Few nations expected Russia to launch an all-out offensive against Ukraine. It has been seven months and Russia appears bogged down. Any exit strategy which Russia would have initially considered has vanished into thin air. With Ukraine unwilling for talks, Russia has no solution. This was acknowledged by Putin in his conversation with Modi in Samarkand. In desperation and aware that he is on slippery ground, Putin announced partial mobilization and plans for annexing the region captured by Russia, which comprises 15% of Ukraine, through a fake referendum, which will be globally questioned.
The war is proving costly for Russia in military losses, affordability and global standing, but it has no alternatives, except to bash on. Ukrainian resistance including its counter offensive will ensure Russia remains embroiled. For Europe, a Russia bogged in a second Afghanistan is a blessing, as threats to it reduce. Hence, military and financial support for Ukraine from European nations continues, though their own economies falter due to rising oil and gas prices.
Russian officials have also hinted at Putin’s intent to recreate Greater Russia, implying including nations of erstwhile USSR into its fold.This concept was leaked in a deleted social media post by former Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev,who mentioned that post Ukraine, Moscow may target northern Kazakhstan. This caused concern in erstwhile USSR nations, including those currently part of NATO.
Kazakhstan and Georgia are probablyamongst the first which could be in Moscow’s crosshairs. Georgia has always been considered by Russia as an integral part of it. Since the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the UShas hesitated in granting it NATO membership.
Kazakhstan, though a member of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) and a nation which employed Russian troops to quell an uprising in Jan this year is inching closer to China to ensure its own survival. This was evident in the joint statement issued post the recent visit to Xi Jinping to Almaty. The statement mentioned, ‘China firmly supports the path of development chosen by Kazakhstan.’ It hinted at ensuring Kazakhstan’s independence. China’s investments in the country are a possible assurance for Kazakhstan.
Armenia, a close Russian ally, whom Russia failed to back in its conflict with Azerbaijan in end 2020, is having second thoughts of its alliance with Russia, especially after Ukraine. Russia is unable to intervene and stop Azerbaijan forces from expanding the conflict as they remain bogged in Ukraine. The US exploited this scenario with Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives,visitingYerevan recently. She is the highest-ranking US official to visit Armenia since its independence in 1991. The US is attempting to pull Armenia away from Russian influence, further denting Moscow’s region of dominance.
Sanctions against Russia are impacting its economy. Spare parts for defence equipment are in short supply. Russia is seeking them from its few remaining allies. Thus, Russia’s dependence on China is bound to rise. China will be the market for Russian exports as also the base for imports. Ukraine is impacting Russia in multiple ways including loss of its sphere of dominance, allies, global military reputation and ability to influence the region.
Western backing to Ukraine has proved that weaker nations can hold powerful adversaries at bay if adequately supported. This sends a message to China that any attempt to forcibly occupy Taiwan will result in Taipei being pumped with weapons. Biden’s recent comment that the US could intervene militarily in Taiwan only in case of a Chinese offensive, though it would never encourage Taiwanese independence, puts spokes in Chinese plans.
Putin backing China on Taiwan and reiterating its one-China policy, while Xi not mentioning Ukraine, in their recent discussion in Samarkand,indicates a shift in favour of China. It may enhance Xi’s confidence in handling Taiwan as also on offensive designs against other neighbours, including India. Akin to Putin attempting to recreate aGreater Russia, Xi is seeking to regain all territories China considers its own into a Greater China.
The Chinese conducting exercises off the coast of Taiwan, threatening the island of impending attacks, firing missiles into Japanese waters as also salami slicing along its land borders with India, Nepal and Bhutan are an indicator of increased Chinese aggressiveness.
Thus, Russo-Chinese proximity will impact Indo-Russia ties. India, which though neutral, backed Russia initially, is moving away. For India, future support from Russia is likely to wane, while Chinese belligerence could increase. The Indian change comes despite its continued armament dependence on Russia. When PM Modi mentioned, ‘dialogue and diplomacy is what the world seeks,’ in his communication with Putin in Samarkand, on the side lines of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) meet, it was to convey that Russia has lost much by its offensive actions in Ukraine. They also highlight India’s slow distancing from Russia, which the west long desired.
Criticizing Russian actions by Modi was not aimed at currying favour from the west but a realization that a weakening Russia, dependent on China would no longer be able to back India in containing Chinese aggressiveness. Russia supported India during the Ladakh standoff,as also provided the platform where Indian and Chinese foreign and defence ministers met to cool down tempers but would no longer.
This shift was visible when the Russian Ambassador to India, Denis Alipov, stated in an interview last weekend, ‘we see this (standoff along the LAC) as a bilateral matter between India and China. We do not want to get involved in the resolution of bilateral disputes between the two countries.’ While the west remains supportive of India, it will however always exploit India’s conflict with China.
In this context India may seek closer ties with QUAD nations than either the SCO, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China) or RIC (Russia, India, China) groupings. Ultimately, India must stand on its own, especially when dealing with a Pak-China combination. The scenario for India is changing and it needs to accept reality and change its global ties accordingly.The adage of ‘no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests,’ must remain the bedrock of Indian foreign policy.
The author is Major General (Retd)