Harsha Kakar,January 3, 2017, in Statesman, Kolkotta
(Note: Syria today has become the world’s laboratory of shadow fighting between various warring nations, big and small for various vested interests pure and symple. The powers involved are: 1. the Syrian president Bashar Al.Assad, considered a heartless dictator allegedly using toxic gas on his own rebel subjects in Syria bent on dethroning him, 2. Russia supporting Assad with weapons to help him stay in power, 3. US instead supporting rebels trying to dethrone Assad, hoping for regime change by exporting US version of democracy as they did in Iraq, 3. Turkey involved in the fight for political reasons like being in the good books of Russia or US, 4. Iran also involved in the fight for similar reasons, 5. The IS or the Islamic radicals to establish their radical vision of Islam which they believe is their religious mission life.
All these warring factions fighting since 2011 are interested only in the victory of their side not in the least bothered about the thousands of innocents butchered, made homeless or driven out as refugees seeking asylum in other countries. How long other neighbouring or far away countries can go on to watch as just helpless onlookers? A solitary Pope Francis alone cries out repeatedly: please stop, don’t kill innocents! Not even the UN, the one world body set up to prevent calamitous blood-shed of innocents like this, is listened to or allowed to broker peace. What use telling these innocents bleeding to death: “Trust in God, He will take care of you and comfort you!” Who needs such a God who is ever deaf and never listens and never comes to their aid?
Yet humane humanity the world over, cannot stay put doing nothing to prevent them from succumbing to despair and death. Where then is the place of hope that says: “I hope as long as I breath” (Dum spro spero!). The least that should be achieved is to get the fighting factions to stop fighting, stop the slaughter of innocents. It is unbelievable to think that humanity is condemned to give up hope and die in despair. So let the clarion call from every mouth go out:”Arrest violence, stop slaughter of innocents, do not kill.” james kottoor, editor)
Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 and commenced supporting pro-Russian rebels in the Ukrainian civil war. In its aftermath, the US and EU imposed sanctions. This initially had its effect and Russia began to hurt, but Vladimir Putin refused to back down.
He continued with his actions, irrespective of western criticism. Russia was supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad with weapons and equipment since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 while the US had been supporting anti-Assad rebels with equipment and firepower and was seeking the ouster of the Syrian regime. In September 2015, Russia commenced its military intervention in support of the Syrian regime, surprising the world. It clashed with Turkey over the downing of a Russian aircraft, but employing economic and diplomatic measures compelled Turkey to seek a rapprochement.
When western sanctions began impacting Russia, it turned to China for support. Simultaneously, it grew closer to Pakistan. Its relations with India, though close, appear to be affected by India's growing proximity to the US. In recent days, it is claimed that Russia directly interfered in the US Presidential elections, by hacking into their servers and releasing valuable data into the public domain. This adversely impacted the chances of Hillary Clinton, who Putin did not favour and resulted in the election of Donald Trump, known to be pro-Russia. Last week, Obama reacted to the Russian action and expelled 35 Russian embassy staffers. While Putin avoided tit-for-tat actions, relations have plummeted to its lowest ebb, since the Cold War. Nothing seemed to have affected the Russian mindset as 2016 ended. It only emerges stronger and more impactful as 2017 commences
Its military intervention in Syria changed the landscape of the war. With its offensive air support, it put western-backed rebels on the defensive. The US was apprehensive of engaging with Russia in an open proxy war, which could have resulted in a NATO-Russian conflict. Every time they attempted to involve Russia in peace talks, they failed. The fact that Russians had support from Iran altered regional dynamics. Putin's plans were clear, establish the authority of the Bashar regime in Syria and degrade the IS, whom it considers its biggest threat. It achieved its aim, pushing the US into the background. It now has a permanent base in Syria at Tartus much to the discomfiture of the US. Once Aleppo (held by western supported rebel groups) fell to the Bashar regime, Russia along with Turkey, ignoring the US, brokered a ceasefire, which continues to hold.
Russia and China, both currently anti-US, have grown closer. Russia has supported Chinese claims over the South China Sea and disputed the international tribunal's verdict. It has also conducted naval exercises with China in the region, cementing its support. Russia, with Chinese influence, has moved closer to Pakistan, including agreeing for arms sales. It even conducted joint military exercises with them, post Uri, much to the anger of India. During the BRICS summit, it joined China in blocking Indian efforts to name Pakistan as a sponsor of terror.
Russia was nowhere in the scene in Afghanistan, post its withdrawal in 1979. However, since the Central Asian Republics (CAR), still under Russian influence, border Afghanistan, Russia was wary of the overflow of the conflict in West Asia and Afghanistan, into the region. The growing presence of the IS in Afghanistan was the catalyst. Hence, it along with China and Pakistan set up an unofficial alliance on Afghanistan, ignoring the base country, Afghanistan.
To openly counter US and Indian actions, the alliance in its last meeting agreed to provide support to the Afghan Taliban on the diplomatic front, since it battles to contain the IS. It openly advocated approaching the UN Security Council to remove some members of the Afghan Taliban from the international terrorist list, much against Indian and US desires.
Russia had openly threatened NATO and the US on deploying nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missiles in nations which formed a part of the erstwhile USSR. Its annexation of Crimea compelled the EU to seek alternate solutions including possibly allowing Russia to keep Crimea, while withdrawing its support to rebel groups in Ukraine. It has challenged the US, EU and NATO at every stage and compelled them to back down.
India, though a major defence procurer from Russia, has been losing out on Russian support, mainly due to its alliance with the US. Indian-Russian agreements have only been restricted to defence procurement and nuclear reactors, limiting our influence. Russia's main concerns of the IS in Afghanistan and its supposed support to the Afghan Taliban, counter India's perception, as India considers the latter a threat. It will take strong diplomatic effort by India to change Russian perception and wean it away from Pakistan, at the least.
The election of Donald Trump, his nomination of a pro-Russian ambassador and announcements of mending ties would only enhance their leverage. This would alter the dynamics in Europe and West Asia. It could also signal a change for the sub-continent. Russia would now need to make a choice, of either remaining close to China (with whom Trump already has issues) or the US. The fact that it avoided a tit-for-tat retaliation against US expulsions of Russian diplomats and Putin's statements of awaiting the ascendency of Trump as President, indicates the likely choice that he may make. This could result in global realignment and NATO could lose its importance and sole purpose for its existence. In such a scenario, its support to China and Pakistan may wane. This would benefit India.
As stated by Lord Palmerston, 'in international relations, there are no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests'. Russia, while continuing as a major international player in 2017,could alter its existing alignments based on its national interests.In either case, the flow from 2016 to 2017 would ensure that the current year would be the year of Russia, as its support would be most sought after.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army.)