M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

The West sees Iran in a new way

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The Wall Street Journal reported from Tehran on Wednesday that “a lethal crackdown and an ailing economy have quieted anti-government street demonstrations … organised protests have largely tapered off.” The paradox is, this interpretation is widely applicable in the contemporary world situation, including many G7 countries. How can one pretend there are no “protestor grievances” in Britain or France today, and, yet, how come they are mute? 

The western narrative never cared to admit that Iran is ruled by elected governments. The big question is, would such street violence have erupted in Iran without the covert support and  coordination by foreign intelligence agencies? It is pointless to discuss Iran’s politics while in denial mode about the whole history of foreign interference in that country’s internal affairs. 

Michel Foucault’s famous essay on the Iranian Revolution What Are the Iranians Dreaming About? begins with the author’s exchange with an Iranian activist in the streets of Tehran heaving with revolutionary fervour in 1978: “They will never let go of us of their own will. No more than they did in Vietnam.” I (Foucault) wanted to respond that they are even less ready to let go of you than Vietnam, because of oil.” 

Today, four decades later, this historical reality continues. Arguably,  it may now become even more complicated and intractable, as Iran’s oil and gas is set to combine with Russia’s,  another energy superpower. Meanwhile, Associated Press reported today that Iran and Russia are also moving toward linking their banking systems, turning their back on the petrodollar. 

Read the US Energy Information Administration data — here and here — to know why the AP report matters. Simply put, almost a quarter of the world’s oil reserves and around 40 percent of the world’s gas reserves may potentially be traded outside the western banking system if Russian and Iranian policies work in tandem, dealing a body blow to the “world currency,” American dollar.

Suffice to say, there is no question that the protests in Iran were a  western reaction to the emerging alliance between Iran and Russia. Now that the protests over hijab have “tapered off,” the modus operandi will shift from colour revolution back to the classic mode of sabotage and assassinations (especially after Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in Israel.) 

The burgeoning military cooperation between Iran and Russia puts Tehran on Washington’s crosshairs. In the context of the Ukraine conflict, the West see Iran in a new way. Indeed, the Russian interest in getting Iran on board the Moscow-brokered process of Turkish-Syrian rapprochement underscores that the Kremlin has jettisoned whatever past reserve it would had about aligning with Iran in geopolitical projects. 

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated at a press conference with the visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Moscow that “Russia, Iran, and Turkey are members of the Astana troika, which has been handling the Syrian settlement. Therefore, I consider it absolutely logical that any further communication on bringing relations between Turkey and Syria back to normal will also involve Russia and Iran. 

“As for the timeframes and specific formats of participation, be it at the military, diplomatic or any other level, they are currently being specified. We have a full understanding that it is necessary to move step by step, so that every step forward should yield specific, albeit minor, results.” 

What the US and its Western allies (and Israel) will find particularly galling will be the warm words of welcome extended by Turkey to this development, which highlights the ascendance of “Astana troika” in the geopolitics of Syria. 

Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor Ibrahim Kalin has said: “We are pleased that Iran is joining this process. Iran is an important side. I think it will be able to contribute to this process. The participation of Iran in the negotiating process, which is held with the mediation of Russia, will make it easier. As part of this process, we are talking about ensuring the security of our borders, the neutralisation of the terrorist threat with respect to our country, the return of Syrian refugees, a worthy and safe return.”

Kalin disclosed that a foreign minister level meeting between Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran can be expected “within the next few weeks.” Unsurprisingly, a convergence of interests between the US, Israel and Kurds (and Kiev) to settle scores with Iran is only to be expected.  

The early signs are already there. According to Iran’s defence ministry, three drones were involved in the attack on Friday at about midnight on a military facility in the city of Isfahan. It said one drone was destroyed by air defence systems and two were caught by “defence traps”, causing minor damage to a building. There were no casualties. 

