Authors: Meena Singh Roy &Rajorshi Roy*
“As the political landscape of the region changed at the turn of this century, India restored its historical ties of natural affinity with the Central Asian countries….. Our membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a natural extension of these relationships and mirrors the region’s place in India’s future. Together with other countries present here, SCO could be a springboard for an integrated and connected Eurasia to become one of the most dynamic regions in the world” — statement by Prime Minister Modi at the 2015 SCO Ufa Summit that highlights the scope and importance of SCO in India’s Eurasian geostrategic calculus.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has emerged as a key regional organisation in the Eurasian space. Accounting for over 60 per cent of Eurasia’s territory and more than 40 per cent of the world’s population, the Eurasian members produce almost a quarter of the world’s GDP. The introduction of new states, both as permanent and observer members, has not only expanded the frontiers of the organisation but also helped unshackle the image of an organisation limited in its scope and effectiveness. The renewed momentum at building regional synergies is reflected in addressing common security challenges and building long-term economic and energy linkages. While still a work in progress, there inherently appears to be a strong desire among SCO stakeholders to strengthen the bonds of regional cooperation. This is, arguably, reflected in co-opting Afghanistan as an Observer State with a view to transform a potential arc of Eurasian instability into an oasis of regional stability.
India’s interests, against this backdrop, align with that of the SCO. New Delhi, which acquired the Observer status of the organisation in 2005, has constructively participated in all SCO summit meetings. This culminated in it being accorded the full member status in 2017. More than a decade’s participation in the organisation highlights India’s willingness to play a more meaningful role in this regional grouping. This stems from India’s strategy of rebuilding Eurasian partnerships that once made the confluence of South and Central Asia the magnetic centre of the known world. The SCO, thus, provides India with a platform to strengthen its outreach to Inner Asia.
The present paper seeks to examine India’s growing interest and role in this Eurasian organisation. More importantly, it aims to answer two key questions – what it means for India to be a full member of the SCO? And what are the likely opportunities for cooperation and challenges that New Delhi can encounter in the future?
It is argued that given India’s benign strategic image, growing economic potential, and vast experience and expertise in building institutional capabilities, it can add greater value to SCO’s ongoing projects and share best practices in newer areas to forge a common vision for the region. India’s foundational pillars in the SCO appear at expanding synergies of cooperation in connectivity, counter-terrorism, energy and economic arenas.
However, the key challenge for India will be to adapt to Eurasia’s emerging geopolitical reality. Shifting great power rivalries, inherent tides of dominance, undercurrents of both geostrategic and geo-economic cooperation and competition, and desire of Central Asian states for greater strategic manoeuvre highlight the Eurasian churnings that New Delhi will need to navigate. This is, arguably, reflected in the geopolitics of the multiple ambitious integration projects being pursued by China, Russia, U.S. and even India. While integration is viewed as an antidote to Central Asia’s underdevelopment, which in turn contributes to the region’s political volatility and instability, yet their underlying agendas can have far-reaching strategic implications.
This paper is divided into four sections – the first deals with the evolution of SCO and the emerging regional dynamics, the second highlights the importance of SCO for India, the third delves into the opportunities for expanding New Delhi’s engagement with the organisation, and the final section crystal grazes into the future relevance of SCO and the challenges that India is likely to encounter.
I. Evolution of the SCO: An Expanded Regional Agenda
The profile of SCO, right from its nomenclature to its scope, has grown since its inception in 1996. Established as Shanghai Five by Russia, China and the newly independent Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the organisation aimed to resolve longstanding Eurasian border disputes. With its foundation being based on the Treaty of Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions, the institution was looked through the prism of “promoting and deepening good neighbour relations, mutual confidence and friendship among the member-states”.
The organisation in its current avatar emerged in 2001 when the Shanghai Five was elevated to SCO by broadening its limited scope of resolving border issues to inculcating cooperation in the security, economic and cultural domains. Uzbekistan now joined the five founding members of Shanghai Five. The Founding Declaration of SCO outlined its defining goal as:
“strengthening mutual confidence, friendship and good neighbourly relations between the participating states; encouraging effective cooperation between them in the political, trade-economic, scientific-technical, cultural, educational, energy, transportation, ecological and other areas; joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region; and to build a new democratic, just and rational political and economic international order.”
The SCO also imbued elements of the 1996 Shanghai Spirit, with the organisation’s founding declaration aiming to “pursue its internal policy based on the principles of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, mutual consultations, respect for cultural diversity, and a desire for common development, while its external policy is conducted in accordance with the principles of non-alignment, non-targeting any third country, and openness.”
With almost two decades behind it, the SCO, through an expanded agenda, has now evolved into a key pillar of Eurasian political and security architecture. It has morphed to focus on both traditional and non-traditional security threats, set up a fully functional Regional Anti-terrorist Structure (RATS) to tackle the three ‘evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism, conducted anti-terror exercises, prioritised Afghanistan’s reconstruction and stability, dwelt on building long-term economic, connectivity and energy linkages, and articulated the need for strengthening cultural foundations and people to people contacts.
The inclusion of India and Pakistan as full members in 2017, co-opting Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia as the Observer States, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey as Dialogue Partners have not only added a new vibrancy to the organisation but also reflected its pan-Asian geographical spread – straddling Central, South, South-East and West Asian regions. It’s guest attendees include ASEAN, UN, CIS and Turkmenistan. SCO, arguably, has emerged as a key platform for regional cooperation and engagement.
Nevertheless, given the inherent strategic importance of Eurasia, the organisation is not immune to great power rivalries, inherent tides of dominance, the balance of power politics, and undercurrents of geostrategic and geo-economic competition.
Evolving Regional Dynamics
The SCO remains rooted in Eurasian geopolitics. The organisation’s scope and importance have, therefore, evolved in sync with the regional geopolitical churnings. This stems primarily from the SCO being a vital instrument of China’s and Russia’s foreign policy towards Central Asian Republics (CARs), as well as a reflection of CARs strategy of balancing their relations with two big neighbours — Russia and China and maintaining their scope for strategic manoeuvre. In between, the U.S. has continued to remain a key tangent, oscillating between being a partner to becoming a rival and an adversary based on regional strategic calculations.
This trend continues, with Russia’s ongoing standoff with the West being the key driver shaping Eurasia’s strategic landscape. Moscow has sought to push-back the ‘Western’ attempts to isolate it by reasserting its influence in Central Asia — an area which has traditionally been the Kremlin’s sphere of influence or it’s near abroad’. Apart from being the predominant security provider of the region, Russia retains civilizational, cultural and ethnic linkages with CARs.
