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The 2000 Declaration on Strategic Partnership between India and Russia

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Image source: kremlin.ru

On October 3, 2000, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Vladimir Putin cemented India-Russia bilateral ties with the signing of the historical agreement, the “Declaration on the India-Russia Strategic Partnership.” Two decades since the signing of the agreement, bilateral relations are hailed to have chartered new levels of cooperation amid fast changing regional and global scenarios. While shouldering mutual interests and concerns, the strategic partnership has been at the cusp of litmus test, as it has endured events such as the 9/11 terrorist attack, colour revolutions, the Georgian War, the economic depression in 2008, the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the Crimean referendum and its aftermath and the current COVID-19 pandemic. It is therefore worth reflecting on the two decades of a seemingly positive bilateral engagement between India and Russia. It is important to analyse how the agreement signed in 2000 has played a role in the continuum of ensuring the mutual understanding, peaceful cooperation and reliability between the two strategic partners. This is also an opportunity to critically evaluate the magnitude of our strategic relationship and the changes in the foreign policy priorities since 2000. Given the current global context, the key question is how prepared are India and Russia for insulating the strategic partnership amid the challenges in the post pandemic world?

The Declaration of Strategic Partnership (2000) was signed at a time when the momentum in the bilateral relations between India and Russia post-Soviet collapse had fatigued due to several factors. But the most crucial factor of them all was the renewal of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1993. The renewed 1993 Treaty had almost written off the bilateral engagement, as Russia clarified that it was no longer willing to make any defence commitment during the time of any external military threat to India – a key security clause (Article IX) that constituted the very core of the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty.

The Strategic Partnership Treaty signed in 2000 gave a new lease of life as it restored India-Russia relations to respectable levels.Both the countries realised the need to develop a multifaceted bilateral cooperation in all possible spheres of defence, energy, space, nuclear, science and technology etc. India’s strategic partnership with Russia since then has been unique, intense and substantive in many ways. Mainly, the Treaty led to the institutionalization of high level political interactions through annual bilateral summits – a key feature of the agreement to foster extensive collaboration and dynamism in the partnership. The twenty annual bilateral summits held so far between India and Russia have in particular seen major agreements and initiatives undertaken to strengthen the partnership to higher levels.

Additionally, in 2010, the bilateral ties were further elevated with the signing of the “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.” Arguably, the partnership between the two countries has been successfully reflected in many instances at regional and global platforms. India, along with BRICS member states, abstaining its vote during the United Nations General Assembly referendum against Russia for its accession of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s unequivocal support to India on the Kashmir issue are few cases in point.

Regarding strategic partnership in sensitive spheres of cooperation between India and Russia, defence cooperation continues to be one of the major boosters for engagement between the two countries. India has acknowledged Russia’s contribution in assisting the former in military power projection and preserving its national security interests. Although in recent times there is downgrading in the purchase of Russian defence equipment by India, the cooperation in this sphere has been unassailable given that it has progressed from buyer-seller relations to joint research development and production, high-end technology transfer that has encouraged India’s quest for indigenous defence capabilities. From the induction of INS Vikramaditya to the joint production of BrahMos missile, India-Russia defence cooperation has achieved new capacities through acquisitions and joint development. In fact, Russia’s resurgence as a military power in recent times is conducive to India’s domestic initiatives such as the Make in India project. The finalising of the S-400 missile defence system agreement between India and Russia despite the threat of imposition of CAATSA sanctions has shown India’s predictable resistance to external pressures given its historical ties with Russia.

Indo-Russian nuclear cooperation constitutes an important element of our strategic partnership. The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) has become one of the biggest success stories of India-Russia cooperation. As Unit 1 and Unit 2 start commercial operation, the process for reactor buildings of Units 3 and 4 have already begun. With the construction of 12 nuclear power plants planned, India-Russia nuclear cooperation has indeed reached new heights. India, Russia and Bangladesh signed a trilateral agreement in March 2018, for the construction of a NPP in Rooppur, Bangladesh.

Energy diplomacy has been another major element of the strategic partnership, since Russia, an export-oriented energy country, will aim to leverage its energy card with India, an import-oriented energy market. India’s interests in the Arctic, for instance, especially energy resources, are a crucial aspect for India’s growing energy security needs. India received its very first delivery from Russia’s Arctic LNG Plant. This is seen as a great step towards strengthening India-Russia energy cooperation.