Pentagon spokesperson Brig Gen Patrick Ryder promptly said the US military played no part in the strikes, but declined to speculate further. However, Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed “US officials and people familiar with the operation” as saying Israel had carried out the attack. The New York Times also named Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, citing “senior (US) intelligence officials”. (here)

Isfahan province is home to a large air base, a major missile production complex and several nuclear sites. Iran’s official Irna news agency said the drones had targeted an ammunition manufacturing plant. The BBC highlighted that “The attack comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme and its supply of arms to Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

NourNews, which is wired into Iran’s national security establishment, disclosed on Wednesday that forensic experts have matched the body, engines, power supply and navigation system of the downed UAVs and “precisely determined their manufacturer and revealed important clues.”

second report by NourNews on Wednesday went into further details according to which Kurdish terrorist elements based in Iraqi Kurdistan were deployed by “a foreign security service” to smuggle parts of the drones and explosive materials across the border through “one of the inaccessible routes” in northwest” Iran, which were later assembled in “an equipped workshop using trained forces.” It seems Iran’s security establishment had some inkling of such a terrorist attack on the basis of the interrogation in August of a terrorist Kurdish group working for the Israeli agency Mossad. 

However, a stunning dimension to this sordid affair is that a top aide to the Ukrainian president Zelensky linked the Isfahan attack to the alleged supply of Iranian drones to Russia. An unnamed Iranian official has since reacted that unless Kiev disowned any such linkage, Tehran too may adopt “a new approach that is appropriate to the behaviour of the Kiev government.” 

Not much ingenuity is needed to connect the dots in the Isfahan attack — Ukrainian and Israeli intelligence (and the American masterminds in Kiev) operated through the Kurdish groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan, which have long-standing links to both the US and Mossad, and “sleeper cells” within Iran. 

The bottomline is that today, almost anything concerning Iran’s security  would have a foreign dimension — albeit hidden behind hijab or rubrics of democracy and human rights. That is what history testifies. No doubt, time present and time past are linked in such a way in Iran that both could be present in time future, and — to borrow from English poet TS Eliot — the time future can as well be deemed as “contained in time past.” 

Russia’s gas union eyes Pakistan, India

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Pakistan’s acute energy crisis is the immediate backdrop against which Foreign Minister Bilawal Zardari’s forthcoming talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow today need to be understood.

But then, Lavrov is a ‘Renaissance man’ in the world of international diplomacy and is sure to synchronise his watch with Zardari’s. For both countries, things have changed, old friends are leaving and life doesn’t stop for anyone. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry press release on Zardari’s visit stated tersely, “The foreign ministers will discuss the state of bilateral relations, regional and international issues. Special attention will be paid to the development of trade and economic relations.” 

The MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova subsequently disclosed that the Russian and Pakistani companies are “actively working to resolve the remaining issues” concerning the supply of Russian energy resources to Pakistan. She noted that the payment system is an issue, as Russia wants an arrangement in national currencies “or in the currencies of third countries that are protected from sanctions risks.” 

Also, energy cooperation by its very nature involves substantial long-term investments and the fact remains that, as Zakharova put it, “the US currency is a soap bubble, unsecured money that is printed even despite America’s huge public debt.” 

Importantly, Zakharova highlighted that the two countries have also decided to “discuss a comprehensive plan for energy cooperation, which provides for the construction of infrastructure and the supply of energy carriers” within a framework that holds the potential to “ensure the sustainable development” of Pakistan’s gas industry. A  Russian gas pipeline to Pakistan is in the making. 

Zardari’s visit to Moscow comes within 3 weeks of a  tripartite gas cooperation arrangement between Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan making headlines in the news cycle. The termination of Russia’s decades-old energy ties with Europe, including gas supplies via pipelines, motivates Moscow’s search for new markets, Asian markets being a priority. 

Thus, late last year, Moscow proposed a gas union with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan offering to help out the two Central Asian states that are struggling with gas shortages. Earlier this month, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed two separate agreements with the Russian giant Gazprom cementing the new partnership. A new vista is opening for Russia to use the existing gas pipelines in these two countries to export gas to their domestic market in immediate terms. 

Albeit in a bilateral format, this arrangement also positions Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan potentially as transit countries enabling Russian gas supplies to the regional and world market, especially China, South Asian countries and the ASEAN region. (Russia has proposed a similar arrangement to Ankara to route its gas to the European market via an energy hub in Turkey.)   