Meanwhile, China has emerged as Eurasia’s dominant trade and investment partner. Its modus operandi in SCO has been to utilise the organisation as a platform to cultivate stronger bilateral synergies with CARs. It has now increasingly sought to leverage its formidable economic prowess by making Central Asia the fulcrum of its Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). This route, expected to connect Beijing with Europe via CARs, can fundamentally realign Eurasian geopolitics, with China edging out Russia at its forefront.
This undercurrent of clash of interests between Russia and China seemingly highlight their inherent shades of competition in Eurasia — with Moscow trying to reassert its fading influence while Beijing was attempting to expand its footprint. However, given Russia’s vulnerable position in its evolving confrontation with the West, Moscow has been compelled to build an entente with China to tap Beijing’s potential to be a bulwark against the Western geopolitical pressure. This Sino-Russian rapprochement has seen the Kremlin accommodate China even in Central Asia. Russian concessions involve acquiescing to a quantitative and qualitative improvement in Chinese military exchanges with regional countries and aligning the Moscow led Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) policies with SREB.
Russia and China also have a shared Eurasian interest — to counterbalance America’s Eurasian policy, which has been disruptive to their interests in the past — the ostensible regime changes through colour revolutions, in particular, and the U.S role and influence in global politics in general. Notably, they both face Western geopolitical pressure in their peripheries. As such, a Sino-Russian common vision for the region aims to ring-fence Eurasia from Western influence and project the image of an emerging geopolitical construct which is not only non-West but also bigger than the West. This convergence of interests is further highlighted in their need to insulate CARs from an Arab-Spring like situation, given the evolving politico-economic faultlines in Central Asia.
Nevertheless, hidden behind the Russian accommodative stand exists a more nuanced strategy aimed at subtly balancing Beijing in an attempt to maintain an equilibrium in their ties whose symmetry, otherwise, appears to be tilting towards Beijing. This is reflected in the Kremlin’s efforts to revive the EEU which inherently pulls Central Asian members into Moscow’s strategic embrace by offering exclusive preferential duties, a single currency and free movement of labour for the Eurasian economies. Needless to say, China is not a member of the EEU.
In the meantime, the U.S. too appears to be recalibrating its Eurasian strategy. While its 2015 C5+1 diplomatic platform had enabled Washington to establish a framework of high-level engagement with CARs, yet, if President Trump’s track record of being fixated on ‘America First’ policy is an indication, U.S. influence in Eurasia is likely to diminish, particularly at a time when Washington appears imminently poised to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. A 36 per cent reduction in the U.S. aid to Central Asia in 2018 is an indication that wheels of U.S. disengagement have already been set in motion. Viewed through the lens of Russia and China, while an American withdrawal from Kabul is likely to exacerbate the worsening security situation in the country with a potential spillover of violence into Eurasia, U.S. disengagement will also leave Eurasia to regional powers to carve out a regional cooperative mechanism. These developments are in marked contrast to the 2017 testimony of Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, who stated that the America’s Central Asia policy aimed to improve the ‘ability of the Central Asian states to resist economic and political pressures from the powerful countries that border the region’, and that the engagement sought to ‘promote greater cooperation and connectivity in a region that has one of the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world’.
At a regional level, new developments in the Af-Pak region, renewed American sanctions on Iran and Turkey’s fissures with the West have created a situation of strategic alignments and realignments. In this emerging situation, regional actors like India, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan have been re-engaging CARs by developing ties, both at bilateral and regional levels. Notably, all these regional powers are partners of SCO, highlighting the centrality of the organisation in the regional integration process.
In this Eurasian geopolitical chessboard, the Central Asian countries have sought to strike a balance in maximising their political and economic gains from each actor while trying to preserve their strategic autonomy. Notably, CARs remain inherently suspicious of Beijing’s overall economic motives and apprehensive of a greater strategic embrace by Moscow. Broadening their regional relationships, thereby, provides them with a platform to increase their scope for strategic manoeuvre. Arguably, the political dynamics among CARs now appear inclined towards intra-regional cooperation. This is reflected in the new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s conciliatory outreach to other Central Asian countries to resolve contentious regional issues, including those on the delimitation of borders and sharing river waters.
Consequently, while the spectre of great power rivalries and competition continue to cast its shadow on Eurasia, yet the ongoing regional dynamics highlight a shift towards the greater regional cooperative approach.
II. India and the SCO: From an Observer State to a Full Member
From an Observer State in 2005 to a full member in 2017, the evolution of India’s more than a decade long exposure and engagement with SCO highlight the growing relevance of the organisation in India’s Eurasian strategic calculus. As a full member of the SCO, India is now not just an observer, where it would earlier be compelled to react and recalibrate its position based on its Eurasian observations, but a key stakeholder in shaping the dynamics of Central Asia. Given the geopolitical realignments, the stakes are high, responsibilities higher and immense opportunities to expand its engagement.
In this context, India’s ongoing engagement with SCO can be seen through the prism of reconnecting and re-energising ties with a region with which India has shared civilizational linkages, and is considered the country’s extended neighbourhood. Significantly, India views the SCO as an Asian body and not a military bloc. From New Delhi’s perspective, SCO as a forum provides a unique opportunity to discuss and expand new areas of cooperation in the economic, energy, developmental, connectivity, and traditional and non-traditional security arenas. It is also an alternative regional platform to delve into the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan and the centrifugal forces arising from religious extremism and terrorism in the region which threaten India’s security and development. These nuances were aptly reflected in Prime Minister Modi’s statement at the 2017 Astana SCO Summit, wherein he articulated the ‘many dimensions of India’s involvement with SCO countries, with energy, education, agriculture, security, minerals, capacity building, development partnership, trade and investment as its major drivers.’ The forum also provides India greater visibility in the affairs of the Eurasian region and enables it to renew bilateral ties with regional countries on an annual basis.
Similarly, from SCO’s perspective, India’s growing global economic and political heft adds weight and credence to the organisation’s own profile, and, perhaps, dispels the Western notion of its existence being solely limited to counter-balance American influence in the region and it being an exclusive anti-U.S. talk shop. In this context, New Delhi’s calibration of a new regional cooperation approach which prioritises connectivity and development projects, its achievements in nation-building, and positive economic outlook in an era of slowing global growth carries a significant resonance in the region.
More importantly, India retains the inherent potential to balance competing strategic interests. Its benign image, positive historical connections and expertise in developmental partnerships place India as a credible partner for CARs in their calculus to strengthen their strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Russia and China. Similarly, given the existing Russian vulnerability in the face of the balance of Sino-Russian ties tilting towards Beijing, a more prominent Indian presence in Central Asia, leveraged by the traditional Indo-Russian partnership, fits well within Moscow’s strategic calculus of subtly balancing Beijing. From New Delhi’s perspective, Moscow can facilitate an enduring Indian-Eurasian partnership, given the substantial linkages the Kremlin retains with CARs. A calibrated Indian-Russian coordination in Central Asia can also help overcome the latent dissonance that has lately crept in their strategic outlook.
