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India – Pakistan and Russia – Ukraine: What if We Compare the Two?

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India and Russia are two great powers on the Eurasian continent, and it is for a good reason that they both claim a proactive role in establishing a new order on the continent as well as globally. The two countries epitomize entire civilizations as each can rightly be proud of their amazing history and rich culture. At the same time, Russia and India face rather daunting challenges in effecting modernization, both socially and economically. Both Moscow and New Delhi attach great importance to national sovereignty, and they do not take well to external attempts to interfere in their domestic affairs. Besides, both have to cope with powerful geopolitical competition that outstrip them in many ways – India’s rival is China, and Russia’s is the United States.

Alongside everything else, Russia and India face fundamental problems in cultivating relations in their neighborhoods, which complicates the stances Moscow and New Delhi take on the international stage all the more, diverting attention and resources as well as preventing them from settling into the global international community firm and steady. Pakistan has been a thorn in India’s side for a long time, while Ukraine has recently played a similar role for Russia. How far can we draw parallels between the India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine stand-offs? Are there any reasonable grounds to talk about any typological similarities of the two extremely difficult situations in two regions that are so contrasting? Is it appropriate to explore common or parallel options for resolving the two issues?

Let us start with the obvious. Each pair (India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine) is made up of societies that share a number of common characteristics. At some point, each belonged to a single economic, sociocultural and administrative space. The partition of the British Raj into to the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan in August 1947 brought about fratricidal conflicts that claimed the lives of some million people, leading to the migration of millions, which affected South Asia on a larger scale. For centuries, Russia and Ukraine formed the core of the Russian Empire, and later that of the Soviet Union. While the collapse of the Soviet Union did not result in a direct military conflict between Moscow and Kiev, it was nevertheless extremely painful for Russia and Ukraine, also triggering significant migration flows.

It is precisely the closeness of the “cultural and historical codes” of the two pairs of nations that bread the desire of the new political elites in Pakistan and Ukraine to distance themselves from their larger neighbours as much as possible. The problem is that they did not have a history of independent statehood from which to draw. Pakistan’s identity was built on a consistent opposition to its Indian neighbour. Ukraine took a similar path already in its early years, which can be evidenced by a book published in 2003 by the country’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, under the title of Ukraine is not Russia. For Pakistan, the first marker of “otherness” was religion. For Ukraine, it is the language that has gradually moved to the fore: a consistent, if not entirely successful, “Ukrainianization” was complemented by claims to the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine following 25 years into the country’s independence.

Notably, India and Russia tend to treat Pakistan and Ukraine as artificial constructions that arose as an accidental coincidence of political circumstances, with no obvious prospects in the long run. “Few” has never been the number of doom-laden forecasts presented in New Delhi and Moscow, assuming the inevitable disintegration of their neighbors into separate regions or their eventual transformation into “failed states.” However, despite the numerous domestic crises and external pressures, both Pakistan and Ukraine have demonstrated a high degree of resilience. For example, Pakistan, even with its fragility and a relatively inefficient public administration, has already existed longer than the Soviet Union. Although it did lose its eastern provinces back in 1971, which would later become the independent state of Bangladesh.

Besides, potentials of the legs in both pairs are obviously asymmetric. India is far larger, richer and stronger than Pakistan, while the same is true for Russia vis-a-vis Ukraine. That said, neither Pakistan nor Ukraine is so weak that India or Russia could ignore or manipulate their neighbour with impunity. For India, Pakistan is much more important than, say, the neighboring Sri Lanka, where New Delhi also faces numerous challenges in sustaining bilateral ties. Similarly, Ukraine is far more important for Russia than all the three Baltic states combined. While neither Pakistan nor Ukraine is currently able to act as an alternative agent of integration processes in South Asia or across the post-Soviet space, they are more than capable of playing the spoiler in any multilateral projects of integration that may emerge in the regions.

The general pattern of relations in the two pairs is somewhat different: hostilities between India and Pakistan arose almost immediately in the wake of the two countries gaining independence, whereas the tensions between Russia and Ukraine manifested themselves gradually. Unlike India and Pakistan, Russia and Ukraine were able to avoid slipping into a large-scale military face-off, although Kiev believes today Russia to be an “aggressor country”. At the same time, though, both India and Pakistan are nuclear-weapon states, meaning that neither country is particularly interested in a direct military showdown. Ukraine abandoned Soviet nuclear weapons back in the 1990s, and the nuclear factor does not apply to the Russia–Ukraine relations. In any case, opinion polls are invariable in their demonstration of persistent anti-Indian sentiments amid the public in Pakistan and anti-Russian attitudes in the minds of Ukrainians.

