New Delhi will navigate a polarised world through its multi-vector engagement, championing the cause of the Global South and seeking reforms in the UN Security Council and other international institutions, writes Major General (Ret.) B.K. Sharma, Director of the United Services Institution (India).
The breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was a big strategic shock that led to the fragmentation of a superpower into 15 hapless countries. This ‘Black Swan’ event consequentially bolstered the ‘Pax Americana’, marked by an era of Uncle Sam’s unilateralism and pre-emption in world affairs. US assurances to dismantle NATO and facilitate Russia’s accommodation into Europe’s economic and security architecture remained mere lip service. Quite to the contrary, it began a new Cold War, which was manifest in the rapid eastern expansion of NATO and the European Union to amalgamate the Former Soviet Union States (FSUS) into the Western alliance’s ecosystem.
Foreign-backed ‘Colour Revolutions’ along Russia’s periphery and the abrogation of agreements such as the ABM, INF and ‘Eyes in the Sky’ treaties heightened Russia’s threat perception and deepened strategic mistrust between Russia and the US. Following the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008, when Russia perceived its strategic interests in Georgia being undermined with US complicity, it launched military operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet again, in 2014, when Russia purportedly saw an external hand in the Maidan uprising, inimical to its core strategic interests in a critical strategic buffer area, Moscow took action to secure its interests in Crimea.
The US was quick to unleash retribution in the form of economic sanctions against Russia. The Minsk Accords of 2014 and 2015, which reflect a desire to resolve the conflict, remained on paper and the region instead plunged into a hybrid war between Russia and the US-led collective West. The continued expansion of NATO, strengthening of military deployments along the Eastern NATO flank, the conduct of military exercises in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, and the military preparation of Ukraine compounded Russia’s security concerns regarding a possible Western-backed pre-emptive military operation by Ukraine in Crimea and Donbass. President Putin’s demand to seek security guarantees from the West remained unheeded. The US upped the ante by unleashing a slew of punitive economic sanctions against Russia. Consequently, the former Soviet space has plunged into a vicious cycle of security and insecurity. The harsh reality the world faces is that the major power relations are at their lowest ebb since the end of World War II.
The post-Soviet space has become an arena of big power contests. The US national security strategy, national deference strategy and nuclear posture review are replete with expressions like “axis of evil”; they refer to China and Russia as adversaries and as threats, of Russia being a tsunami and China a systemic threat on the magnitude of climate change. They reflect a mindset of chronic hostility. The slogans ‘America is Back’ and ‘Build Back Better World’ are coupled with bipartisan support for dealing with hostile Russia and China, further pointing towards an antagonistic outlook. The aforesaid approach is reciprocated by jingoism from the opposite side.
Finland and Sweden have moved to join NATO. The Euro-Atlantic alliance has not only strengthened but also seeks to team up with the US-led East Asian security alliance. Japan, South Korea and Australia have demonstrated a desire to band-wagon with the collective West. On the other hand, Russia and China have systematically embraced North Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba. In the Indo-Pacific, constructs such as QUAD, AUKUS, the Five Eyes (intelligence set-up), the I2U2 bloc in the Middle East, etc. are viewed with scepticism by Russia and China. Likewise, the expansion of BRICS and SCO are perceived by Washington as anti-US regional alliances, inimical to its national interests.
The post-Soviet space is presently facing daunting challenges; at the same time new opportunities are presenting themselves. As far as the Russia – Ukraine conflict goes, Kiev’s counter-offensive has petered out, but the conflict is bound to linger on until the contesting sides reach a new modus vivendi. Such a prognosis notwithstanding, the overall scenario remains fraught with the risk of the conflict spreading to new areas such as Transnistria (Moldova) and Kaliningrad under a nuclear overhang. Other areas of turmoil such as the Azerbaijan – Armenia conflict, ethno-regional clashes in Central Asia or, for that matter, radicalization in Xinxiang, the humanitarian crisis in Talibanised Afghanistan and the rising spectre of Jihadi terrorism, amongst other non- traditional security threats, add to a complex security landscape.
Fissures are reappearing in the US and the collective West’s resolve to aid Ukraine; Russia, on the other hand, seems to have recovered from its economic woes. It has restructured its economy, switched over to high-end technological innovations and created the surge capability to bolster its war effort to achieve pragmatic politico-military objectives in Ukraine. Russia has undertaken a bold strategic stride by according a renewed focus to the ‘Pivot to Asia’. Moscow seeks to invest in the Southern belt of post-Soviet states through its energy diplomacy, by refurbishing or creating a new web of trade and energy corridors, and connect with the thriving economies of Asia, particularly India and China. Trans-Siberian pipelines to China and a significant increase in the energy trade with India are the harbingers of Russia’s growing relationship with the two Asian giants. In the years ahead, new impetus will be given to create alternate currency swap arrangements, thus circumventing economic sanctions and achieving de-dollarisation. Other geopolitical and geo-economic initiatives in the offing will be operationalized, such as the International North South Transit Corridor that connects Russia with coastal India via Iran and the Caspian littoral states, and the Vladivostok Chennai Multi-Modal Transit Corridor. Both these initiatives will be extremely useful for Eurasian economies in a win-win paradigm based on interdependence and complementarities.
Geo-strategically, India as a rimland state is endowed with interests which are intertwined with continental Eurasia and the maritime Indo-Pacific. Our northern strategic frontiers, at one level, remain beset with collusive hybrid threats and economically connect with Eurasia at another. Symbiotic relations with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia are paramount to deepening and broadening our multi-dimensional strategic interests with Russia – India’s special and privileged strategic partner. India is keen to expand its relations with Russia beyond defence and energy cooperation. India’s Act Far East policy, enunciated by Prime Minister Modi during the Eurasian Economic Review in September 2019, opens new vistas of collaboration in the realms of the Arctic region and the Northern Sea route. However, India’s strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific are equally abiding, be it trade, energy security, technology collaboration or non-partisan security architecture. India firmly believes in the philosophy of ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. India favours a non-hegemonic and multipolar world, which lacks a zero- sum mentality or military blocs. India will remain steadfast in its commitments to global peace, security and prosperity. Therefore, New Delhi will navigate a polarised world through its multi-vector engagement, championing the cause of the Global South and seeking reforms in the UN Security Council and other international institutions. Finally, India-Russia relations have withstood the vagaries of geopolitics; the relationship remains foundationally strong enough to navigate the extant polarised world, working hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder for a better future in a transformed multipolar world order.