Meanwhile, given the Wuhan Spirit-led ongoing positive momentum in India-China ties, the SCO can be a platform for India to reset ties with China. Beijing’s ongoing and unpredictable standoff with the U.S. can be leveraged to build greater Chinese sensitivity to India’ core concerns since a confrontation with New Delhi can further muddy China’s external strategic environment. In this context, it is in Beijing’s interest to prevent India from aligning its strategic priorities with that of the U.S., particularly in India being an inherent partner of the American policy to balance China. Therefore, the recent India-China joint programme to train Afghan diplomats is a reflection of not only their convergence of interests to stabilise the region but also the benefits of a détente in their strategic outlook towards each other. China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui has stated, “India and China shared similar views on the war-torn country, including the need to support an Afghan-led and owned peace and reconciliation process and fight terrorism.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also quoted as saying, “the launch of this programme marks an important step forward. It reflects the closer coordination and cooperation between our two countries on regional affairs and represents a positive development in China-India relations.” While it is likely that India’s cooperation and contestation with China will go hand in hand, it is, nevertheless, in both their interest to comprehensively engage each other. With India seeking sustained high growth, and China transforming its economy to avoid the middle-income trap, both will gain by preserving strategic peace and forging increased mutual dependence between them. It is imperative that India and China set up a modus vivendi for the 21st century to be viewed through the lens of an Asia century. This sentiment was aptly reflected in Prime Minister Modi’s statement at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue wherein he stated: “Asia of rivalry will hold us all back. Asia of cooperation will shape this century.”
In the same vein, SCO provides New Delhi with an opportunity to constructively engage Pakistan regionally while at the same time neutralise Islamabad’s negative moves in the region. A major impediment in India’s expanded engagement with Eurasia remains the strategic denial of direct land connectivity between India and Afghanistan and beyond by Islamabad. SCO’s emphasis on promoting economic cooperation, trade, energy and regional connectivity can, perhaps, unblock India’s access to Eurasia, and provide a fillip to projects like TAPI and CASAREM which seek to bridge the gap between an energy-rich and energy deficit region. Notably, India imports close to 80 per cent of its hydrocarbon requirements, the majority of it from the volatile West Asian region. This has led India to seek energy security in the resource-rich Central Asian region, and build its trade and transport linkages through bilateral and regional mechanisms. With Afghanistan’s membership of SAARC and an Observer State in SCO, it is theoretically possible to envision an arc of advantage — a new Silk Route of energy and economic stakes connecting the Ferghana Valley to the Mekong Delta — should peace and stability return to the region.
In this context, India has expressed its commitment to connectivity projects that are open, transparent, economically sustainable and fiscally responsible. It has also articulated the view that developmental finance for connectivity projects must respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as the environment. And, connectivity projects should highlight the priorities of the host nations. India’s participation in the International North-South Transport Corridor and Ashgabat Agreement, and development of Chabahar Port appear to be guided by these principles.
Overall, India’s presence in SCO can provide better triangular relations between India, Russia and China to address new security challenges meaningfully, enhance infrastructural development projects, and create a network of regional oil and gas pipelines for the larger benefit of Central and South Asian region. This also blends in with PM Modi’s agenda of sustainable development of the region. Notably, at the 2018 SCO summit, the Indian Prime Minister had articulated the foundational dimension of Eurasia being ‘SECURE’. The letters in the word SECURE are:
S for Security of our citizens,
E for Economic development for all,
C for Connecting the region,
U for Unite our people,
R for Respect for Sovereignty and Integrity, and
E for Environment protection.
III. Opportunities for Expanding India’s Engagement with SCO: Forging a Common Vision
As a new full-time member, the onus is on New Delhi to carve out a meaningful role for itself and contribute constructively to the SCO’s expanded agenda. In its attempt to forge a common vision for the future, India does have a head start in the form of a benign and friendly image, growing economic profile, vast experience and expertise in building institutional capabilities, and more importantly, the desire to qualitatively and quantitatively increase its engagement with the region. However, it will still need to adapt and adopt innovative ways of interaction in sync with the ongoing regional strategic realignments. In this context, a critique of India’s Central Asian outreach in the past has been the episodic nature of its engagement. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the region in 2015 and the robust political, strategic and economic interaction thereafter, however, do indicate a quantum shift in India’s commitment to play a bigger role in building regional synergies.
The Indian Prime Minister did lay out the scope of India’s contribution to SCO at the 2015 Ufa summit – “we will work together with SCO for sustainable development and combating climate change……. combat terrorism and extremism that is a rising threat to the entire region….. support efforts to create an environment that eases barriers and facilitates trade and investments in the region….. and would lend our support to improving transportation and communication networks in the region.” India’s focus, therefore, appears to be on expanding synergies of cooperation in connectivity, counter-terrorism, energy and economic arenas.
In this context, India is uniquely positioned to contribute towards these mutually beneficial projects — a fact acknowledged by the majority of SCO states. Notably, India is expected to maintain an annual growth rate over 6 per cent for the foreseeable future, and a recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers report projects India to be the 3rd largest global economy in PPP terms by 2030. These economic indicators increase the attractiveness of India being a stable economic partner for SCO countries to fast-track Eurasia’s regional economic development.
A. Combining Strengths to Tackle Emerging Regional Security Threats
Today, terrorism is not limited to one particular area, having spread its tentacles to South, Central and the West Asian region. It has also morphed — new actors and forces connect more easily through terror networks, and use social media to recruit, train and finance their extremist activities.
In this context, the drawdown of Western forces from Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic State (IS) with its stated intention to create ‘Khorasan’ have added a new explosive dimension to the region’s security landscape. In many ways, security and stability of Eurasia are linked to peace in Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has shown signs of revival while the Taliban and IS have expanded their presence in northern parts of the country bordering CARs.  Similarly, the Al-Qaeda linked Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), comprising largely of Uighur jihadist members, has indicated its willingness to join the Afghan Taliban, apart from being active in Syria. This raises the prospect of spillover of violence into the Eurasian heartland, given the regional terror groups linkages. Central Asia also remains vulnerable due to the many drug trafficking routes that traverse through the region. This assumes even greater significance given the ties between drug trafficking, terrorism and organised crime. Notably, the largely secular CARs have witnessed a growing shift towards Political Islam. Several fault lines, ranging from weakened socio-economic state structures to inter-ethnic discords, have led to increased radicalisation, particularly among the regional youth. This is has seen more than 2,000 Central Asians joining the IS. The Ferghana Valley remains a hotbed of religious extremism.
