US, Russia need to focus on common foes

| | in Oped
US, Russia need to focus on common foes

Instead of being fixated on expanding ‘sphere of influence’ into the ‘imaginary geopolitical zones’ of each other, the US and Russia should checkmate the ‘disrupters’ — China, Pakistan, Taliban, and ISIS — to ensure strategic stability in this region. Because of its stature as an emerging Asian power, Indian can balance both Russia and the US in ensuring geopolitical equilibrium in Eurasia

The year 2018 started with a series of bad notes as far as the question of global geopolitics as well as the nature of international relations is concerned. First, the heat generated by North Korea (intimidating to use nuclear weapons against adversaries last year) was not slowing down. The ambivalent position adopted by China towards North Korea is further compounding the problem. There is a growing proliferation of radicalism in Afghanistan. What is making the situation quite complicated is the resurgence of radical Taliban forces after a brief lull, along with the dreaded ISIS that has wreaked havoc in West Asia, South and Central Asia. The situation in Syria is aggravating as the two major external actors to the crisis (Russia and the USA) are hardly in a position to adopt a joint strategy which can ensure peace in this region. These developments, along with the growing radicalisation in Central Asia and North Caucasus region of Russia, are keeping the security structure of Eurasia on the boil. All these developments provide a backdrop to understanding the new National Defense Strategy (NDS) enunciated by the Trump Administration in January 2018. It may be underlined that some of these geopolitical developments have been mentioned in the NDS report.

It has been argued that the revival of the “strategic quad” (India, the US, Japan, and Australia) to a significant extent contributed to the evolvement of a new security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. This quad will “encircle” China in the long run. For instance, the NDS outlines “threats to the core goal of American objective” in the “complex global security environment, characterised by overt challenges to the free and open international order”. At the same time the report further highlights that China, an Asian state having significant clout over the Eurasian region, and Russia, a Eurasian power itself, will pose a “long-term, strategic competition” to the US. Interestingly, both Russia and China are the largest trading partners of the US. In such circumstances what kind of strategic behaviour one expects from both these countries in containing the New American strategy towards Eurasia? Similarly, whether the American policymakers will prop up Russia vis a vis China in espousing its foreign policy objectives is another question.

Answers to some of the questions will provide a framework to understand the NDS doctrine in a correct perspective. While looking at the US-Russia relations in the context of the NDS, three important things need closer attention. These are, the Trump Administration is quite wary of growing stature of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is seeking re-election in the March 2018 presidential election. Second, the Russian administration too is accusing Washington of “meddling” in the domestic politics of Russia. The release of the so-called “Kremlin Report” in which allegations are levelled against top officials of Russia is an example of this trend. Third, the US has been mulling imposition of further “sanctions” on Russia in the last few months, which may worsen relations between these two states. On October 27, 2017, the US Department of State brought out a legislation “Sanctions With Respect to Russia’s Defense and Intelligence Sectors Under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017” under which it prohibited the sale of defence equipment to the third party. As it is a well-known fact that export of defence equipment is one of the major sources of state revenue for Russia. And by imposing “sanctions”, the US is hitting Russia’s major source of foreign exchange. Similarly on January 26, 2018, the US Treasury Department undertook some punitive measures in terms of “trade sanctions” on Russia related to Crimean problem. The Treasury Department justified the measures by stating that “this action underscores the US Government’s opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and firm refusal to recognise its attempted annexation of the peninsula”.

While Washington is stretching the issue of the Crimea crisis to “encircle” Moscow (reminiscence of Cold War strategy), the latter is also pursuing measures like strengthening alliance with Teheran and Beijing, considered to be hostile to former’s strategic interest in adjoining territories bordering Eurasia. This can be evident from the recent flare-up of crisis in West Asia, when Saudi Arabia accused Iran of assisting Yemini rebels who fired “missiles” directing against the former’s territory. This matter was also raised by the US at the United Nations. Russia supported Iran at the UN on this issue. At the UN, Russia got a shot in arm in the Syrian crisis when the UN urged “Russia-Iran-Turkey’ to play an active role in resolving the Syrian Cauldron, so that “humanitarian assistance” reaches the “common people”. Another contentious issue which is jeopardising the relations between these two as discussed above is the North Korean crisis. While the UN has imposed sanctions on North Korea, Russia has reportedly called this move a “Declaration of War”. Some of these debatable global and regional issues are putting a stress on the Russia-US relations. In fact, the NDS report used the same tone and tenor for Russia as the US used during the Cold War period to castigate the then Soviet Union for its policy in West Asia.

The sensitive issue being the “expanding sphere of influence” into the “imaginary geopolitical zones” of each other is winking at current geopolitical conflicts. In the East Asian region also, Russia is expanding its “sphere of influence” though it is facing threat from its neighbour Japan, an US ally, who is deploying missiles to ward off North Korea’s missile threat. However, Moscow thinks Tokyo’s move to install arsenals will jeopardise Japan’s security. 

Existence of “strategic theatres” is providing an opportunity to great powers like the US, China, and Russia to “flex their muscles” propelling the geopolitical crisis of Eurasia. China is trying to achieve the “Middle Kingdom Complex” objectives through establishing the geopolitical connectivity projects like OBOR. At the same time, the American policymakers are also gradually realising that growing Chinese clout in the East Asian and Eurasian geopolitics will hamper American suzerainty in the Asia-Pacific region. The same was reflected in the NDS, as it states, “China is leveraging military modernisation…to coerce neighbouring countries to reorder the India-Pacific region”.

One may add here that it is not only the Americans who are feeling the heat from Chinese rapacious move, neighbouring East Asian countries, along with India, too are facing the threat. Though Russia is connecting with China as a strategic partner, the former is interested in pursuing an independent course of action in the South East Asian region. The visit of Russian Defence Minister to East Asian states last month is an indicator of this trend. Vietnam being a staunch opponent of China in the South China Sea region is interested in Russian weapons. To expand its market, Moscow may also diversify its Defence supplies to other East Asian states. As reported even South Korea, the closest ally of the US, is approaching Russia for sealing Defence deals. If this happens, then slowly China may drift apart from Russia in the “long-term” strategic scenario. A paradoxical strategic scenario is emerging in Eurasia as well as in the Asian region. The NDS report can be studied in this context. India is adopting a cautious approach in dealing with both the US and Russia in Eurasia as well as in the East Asian region. To counter OBOR, both India and Japan have outlined the connectivity corridor called “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor”. And, the North-South Transport Corridor Project, which was operationalised last month, will give a strategic advantage to India vis-à-vis China in the Eurasian region. It is imperative for both Russia and the US to give up their grandiose “geopolitical mirage” in Eurasia and checkmate the so-called “disrupters” — China, Pakistan and radical forces like Taliban and ISIS — to ensure strategic stability in this region. Because of its stature as an emerging Asian power, Indian can balance both Russia and the US in ensuring geopolitical equilibrium in Eurasia.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, JNU)

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