There is a territorial element both to India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine relations. Certainly, to compare Kashmir and Crimea would be somewhat problematic, as the two regions have very different pasts, while the make-up and self-identification of their respective populations are in no way similar, and the features of their current international legal status do not coincide. All that notwithstanding, there are some parallels to be found. New Delhi still insists that the Kashmir conflict is no international matter and focuses on the narrative of “cross-border terrorism” emanating from Pakistan. Similarly, Moscow refuses to talk to Kiev about Crimea, declaring the issue closed once and for all. However, neither Islamabad nor Kiev is ready to drop their territorial claims any time soon, with any possible rapprochement with India and Russia hinging on the progress in this area. The biggest difference between Pakistan and Ukraine is that Pakistan insists on a referendum in Kashmir (hoping that the Muslim population in the region will favor reunification with Pakistan), while Ukraine is reluctant to see a referendum in Crimea (citing the fact that the country’s constitution does not provide for this but also because the official Kiev may not like the outcome of such a referendum).

Finally, it is worth noting that the India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine links are open rather than closed systems. The weaker members of these pairs are attempting to correct the unfavorable balance of power by internationalizing the conflict as much as possible. In its standoff with India, Pakistan has traditionally relied on the support of the United States and, more recently, China. Meanwhile, Ukraine has managed to transform its conflict with Russia into a conflict between Russia and the “collective West.” Internationalization drives up the costs of conflict for the stronger party, pushing hopes for a “final victory” into the distance. This explains why New Delhi and Moscow seek to limit their relations with Islamabad and Kiev to preserving the status quo and minimizing the threat of escalation.

What does this mean for the future of India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine relations? First of all, we need to acknowledge that conflicts of this type tend to drag on for a very long time, surviving several generations. The confrontation between India and Pakistan has been going on for 75 years now, with no signs that it will end in the foreseeable future. Even if the Kashmir issue is somehow resolved on terms acceptable to both sides, there are more than enough reasons for the two to remain at odds with one another. By the same token, it is difficult to imagine a situation where a reset in the Russia–Ukraine relations would be possible. Even the full and unconditional implementation of the Minsk Protocol by all parties (which appears highly unlikely today) would do little to change the overwhelmingly anti-Russian sentiments of the Ukrainian political class. Provided that Kiev manages to successfully reintegrate the Donbass, the political elite will then turn all its attention to the “Crimean agenda,” never giving up its suspicions that Moscow harbors aggressive intentions towards Kiev.

What is more, intuition would suggest that the only way the relations between New Delhi and Islamabad could return to normal is within a broader international context. The same is true of Moscow–Kiev relations. Put it differently, new security systems in Eurasia and Europe need to be built for this to happen. Even this may not be enough, though. For India, this means, above all, some kind of a stable and mutually acceptable compromise with China. For Russia, it entails significantly improved relations with the United States. This would breathe new life into multilateral structures in Europe and Eurasia, namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Moving the India–Pakistan and Russia–Ukraine disputes to multilateral formats will help straighten the existing asymmetries out in the balance of power in each of the pairs, if not to make them less noticeable—provided that New Delhi and Moscow do not see these formats as attempts to “encircle” or “contain” them.

Of course, stabilization requires the stronger side to respect the weaker side’s nationhood in both cases. India has to recognize that Pakistan is not a blind tool of Beijing, while Russia must acknowledge that Ukraine, for all its weakness and dependence on external actors, is not an obedient puppet of the United States or Europe. For their part, Pakistan and Ukraine need to find some other—positive—foundations for their identity and stop pitting themselves against their stronger neighbours. Building one’s identity on the basis of negation is always detrimental and counterproductive. Incidentally, this would also be true of Russia’s attempts to build its identity on the basis that it is not part of Europe.

Everything mentioned before suggests that the immediate goal in both conflict-chains is not to “solve” the problems dividing India and Pakistan as well as Russia and Ukraine once and for all—this would simply be impossible at the present juncture. Rather, the goal should be to reduce the risks and costs that come from such a drawn-out confrontation. This, of course, does not mean that the parties cannot interact in relatively non-toxic areas such as climate change, biodiversity conservation, migration management or cross-border humanitarian contacts. Tangible headway on these issues could facilitate discussions of issues that are more sensitive and divisive.

From our partner RIAC

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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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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