Similarly, the potential base of Khorasan in the Af-Pak area can be the pivot to spread IS influence in Kashmir. IS has already threatened to attack India, kidnapped Indians in the Middle East and indoctrinated a few. As such, the prospect of IMU, IS, Taliban, TIP and other extremist outfits coordinating their militant activities in Eurasia raise the spectre of an arc of regional instability. It is, therefore, in India and SCO’s interest that Afghanistan does not regress into a hub of terrorism.
India, as a victim of terrorism, has been developing its skills at the national and state level and cooperating with other countries at the regional and international level to fight this menace. It has articulated the belief that no country can fight terrorism alone, and that only a well-coordinated, multilateral and integrated effort can tackle this problem. To counter these threats and challenges, India can share its experience with the region. In the post 26/11 phase, India’s counter-terrorism infrastructure has been strengthened. India can offer expertise on policy aspects, train people and provide technological solutions. India has niche capabilities in satellite, bio and information technologies which can help in collecting and analysing intelligence that can, in turn, be employed for counter-terrorism and human development. Thus, India can offer customised solutions if required.
India’s desire to strengthen its security cooperation with SCO was noted by its External Affairs Minister during the 2014 SC summit meeting, where she said, “we are keen to deepen our security-related cooperation with the SCO in general and with the Regional Counter-Terrorism Structure, in particular.” In this context, India has actively supported the SCO Qingdao Summit Leaders’ ‘Appeal to Youth’ against radicalisation of youth, participated in the SCO Peace Mission 2018 counter-terrorism exercises and attempted to strengthen its coordination with RATS. It is also likely to co-host the next meeting of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group along with Afghanistan.
B. Strengthen Connectivity, Trade, Economic and Energy Linkages
The foundation of India’s economic outreach to Inner Asia is based on its 2012 Connect Central Asia Policy with its focus on the 4 C’s – Commerce, Connectivity, Consular and Community. These are aimed at building long-term partnerships, both bilaterally and collectively. India’s willingness to share its unique experience in banking, finance, Information Technology (IT), education, telecommunications, health and agriculture with CARs can be leveraged to build mutually beneficial development partnerships. Given the regional economic slowdown, brought on by the devaluation of the rouble, India, with its long-term positive economic outlook, can help stabilise the region. India has implemented several projects involving IT excellence, entrepreneurship development and industrial training centres in Central Asia. Some of India’s core strengths that can be leveraged to expand India’s engagement with SCO involve:
Pharmaceutical and Health Care: One of India’s biggest strength is its niche capabilities in the pharma, health care and hospitality sectors. It’s pharmaceutical companies have much to offer to the Eurasian region, including affordable medicines. Other areas of collaboration can include telemedicine and medical tourism. Notably, India has emerged as an attractive destination for medical tourism for regional countries.
Green Technology and Bio-Fuels: Green technology is an area where India is investing heavily, particularly in solar, bio and wind energy. India is a founding member of the International Solar Alliance with its secretariat based in the outskirts of New Delhi. India can contribute, collaborate and share its experience with the regional countries on adopting clean, renewable energy. These capabilities can gain traction on account of environmental issues being a serious cause of concern for the entire region. Given the successful India-Russia cooperation on ash damps, it has been suggested that this project could become one of the pilot projects for India to cooperate with SCO.
Education: India has a robust education and training curriculum that can be offered to the SCO member states. Its technology institutes, business schools, and banking and financial institutions can be of relevance for the region. In this context, India’s successful tele-education and telemedicine initiatives in Africa can be a model for the Eurasian region as well. Similarly, New Delhi’s Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC) programme with the Central Asian countries, which seeks to build capacity in the region, can be further expanded.
Culture: Given India’s historical and civilizational linkages with the Eurasian countries, culture can be a vital area where India can contribute to the SCO processes. Old regional links can be revived in order to frame confidence-building measures. Cultural exchange programmes, in the mould of ‘SCO Our Common Home’, ‘Days of Open Doors’, SCO Film Festival and SCO World Heritage Exhibition, that foster greeter people to people contacts and exchange of ideas can be expanded. Indian art, music, dance and movies continue to be popular in the region. India’s proposal to host the SCO exhibition on ‘Shared Buddhist Heritage’ in 2019 is a step in the right direction. Notably, Buddhism had spread from India to Central Asia with Buddhist stupas being discovered at Dalvarzintepe near Bukhara and Tashkent being named after a local Buddha altar.
Infrastructure and Energy: India and SCO members share a similar objective of developing multi-modal transport and transit routes, effectively linking markets of Central Asia to South Asia, South East Asia and Europe, to boost intra and inter-regional trade and investment. The need of the hour, therefore, is to build pan-Asian cooperation. India is already working to enhance its connectivity with the region through the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). The present government has recently outlined its vision for unified connectivity among the South Asian countries. In this context, cooperation between SARCC and SCO to enhance connectivity and build energy pipelines will go a long way in bridging distances. The first meeting of the Heads of Railways of the SCO Member States held in September 2018 highlights the endless possibilities of shortening the prevailing distances. Indian companies have, meanwhile, built considerable expertise in building refineries. Indian infrastructure and oil companies can cooperate with CARs, China, Russia, Iran, Mongolia and other member states to boost ties in the regional framework. The SCO’s deliberations on forming an Energy Club, in order to bring together the regional producers and consumers, hold strategic relevance for an energy deficit India.
Disaster Management: Given the multiple disasters, both natural and man-made, that India has faced, the country has developed robust disaster management practices covering a broad spectrum of worst-case scenarios. These are being further augmented by niche Indian advancements in space with satellite mapping and weather forecasting helping prevent and mitigate disasters. India’s skills can be of relevance for SCO members who have had to tackle critical environmental challenges in the past.
IV. Future of SCO
In less than two decades, SCO has emerged as an eminent Eurasian construct. Its geostrategic pillar, which prioritises tackling security threats, remains the most enduring fulcrum of its membership. While the organisation’s focus has expanded to build economic, connectivity and energy synergies, yet the results have been mixed. An evolving objective of SCO now appears to increase not just its regional but also its global strategic and economic profile. The inclusion of new members reflects a growing pan-Asian acceptance of the organisation beyond Eurasia. Against the backdrop of shifting sands of global economic and political heft from the West to the East, the SCO has morphed into a relevant pillar of this change. However, for the 21st century to be truly recognised as an Asian century, an effective regional cooperative mechanism would need to be one of its key pivots, and, arguably, the SCO can be a key organisation by the Asians, of the Asians and for the Asians.
