Many, who had sounded the death knell to Russia after the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991, have been proved wrong. Some even thought it was the beginning of Russia’s ‘Monroe Doctrine’? However, with 12.5 percent of the landmass of the earth’s land surface as its sovereign territory, encompassing two continents bounded by two oceans and sharing its borders with over a dozen countries; it has little choice but to get involved in the rough and tumble of the world’s geopolitics. Its inherent geostrategic power borne out of its geographical location, size, natural resources and strategic weapons has been matched by a powerful leader in Putin, who brooks no opportunity to flex his muscles and show to the world that Russia is rising like a phoenix from its ashes. No one can take Russia lightly and the Second Cold War is here to stay!
The Expansion of NATO
After the defeat of the erstwhile Soviet Union in the First Cold War, the Warsaw Pact saw its instant demise; and NATO started its expansion, as a prize of victory. Initially, it was done in 1994, in an innocuous manner in the form of ‘Partnership for Peace’ that was aimed to build trust between NATO and the rest of Europe and the erstwhile independent states born out of the Soviet Union. Russia, then a weak power acquiesced to join the fold unwittingly. In 1997, NATO and Russia further signed the ‘Founding Act’, in which they pledged that they were not adversaries and vowed to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation. All these moves were intended to keep Russia assuaged about intentions of the US. No sooner the ink was dry; in less than two years in 1999, President Clinton, made his first move to expand the NATO. In the course of next five years by 2004, 10 former members of the Warsaw Pact became full-fledged members of the NATO. Two countries of former Yugoslavia also joined in 2009. The 16 members on its roll till 1991, expanded to 28 with Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Albania, Croatia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia as new members. The NATO border was closing in on Russia. It meant that the NATO troops, missile launchers, tank formations, artillery and nuclear weapons were closer to the Russian border – a situation unacceptable to any country, more so to Russia, which by no means was a ‘walkover power’ at the turn of the millennium. Russia thereafter was in no mood to reconcile as the US was still at its old game. It was now a question of wait and watch, till Russia’s ‘Comprehensive National Power’ is built up again.
Russia Brazens it Out
Politically Russia was still on the boil. The Chechen rebels were dealt with iron hand. During 2004-2005, Russia was also accused of having influenced the elections in Ukraine and Belorussia, where its favoured candidates won. Russian troops prevailed in Georgia and ensured the independence of South Ossetia and the Republic of Abkhazia. In 2014, during the Ukrainian Revolution, Russia sided with the people of Russian ethnicity in Crimea, overran it, and held a referendum; and the peninsula of Crimea became a Russian territory, thus giving it the full strategic control over the Black Sea. The crisis in Crimea gave a ready handle to NATO to show that it means business, as it also gave Putin to show that he is in no mood to acquiesce to the US, to what he considers the legitimate expression of the people of Crimea. Ukraine protested however other than economic sanctions, NATO could only howl and scream; it seemed helpless in moulding the Russian behaviour.
Russia has also been increasing its presence in the Arctic Ocean (surface and underwater) with many more icebreaker ships than the US. It is understood that billions of dollars’ worth of oil and natural gas are bottled under the bed of the Arctic Ocean and Russia is planning to gain some strategic space in the region, which it considers its backyard. In March 2013, Sweden was on alert when a Russian submarine was sighted near its coast. NATO concluded that it was Russia’s mock nuclear attack on Northern Europe!
The Russian Baltic Sea Fleet is being refurbished. In April 2016, Russian Su-27 Fighter jets scrambled to counter and divert a US reconnaissance aircraft that was probably testing Baltic Air Defences of Russia. In the same month two Russian Su-24 Bombers reportedly buzzed the US guided missile destroyer Donald Cook, again in the Baltic Sea. Obviously, they were provoking Russia to test its defences, resolve and its willingness to use force!
All this was possible as Russia has been building its strength, compounded by the revenue from an energy starved Europe that is dependent on Russia for natural gas and crude oil. The Russian arms industry has been in full swing, exporting arms and weaponry across the world and its defence exports range from 10 to 15 USD Billion annually, in the last five years. Its balance of trade that was -185 USD Million in 1998, rose to over 20 USD Billion in 2012. The fall in oil prices and the sanctions post Crimean takeover has now reduced it to 9 USD Billion. Due to nearly 60 percent fall in Russia’s balance of trade, it has become desperate to get the sanctions lifted at the earliest.