All energy projects are “geopolitical,” as the recent destruction of Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines, masterminded by the US, would show. But this one is a “win-win” for both Russia and the two central Asian states, as the income accruing to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan out of transit fee will be very substantial and long-term, whilst Russia gains access to new markets. 

Enter Afghanistan. On January 11-12, Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov came down to Kabul and held in-depth consultations with the Taliban leadership in pursuit of “Moscow’s unwavering commitment to developing a comprehensive dialogue with Kabul.” The Russian Foreign Ministry press release stated that the focus was on “mutually beneficial cooperation in such sectors as energy, agriculture, transport, infrastructure, industry, mining, in particular, the organisation of regular commercial supplies of Russian fuel and agricultural products to Afghan companies.” 

The press release said, “As the situation in Afghanistan stabilises, domestic economic operators may participate in the construction and operation of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline, as well as in the restoration of large infrastructure projects built on the territory of Afghanistan during the Soviet era.” 

Most important, the MFA added that “During the consultations, considerable attention was paid to the prospects of political and diplomatic recognition of the current Afghan Government by the international community, including by the Russian Federation.” It concluded that “The leadership of Afghanistan highly appreciates the efforts of the Russian Federation to assist the Afghan people in building a peaceful, independent and economically self-sufficient State.” 

Interestingly, in a TV interview soon after his return to Moscow, Kabulov openly alleged that the ISIL in Afghanistan is nothing but an Anglo-American project with an agenda to cause instability in the region. Indeed, the regional setting is changing dramatically. Russia has become intensely conscious of the burden of history and realises the imperative to strengthen its leadership role as the provider of security for the Central Asian region. The western threat to Central Asia and North Caucasus is continuing. 

Russia hopes to lead a regional effort to stabilise the Afghan situation and counter extremist groups, which act as a geopolitical tool for Washington. Russia (and China) increasingly deals with the Taliban rulers as the established government of Afghanistan. Fundamentally, terrorism is a major concern for Russia (and China).

Moscow estimates that the Taliban has the political will to act against the ISIS optimally, but lacks the financial resources. To be sure, Afghanistan will figure in Lavrov’s talks with Zardari. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval will also be visiting Moscow shortly for consultations on Afghanistan. 

This is an appropriate time for India to improve its relations with Pakistan. Fortuitously, the SCO-related events will bring Pakistani leaders to India. PM Modi has announced that India’s G-20 Presidency “will be grounded in the theme ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or One Earth, One Family, One Future.’” Conceivably, India should invite Pakistan to the G20 Summit in Delhi in September as a special guest.  

At a pragmatic level, the TAPI gas pipeline project  dovetails with the tripartite gas union that Russia is putting together with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote recently that Moscow has high hopes of extending the Central Asian gas grid to the South Asian region and to the ASEAN region in the medium term.

Andrei Grozin, head of the Department of Central Asia and Kazakhstan at the Institute of CIS Countries and senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Russian daily that “This is already a new state policy of Russia, and it is obvious that neither Astana nor Tashkent will be able to refuse to participate in this project. Experts agree that by the middle of this century, Southeast Asia will become the main energy-consuming region. No matter how fantastic the expansion of the gas pipeline network to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China may sound now,  it will soon become a reality. Therefore, it is necessary to promote our raw materials to the southern markets today.”

Of course, such a mega project will raise hiccups in Washington. It comes as no surprise that the US Undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland (who midwifed the 2014 regime change in Kiev and openly gloats over the sabotage and destruction of Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipeline) is arriving in Delhi this week. 

Washington is upset that Western sanctions pressure on Russian oil exports has led to a significant strengthening of India’s energy ties with Russia. Not only is Russian crude sold to India twice as cheap as world analogues, but the Russian production of petroleum products is actually transferred to India.

After the entry into force of the European embargo on Russian oil products w.e.f February 5, India is set to become the main supplier of refined Russian oil to Europe with a potential export turnover in tens of billions of dollars. (Please see Russia gives India the supply of Europe with petroleum productsNezavisimaya Gazeta, Jan. 16, 2023Exports of diesel fuel from India are already increasing.