The key challenge for SCO will be to navigate the evolving regional and global strategic landscape, marked by unpredictability and turbulence, in order to unlock its true regional potential. Recalibration of traditional alliances, the formation of new partnerships, and undermining 21st century’s foundational pillars, including globalisation which has acquired a pejorative connotation, are being played out at multiple spaces, including in Eurasia.
Given their dominant position in the SCO, their existential stakes in the region and ongoing rapprochement, it is likely that Russia and China will seek to consolidate continental Eurasia. However, the organisation’s inter and intra-regional contradictions, including the evolving asymmetric Moscow-China ties, can inherently limit the Sino-Russian calculus. A key vector of SCO’s future will, therefore, depend upon the equilibrium in Russia-China ties. Notably, this equilibrium or asymmetry, competition or cooperation, and being a partner or rival is linked to a large extent on the triangular Russia-China-U.S. relationship. For both Moscow and Beijing, their ongoing standoff with Washington has compelled them to seek greater synergies not just among themselves but also with others to navigate the Western pressure. This may lead to a more Sino-Russian accommodative approach towards regional players.
In this context, the manner in which the SCO will accommodate the concerns and interests of smaller CARs will be vital in shaping the organisation’s future. The Central Asian Republics remain fearful of a closer strategic embrace by Russia and apprehensive of China’s growing economic pre-eminence which has cast a shadow on their local economies. Their focus on intra-regional cooperation and exploration of new partnerships to increase their space for strategic manoeuvre highlight the centrifugal dynamics in play. Similarly, SCO members have, in the past, expressed fears of the organisation being held hostage to India’s and Pakistan’s adversarial relationship, and their fears would likely have worsened in recent times.
In the meantime, the organisation’s goals to create a web of trade, economic, connectivity and energy arteries may hit a brick wall in the face of the region’s evolving economic dynamics which is being increasingly dominated by and dependent on a singular power with all roads leading to and from Beijing. This raises long term questions on whether these linkages are transparent, economically sustainable, and fiscally responsible, and reflect the priorities of the host nations. In the 18th Qingdao SCO meeting, India did not endorse the grouping’s declaration on the Belt and the Road Initiative (BRI) since the BRI is centred on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which goes through areas of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). In order to build a cooperative spirit, the SCO would need to accommodate the concerns of all members who interest may not always converge although, in principle, ‘better connectivity can help nations overcome political differences by conceiving of their borders as bridges, not barriers, by better leveraging their geographic proximity for mutual benefit, by optimally utilising the vast resources of the region, and enhancing their capacities and competitiveness to more effectively engage with the international system’. The key challenge for SCO, given the enormous stakes, therefore, will be to find the proverbial sweet spot of regional cooperation.
It is likely that the immediate priority for cooperation will be in areas where the majority of SCO member states interests converge, and they can pool their strengths. These involve fighting terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking. Even then, the vital question is will SCO, which is not a military organisation, find common ground to intervene militarily in Afghanistan if the country is on the verge of collapse?
Consequently, while the jury on SCO is still out yet its potential remains immense. The organisation will likely continue to remain a principal vector of Eurasia strategic architecture.
Meanwhile, India, as a new member, will need to formulate an appropriate Eurasian strategy. India’s regional interests stem from its goals to partner the CARs in sustainable nation-building through development partnerships, maintaining their sovereignty, preventing the region from being a hub of terrorism and extremism, and retaining Central Asia’s vector of being a bridge between Asia and Europe for building trade, transport, connectivity, and economic linkages. At the same time, it is also in India’s interest that this region does not evolve into a geopolitical chessboard of great game rivalries.
In this context, several of SCO’s initiatives have the potential to address these issues. Given the fact that decisions in SCO are made on the basis of consensus, India is now in a better position to advance its interests in its extended neighbourhood which, as an observer, it was unable to do so.
Today, India is also in a unique position to leverage the contradictions in great power rivalry. It is the only country within the Russia-India-China triangle which has a fairly positive relationship with the U.S. While this could be a challenge for New Delhi in SCO, particularly if the organisation morphs into an anti-U.S. grouping, yet the opportunity could be to leverage better ties with each big power to improve ties with others in this illustrative quadrilateral. Notably, India has improved its links will all SCO members, with the exception of Pakistan, in the last two years. This highlights the potential to reset great power relations with both Russia and China, with cooperation and not confrontation being the pivot of regional strategic orientation. Notably, the Wuhan spirit of cooperative engagement has seen even China adopt a fairly neutral position on India’s retaliation against Pakistan in response to Pulwama terror attacks.
Therefore, within the framework of SCO, India will have to make every possible effort to not only strengthen regional cooperation but also utilise SCO summit meetings to cement bilateral engagements with SCO member states.
Nevertheless, the challenges that need to be navigated, including the new equation of growing Russia-China-Pakistan triangular convergence of interests, remain on the horizon. This has seen even Russia — India’s traditional partner — adopt a more nuanced position on New Delhi’s key strategic concerns.
With the stakes being high, deft diplomacy in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable yet opportunistic world would be called upon to preserve and promote India’s vital interests. Looking North is now more imperative than ever before.
*Rajorshi Roy Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
From our partner RIAC
Discussion of the authors on this theme with Amb Jayant Prasad, former Director-General, IDSA.
The two energy projects – the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, and the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project (CASA-1000) which is expected to bring Tajik and Kyrgyz hydropower to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and evolve into the Central Asia-South Asia Regional Energy Market (CASAREM), once the planned Central Asian hydro potential comes on stream, can facilitate a region-wide energy exchange.
 Ibid (14)
 Meena Singh Roy and Rajorshi Roy, “Managing Threats and Challenges of Terrorism in the Eurasian Region”, in Asian Strategic Review 2016 – Terrorism: Emerging Trends, (ed) S.D. Muni and Vivek Chadha, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2016.
This quote, attributed to Amb Jayant Prasad, Director General of IDSA, was made during his interaction with the authors.
Escalating to De-Escalate: From Balakot to Ain al-Asad
With tensions between the United States and Iran dramatically escalating just days into the new year, the risks of a new and even more damaging war erupting in the Middle East have once again reached worrying levels. This was sparked by the brazen US drone strike which targeted General Qassem Soliemani – the commanding General of Iran’s Elite Quds forces- just outside Baghdad airport earlier this month. As a result, US-Iran tensions had seemingly skyrocketed overnight in what senior Iranian officials termed as an act of war against their country by the US. These fears were further realized by the Iranian response, which comprised of a late-night fusillade of ballistic missiles launched at two US military bases in Iraq just three days later.
