that are the strongholds of the Ukrainian “nationalists”. Once the territories holding the referendums get formally incorporated into the Russian Federation, any attack on them would be taken as an attack on Russia, an attack in which NATO would be considered as no longer an accessory but a combatant.
The danger to Putin is not from those wanting “peace at any price” with NATO, but from those unhappy with the constraints that he has imposed on Russian forces during their operations in Ukraine. The CCP leadership anticipates that such an escalation of the conflict and its consequence on future relations between Russia and NATO would drain the energy away from any moves by the Quad and other formations to seriously challenge China, should the PLA mount an effort at subduing the island country by force. Which is why adulatory reports of “Xi the peacemaker” that have been appearing since the start of the 2022 conflict are exercises in delusion.
MODI, XI VIEWS NOT SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT
The stated desire of Prime Minister Modi from the start of the 2022 Ukraine war was to see an early end to it. In contrast, the intention of CCP General Secretary Xi has been to ensure that the faultlines caused by the war between Russia and the Atlanticists become permanent. This is an objective in which Russophobic policymakers and commentators across both sides of the Atlantic are helping to achieve.
Among the reasons why Putin had thus far held back substantial elements of his fire in the conflict was the influence of the St Petersburg school of strategic thinking in Russia, which has remained obsessed with the possibility of Russia and both sides of the Atlantic coming together in a repeat of the 1941-45 USSR-US-UK Grand Alliance. Among the casualties of the war has been the hold of the St Petersburg school on strategic planning by the Russian leadership. The war has, to the delight of Xi, majorly widened the faultlines already present between the Atlantic Alliance and the Russian Federation.
LONG WAR SUITS XI
Where India is concerned, from the start of the conflict, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, assisted by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, stressed that by far the most significant theatre of potential threat to the democracies was in the Indo-Pacific and no longer in the Atlantic, and implicitly that the country to watch out for was not Russia but China, especially under Xi Jinping. Those who seek to avoid the abyss of war and economic distress back Modi’s counsel to Putin at the SCO to end this war soonest.
However, such a view conflicts with the logic of Communist China, which sees in the Ukraine conflict an opportunity to realise several of its most important strategic goals, including a permanent rift in relations between Moscow and the Atlantic Alliance, and a de facto extinguishing by the PRC of the sovereignty of Taiwan. All this by taking advantage of a world in which the US and the rest of NATO have become embroiled in a global disaster, in the magnification of which their own contribution has not been trivial.