Technically, this does not violate EU sanctions against Russia. But it annoys the Biden Administration, which had anticipated that there would be potential to boost US exports to replace Russian  petroleum products in the lucrative European market.

The US will be uneasy about a “gas union” betwixt Russia, Pakistan and India. But India has vital interests in safeguarding its energy security. The western hegemony in the world order is ending. Russia’s “gas union” in Central Asia signals that the time has come for regional states in South Asia to respond with a unity of purpose. 

China’s economy is on a rebound

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China’s economic data for the year 2022 has been released in Beijing on Tuesday. The striking part is that China’s GDP growth slowed down to 3 percent.

From an Indian perspective, it may seem momentarily that China’s economy is slowing while India’s expanded by nearly 7 percent (per World Bank predictions.) Can India catch up with China in a medium term scenario? 

This is where the devil lies in the fine print. The heart of the matter is that China’s GDP growth of 3 percent translates as a year-on-year expansion of its economy touching a whopping $18 trillion. 

To put matters in perspective, China has an economy that is five and a half times the size of India’s economy (GDP: $3.5 trillion). (Emphasis added.) 

Yet, this is being regarded as a lacklustre economic performance, attributed to headwinds stemming from a combination of adverse circumstances characteristic of 2022 — ranging from the coronavirus and geopolitical tensions to repeated US interest rate hikes and the waning overseas demand due to the world economy tiptoeing toward recession. 

The sporadic outbreaks of Covid in manufacturing bases including Shanghai and South China’s Guangdong Province disrupted production in local factories and logistics, which combined with a property market slump.

To be sure, “Zero-covid” has been a well-documented drag on the Chinese economy over the past year; factories suffered when workers were locked down, and consumers reined in their spending as they lost pay checks and jobs. 

Externally, the escalating geopolitical tensions due to the western sanctions against Russia drove up bulk commodity prices, subjecting China to imported inflation pressure. Second, the historical reality is that as the Chinese economy and the US economy grew closer and closer during the decades since 1980, the extent and depth of the Chinese economy affected by the US monetary policy also grew stronger and stronger.

That is to say, the US interest rates and the Chinese economy are inversely related, especially in import, export, and China-US exchange rate. 2022 witnessed extraordinary fluctuations in the US financial market, which was bad news for China

Nonetheless, China’s 3% GDP growth compares by far favourably with those of the US and Japan — “the peer competitors” — whose GDP grew by less than 2% (per IMF projections.) Analysts expect a much better performance in the year 2023, exceeding 5% in GDP growth. (In comparison, the World Bank estimates that global growth will slow from 2.9 percent in 2022 to 1.7 percent in 2023, and the US’ GDP is expected to increase by just about 0.5 percent in 2023, the weakest forecast in three decades.) 

This has geopolitical ramifications, as China is well-placed to make a far more significant contribution to global growth than any other major economic power, which would inevitably translate as increased prestige in the world community and create greater opportunity to leverage foreign policy objectives. 

China’s consumer-led rebound to buttress global growth implies that its vast market potential will be seen as a locomotive of growth by other economies, especially in the ASEAN region, Africa and Latin America. 

Contrary to doomsday predictions, China’s transition away from the “zero-Covid” policy has been relatively smooth. The new regime aims to cope with the Covid mutants that are highly contagious, but less potent and dangerous. In retrospect, hundreds of thousands of human lives were saved in China, unlike in India or America. 

Interestingly, the latest economic data from China also showed that notwithstanding the 3% growth rate last year, the country’s GDP per capita has stayed above the $12,000-mark, which is close to the high-income countries defined by the World Bank.

Equally, the Chinese stock markets remain bullish indicative of the optimism. In political terms, this sets the stage for China’s most important annual political gatherings ahead in March, which are expected to unleash the economy once more. 

What Indian analysts in their schadenfreude tend to overlook is that an attitude toward China predicated on that country’s misfortunes and setbacks is a road to nowhere. There are some profound conclusions to be drawn from the data on the Chinese economy. 

Clearly, with global economic growth likely to decline sharply and global inflation still hovering at high levels in 2023, the economies of major developed economies are likely to show stagflation. Suffice it to say that the European countries will be inclined to view the Chinese market as holding the key to an early economic recovery. Recasting the global supply chains by decoupling from China is going to be easier said than done.