However, with no casualties reported as a result of the Iranian missile strikes and President Trump’s de-escalatory statement following the Iranian response, those same tensions seem to have subsided over the last two weeks at least for the time being. This de-escalation has largely been ascribed to the fact that Iran had deliberately chosen to avoid US casualties by choosing to balance an overt display of its intent and resolve, against its unwillingness to engage further in a protracted and costly conflict with the US. The argument follows that hence, while on the one hand widespread public sentiment and anger in Iran had demanded a punitive response in the form of clear retaliation against the US, the proportionality of such a response had required careful calibration with regards to its potential for further escalation.Thus, representing one of the most recent examples of how the importance of optics and crafting a domestic narrative remain key within the battle for escalation dominance in this century’s limited wars.
This emphasis on optics and narrative was also evident last year in the South Asian context, where following the Pulwama incident, both India and Pakistan had engaged in a dangerous yet limited exchange to gain escalation dominance over one another. For instance, the Indian cross-border air strikes at Balakot had also been domestically framed as being a punitive response to an attack which – like the strike against General Suleimani – had resulted in an unacceptable loss of military personnel. Hence, the retaliatory airstrikes which targeted a suspected militant haven inside Pakistan were also accompanied by growing national outrage and calls for revenge from India that was further amplified by its domestic media.
However, just like Iran’s retaliatory strikes against US bases in Iraq, the Indian strikes at Balakot did not result in any casualties despite official claims to the contrary. This was evident in the considerable extent to which the Indian media then and Iranian media earlier this month, had bragged of scores of enemy causalities including damage to key infrastructure. Hence, constructing palatable narratives that remained acceptable enough for domestic consumption while also helping quell the same national outrage these governments had themselves helped amplify. Consequently, questions following the Balakot strikes that were then raised by Pakistan over whether the absence of casualties was intentional or purely accidental stand as similar to the ones being debated currently within the US with regards to Iran. These further boil down to questions over whether it was a lack of capability or instead a deliberate display of precision and intent by these strikes’ perpetrators.
In order to assess this, it is important to note that while both the Indian and Irani strikes bear some similarities in terms of the preceding context within which they were conducted, their differing scopes and execution plans led to two very different outcomes. For one Iran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles targeting key locations and structures at US military bases, which drawing on the recent damage assessment reports appear to have been deliberately chosen as targets. While there were a couple of missiles that seemed to have fallen off target and remained unexploded, the vast majority seemed to have hit specific structures according to satellite photographs. In comparison, the air strikes launched by the Indian Air force while representing a clear show of intent, instead failed to offer a credible display of their strike capabilities. Specifically, if the objective was to display the reach and precision of their strike abilities in the form of a forced near miss, the ambiguity surrounding their choice of targets seems to have spectacularly back-fired, if that in fact was the objective. Even worse, if it was simply an accidental miss, then instead of communicating military prowess, the strike simply presented a display of sheer ineptitude in which the battle for escalation dominance was already lost, no matter the media spin.
This for instance is further evident in the different responses generated by both the Indian and Iranian strikes. Whereas the US has chosen quite visibly and publicly to not escalate the situation any further; Pakistan last year felt compelled to not only respond in kind, but to reassert its ability to conventionally deter any provocative incursions into its air-space. Following Pakistan’s own display of a forced near miss via air launched stand-off weapons, the highly publicized downing of an Indian fighter jet, and the unconditional release of its captured pilot; eventually presented a very real and irrefutable advantage in terms of escalation dominance
It is important to understand here that while the above incidents may offer a tantalizing vindication of the very concept of escalation dominance, expected outcomes only appear as clear cut in hindsight. Especially considering the inherent temptation of favoring escalation itself as a means of de-escalation, there exist a whole of host of uncertain variables that not only amplify the inherent risks, but may dramatically alter the situation for the worse. In the recent standoff between the US and Iran, the US drawing on its already established military supremacy did not have todisplay any capability to Iran or anyone else, hence making to de-escalate a lot easier. Especially after already having achieved its objective of taking out General Soleimani. In contrast and as evident in the events following Balakot, Pakistan being on the receiving end of a much larger and better funded adversary would be in any similar situation hard-pressed not to escalate and restore deterrence. This holds a highly dangerous truth considering that the escalation ladder in South Asia is essentially built around the threat of nuclear war. Even more so with competing and vague indications of where the nuclear option lies on said ladder, this alone should technically deter any misplaced sense of adventurism if simple common sense is to prevail in the region. Yet as both incidents have shown, nothing with regard to limited war remains predictable in today’s day age.
Trump is sending NATO east – the Middle East
The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory strike against US bases in Iraq brought the situation in the region to a head with President Donald Trump initially urging NATO to participate more actively in Mideast affairs and later proposing to expand NATO’s membership to include Middle Eastern nations, albeit without specifying any concrete candidates.
“I think that NATO should be expanded, and we should include the Middle East. Absolutely,” Trump told reporters, adding that “contending that North Atlantic military alliance should take over for the US in the region “because this is an international problem.”
The White House owner even proposed a new name: NATO-ME (from Middle East).
All this is taking place amid Washington’s rising tensions with Iraq, which “allowed itself” to be outraged by the US drone attack on the Baghdad airport. As to Washington, it has long stopped looking at Iraq as an independent actor, ever since it ousted Saddam Hussein destroying the fragile balance of power in the region and effectively making Iran a regional superpower. And all this time, Iraq has been desperately trying to maintain its territorial integrity. Whether it will eventually succeed in doing this is a big question though.
So, the US drone attack on the Baghdad airport and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes against bases in Iraq housing US troops, “sparing” as they were, resulted in the Iraqi parliament’s demand to withdraw all foreign troops currently stationed in the country. Donald Trump saw this as a sign of “disrespect” for the United States (as if ordering a missile strike on a foreign country’s airport is a show of respect) and is poised to slap Baghdad with tough sanctions. In addition, due to his predilection for measuring everything with money, Trump added that the US forces would not leave Iraq until Baghdad fully repaid the cost of the air base built there by the United States.
As for Trump’s idea (NATO-ME), we have already seen something similar happening before. In 2008, there was much talk going on about creating, under US auspices of course, a new bloc of eight regional states, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan – the so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance, MESA, or “Arab NATO.” Conceived by Washington, the alliance was to create a common front against terrorism, including Iran, which the US views as the main sponsor of terrorism. The idea fell through though, as Qatar has business, almost allied, relations with Iran; Oman actively cooperates with Tehran; Kuwait, mindful of its Gulf neighbors’ onetime failure to help it against the Iraqi aggression, chose to stay out of it. Egypt likewise refused to join in.