The bilateral partnership, which has a global strategic connotation, has seen both the countries enthusiastically promote the idea of building a multipolar world order and changing the global financial structure. In this regard, both India and Russia have envisaged promoting a harmonious global order based on international law and collective decision-making that includes developing countries and is not monopolised by developed countries alone. India and Russia, along with other players such as China, have succeeded in establishing non-western organisations such as BRICS and SCO. The member states have, within their capabilities and limitations, established mechanisms that address economic and strategic interests, such as the New Development Bank. While BRICS and SCO have become tools of political signalling on issues related to global affairs, there however exist asymmetries among the member states with regard to economic growth performance, distribution of resources and military strength. Additionally, although China is a member of such multilateral organisations, at the individual level Beijing has exercised assertive posturing that has caused concern in India. This can be seen by its irrational border claims and actions in the Indian Ocean region. The role of Russia especially during the time of crisis between India and China is therefore anticipated to be non-partisan and meaningful.

When the Treaty of Strategic Partnership was signed in 2000, the world was at the brink of a war on terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. Both India and Russia, at their respective level, joined the bandwagon on the global war on terror. Both parties, as bilateral partners which have been victims of terrorist attacks, voiced their interests and concerns in combating terrorism and related activities. India and Russia have therefore cooperated at bilateral and multilateral levels. For instance, through Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, SCO member states participate in joint anti-terrorism exercises. India and Russia also share the mutual interest of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their possible acquisition by terrorist groups.

While both India and Russia assert their distinctive identity in world politics respectively, the strategic partnership has seen close coordination of foreign policy interests to a wide range of international and regional issues. Both countries firmly believe that intensification of the Indo-Russian strategic partnership can help respond to the challenges thrown up by global changes in a more effective way. While both India and Russia have a diverging approach on the Indo-Pacific narrative, one cannot deny that the two countries understand the need for strengthening maritime security and freedom of navigation in accordance with the universally accepted principles of international law. This includes combating piracy at sea and providing humanitarian aid during natural disasters. The two countries have shown keen interest in restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan. Eurasian integration has been a key priority in the India-Russia strategic partnership. Russia understands that in its quest for “greater Eurasia,” India is a vital player for its huge market potential, economic growth performance, military strength and enhanced position in international affairs.

Strategic partnership in space, science and technology has been a bulwark in the bilateral relations between India and Russia since the Soviet era and has continued to remain one even today. In fact, both countries have agreed to expand their relations in the aerospace sphere, an area of traditional cooperation for decades. More than 500 joint projects involving scientists and research institutes from both countries have been undertaken within the framework of various initiatives since 2000.

While critically evaluating the two decades of strategic partnership between India and Russia, it is tempting to compare India’s strategic partnership with other major global players and the strategic partnership that it shares with Russia. The new realities of the dynamic nature of international relations have definitely posed a challenge to the partnership. The pursuing of an all-alignment foreign policy has caused a certain level of discomfort in the bilateral relations. India’s growing proximity with the U.S. and Russia’s compromised defence cooperation with China and mending of ties with Pakistan in recent times has caused anxiety in the strategic partnership between India and Russia. One possible inference that one can draw is the constant comparison to the current India-Russia partnership with that of the nostalgia of Indo-Soviet ties. But one needs to bear in mind that compared to the strategic partnership that both India and Russia share with other major players, there are limitations and shrouded with lack of trust. India’s defence relations with U.S., for instance, is yet to make any substantive development in joint production and restrictiveness about its technology compared to Russia’s generosity to sharing defence technology and Russia’s relations with Pakistan is eclipsed with lack of trust and understanding. As for Russia-China relations, there is growing speculation of a possible role reversal in the partnership given China’s growth in global politics in recent times.

However, there are few stumbling blocks in India-Russia defence cooperation, especially the shifting trends in partnership, for example defence engagement between Russia and China. Russia’s current cooperation with China has emerged exclusively, as it includes cooperation in sensitive fields, such as strategic missile defence, hypersonic technology, and the construction of nuclear submarines. With Russia now collaborating with China on sensitive military equipment, allowing for the latter to be well equipped with similar and more advanced capabilities, China is a major security concern for India. Hence, given the way warfare has evolved over the years, collaboration in advanced future weapon systems, including quantum technology and artificial intelligence, should be enhanced further between India and Russia.

