Russia must remain aloof in any NATO-PRC conflict


India’s policy towards Russia needs no modification, that of the US, UK and EU towards Russia does, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

NATO is throwing tens of billions of dollars into the Ukrainian military, which since the political changes introduced in 2014 have regarded Russia as the only enemy. The territory of Ukraine is ideal for either Russian land forces to erupt into the west or for the reverse to take place. Ukraine joining the EU and afterwards NATO would put on steroids the exertions of those within Russophobic elements of that large country to wrest back not just the Crimean peninsula but those parts of Eastern Ukraine that have functioned since 2014 as the independent states of Donetsk and Lugansk.

When Vladimir Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing just days before the Russian military entered Ukrainian territory in a Special Military Operation aka invasion, it is difficult to imagine that such a move would not have been discussed by two of the leaders of the Big Four within the global community, the others being Biden and Modi. Despite such news, a “partnership without limits” was agreed to by the two Heads of State. Given this, it would have been reasonable to expect that the PLA would play an active role together with its Russian counterpart in the Ukraine operation.

However, that force has been conspicuously absent from the territory of Ukraine or Russia since the war between that country and Russia began on 24 February. Xi has sought to play not the role of co-combatant as implied in his promise to Putin at Beijing, but that of a more nuanced actor between the Russophobic Ukrainian dispensation and Russia under Vladimir Putin. Many had expected that President Zelenskyy would understand the imperative of being on good terms with Moscow, and move away from the discriminatory policies followed by his post-Yanukovich predecessors towards Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The opposite happened, perhaps out of lack of understanding regional geopolitics.

The Russian language continued being outlawed, while even the discussions (much less autonomy) promised in the Minsk agreement between Ukraine and the Russian-speaking administrations that sprang up in Donetsk and Lugansk failed to occur. In case this was noticed by Berlin or Paris, there is little record of it. The “responsibility to protect” had been the justification used by Washington during its interventions in different countries on behalf of favourites against their adversaries. The very same doctrine is now being used by Putin to justify his military operations in Ukraine. It is a sign of the absence of the “never trust without verification” mantra that ought to characterise journalism that since 2014, few media outlets within the NATO bloc have reported on the increase in attacks on the Russian-speaking population, mainly in the east of Ukraine.

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Xi is right. It would not be in the national interest of the PRC to intervene militarily in the conflict in Ukraine on the side of the Russian Federation. The economic stakes for China are far greater than those for Russia, and much of this would be at risk, were Xi to order the PLA into battle against a Ukrainian force which is a transparent proxy for NATO. With all the hoopla about Chairman Mao, the only binding force keeping the population of the PRC within the control of the CCP is the fact that their living standards have improved substantially. This change took place not during the Mao years but after Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms in the PRC economy.

Should there be a substantial fall in living standards as a consequence of China undergoing even a portion of the economic sanctions now being heaped on the Russian Federation by the US and its European partners, Xi may rapidly lose the “mandate of heaven” to rule. Shanghai and other Chinese cities may become what Hong Kong was in 2019, a cauldron of public unrest. Keeping the CCP in power is a hard limit for the leadership of that huge organisation, even if this means doing nothing other than ritual noises of understanding of Russia’s position over Ukraine. Since the conflict, the PRC is making money through buying cheaper Russian resources while selling more goods to the member countries of NATO. The CCP leadership has no need to jeopardize all this, especially when it is clear that despite the western media cacophony of imminent collapse, Russia retains escalation dominance in the conflict, even were hostilities to directly involve NATO forces. The US, UK and the EU will fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.

China’s non-involvement being the case, the best course for the Russian Federation to follow in the advent of an inevitable future kinetic conflict between NATO (plus its regional partners) and the PRC would be to do what Beijing is doing now, which is to utter encouraging noises to the “limitless partner” while keeping out of the battle. Unless, of course, NATO unwisely opens a second front and takes on Moscow as well. This is an unlikely event, given what is likely to happen in the war going on within Ukraine. The best policy for Russia to follow in the advent of war between the PRC and NATO plus its regional allies would be to do exactly what China is doing now. In other words, decline to enter into any kinetic role in a future PRC conflict with those powers intent on securing a free, inclusive and open Indo-Pacific.

India is and must remain a security partner of the US, as well as countries such as Japan and Australia. It could even get allied in effect to (non-Russian) Europe, were the focus of policy in Brussels to shift to the Indi-Pacific and to the PRC. There needs to be a shift by the EU from its obsession with getting Delhi to downsize its purchases of oil and gas from the Russian Federation. Rather, while buying more Russian oil and other resources, India should intensify its downward trajectory in the purchase of defence equipment from Russia. Despite a reduction in defence trade, overall commerce between Russia and India needs to grow substantially, through India beginning to tap substantially into the limitless natural resources of the Russian Federation.

There will in weeks be a blowback in public opinion in the US, UK and the EU caused by the increased domestic pain of the self-defeating sanctions on Russia that is announced at frequent intervals, led by Biden-Johnson, the successor to Bush-Blair. Championing the Ukrainian side at the expense of regular trade and other relations with Russia is going to be a vote loser within the NATO bloc, as Emmanuel Macron is discovering in what he thought was a walkover in his contest with Marine Le Pen. It is not India’s policy towards Russia that needs modification, but that of the US, UK and EU towards Russia. Such a reset needs to take place, so that any future conflict between the PRC and those countries committed to a free Indo-Pacific and a Eurasia free of hegemony, not result in the involvement of Russia.

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