Almost two years on, these eight countries’ position remains pretty much the same. Moreover, NATO itself is going through hard times: some of its members continue to honor the provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran; in Syria, Americans, British, French, and other allies act as part of a coalition that exists outside NATO’s fold; Emmanuel Macron talks about the “brain death of NATO,” and that’s not to mention Turkey. As for the European Union, it is now suffering from a kind of foreign policy impotence and is showing little interest in NATO affairs.
Even though Donald Trump said that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was “delighted” with the prospect of the bloc’s expansion to the Middle East, NATO’s leading European members do not seem too eager to “get into” this region. First, because “getting out” of there won’t be easy, and secondly, because they are eager to keep doing business with Iran. It looks like NATO neophytes from Eastern Europe will be the only ones to once again respond to Washington’s call to show how true they are to the values of the “free world,” and, of course, to Washington. This leaves Britain the only NATO “oldie” the US can count on.
At the January 6 meeting of the NATO Council, the participants urged the US and Iran to show maximum “restraint” and reduce bilateral tensions. Jens Stoltenberg said that nobody needs a new conflict, apparently because he knows that no effective military assistance from the Arab countries will be forthcoming. Indeed, the Saudi-led Peninsular Shield Force, created in 1984 as a military arm of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), proved unable to repel the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In Yemen, the Sunni coalition is equally unable to defeat the Shiite rebels. The results of the Arab-Israeli wars also speak for themselves. All this meaning that if necessary, it is the Europeans who will have to fight. But the Arab sheikhs have the money.
In a nutshell, Trump’s idea is to have European soldiers do all the fighting in the Middle East, and finance the military operations with Arab money (Trump never tires of complaining about NATO allies not contributing enough to the Alliance’s funding, and apparently doesn’t expect them to pay more).
“And we can come home, or largely come home and use NATO … now the burden is on us, and that has not been fair,” Trump said.
Just like that – simple and clear. Besides, this is exactly what the “average” American, who will go to the polls this fall to choose the country’s next president, wants to hear.
From our partner International Affairs
Challenges to Eurasian Security in the Coming Decade
Confrontation between Russia and the USA/NATO
There is no reason to believe that the worsening relations between Russia and the West, a process that began six years ago following the Ukrainian crisis, will be rectified in the near future. The current conflict is largely due to the fact that, since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, Russia has become the bogeyman of the US domestic political agenda and is believed by the president’s opponents to be a partial factor in his election. Irrespective of who wins the 2020 US presidential election, the new president will continue to feel the inertial anti-Russian pressure from the establishment and the media. The most we can hope for is a cessation of further confrontation and any actual improvement in bilateral relations should not be expected until the mid-2020s.
The US position influences that of European countries, which have been so far mainly following in the footsteps of Washington’s policy, despite individual initiatives to improve relations with Russia (for example, by French President Emanuel Macron). In terms of security, this trend is manifested in European remilitarization, for the first time since the end of the Cold War. What is particularly inconvenient for Russia is that this process involves a return to Europe by US troops, which had all but left the continent by the mid-2010s. This time, US forces are being deployed not in Western Europe but right on the border with Russia, in the Baltics and Poland, the new NATO members that need protection from Moscow’s “revanchist aspirations”. These developments naturally find strong support among local politicians that have been exploiting anti-Russian rhetoric for decades.
It would be fair to say that Moscow’s worst fears about the consequences of NATO’s eastward expansion have materialized and that the previous agreements, including the promise enshrined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act that the Alliance would not deploy significant forces on the territories of new member states, are turning into a farce. Even though US troops are rotated seamlessly, without any intervals, Washington explains this away as temporary deployment of individual units, implying no violation of the standing agreements. This effective long-term deployment allows the US military to explore the hypothetical war theatre and conduct joint exercises with allies; long-term depots are being set up for weaponry and military equipment that would only require personnel for combat deployment.
Fortunately, despite all the belligerent rhetoric, it is difficult to imagine, even in the distant future, an intentional military confrontation that would be consciously approved by the two countries’ leaders: the price of the conflict escalating would be too high. Yet, in a crisis, the high level of militarization in the contact zones between the two blocs, especially involving a large number of actors representing other countries, could result in accidental skirmishes fraught with severe consequences.
Regular meetings between Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (who doubles as the commander of the US European Command) serve as very positive signals. These events are rarely covered by the general media and the topics discussed are not publicized, but both sides regularly emphasize the importance of this dialogue. It would be no exaggeration to say that the two officers are perhaps the most senior representatives of the Russian and US military-political leadership who meet in person and on a regular basis. It appears extremely important not only to preserve this channel of communication (in fact, it would probably be best for such contacts to be as low-profile as possible, pointedly professional and distanced from politics) but also to develop its potential to include a dialogue between military experts at the regional level or a permanent hotline for resolving potential conflict situations in the Baltic region. Similarly, conducive to resolving crises would be the preservation of the Treaty on Open Skies and other transparency measures (observer missions during exercises and mutual notifications about planned drills and missile launches).
Belarus as an island of stability
Belarus has long remained an island of stability and security on the post-Soviet territory. It happily avoided the numerous nationalist and separatist conflicts that erupted following the USSR’s collapse. In fact, Belarus strives to pose as an honest broker in regional conflicts: the Minsk format and the Minsk agreements have become world-class brands (Minsk is not to blame for the hiccoughs in implementing them). It would be highly desirable for this state of affairs to continue into the next decade.
Yet one cannot be entirely certain that this will, indeed, happen. The Russian-US confrontation is stimulating Washington’s interest in the situation in Belarus and reducing Moscow’s tolerance for Minsk’s multi-vector foreign policy. The upcoming changes in the country are also a factor adding unpredictability: the political reforms currently being discussed imply a greater role for parliament and political parties.
With these processes afoot, it is not surprising that the US Congress holds conferences on how best to educate Belarusian youth, who are supposed, in the future, to choose Western values, and how to indoctrinate them with detailed talks about the threat Russia poses to their country’s sovereignty. Equally unsurprisingly, authoritative analytical centres, such as the RAND Corporation, publish reports on the possibility of providing international security guarantees to Belarus, which, following a hypothetical regime change, is expected to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and thus face the threat of Russian intervention.
The only hope that Belarus will not become the next battlefield for internal and external actors stems from the fact that, at least in this sense, the country has successfully survived the previous several decades. It is, however, evident that Russia will perceive the potential threats associated with Belarus very painfully and certain forces might attempt to take advantage of this.
