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Conflict in Ukraine is doomed to escalate

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The meet-up location of NATO foreign ministers on November 29-30— Bucharest — was where ten years ago, former US President George W. Bush persuaded America’s transatlantic partners that Ukraine and Georgia should one day join their military alliance. The foreign ministers duly “reaffirmed” that decision yesterday and left it at that. 

However, their statement on the conflict in Ukraine emphatically stated that the NATO “will never recognise” Russia’s incorporation of four Ukrainian regions and underscored the alliance’s resolve to “continue and further step up political and practical support” to Kiev. 

The NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg who is the mouthpiece of Washington, warned that despite Ukraine’s bravery and progress on the ground, Russia retains strong military capabilities and a large number of troops, and the alliance will continue to support Kiev for “as long as it takes … we will not back down.” 

Such pronouncements betray the absence of any new thinking although developments on the ground are showing that Washington’s best-laid plans are floundering. And there are also growing signs of disunity on Ukraine issue among the US’ European allies and between the latter and the Biden Administration.

The neocons in the Biden team who are the driving force in the Beltway are still full of passionate intensity. The flicker of hope that the moderate opinion voiced in the famous statement by 30 Democratic lawmakers recently was brusquely snuffed out. 

Moscow has drawn appropriate conclusions too, as evident in the Russian Foreign Ministry stance that it makes no sense in the prevailing climate of unremitting hostility from Washington to hold the Bilateral Consultative Commission under the Russia-US New START Treaty, which was   originally scheduled to take place in Cairo on November 29 – December 6.   

Again, nothing much need be expected out of the French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with President Biden at the White House tomorrow. Macron still hopes to be the western leader to accept President Putin’s surrender terms and go down in history books, but in reality his credibility is in shatters in Europe and Atlanticist circles in particular, and even within France. 

Europe’s number one priority at this juncture, which is a turning point in the conflict in Ukraine, ought to be its strategic autonomy to act in its own interests. But that requires deep thinking as to what is it that Europe wants to be autonomous about, and secondly, the understanding that deep down, a strategic interest cannot be reduced to security interests. 

In our new Hobbesian world, a world of competing economic zones, Europe’s first goal should be to achieve strategic economic autonomy. But is that goal attainable anymore when its energy security that gave underpinning to its prosperity and industrial might has been smashed to smithereens in the depths of the Baltic Sea by unseen hands? 

Be that as it may, the unfolding events in Ukraine are sure to create a new dynamic. The visible acceleration of the Russian offensive in Bakhmut in the most recent weeks is dramatically shortening the timeline for the capture of the city from several weeks ahead to the next few days at the most. Similar signs are appearing in Maryinka and Ugledar in the Donbass region, too. 

If Bakhmut is the lynchpin of the Ukrainian defence line in Donbass, Maryinka is from where Ukrainian forces are bombarding Donetsk city; and, the capture of Ugledar will enable the Russian forces to move toward Zaporozhye city and conclusively ward off any future challenge to the land bridge to Crimea and to the ports in the Azov Sea. 

The common thread here is that the ongoing beefing up of the Russian forces deployed in Donbass after the mobilisation of nearly 400,000 soldiers is beginning to show its first results. For once, Russian forces are outnumbering Ukraine’s and Russian fortifications have been significantly strengthened. 

The fall of Bakhmut will signal that the Battle of Donbass, which is the Russian special military operation’s leitmotif, is entering its final phase. The Ukrainian defence line in Donbass is crumbling. Russian control of Donbass is at hand in a conceivable future. 

What happens next? The Russian objective may be to push the Ukrainian forces further away from the Donbass region and keep the steppes to the east of Dnieper river as a buffer zone. Indeed, the Dnipropetrovsk oblast is also rich in mineral resources, containing large deposits of iron ore, manganese ore, titanium-zirconium ore, uranium, anthracite coal, natural gas and oil and lignite coal and is the major centre of Ukraine’s steel industry, apart from being a region of intensive grain growing, animal husbandry, and dairy industry. Its loss will be a crippling blow to Kiev.  In political terms, the narrative of victory in Kiev — that Ukraine is winning the war and is about to capture Crimea, etc. — is becoming unsustainable for much longer. 

Meanwhile, Europe too is struggling with its demons — unable to shake off the idea of a price cap on Russian oil that is sure to boomerang and further aggravate Europe’s energy security; need to step up imports of LNG from Russia still, which is far cheaper than from America; Europe not being in a position to respond to the launch of the highly consequential inflation reduction act in the US or  migration of European industry to America; EU’s inability to strengthen the international role of the euro for absorbing some of the world’s surplus savings, and so on. 

Therefore, at this defining moment faced with an imminent escalation of the conflict in Ukraine in the coming weeks, the neocons in the US are having their way to step up the arms supplies to Ukraine. The neocons invariably win the turf battles in the Beltway, especially under a weak president. If the Republicans step up the investigations on Biden, his dependency on the neocons will only increase during the period ahead. 

The regime-change-in-Russia propaganda is not going to wither away even under the emerging stark realities of the emerging ground situation in Ukraine. The neocons’ aim, as the investigative historian Eric Zuesse put it succinctly, is “to destroy Russia so fast that Russia won’t be able to destroy America in retaliation.” The sheer absurdity of the thought is self-evident to everyone but the neocons. So, they are going to argue now that the cardinal mistake the US made in Ukraine was its failure to put boots on the ground in that country in 2015 itself.

The writer has served as Indian diplomat in former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, Turkey etc. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

Eastern Europe

Ukraine war’s first anniversary and beyond

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photo source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless, writes Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer M.K. Bhadrakumar.

The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”

Thus, the accession to Russia four ex-Ukrainian regions — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts – accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.

The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.

Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.

The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”

The Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.

All the bravado that ‘Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine’ has vanished.

The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable.

The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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