Indo-Russian relations are undoubtedly at the cusp of a litmus test. Nonetheless, the strategic partnership should see the future of Asia beyond the U.S. and China factors, and both India and Russia can play a decisive role in promoting their mutual interests in the region.

The rapid and uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 in the past seven months has impacted the global order and the interconnected systems. Reflecting the spirit of the partnership in times of crisis, India coordinated with Russia in organising the repatriation of Russian nationals. Russia also welcomed India’s goodwill gesture to send medical supplies to help fight the virus.

Critics have often pointed out that the strategic partnership is yet to achieve its full potential, given the fact that some of the spheres of cooperation continue to be remain obsolete, for instance, the economic relations. Additionally, given nearly 70 years of diplomatic relations, soft power capabilities, cultural diplomacy, academic exchange programmes, and labour migration are at an imperceptible status.

Trade and investment remains the weakest link in our strategic partnership and falls far short of our potential, which unfortunately is not commensurate with our high-level political cooperation. Post the announcement of the Strategic Agreement in 2000, which largely promotes the strengthening of economic relations between India and Russia, the trade cart received much required upgrade. Potential areas of trade have been explored, which include trade and investment, energy, nuclear, science and technology, pharmaceuticals, IT, steel, diamonds, fertilizers, infrastructure, heavy engineering and food products. Exploring economic prosperity, sustainable development, and free movement of people, information, knowledge, ideas and greater institutional links has also become crucial.

In fact, both countries have set a target of $30 billion worth of trade turnover and $30 billion investment in each other’s country by the year 2025. It is also heartening that new options are being explored to further expand the domain of economic cooperation, Eurasian integrity, regional cooperation, free trade agreements, connectivity and trade corridors have gained the utmost importance in the annual bilateral summits in the past two decades. The two countries have also set up mechanisms such as Intergovernmental Commissions. For example, Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC), the International North South Transport Corridor and the Eurasian Economic Union, which have emerged as immediate priority areas for strong economic cooperation between the two countries.

The Russian Far-East is another region for potential economic engagement. India’s presence in the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) is aimed at developing trade, commerce, investment, railway infrastructure, steel plants, defence, space, ports and shipping. India has successfully participated in the annual EEF, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for an “Act Far East” policy and announcing $1 billion line of credit for the development of the Far East. Other than these developments, our economic ties are focused on exploring the potential of sub-regional cooperation. Sub-regional cooperation has emerged as one of the prospective areas of cooperation and regional connectivity to add further impetus to the economic cooperation between India and Russia. The key goal is to cement and institutionalise cooperation between the States and Union Territories of the Republic of India and Provinces of the Russian Federation.

To further bolster India’s FAR ambitions, an Indian Chief Ministers delegation of four Indian states led by the Commerce and Industry Minister of India Piyush Goyal visited Vladivostok to explore the opportunities and potential of business to business (B2B) cooperation in the FAR. With the introduction of the Russian Homestead Act and India being host to one of the largest agricultural farmers’ immigration in the world, the need for both India and Russia to tap the potentials of agricultural sector is crucial. Regional connectivity needs due attention, hence the successful execution of alternative economic corridors and maritime trade corridors, such as Chennai-Vladivostok, needs prompt engagement.

The major impact of the pandemic has prompted countries to explore alternate market destinations and shifts in the business environment. The crisis has opened opportunities for countries such as India and Russia to reposition themselves in the global supply chain. Russia, with its efforts to attract investment to the Far East, and India, with its huge manpower and existing available manufacturing units, should be endorsed as potential and suitable alternatives for manufacturing, instead of developed nations.

Despite the seemingly successful bilateral relations between India and Russia, the strategic community is incomplete if there is shortfall in establishing strong people-to-people engagement. Since the Soviet collapse, bilateral relations have seen minimal cultural diplomacy, academic exchange and labour migration. Perhaps new vistas of cooperation could be explored to promote soft power capabilities between the two countries, such as cinema, which has always been one of the most successful foreign policy tools to enhance cultural exchange and people-to-people contact between countries.

The film industry is a great medium for spreading narratives, and in India movies have an immense following as well as impact on the minds of the population. India and Russia collaborated in movie production during the Soviet era, however, the trend did not last long due to the fall of the Soviet Union, among other factors. The time is right for both India and Russia to collaborate in the entertainment industry, especially through joint production of movies and creating powerful narratives related to bilateral cooperation. India and Russia must concentrate more on the content of the movie rather than joint production alone, as for the audience the content matters more than the producer. Moreover, it can have an everlasting impact on the minds of the Indian population if the content projects a Russian character aiding/collaborating with an Indian protagonist in a movie in bringing down an antagonist. Also, the Indian movie industry is always on the look for exotic locations in foreign lands. Hence, in order to attract the Indian movie industry, Russia could look into easing travel and other shooting permissions within its jurisdictions. Such an effort would not only bring closer industry ties, but also be able to showcase the Russia and its rich culture to the Indian population, thereby acting as a window of promotion for Russian tourism.

