US, Russia quarrel as China smiles

G Parthasarathy
A former diplomat

THE Americans are seething with rage over allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, which heralded the victory of Donald Trump. Whether or not President Trump was himself involved in encouraging this Russian effort remains a source of doubt, debate and discussion, and even legal proceedings, but the uncontrolled outrage and moralistic outpourings about what transpired, leave one wonderstruck. It is well known that both the Russians and Americans have had no inhibitions about interfering in the internal affairs of others including, India, especially during the years of the Cold War. 

In a larger perspective, it is not in India's interests for the US and Russia to be in a continuously adversarial mode. With the rise of an aggressive and assertive China, flexing its muscles across its land and maritime frontiers, India is faced with a situation where American hostility to Russia has led to Moscow and Beijing becoming virtual allies. This problem has arisen largely because the US Administration led by Bill Clinton wrongly believed that in a post-Soviet world, it could treat Russia like a defeated power. Clinton sought to contain Russia and ignore its historical influence across its vast land and maritime frontiers, including in its former Soviet republics, where thousands of Russians continue to live. This has resulted in a seriously skewed balance of global power.

One would have expected that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US would not seek further inroads across Russia's territorial boundaries. That did not happen. The US did embark on the expansion of NATO eastwards. It even adopted policies, which inevitably promoted tensions between Russia and its Eurasian neighbours. No effort was spared by the US and its European allies to promote separatism in Russia's Muslim-dominated Caucasian region. Washington and its European allies stoked the flames of separatism and violence in Chechnya. There was little secrecy in the contacts between Washington, some of its European allies and leaders of Chechen armed separatist groups. Matters came to a head after the brutal killing of 300 Russian children in a school in Beslan by armed Chechen rebels. An infuriated Vladimir Putin told his close colleagues that Moscow knew that major powers were involved in backing terrorists to engineer the collapse of Russian power in the Caspian region. The Chechen rebels also had extensive contacts in Pakistan, especially with ISI-backed radical Islamic outfits and with the Afghan Taliban.

In the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its army stood discredited by a failed coup. The country's economy, in the meanwhile, all but collapsed. An occasionally sober President Boris Yeltsin yielded to the temptation of the IMF money "generously" offered by Clinton. IMF payments were liberally used for Yeltsin's reelection! In the meantime, Yeltsin's Foreign Minister Andrei Kozerev set about converting Russia into a western satellite. Kozerev was finally ousted from office in 1994 by the Russian Duma, enraged by what it saw was his sellout to western interests, on issues of crucial interest to Russian security. Kozerev, who was replaced by the highly respected and mature Yevgeny Primakov, has now lived for years in Miami, ostensibly engaged in "private business". Some of Kozerev's actions on Afghanistan shocked the Narasimha Rao government, which heaved a sigh of relief at his departure and replacement by the highly respected Primakov.

Russia embarked on a path of restoring its self-respect with the advent of Vladimir Putin, a former hardnosed KGB Agent, to power, in 2000. Putin's rule has no doubt been authoritarian. But, he has restored a sense of confidence and self-respect to Russians, at large. He was the Prime Minister of Russia from 1999 till the beginning of his first Presidency in 2000, which continued for eight years. After a constitutional requirement necessitating a brief spell of four years again as Prime Minister, Putin was reelected as President in 2012 and again in 2018, for another six-year term, with a resounding 76 per cent of the vote. 

While falling oil prices and western sanctions have slowed Russia's economic growth, the fact remains that Putin's Russia is back in business, with its vast energy resources and significant conventional and nuclear military power. The only crisis in which the Russians have intervened militarily beyond the erstwhile Soviet borders is in Syria, where they have acted with a combination of judicious use of military power and skilful regional diplomacy.

The present crisis in the US-Russian relationship arose from developments in the neighouring Ukraine. The Obama Administration had been fishing in troubled waters in Ukraine, to destabilise a legitimately elected, but unpopular, Ukrainian government, headed by President Viktor Yanukovych. There are taped conversations between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt (who, incidentally, was highly regarded when posted earlier in Delhi), where lurid details were discussed on the regime change in Ukraine, after deposing President Yanukovych. American diplomats openly backed the opposition demonstrations in Kiev with statements of support pouring in from influential Senators like John McCain. The US-favoured candidates included Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who became Prime Minister after Yanukovych was ousted from power. Ukraine was sought to be absorbed into the western alliance as a member of both NATO and the European Union. 

What followed these events was a virtual armed revolt by the majority Russian population, living along the Russia-Ukraine border, quite evidently fostered by Moscow. For Russia, however, the real challenge lay in retaining control of the Russian majority Crimean Peninsula, which had been a part of the Russian Empire since 1783. The crucial naval base in Sevastopol, Russia's vital outlet to the Black Sea, is located in Crimea. And while Ukraine had agreed to extend the agreement for Russia's base facilities in Crimea, the threat to Russian security remained because of western attempts to absorb Ukraine into the American-led western alliance system. Russia soon held a plebiscite in Crimea, whose people voted overwhelmingly to be a part of Russia. The Russians are hardly likely to concede sovereignty over land which has been theirs since 1783 and was conceded to Ukraine in 1954, largely as a part of Khrushchev's mistaken generosity. 

Trump is one of the few Americans who understand that attempting to contain a nationalistic, resource-rich, resurgent Russia, at a time when China's rise is posing a threat across the Indo-Pacific and Eurasian regions, is strategically short-sighted. Such attempts inevitably result in the emergence of a growing Sino-Russian alliance to contain US power.