Second, the US simply cannot compete with China anymore as a manufacturing country. In infrastructure, the gap is so patently wide. Ukraine has shown that the US lacks the capability to fight Russia and  needs a coalition. It is no different when it comes to China. 

Surely, the economic data on the Chinese economy will be taken very seriously in Washington. The US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was due to meet with Chinese Vice Premier (“economic czar”) Liu He in Zurich on Wednesday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos with view to “expand communication” between the two largest economies in the world. 

According to Politico, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Beijing on Feb. 5-6. Blinken’s talks will show whether the dialogue between President Biden and President Xi Jinping at Bali has led to more productive bilateral relations. A serious rapprochement seems  difficult to achieve after the US House of Representatives created a committee on strategic competition with China recently. 

However, both powers want to put the deterioration of relations on pause or at least keep it under control. They will try to avoid crises, although that is not guaranteed. Typically, it has been Washington who invariably initiated any deterioration of relations. 

Addressing the CSIS in Washington last week, Biden’s advisor on China, Kurt Campbell described the Bali summit meeting as “an effort to build a foundation for a new relationship with China.” He said 2023 will be the year “to build some guardrails,” although the dominant feature of US-China relationship will continue to be competitive. 

Campbell messaged that the US wants it to be “a productive, peaceful competition” that can be channelled for the betterment of life of the two peoples. 

Syria’s power dynamic is shifting

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The process toward a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement may lose momentum as a top aide to Turkish President Recep Erdogan threatened to derail it. On Saturday, Ibrahim Kalin, presidential advisor on foreign policy, stated during a media briefing in Ankara that the Russian push for peace did not mean that Ankara was abandoning the option of launching a new campaign in Syria. 

To quote Kalin, “A ground operation is possible any time, depending on the level of threats we receive.” But he also added, “Turkey never targets the Syrian state or Syrian civilians.” 

This may seem like crying “wolf.” But Kalin’s comments came two days after Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said that any future talks with Ankara should aim for “the end of occupation” by Turkey of parts of Syria. 

Syrian Foreign Minister Fayssal Mikdad since said at a joint press conference in Damascus on Sunday with the visiting Iranian FM Hussein Amir Abdollahian that a suitable environment must be created for Syrian-Turkish meetings at higher levels if necessary, and that any political meetings must be built on specific foundations that respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the presence of the armed forces as a real guarantor of the Syrian and neighbouring lands, and this is the thing that determines the possibility of holding such meetings. 

Abdollahian’s own remark was equally revealing: “Syria and Turkey are important countries in the region, and Tehran has distinguished and good relations with both of them, and when there were threats of Turkish military attacks against northern Syria, we worked to prevent that, and we are happy that the diplomatic efforts we made led to dialogue taking the place of war.” 

Plainly put, Tehran underscored that it has equity in any Syrian-Turkish normalisation. Arguably, Iran creates space for Syria to negotiate with Turkey. Iran is a balancer in the Syrian-Russian equations also, which has its complexities too. Basically, Tehran regards Damascus as part of the “axis of resistance” that is integral to Iran’s regional strategies. 

Significantly, this is also the thrust of a commentary recently by the influential NourNews which is wired into Iran’s national security establishment.

Indeed, Assad told Abdollahian that Damascus is keen on “continuous communication and coordination of positions” with Iran, especially since the latter was one of the first countries to stand by the Syrian people in their war against terrorism, and furthermore, such coordination is of the utmost importance today to “achieve common interests” when the two countries are witnessing “accelerated regional and international developments.”  

During Abdollahian’s visit, Syria and Iran agreed to renew an economic strategic agreement, which would be formalised during a forthcoming visit by President Ebrahim Raisi to Damascus. 

Apart from the crucial security role by tens of thousands of Iran-backed fighters in tilting the balance of forces in the Syrian conflict in Assad’s favour, Iran has also been a critical economic lifeline for Syria, delivering fuel and credit lines worth billions of dollars to help Damascus offset crippling Western-led sanctions. Syria and Iran signed almost a dozen economic deals in 2019 as part of the long-term strategic economic agreement to bolster their commercial ties.

