The Ukraine-Russia war gets curiouser and curiouser as it enters the seventh month. The happenings could well qualify as a comedy, were it not for the tragic consequences: death and destruction in Ukraine, inflation and prospect of a harsh winter in Europe and the inflation and food shortages across the world. The flurry of sanctions on Russia imposed by the USA and EU resulted in maze of buy and sell deals which would surpass even those of Milo Minderbinder of ‘Catch 22’, a character from the satirical war novel by Joseph Heller. The enemies of Russia from the EU are still buying oil and gas at inflated prices, financing Russia’s war effort even as they supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. Surprise of surprises is that Ukraine is still receiving gas/oil transit charges in hard currency from Russia for the piped gas supplied through its territory. Even more bizarre was Saudi Arabia importing oil from Russia at discounted price for domestic use, as it sold its own oil to others at inflated rates. This oil was shipped from Estonia, a NATO member whose leadership pours vitriol on Russia every other day. Russia is now getting close to Iran and Turkey, a NATO member, cooking up new ways to escape sanctions and get the better of USA. Leaves one wondering who is friend and who is foe.
Ukraine is just one theatre of the absurd in the ongoing great game being played out on the world stage. To appreciate the happenings, one needs to step back and view the larger canvas. In the last couple of decades, USA had embarked on a number of ill-advised adventures as the world’s policeman such as Iraq 2003, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan among others. This strategic overreach resulted in economic setbacks, confusion and loss of moral standing. The subsequent withdrawals such as the inglorious exit from Afghanistan left an impression that USA was a fading power, losing its clout and influence. In the interim, USA’s allies in Europe and even in Asia were slowly drifting away from it. It was thus in the fitness of things that USA would attempt to restore its position as the numerouno and dispel doubts about its power and influence. But the US first and foremost needed to get its act together by reviving its old alliances and stitching new ones. Even a powerful nation requires a coalition of like minded nations to support its bid for leadership, particularly in international institutions which influence security, trade and commerce. Image restoration needed the USA to once again regain its leadership role among its allies and friendly nations and confront the emerging challengers; namely China and a resurgent Russia and target their growing proximity. Ideally the two challengers should be confronted using proxies thus avoiding own boots on the ground. This needed to be accompanied by a display of economic and diplomatic influence which would put the challengers on the backfoot. In short, one is looking at ‘controlled chaos’ as a consequence of these efforts by the USA.
Ukraine’s ongoing confrontation with Russia provided USA an opportunity with minimal risks to entrap Moscow. A drawn-out armed confrontation with Ukraine would leave Russia weakened, thereby adversely impacting its ability to support China. The confrontation would also lead to other favourable outcomes such as strengthening and rearming of NATO, realigning European allies with the US, mobilising EU support to rein in an aggressive China and creating a schism between EU and Russia. USA and its allies would be able to display their economic and diplomatic clout through sanctions. It appeared to be a win-win situation for the USA. There were many ifs and buts and required numerous stars to be in alignment. But the risks appeared acceptable and so the dice was rolled.
The red flag in the case of Russia was Ukraine becoming a member of NATO- considered as an existential threat by Moscow. Russia has been trapped in an unwinnable war with Ukraine being supported and supplied with arms and intelligence inputs by NATO and USA. While Russia has managed to reduce the impact of the accompanying sanctions, it will be affected in the longer term as EU reduces its dependence on Russian oil and gas. As the war of attrition between Ukraine and Russia drags on, the outcomes appear to be favouring the USA with NATO reinvigorated and EU members aligning with the USA by imposing sanctions on Russia. The war would sap Russia’s strength and move its focus towards Europe, diminishing its ability to support China. Above all not to miss on the windfall gains of the US defence industrial complex!!
As regards the death and destruction in Ukraine, the lesser said the better. Ukrainian leadership willingly accepted to play proxy in this war for reasons that go back to the Maidan revolution of 2014 and Russian annexation of Crimea. As regards USA’s concern for Ukraine, one is reminded of the admission of its Secretary of Defense, Llyod Austin that, “USA wanted to militarily weaken Russia” and not necessarily to defend Ukraine. Maybe the Ukrainian leadership had also not heard of Henry Kissinger’s famous quip, “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.” Anyway, it is best left to the beleaguered citizens of Ukraine to seek answers from the current leadership on why it permitted such death and destruction on the country and its citizens.
While the theatre of the absurd is playing out in Ukraine, the curtains were going up on Act 2 in East Asia. Pursuing its strategy of stitching up alliances the US had along with Japan, India and Australia set up the Quad partnership while repairing its relations with the ASEAN countries with a view of reining in an aggressive China. After getting this act together, US ramped up its confrontation with China with Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan disregarding Chinese objections. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was akin to waving a red rag to a bull. An incensed China went ballistic with a series of threatening military exercises of the Taiwan coast. But China did not fall into the trap of initiating an armed invasion of Taiwan. Nancy Pelosi’s visit was followed by other visits by US congressmen, Japanese delegation and the Governor of a US state keeping up the pressure on China. China was embarrassed by these visits and its aggressive response must have rattled other countries in the neighbourhood, but China was constrained to avoid reacting beyond just a show of force. The serious drought in mid-west China and the aggressive response of the people to the draconian measures taken by the administration to control the resurgence of Covid-19, does not augur well for Xi Jinping. His bluster with regard to Taiwan is more for reassuring himself.
Raising the stakes further, India and US plan a joint exercise at high altitude near the LAC in Uttrakhand. Vietnam which has been at the receiving end of Chinese aggression is for the first time planning an exercise with foreign forces, in India. India is participating in an exercise in Australia for which its Su-30 aircraft have flown across, being refuelled by French tankers. While these may appear to be isolated instances, but together they display cooperation among forces inimical to China. On the diplomatic front, US has managed to get the support of most countries in the Indo-Pacific region. US has taken the competition in technology seriously as witnessed by the signing of the Chips and Science Act focusing on regaining the edge in frontier technologies.
The new great game will play out over a long period of time with moves and counter-moves by all the actors. USA has initiated a series of actions which would bring about controlled chaos, out of which it expects to emerge in the lead. But the opponents also have a vote in the ongoing tussle and may affect outcomes. The end result of the churn in international affairs would be a high degree of instability, both economic and political.
India has positioned itself adroitly as a swing state in the ongoing confrontations. Its position is due to some compulsions regarding dependence on Russia for its military requirements and China’s uncalled for aggressive action in Ladakh. India needs to be careful about its relationship with the USA, considering that getting too close may lead it into trouble. Similarly, China being constrained in its confrontation with Taiwan may seek other opportunities to display its dominance and power, such as ramping up its confrontation with India. Uncertainty will be the norm on the economic front with oil and commodity prices coming under pressure. Similarly, with the ongoing China-Taiwan confrontation, supply chain disruptions can be expected particularly in terms of chips, which remains India’s vulnerability. This dependence and vulnerability will remain till India’s efforts at “Atmanirbhar Bharat” start bearing fruit.
All in all, we are in for interesting times with the USA setting the cat among the pigeons, so to say. Fortunately, India is keeping its options open and had secured its interests fairly well.