The uprising in Ukraine in 2013-14 which overthrew the pro-Russian, Yanukovych Government, was supported by the west. It resulted in Russia annexing Crimea and declaration of independence by predominantly Russian speaking provinces of Eastern Ukraine. In retaliation, the Ukrainian Government derecognized Russian language. The US, drawing Ukraine closer to NATO, led to the Russian invasion. President Biden was aware it was on the cards but did nothing to prevent it.
Post the invasion, it was the responsibility of global powers to engage with Russia to terminate the war without excessive destruction and loss of lives. There were half hearted attempts by President Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf of Germany, none allaying Russian fears. Western countries preferred an alternative approach. They pumped Ukraine with weapons, pushed Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, to call off talks and continue fighting.
With no end in sight, it is Ukraine which is being devastated and suffering casualties. Russia currently controls 1/5th of Ukraine. The German naval chief was forced to resign, after he rightly commented in India, ‘He (Putin) wants high-level respect and my God, giving some respect is low cost, even no cost,’. The west intentions were never dialogue but to draw Russia into Ukraine.
Biden has clarified that there will be no Marshal plan for Ukraine, on lines of Germany after the second world war, implying that after war concludes, Ukraine would be dumped. An article in the Ukrainian news portal, ‘Ukrayinska Pravda’ stated that Boris Johnson, in his meeting with Zelenskyy, advised him to quit ongoing peace talks in Turkey as the West would fund and arm him.
This confirms the western strategy of pulling Russia into an unending conflict in Ukraine, similar to its invasion of Afghanistan, ultimately containing it. This would, apart from reducing threat to Europe, break the China-Russia nexus, emerging as a major threat. Ukraine is being armed in a similar manner as the Taliban was. This despite Putin stating he has no intention of occupying Ukraine. An added outcome is European nations enhancing their defence expenditure.
Sanctions imposed on Russia are aimed at breaking its economy, hoping for a regime change led by internal strife. Sanctions placed post annexation of Crimea had become a joke. Current sanctions were carefully developed so as to not damage economies of European nations imposing them. Hence, initially oil and gas and mineral fertilizers were not included. Oil is under discussion, gas is not. Mineral fertilizers are needed by the US and hence cannot be sanctioned.
Pressure is being mounted on non-European nations to stop procuring Russian oil, on the pretext of adhering to a rules-based order and criticizing invasions. To hit non-European nations, EU has banned its insurance companies, possessing monopoly, from insuring oil laden carriers from Russian ports.
The war has resulted in a global shortfall in food grains. Prices are skyrocketing and weaker nations facing unprecedented inflation. India was expected to contribute but India stalled non-government approved exports. It caused panic in the western community. The German agriculture minister, Cem Ozdemir, speaking on behalf of the G 7 stated, ‘If everyone starts to impose export restrictions or to close markets, that will worsen the crisis.’ The G 7 blames Russia for shortfalls, as Ukrainian exports remain blocked. Sanctions on Russian wheat are not even under discussion. Russia has permitted Ukrainian wheat to be exported through Belarus, its ally.
How effective will the US and west be in containing Russia is to be seen. After all, Russia remains the worlds’ most endowed nation in minerals. Russia’s current account surplus tripled in the first four months of this year. The Rouble is the world’s best performing currency. As Russia fights an unending war, its economy will suffer in the long term.
A similar game may be played in Asia aimed at containing China. The bait could be Taiwan. The US has begun changing its Taiwan policies, angering China. The US state department website removed sentences mentioning, ‘not supporting Taiwan independence,’ and ‘acknowledging Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.’ US and Taiwan have commenced trade talks, irritating China. Chinese criticism has been countered by stating that it does not reflect a ‘change in policy.’ The US grudgingly reinstated ‘not supporting Taiwan independence,’ weeks later, after conveying the desired message.
To further instigate China, US lawmakers regularly visit Taiwan. Their visit signifies US support. In March, former US generals, including the ex-chairman chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, and former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, visited Taiwan. These visits project public display of US support. The US has never clarified whether it would physically come to the defence of Taiwan or provide weapons to counter a Chinese offensive. It has left the guessing game to China. Taiwan continues to instigate China knowing it is backed by the US.
Taiwan has the ability to defend itself and would make the going difficult for China, in a non-nuclear environment. With additional military support, Taiwan could draw in the Chinese for years in a conventional war as Ukraine has done to Russia. Once China enters, there can be no pullback. The west would impose economic sanctions on China, restricting its exports. They would have calculated the risk of the Dollar losing its global status. An additional intent would be that casualties and economic sanctions could rebound on the mainland leading to a regime change or even splitting of China.
COVID and the Chinese zero-COVID policy resulting in prolonged lockdowns in Chinese manufacturing hubs, led to the west realizing that it can manage without the Chinese global supply chain. There could shortfalls on supply of microchips from Taiwan for which precautions are being taken. India, among others, is providing incentives for establishing the industry domestically. China has assessed the impact of sanctions in case it invades Taiwan. The question remains whether China, like Russia, would take the bait and fall for western plans.
In the long term, by reducing the military and economic power of Russia and China, the world could witness the growth of democracy. Threat from a Russia-China axis would recede without direct military intervention. This strategy has shortcomings, including an escalation, drawing regional countries into the conflict. Ukraine was the testing ground and lessons from here could be incorporated in the Indo-Pacific.
The author is Major General (Retd)