Moscow may have pursued Ankara’s interests more in its relations with Syria lately. But Moscow’s shrinking strategic band width and diminished influence in Syria in the downstream of the Ukraine conflict does not translate as retrenchment. 

The redeployment of the Wagner Group from Syria’s southwest and far eastern regions to Ukraine, the transfer of a Syria-based S-300 missile defence system to Ukraine and even possible withdrawal of additional military assets from Syria can only be seen as tactical shift in Russia’s military footprint in Syria.  

Plainly put, Iran’s role is a factor of stability in the Syrian situation lest an empowered Turkey feels tempted to expand its presence in Syria. Equally, Russia also plays a trapeze act, leveraging its presence in Syria to encourage a conflicted Israel to navigate a precarious balance between its interests in Syria and its support for Ukraine and the West. 

The bottomline is that in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, the Syrian conflict’s power dynamic is dramatically shifting. On the one hand, there is a strategic “pull” toward a greater possibility of Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara working together to push US forces out of northeast Syria. 

On the other hand, the power dynamic with Russia may be shifting in Ankara’s favour lately. Erdogan’s capacity to hold Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO hostage; Erdogan’s intensified threats to launch another incursion into northeast Syria; Turkiye’s role as the sole custodian of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits which regulate the access to the Black Sea — these are factors that may encourage Erdogan to press his demands more forcefully once the Turkish elections slated for June get over and Russia’s primary leverage on Turkiye, which is economic rather than military, loses its potency. 

Make no mistake that Erdogan’s top priority will be the dismantling of the Kurdish project in northeast Syria. How Erdogan goes about it is the whole point. It may not be a bad thing for Russia since any such shift in the Syrian conflict landscape would ultimately cut down the Kurds, threaten the viability of the US-Kurdish partnership and eventually pressure the US to pull out of Syria. 

But the catch is, it may entail another limited Turkish invasion of Syria. Should Erdogan believe that his victory in the forthcoming election depends on another Syrian incursion, Russia will be unlikely to prevent the attack. Hence Moscow’s positive attitude toward Erdogan’s proposal on a trilateral meeting between Turkey, Russia, and Syria to address Turkiye’s security concerns. 

Any aggressive Iranian tactics at this point may weaken Russia’s capacity in fostering a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement. But then, the mitigating factor here is that in the present conditions under sanctions, Russia and Iran also have deepened their strategic ties well beyond their cooperation in Syria. 

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the semi-official Iranian news agency Tasnim reported on Sunday quoting an influential member of the Majlis that Tehran expects to take delivery of a number of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets in the coming months plus “a series of other military equipment from Russia, including air defence systems, missile systems and helicopters.”

Su-35 is a 4++ generation twin-engine, super-maneuverable fighter jet and a game changer. It is for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that Iran will be receiving advanced cutting-edge weaponry to boost its deterrence capability.  

Sweden hustled into military pact with US

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The Biden Administration’s efforts to put on fast track Sweden’s accession as a NATO member petered out as Turkiye balked, exercising its prerogative to withhold approval unless its conditions regarding Stockholm’s past dalliance with Kurdish separatist elements is fully addressed. 

President Biden was bullish and insisted publicly that Sweden’s NATO membership was a foregone conclusion. He underestimated President Recep Erdogan’s tenacity and overlooked the geopolitical ramifications. 

Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg assumed that all that was needed was a face-saving formula to pander Erdogan’s vanity — ie., a few Kurdish militants in Sweden would be extradited and Ankara and Stockholm would thereupon kiss and make up. 

However, as time passed, Erdogan kept shifting the goal post and refined his conditions to include issues such as Sweden lifting its arms embargo against Turkiye, joining Ankara’s fight against banned Kurdish militants as well as extradition of people linked to US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Turkish government accuses of masterminding the 2016 failed coup attempt, reportedly with American backing.

Evidently, Swedes didn’t realise that Turkiye had such deep knowledge of the covert activities of their intelligence.  

To cut the story short, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson finally  took the exit route saying on Sunday in exasperation that “Turkey has confirmed that we have done what we said we would do, but it also says that it wants things that we can’t, that we don’t want to, give it.” 

