If Ukraine and its luckless people are ‘winning’, it is beyond imagination to fathom what defeat would look like, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat
Repeated efforts of the geographically diminished successor to the USSR, the Russian Federation, to enter the EU and even NATO were serially rebuffed by the North Atlantic alliance. Efforts at joining the EU and its trans-Atlantic partners in North America began even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, through efforts by CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev from 1986 onwards to enter into “our common European home”. These were continued under President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin (1992-1999) and from that period, with diminishing expectation of success, until 2006 by his successor, Vladimir Putin, who comes from St Petersburg, a city that has had, since the era of Peter the Great in the 15th century, a significant number of Europhiles.
Unfortunately for Moscow, the love that has been present for Europe in much of its elites has remained unreciprocated. France, the UK and Germany have long had the not unrealistic apprehension that the admission of the vast Russian Federation into the formal structures of the rest of Europe would provide so much synergy to that country as to enable it to outstrip the three major European powers in not just what may be termed Gross National Resources (GNR) but in GDP as well, even if denominated in US dollar terms.
At present, Russian GDP in USD terms is far below those of France, the UK and Germany, although Russia remains a giant in GNR, which is in many ways a more accurate gauge of geopolitical heft. India, to take another example, still has a smaller GDP in USD terms than either Japan or Germany, although our country’s human resources qualify India to be a far more consequential geopolitical player than either Japan or Germany. Judging by the cool reception given to the repeated efforts by Russia to integrate into Europe (despite comprising half the land area of not just that continent but that of Asia as well), it is obvious that the North Atlanticist policy since the close of World War II in 1945 of trying to constrain and diminish what was then the Soviet Union and which is now the Russian Federation continues in the shape of the war in Ukraine that has been smouldering almost unremarked by the “international community” (aka NATO member states) since 2014, but since the 24 February 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia in a very much more kinetic form.
PUTIN AVOIDS GORBACHEV-YELTSIN ERRORS
The removal of the Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych from the Presidentship of Ukraine in 2014 through organized street protests in the Maidan movement was followed by the installation of a government that in effect excluded the Russian-speaking third of the Ukrainian population from playing any significant role in the governance of their country since it became independent of the USSR in 1992. Concurrently, the Russian language was stripped of its official status, while there was a heavy preponderance of mostly Russophobic Ukrainian-speaking “nationalists” within the administrations that were set up there. Not surprisingly, the territories (mostly in the east) revolted against such discrimination.
This time around, unlike in the past when Gorbachev and later on Yeltsin had pocketed any move against the interests of the Russian-speaking people or Russia-backing states, such as Serbia, which was bombarded by NATO from 24 March to 10 June 1999, to silence from Serbia’s ally, the Russian Federation. From this point onwards, Yeltsin’s continuance as Head of State & Government of the Russian Federation became untenable, leading to former KGB officer Vladimir Putin being appointed Prime Minister in August 1999 and as President a few months later. Since his intervention in Georgia in 2008 as a response to Georgian troops being sent into South Ossetia to establish martial law there, and subsequently the retaking of Crimea back from Ukraine in 2014 after the installation of a Russophobic government in Kiev, it was clear to the North Atlantic alliance that Putin was not in the same accommodative mould as Gorbachev and Yeltsin had been, and that he had to go. Efforts at generating a Maidan in Russia having failed, there was need for a fresh toolkit if regime change in Moscow were to be ensured. Europe would indeed stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as visualised by Emmanuel Macron, but only after a pliable replacement for Putin was put in place in the Kremlin.
THE ATLANTICIST BAIT THAT WON OVER BIDEN
Since the takeover of the Ukrainian government in 2014, NATO spared no effort in building up confidence within the Ukrainian irregulars (who are collectively termed “Neo-Nazis” by the Kremlin) who now dominate the Ukrainian military. This has been almost wholly stripped of Russian-speaking or Russia-friendly elements, each of whom has been replaced by individuals committed to the recovery of the territories of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk by stamping out any Russia-friendly element in these territories through armed force. Disregarding the earlier example of Georgia, it was no secret that the newly installed President of Ukraine, the telegenic Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had or was in the process of signing off on a military operation designed to bring back the three “lost” territories into the control of authorities in Kiev.
