K.C. Singh | Global churn ahead: More polls loom after Putin win

Russian President Vladimir Putin won his country’s presidential election with 87 per cent of the vote on March 17. It will be his fifth term since he first assumed power in 2000. The six-year term will take him to 2030, making him the longest serving head of government in Russia, or in the erstwhile Soviet Union, barring Josef Stalin. The BBC pointed out that Russia’s independent watchdog, Golos, had been barred from acting as an observer in the election.

In a year full of many critical elections globally, Mr Putin’s win is the first move in the geopolitical chess game. India’s Lok Sabha elections come next, ending on June 1, followed by the European Union elections on June 6-9 and eventually the American presidential poll on November 5. The results of all these elections can have varying levels of impact on global power equations and international peace and security.

The divided reaction to Mr Putin’s victory reflects the existing power alignments in an extremely polarised world. The United States and most of Europe hastily dubbed it as undemocratic and unfair. British foreign secretary David Cameron said it reflected the “depth of repression”. The US state department pointed to its compromised nature due to the jailing of rivals. The mysterious death of prominent dissident Alexei Navalny in jail on February 16 underscored the regime’s determination to win decisively. President Putin’s main Communist rival polled only four per cent of the vote.

The geopolitical fault lines emerge when this criticism by the Western nations is collated with the reaction of other leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had with Mr Putin before the Ukraine war in 2022 announced a “no limits partnership”, said that Mr Putin’s win brings certainty in a turbulent world. Mr Putin, in his Red Square speech on March 18, in turn extended strong support to the one-China principle, proclaiming that “Taiwan is an inherent part of the People’s Republic of China”. This public “lovefest” reflects a belief shared by these two powers that American hegemony is on the decline.

It is generally surmised that two-thirds of the world are either neutral or leaning towards Russia on the Ukraine war. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) points out that Brazil, South Africa and India, members of the pre-expansion five-member Brics, also avoid picking sides on the same issue. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first leaders to convey his felicitations to President Putin.

Mr Modi described India’s relations with Russia as “time-tested, special and privileged, with a strategic dimension”. Heavily discounted Russian oil came as a boon to Indian refiners at a time of global uncertainty, which traditionally spikes oil prices. Russia has also effectively used its stranglehold over the export of grains, after disrupting Ukrainian exports. It promised free grains to many African nations badly hit by the global shortage and price hikes. Amongst these are Somalia, Mali, the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, etc. This has enabled Russia to contain the initial anti-Russian sentiments at the United Nations, after its February 2022 attack on Ukraine, when a UN resolution condemning the attack garnered the support of 141 nations.

President Putin took to chest-thumping at his Red Square rally. Having stalled Ukraine’s 2023 autumn offensive and then reversed the war’s momentum, he chose to psychologically attack a divided Europe. He asserted that the Ukraine war would continue and areas of eastern Ukraine shall be reunited with Russia.

He simultaneously sought peaceful and neighbourly relations subject to the proviso that Ukraine shall not rearm. He proposed a “security zone” on Ukrainian territory. Implicit is the desire to disarm Ukraine and render it as a helpless buffer zone existing on guarantees that Russia and the West may accept.

Mr Putin’s bluster rests on multiple assumptions. One, that Europe’s consensus on assisting Ukraine may fracture further if right-wing radicals capture or sufficiently influence the European Parliament, after the June elections. Two, Mr Putin is gambling on the November US elections producing an upset win by former President Donald Trump, combined with the Democrats losing control over both Houses of the US Congress. This, he calculates, will collapse the US support to Ukraine. Three, that the Gaza war keeps the Middle East unsettled, with US-Israel differences worsening. Meanwhile, a more stringently right-wing majority has captured the Iranian Parliament. Thus, the Iran-China-Russia convergence would like to enmesh the US in the quicksand of Arabia and Israel.

In case Mr Trump wins, the Gaza situation is likely to worsen as he is distinctly more partial towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel than President Joe Biden. There rests a paradox. While Mr Trump is likely to urge Ukraine to settle with Russia, perhaps along the lines enunciated by Mr Putin, by limiting US assistance, in the Middle East he may will do the reverse by backing Israel.

The Narendra Modi government’s policy of remaining neutral in all the conflicts caused by major-power rivalry is in line with traditional Indian foreign policy since Independence. It was this pragmatic “third way” that evolved into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Though the present government in New Delhi pours scorn on past diplomacy, essentially the change has been of style and nuance rather than substance. Naturally, India’s rapid economic growth, the gradual opening of its markets and China’s rise presented India with new options. Whereas the pre-1991 Soviet Union was, perforce, a preferred partner, in the 21st century the United States has assumed that role. The change has been gradual, and unlike claims of a foreign policy revolution in the last decade, it is more a fruition of past choices, dictated by geopolitical factors, than a new policy construct.

India is well situated to ride out any turbulence that all these trends may generate. The re-election of Mr Modi is seen as a foregone conclusion. His third term per se is expected to provide some continuity to Indian diplomacy. However, if the BJP manages to win a two-thirds majority, then its domestic politics may veer decisively towards a majoritarian agenda. That can then begin to impinge on India’s outreach to the Islamic world, the West and neighbours.

The next eight months are extremely critical for the world, because some forthcoming election results can exacerbate existing schisms. Mr Putin’s victory is merely the opening over, to use a cricketing metaphor. The bounce and spin of the pitch remains unknown.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
Next Story