State of the Union: Imperial ambitions

The missile assault on Malaysian Airlines MH17 that resulted in the fatality of 290 passengers near the village of Hrabove in Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine, has once again focused attention on Russian interventionism in the region that once constituted the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Specifically it has brought into sharp relief the persistent hostilities between Russia and Ukraine.

What do these developments mean for the peace of Europe and do they have any ramifications on India as it aspires to be a global player riding on the back of an enlightened policy architecture crafted during the United Progressive Alliance years.

To contextualise both these questions, it is important to step back two-and-a-half decades. Francis Fukuyama in 1989 had portrayed the American and western European triumph in the Cold War as follows: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. Valiant words that unfortunately did not stand the test of even contemporary times.

The rout in the Cold War brought in its wake disastrous consequences for the former Soviet Union. Not only did it lose all its satellite states in eastern Europe, but it also had to shed its own territory. It was consumed by a crippled economy and an anarchic internal political situation where oligarchs, warlords and the mafia, not essentially in that order, ruled the roost. As a consequence, not only did the ideological construct of Marxism-Leninism lie in ruins, but also the majesty of the Russian continuum that pre-dated the October Revolution of 1917 by many a century. Russia seemed destined for oblivion in the emerging global order.

The ascent of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency started to change all that. Not only did the state reassert control but riding on generous oil and gas revenues, it increasingly started resembling the Soviet Union of before. Its absolutism was ingeniously packaged as democracy characterised not only by a crackdown on civil liberties but more essentially by a consuming obsession to regain the lost glory of the heady days of bipolarity.

Naturally the first target of this assertiveness was what Russia considers its near abroad. It, therefore, adopted a non-linear strategy of conflict.
In the August of 2008, it occupied/liberated Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, depending upon the angle from which the bellicosity is examined. In January 2009, it halted gas exports to Europe accusing Ukraine of siphoning gas from the pipelines without paying for it. It is another matter that once Russia turned the tap back on, Ukraine started playing hardball by blocking the transit of gas to European destinations in a glacial winter.

Insofar as the current stand-off with Ukraine is concerned, in the aftermath of the revolution in Ukraine in February 2014 President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev and was succeeded by an interim president Oleksandr Turchynov. Russia did not recognise this regime change. It ostensibly termed it as a coup d’état and, therefore, illegal.

Towards the end of February 2014, pro-Russian forces began infiltrating into the Crimean Peninsula and after a disputed referendum a treaty of accession was signed on the March 18 between the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol and the Russian Federation to initiate the process of its formal absorption into the Russian state. On March 21, the Russian Parliament approved the accession from the date of the signing of the treaty. Similarly, since early March, pro-Russian elements have been active in the Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, raising tensions between the two countries to just a degree below the boiling point.

Russia’s pugnacious approach has foreboding implications for other frozen disagreements on the periphery of the former Soviet Union like Transnistria in Moldova.
For over a decade now the West has been trying to deal with Russia’s desire to build what was the erstwhile USSR as its exclusive sphere of influence. So does the latest flashpoint in the form of the catastrophe of MH17 provide the European Union and Nato with the leverage to integrate the remaining former Soviet states on the periphery of Russia into the European economic and security architecture?

This would entail the rupture of an informal understanding that precludes the stationing of US or Western European military forces in the former Soviet dominated eastern Europe, particularly the three Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that are a formal part of both the EU and Nato.

Would then this aggressive manoeuvring entail a repeat of history in the prophetic words of the late Winston Churchill who foresaw on March 5, 1946, the beginning of the Cold War and stated: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and East Europe”. Are we witnessing the green shoots of a new Cold War in Europe?

What does this mean for India given the relationship that India has enjoyed with the former USSR and its successor state of Russia. Not only does India rely heavily on Russia for military hardware, but there is a broad range of international issues on which there is congruity between the Indian and Russian positions as evidenced by the sixth Brics Summit Fortaleza Declaration on July 15, 2014. Trade between India and Russia stood at $6.2 billion between January and August 2013.

Simultaneously, India has a very important stake in consolidating its relationship with the European Union. The total trade between India and the EU in 2013 was 72.7 billion euros. Coupled with that are India’s bilateral equations with key players in Europe — Britain, France and Germany and, of course, the US — all of whom are naturally alarmed at the Russian spectre. With the EU and the US imposing Phase 3 sanctions on Russia, can India take a principled position on the larger question of Russia’s assertive ambitions in its neighbourhood? The jury is out on that.

The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister.

The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari

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