The expectation within NATO was that either President Putin would do a Yeltsin and not react, thereby sharply reducing the popularity within Russia gained by his being perceived as a resolute defender of Russian interests, or that the Russian military would enter into an Afghanistan-style quagmire that may reduce much of Ukraine to rubble, but also have the effect of so diminishing the global resonance of the Russian Federation as would make easier another effort at engineering a Maidan in Moscow and other cities. The hook offered to President Biden has been that a Russian defeat in Ukraine would prolong the security architecture set up after the defeat of Japan and Germany by the Allied powers in 1945.
The three European powers would like not just the US but the US plus Germany, France and the UK to lead the security architecture that is under construction in the Indo-Pacific to combat attempts at invasion of sovereignty and territorial integrity, including within the global commons in the area, such as the South China Sea. While Japan, Australia and South Korea (especially under its new Head of State) have followed the US lead thus far, including by taking NATO’s side in the Ukraine conflict, it would be unrealistic to expect India, Indonesia and very likely South Africa to follow suit. In the Indo-Pacific, especially given the still dominant Europeanist strain in its security and foreign policy that is evidenced under Biden, the US can at most be “first among equals”, rather than lead the Asia-centric formation as Biden wants, especially if that involves accepting through his fiat the leadership of the very countries in Europe that had so ruthlessly colonised them in previous centuries. The post-1945 structure is over and done with, and in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, what is needed is an alliance between the US and anti-hegemonic Asian powers, just as in Europe the US has an alliance between itself and countries on that continent.
The dream of the warriors now engaged in the Holy War against Russia on the territory of Ukraine for an expansion of NATO into the Indo-Pacific is an insult to the capabilities of the countries there. Countries in Europe would be welcome as associates, not as members, just as Japan, Australia and South Korea as de facto associates of NATO without being members. However, the dream of extending the dominance of Europe over Asia during the 19th century and part of the 20th century into the 21st century, if pursued seriously by the openly Euro-centric 46th President of the US at the upcoming Quad summit, would result in a division and a diversion that (exactly as US actions in Ukraine are) confer an advantage on the PRC. Shorn of some of the hubris that had enveloped him in the past, Xi Jinping is seeking a revival of the Russia-India-China triumvirate, ignoring the reality that under him in particular, the PRC has assertively and aggressively been seeking to trample on the territorial integrity of India and to challenge its interests in league with the Wahhabi International. As for Russia, US policy has left no option for Moscow but to follow in Beijing’s wake, although a policy centred more on US interests than that of sections of the European establishment may be capable of prising loose such a pairing. This in reverse is what took place during Cold War 1.0, when skilful US diplomacy ensured that Beijing became by far the most effective partner in US efforts at overthrowing the Soviet Union that Vladimir Putin had served for much of his adult life.
CLINTON ERA APPROACH TO RUSSIA REVIVED
The war in Ukraine that has been ongoing since February 24 is not a departure from the past as it is a continuation of the post-1992 policy signed on by both then US President Bill Clinton and his European partners to weaken the Russian Federation, including by ensuring a further breakup of its territory into smaller republics that would be easier to control than the unified country has proven to be since Putin drew the conclusion by 2006 that the North Atlantic alliance wanted not a partner in Russia, but in a weakened state or states, and soon afterwards reached the conclusion that his removal from the Kremlin was a key component of such plans. There has been a torrent of what may euphemistically be called information from news outlets in the North Atlantic alliance that are moving in lockstep with each other where reporting on the war is concerned.
The primary purpose is to instill a confidence in the public of the key players against Russia, the US, France, Germany and the UK, that the Ukrainians are on the cusp of victory and the Russians are staring at utter humiliation. So enraptured by the essentially Frano-German-British goal of terminally weakening Russia is President Biden that he appears to have switched priorities from seeking Congressional approval for his ambitious social welfare plans to prosecuting the war in Ukraine, no matter what the cost to US taxpayers, plus the amounts taken from individuals who have passports other than Russian but have the misfortune of knowing Vladimir Putin or his daughters, both of whom have also come on the NATO sanctions list.