Regarding geopolitical realignment, today the global community is seeking pragmatic internationalism. The role of India and Russia is crucial in their efforts to diffuse the multipolar world system. This is also relevant for regional alliances to actively engage politically and economically, which should help bilateral relations between the two countries elevate to a higher pedestal in post-pandemic world order.

The current global situation has given rise to some daunting challenges for the partnership once again. Some of the challenges in the post pandemic world are linked to the disruptions being caused to the international order by traditional and non-traditional threats such as climate change, cyber security, health security, data protection, secure communication challenges etc. Nurturing hopes for stability and prosperity in Eurasia in the post pandemic world, bilateral relations between India and Russia and their proactive role in regional mechanisms such as SCO, Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and Russia-India-China (RIC) are viewed as an integral part of this construct. Regional connectivity needs due attention including the successful execution of alternative economic corridors and maritime trade corridors.

In conclusion, the signing of the milestone agreement in 2000 was the outcome of developments that took place in bilateral relations between India and Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The main aim of the agreement was to elevate the partnership to new level of cooperation and put speculations and uncertainties in the relationship to rest. Over the past twenty years of relations, the partnership has seen many ups and downs. Nonetheless, this has not allowed any major damage that could impact or lead to any serious conflict of interest between the two countries. Having said that, the coveted relations built over the years cannot be taken for granted. In this regard, apart from political elites and bureaucrats playing a crucial role in enhancing the relations, academicians, artists, students, the research community, think tanks and educational institutions should contribute to forming the true essence of the partnership. The youth, in particular, need to draw inspiration from each other’s rich history and cultural relevance, carrying forward the vision for a long-term partnership. The engagement of both countries in the international ecosystem in the post pandemic world has become even more relevant, as it has given rise to new challenges and opportunities. The strategic partnership between India and Russia nevertheless needs to insulate the mutual interests from challenges that emerge from within and from external factors. Perhaps, the need for a reality check and serious introspection will be crucial as the challenges are only set to grow given the dynamism of international relations.

From our partner RIAC

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Russia’s Potential Invasion of Ukraine: Bringing In Past Evidence

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Since mid-November 2021, the U.S. intelligence community and media have been warning of a Russian military buildup along the country’s western border. As the military activities are widely interpreted as a sign of Russia’s upcoming invasion of Ukraine, NATO needs to carefully analyze Russia’s motivations and previous behaviors, as well as hammer out policy options in case the existing fears prove to be correct.

Although Russia’s record of deception and recent statements about red lines make current tensions particularly worrisome, there is no hard evidence that an invasion is indeed being planned. The present situation is one of ambiguity (which is probably deliberate), and the West should treat it as such. Washington and its allies should be prepared for the worst without assuming that the negative scenario will inevitably come true. In particular, NATO should consider continuing its policy of tailored deterrence while refraining from steps that can lead to escalation themselves.

What Makes the Invasion Possible

Putin’s modern Ukraine policy originates from two basic assumptions about Russia’s relations with the West after the end of the Cold War. The first assumption is based on the broken promise narrative. According to Mary Sarotte, the Soviet Union did expect that NATO would not move eastward, whereas German Foreign Minister Genscher did promise that NATO “would not expand itself to the East.” The assurances have never been codified. However, NATO’s close military cooperation with Ukraine is viewed by Russia as violating the spirit of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany of 1990. The historical fear of an attack from the West makes this perception even more vivid. The second assumption is that protests, revolutions, and major political shifts in the post-Soviet space can usually be attributed to Western malicious intentions. The 2014 pro-European revolution in Ukraine is therefore referred to by Moscow as a coup d’état. As unpleasant as they are, the two preconceived notions have a substantial impact on Russian foreign policy, leading the Kremlin to take radical military and diplomatic steps.