Russia Casts the Die
The relations between Turkey and Russia took a beating when a Russian Fighter plane was shot down by Turkey’s air defence units in November 2015, while carrying out anti-ISIS operations in Syria. The subsequent Russian economic sanctions literally shook Turkey and President Erdogan had to apologise and call for peace. Russian entry into the Syrian conflict was aimed to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and Turkey’s involvement in Syria was to remove him and to ensure that the Kurds in Iraq and Syria do not find a common cause with the rebel Kurds (Kurdistan Workers’ Party/PKK) in Turkey. With Russia’s entry, Turkey cannot play its game of supporting the ISIS against Kurds and supporting the Free Syrian Army against President Assad. The July 2016 plot against President Erdogan has shifted his focus to the internal/domestic situation. The alleged leader of the plot, Gulen is a cleric residing in the US. Turkey is not in a position to get him extradited by the US, in spite of being a NATO member nation. It is also not in a position to antagonise its immediate neighbour Russia. The assassination of the Russian Ambassador by an off-duty rogue policeman in Turkey has put President Erdogan further on a defensive vis-à-vis Russia. He has no option but to grin and bear the presence of Russia in the Syrian conflict and cooperate with the latter, while his own strategic goals remain marginalised!
The imbroglio in Syria is simplistic to call it complex: it is a veritable muddle! President Assad is fighting against the Free Syrian Army financed by Saudi Arabia and the US. The ISIS has established its headquarters at Raqqa and still occupies a substantial chunk of Syrian territory in the North and North East. The Al-Nusra Front, now called Jabhat Fateh Al Sham, has combined with other terrorist organisations of Idlib and Aleppo provinces and has formed Tahrir al Sham, whose main aim is to establish an Islamic state in Syria with Sharia Law. In the shadows of the war also lurks the Shia-Sunni conflict, with a proxy battle involving Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar. Member countries of NATO and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been directly involved in supplying weapons, finances and arms to the Free Syrian Army, and other moderate forces to oust Assad. Seeing Assad at the end of his tether, Russia entered the scene with its air power and literally saved the tottering regime from an imminent collapse. Currently, Assad is on the offensive and has recaptured most of Syrian territories from the ISIS in Northwest Syria. Lavrov-Kerry talks ensured that Russia became a permanent arbitrator and a major stakeholder in the Middle East. Russia, along with Turkey, has called a truce among the Syrian warring factions, so that the entire might of all the factions concentrate against the arch-enemy – ISIS. Even the Security Council voted in favour of the Russian-led ceasefire. Remarkable is the way that Russia positioned itself as a major stakeholder in the Middle East!
The US along with its NATO allies has fought the longest war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. It has spent nearly 3-4 USD Trillion, sacrificed 3,500 soldiers, incurred 23,000 casualties to servicemen, ended the presence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban regime, conducted elections and established the Afghan Government and a National Army. With 8,400 US and other NATO troops still on the soil of Afghanistan, the Russians have now come to take charge. The initial conference was with China and Pakistan without even inviting Afghanistan. Russia has started a dialogue, in which it wants to give due weightage to Taliban in negotiations. Now a conference has been called by Russia with all the stakeholders – Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India and China. Interestingly, the US has been left out so that on success of a Russian initiative, it would expose the helplessness of the US, even after having fought the longest and costliest war. The conference has found deep divisions in the approach with Afghanistan and India unwilling to give any space to the Taliban. Russia, Pakistan, China and Iran want the Taliban to be an important stakeholder in the Afghan Peace Process; the underlying implication being that should the conflict in Afghanistan linger, it would give strategic space to the ISIS to make inroads into Afghanistan. The conference is still on and probably India and Afghanistan need to strike a compromise in the face of overwhelming odds. If the Russian initiative succeeds, the US will look like a greenhorn in the Grand Strategy!
Russia Winning her Roulette
The entire controversy over the US elections has its origin in Russia, which seems to have hacked the server of the US Democratic Party and the secret documents have been given to WikiLeaks by the Russian Intelligence to remain incognito. The Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton was exposed to the American public, possibly moulding the public opinion in favour of the Republicans. The cyber domain has been used as a force multiplier and has been subtly applied at the very power-centre of the US, probably to ensure future benign behaviour by the US administration. It is indeed a master stroke to influence the voters of the most powerful nation on earth and use cyber resources to get a candidate of Russian choice at the helm in the US! It would be difficult to digest the fact: What Viktor Yanukovych was to Ukraine is Donald Trump to USA!!! The premature resignation of the National Security Adviser, General Flynn has made a dent in the Russian game plan. The Russian Ambassador impatiently raised the issue of sanctions against Russia even before Flynn could settle down in his office. Though the full dividends of the Russian cyber-attack would yield dividends at a later stage, the Russian potential and ingenuity of application of cyber force has definitely unnerved the American security establishment. There is no doubt that President Trump will have a soft corner for the Russians during his tenure.
In the last quarter century, we have seen the phenomenal rise of Russia. The Americans have waged wars, lost men, spent money and have done all the dirty work to see the Russians walk away with their fruits of labour! By striking at the US elections they have further moulded the international environment in their favour. Would it be fair to say then that Russia is winning her roulette?
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.