The impact that such a suspension of due process and the rule of law (thus far uncontested by courts in the UK or in the US) on the moneys kept in the US and the UK would become clear over the course of the coming period. The accelerating sanctions on Russia and the transfer of armaments to Ukrainian forces are bringing closer the move by Putin that would probably end this war, which would be to call NATO’s bluff on Article 5 by taking military action against the Ukrainian army’s supply routes within member states of that alliance. Just as the repeated attacks by Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s failed to end that conflict so long as the supply routes in Pakistan, including in key urban centres, remained off limits to Soviet forces, the escalation of assistance to Ukraine is having the effect of prolonging the present conflict because of the absence of kinetic action against the supply routes feeding Ukrainian forces, including irregulars.
President George W. Bush allowed key Al Qaeda (possibly including Osama Bin Laden) and their ISI associates to escape from Kunduz through a Pakistan Air Force airlift at the very start of the War on Terror he began in Afghanistan in 2001, thereby prolonging the war and bringing closer the humiliating surrender of the US to the Taliban that began 2020 and got concluded in 2021. It is unlikely that President Putin will follow the example set by President Bush and allow potentially numerous high value targets from multiple countries active in operations against Russia and pro-Russia forces in Ukraine to escape from Mariupol in the manner that President Zelenskyy is suggesting should happen.
There is a distinction that was apparently unknown to President Bush, and this is between genuine civilians and those special operations staff in civilian garb who are actively assisting in the prosecution of hostilities in Ukraine. If it is found subsequently that such special operations staff were complicit in forcing civilians to remain in the Azov steel plant, they too would need to be investigated for possible war crimes. Unless, of course, President Putin does a Kunduz in Mariupol, and they escape to safety.
REALITY BITES INTO ASSUMPTIONS
Judging by election results in Hungary and France, it would appear that in spite of the ceaseless efforts of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Le Figaro, Bild, the Telegraph and the Guardian, reality is catching up with the spin about an “imminent Russian collapse” or “the fall of Putin”, not to mention “Victory Day” in Ukraine. Were Marine le Pen to emerge a few months later as the Prime Minister of France, that would upend not just Macron’s domestic strategy but much of his foreign policy. If Ukraine and its luckless people are “winning”, it is beyond imagination to fathom what defeat would look like. The country is being methodically drained of its territory, its population (through casualties as well as the efflux of refugees) and its infrastructure.
President Zelenskyy seems unable to understand that the visions of a defeated Russia and a fallen President in the Kremlin notwithstanding, the only future that assures a stable Ukraine (or what is left of it after this war) would be to live in harmony with its eastern neighbour. Although this is a European war with Transatlantic partners, its impact is already global, a situation that would get much worse, once the ladder of escalation results in the kinetic conflict spilling over into other countries, possibly with a nuclear dimension.
For President Putin, there is no “Off Ramp”. That may have been an effective strategy with a Gorbachev or a Yeltsin, but carries significant risks if applied to Putin. As for Biden, he has yet again followed the example of Europeanist predecessors such as Bill Clinton and sacrificed US interests to the interest of the Big Three in the non-Russian part of Europe to reduce an already diminished resources (GNR) superpower into a shambles. In the process, non-European countries that are essential allies of the US such as India and Indonesia are looking askance at the Biden White House. Supply disruptions caused by the impact of NATO sanctions are causing an economic slowdown even in countries within that alliance than could end in worse than a recession.
The gainer is Beijing, which is watching delightedly as its principal foe, the US, lavishes its diminishing stockpiles of Javelins and other weapons on Ukraine, and gets the attention of the White House turned away from the Indo-Pacific into what for overall US interests is a secondary theatre, Ukraine. Meanwhile, the PLA is getting a close glimpse into the capabilities of NATO both in tactics and weaponry that may prove helpful, should Xi attempt to fulfill his goal of annexing Taiwan. The absence of anything other than symbolic “show the flag” operations regarding Taiwan has led to inner-party comment that the “Heir to Mao” seems bereft of the CCP Chairman’s boldness in action, even in Korea in 1950. This was despite Mao facing a nuclear-armed US with far more advanced weaponry and resources than the PLA then possessed.