Further, Russia’s previous behaviors indicate that Moscow can actually use force against its neighbors, which means that military scenarios should be given serious consideration. It is known that Russia used military force to take control of Crimea in 2014, as President Putin admitted Russia’s involvement and disclosed secrets of the “takeover plot” quite a while ago. It is also known that Russia occupied large swaths of Georgia in 2008, even though Russia’s sovereignty was not directly threatened by skirmishes in South Ossetia. It is presumed, yet denied by Russia, that Moscow has been directly engaged in the Donbas War, which began in mid-2014.

More importantly, Russia has a record of denying its role in crises where Russia’s involvement was suspected by others from the outset. It is only in April 2014 that Putin admitted responsibility for the takeover of Crimea that had taken place between late February and early March. A more recent example of deception is Russia’s anti-satellite test in November 2021. Initially, the Vice-Chair of the Defense Committee in Russia’s Parliament said that “[t]here is no limit to the fantasies of the State Department. Russia is not engaged in the militarization of space.” Foreign Minister Lavrov speculated that “there is no evidence.” Later that day, Russia’s Defense Ministry admitted that the test had been conducted. There are even more cases of Moscow’s presumed malicious activities where Russia has never admitted its role. Those include the Donbas War, the downing of MH17 in July 2014, and the poisoning of Skripal and Navalny.

Given this record, Russia’s assurances that no invasion is being planned cannot be taken at face value. Moreover, Russian officials have made a number of worrisome statements recently. Since late November, President Putin has been calling for “security guarantees” from the West to prevent further NATO enlargement. On November 22, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service released a statement on the tensions over Ukraine, saying that “[w]e observed a similar situation in Georgia on the eve of the events of 2008.”

Rationality, Restraint, and History Lessons

Yet, it may seem that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be contrary to Russia’s interests, which is in fact true. A fait accompli along the lines of the 2014 takeover of Crimea is no longer possible, as Ukraine’s Army has been forged in the combats of Donbas. The covert war scenario for an entire country does not seem feasible either. Not only would an invasion result in numerous casualties for both sides, but it would also constitute a drain on Russia’s budget for years to come. A brutal war against Ukraine would literally destroy Moscow’s “fraternal peoples” narrative underlying much of Russian foreign policy.

The irrationality of attacking Ukraine is not the only reason why risks for NATO in the current situation may be exaggerated. Although Russia has used military force in a few notable cases, there have been even more examples of Russia’s restraint. In 2018, Russia refrained from attempting to keep in power Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan in a revolution that was framed by many as inherently pro-Western. Russia did not take sides in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, even though Azerbaijan was explicitly supported by NATO member Turkey. Russia was sticking to a “wait and see” approach during much of the attempted revolution in Belarus in 2020. Finally, Russia has tolerated coups and revolutions in Central Asia, including most recently the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2020. In other words, understanding what Russia could have done but chose not to do is no less important than the awareness of what has indeed occurred. Russia is not inherently expansionist, and the domino logic does not apply.

However, this in no way means that an invasion of Ukraine is impossible. Irrational, previously unknown, and even “impossible” events tend to occur from time to time, as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated 80 years ago. Even crazier twists and turns have probably been averted thanks to diplomacy and deterrence. This is why contingency planning is an integral part of any foreign and defense policy. NATO’s goal is to preempt, prevent, and be prepared for an invasion rather than predict whether it will happen or not.

Way Forward

While a full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not been launched, Western policy can rely on traditional deterrence instruments tailored to the crisis in question. In doing so, the United States and its allies should not act as though an invasion were inevitable, which it is not. NATO’s response to the current tensions should be very limited and focused, yet commensurate with the Western interest in countering Russian adventurism and short of upending the status quo for no apparent reason. First, the U.S. and its allies may continue providing military aid to Ukraine and even increase it, which is in line with previous policies. That said, troop deployments in Ukraine and enhanced military presence in the Black Sea would not be helpful, as such measures could alienate Russia without providing any benefits to the West. Second, NATO should dissuade Ukraine from attacking first, as Georgia did in 2008. Russia should be put in a position where any attack it might undertake would be unprovoked and very explicit. However, NATO should find it in its interest to refrain from providing any specific guarantees to Ukraine. The nature of Ukraine-Russia tensions makes provocations on both sides highly likely; assurances and alliances would only heighten risks, boosting Ukraine’s and Russia’s self-confidence.

A full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine is possible. Still, it is neither inevitable nor likely. When everyone takes war for granted, the question arises whether the United States still has a foreign policy capable of fostering a positive environment for the prosperity of the American people.

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