Moldova and Transnistria: continuing freeze
Transnistria can be described as a textbook post-Soviet example of a frozen, unresolved conflict. The territory is entering the new decade with its status still unrecognized, which complicates economic and social development; it is in a diplomatic dispute with Moldova over the presence of a small Russian peacekeeping force on its soil and its relations with Ukraine have worsened owing to the latter’s contradictions with Russia.
Unlike the other long-standing conflicts, however, the probability of the Transnistria situation escalating into an open confrontation remains extremely small. On the contrary, Moldovan President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party, which concentrated power in its hands after the grey cardinal Vladimir Plahotniuc was overthrown, intends to resolve the Transnistrian problem by reintegrating the territory as an autonomous region within the federal state.
This scenario is supported by Russia and might be of interest to the EU, on which Moldova depends economically. On the other hand, it has many opponents, including unionists, who support unification with Romania. Given that Romania is actively developing its military might and gradually becoming a key NATO member in the south of the Alliance’s “eastern flank”, the prospects of that country integrating Moldova are worrying Moscow.
So far, the unionists’ chances of making Moldova part of Romania appear even less realistic than the prospects of the Transnistrian conflict being resolved through federalization of Moldova. Yet the confrontation might aggravate the situation, if not to the level of the tragic 1992 events.
Ukraine: a tangle of contradictions
Ukraine is likely to remain the key area of conflict in the post-Soviet space in the coming decade owing to the huge associated tangle of contradictions, including the political confrontation between Russia and the USA, the economic standoff between the EU and the EAEU, unresolved Soviet-era issues and even more ancient ideological constructs.
The key security challenges for Russia concerning Ukraine will be posed by the need to secure freezing the conflict in the east of that country, provide for Crimea’s security, facilitate reliable navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, maintain control over the Kerch Strait, and prevent deployment of NATO troops in Ukraine. Even in the best-case scenario (which we may be observing at the moment, because the situation could certainly be much worse), these issues cannot be entirely resolved in the foreseeable future; they will continue to demand Russia’s attention and resources.
Georgia on the periphery of focus
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, partially recognized Transcaucasian territories, are somewhat in between Donbass and Transnistria in terms of the situation there. On the one hand, the likelihood of direct military conflict over those territories is extremely small thanks to the presence of Russian troops. On the other hand, their status still poses a problem. Considering the way the status issue was exploited during the Russian-Georgian political confrontation in the summer of 2019, one would have thought that the August 2008 war had taken place merely a few months previously, and the information that Russia had “occupied 20% of Georgian territory” was being presented as fresh and shocking news.
It is possible that, in the coming decade, as internal problems in Georgia intensify or if the international situation takes a favourable turn, the Georgian authorities and media (not necessarily those currently in power: Georgia is known for its frequent changes of power with subsequent reprisals of predecessors) will once again exploit the “Russian aggression” narrative.
The USA will continue to view Georgia as part of the notional defensive perimeter, and joint military exercises will be held there regularly. In reality, however, Georgia, which is separated from the closest NATO member nations by the Black Sea, will remain on the periphery of the focus. One good example here is Exercise DEFENDER Europe 20, planned for the spring of 2020, which will practice new, more Cold War-like scenarios involving the defence of NATO’s eastern flank. Georgia, although formally a participant in the drill of nearly 40,000 NATO troops mainly deployed in Poland and the Baltic states, will only be involved in airdropping a small multinational force.
Armenia and Azerbaijan: a powder keg
Another hotspot in Transcaucasia is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Unlike other territorial disputes that sprouted up as the Soviet Union was collapsing, this one cannot possibly be frozen: clashes between special forces and exchanges of fire between border guards on the frontier between the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Azerbaijan take place several times a year. The April 2016 major aggravation, known as the four-day war, resulted in heavy losses (without delving into the parties’ diametrically opposed accounts of the losses incurred by themselves and the adversary, it can be stated with certainty that there were more than 100 fatalities) and the border getting reshaped to the benefit of Azerbaijan.
The parties to this conflict continue to militarize actively. Moreover, owing to the serious differences in economic potentials, Azerbaijan’s capabilities are much greater: the country is procuring significant quantities of advanced UAVs, armoured vehicles, multiple-launch rocket systems and even theatre missiles. Azerbaijan mainly buys its weaponry and military equipment from Israel, Turkey, Belarus and Russia. Armenia often criticizes Russia and Belarus for their active military cooperation with Azerbaijan, presenting it as nothing short of betrayal on the part of fellow CSTO members. There is, however, no doubt that Azerbaijan would find alternative ways to acquire such weapons and friendly relations with Russia are among the key factors in containing the conflict.
The same applies to the presence of a Russian military base in Armenia and deliveries of Russia-made weapons to that country at internal Russian prices and with use of preferential loans. In particular, Armenia has taken delivery of Russian Iskander missile systems (obviously to balance the procurement by Azerbaijan of Israeli site defence missile systems, which could prove effective against the Armenian Scuds) and will soon receive a small batch of Su-30SM fighters, which, given the specifics of the local theatre of operations, cannot be described as anything but a status purchase.
The domestic political agenda in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, their irreconcilable positions, regular clashes and the militarization of the parties to the conflict leave no hope of any speedy settlement. An optimistic scenario, and Russia’s objective, would be to maintain a balance and good relations with both parties and make sure that no significant conflicts break out in the coming decade.
Central Asia: Region X
Central Asia does not attract as much media attention as Ukraine or the Baltic states, which is a fundamental mistake. Russia’s “soft underbelly” may well become a source of bad news in the coming decade.
The future of Afghanistan presents the greatest challenge in the region. US troops will leave the country sooner or later, whether commanded out by President Trump or his successor. The USA is already too tired of this war, which will inevitably end with the Taliban staying and Washington leaving. The conflict continues exclusively for the sake of bargaining over withdrawal terms that would help the Americans save face. The process will not necessarily have catastrophic consequences: the Taliban may yet integrate successfully into the existing Afghan state and, as the Americans would like it to, join the fight against groups loyal to the Islamic State (which is banned in Russia). Most likely, however, the civil war will continue between different groups.
This creates additional risks for the post-Soviet states. The Taliban may have so far stayed mostly within the borders of Afghanistan. Still, the same cannot be said of other radical Islamist groups, which might either step up their activity against the background of the chaos in the country or seek new areas of operation, should they be squeezed out of Afghanistan. Central Asian countries, which cannot boast consistent stability, might become their new targets.
This instability, which stems from internal economic and religious problems, the difficult transition of power and generational change within the local elites, could, in and of itself, foster civil and even inter-state wars. For this reason, Central Asia, where outbreaks of violence are virtually inevitable, will become the main field of activity, perhaps even a battlefield, for the CSTO.
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