“We are convinced that Turkey will make a decision, we just don’t know when,” he said, adding that it will depend on internal politics inside Turkey as well as “Sweden’s capacity to show its seriousness.” 

Stoltenberg has reacted stoically, saying, “I am confident that Sweden will become a member of NATO. I do not want to give a precise date for when that happens. So far, it has been a rare, unusual and fast membership process. Normally, it takes several years.” 

Meanwhile, Sweden’s defence ministry announced on Monday that negotiations have begun for a bilateral security pact with Washington — so-called Defense Cooperation Agreement — which makes it possible for American troops to operate in Sweden. 

As Defence Minister Pal Jonson put it, “It could entail storage of military supplies, investments in infrastructure to enable support and the legal status of American troops in Sweden. The negotiations are started because Sweden is on its way of becoming an ally of the United States, through the NATO membership.

That is to say, the US is no longer waiting for the formalisation of Sweden’s accession as a NATO member but will simply assume it is a de facto NATO ally! 

press release on Monday by US state department said the bilateral security pact will “deepen our close security partnership, enhance our cooperation in multilateral security operations, and, together, strengthen transatlantic security.” It referred to US commitment to “strengthening and reinvigorating America’s partnerships to meet common security challenges while protecting shared interests and values.”  

The crux of the matter is that a security will provide the necessary underpinning for a US deployment to Sweden on an immediate basis, which is not possible otherwise without Stockholm formally jettisoning its decades-old policy of military non-alignment. 

This ingenuous route signifies a monumental shift for Sweden which has a long history of wartime neutrality. Put differently, Russia strongly opposes Sweden’s NATO membership, but Washington is reaching its objective anyway. 

Interestingly, though, Finland, which also had thrown its hand in the NATO ring under US pressure, doesn’t seem to be in a tearing hurry to negotiate a pact with Washington, although it has a 1,340km border with Russia. Finland’s stance is that it would join NATO at the same time as Sweden.

Foreign minister Pekka Haavisto told reporters on Sunday, “Finland is not in such a rush to join NATO that we can’t wait until Sweden gets the green light.” A former Finnish President Tarja Halonen once said, Finland and Sweden are “sisters but not twins.” They have commonalities, but their motivations are not the same.

Unlike Sweden which was all along in the Western orbit and provided secret intelligence to Western powers throughout the Cold War, both bilaterally and through NATO, Finland had a unique relationship with Russia, which was a result of its history. 

Finland positioned itself as a neutral country during the Cold War maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union, riveted on the doctrine enabled by the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (1948) with Moscow, which served well as the main instrument in Finnish-Soviet relations all the way until 1992 when the Soviet Union got disbanded. 

For sure, the 1948 pact granted Finland enough freedom to become a prosperous democracy, while, in comparison, despite Sweden’s public posture of neutrality throughout much of the Cold War, behind closed doors it had become a key partner of NATO in Northern Europe. 

Conceivably, neutrality still could remain an appealing alternative for Finland. Of course, it is a different matter if the balance of power in the region changes dramatically in the event of a large-scale conflict in Europe. 

Sweden’s (or Finland’s) NATO membership isn’t exactly round the corner. Sweden is either unable or unwilling to fulfil Turkiye’s demands. Besides, there are variables at work here. 

Most important, the trajectory of the current Russian-brokered rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus will profoundly impact the fate of the Kurdish groups in the region — and the Kurdish-US axis in Syria. Washington has warned Erdogan against seeking rapprochement with President Bashar Al-Assad. 

What complicates matters further is that presidential and parliamentary elections are due in Turkiye in June and Erdogan’s political compass is set. Any change in his calculus can only happen  in the second half of 2023 at the earliest.

Now, 6 months is a long time in West Asian politics. Meanwhile, the Ukraine war will also have phenomenally changed by summer. 

Finland is ready to wait till summer, but Sweden (and the US) cannot. The heart of the matter is that Sweden’s NATO membership is not really about the war in Ukraine but is about containing the Russian presence and strategy in the Arctic and North Pole. There is a massive economic dimension to it, too. 

Thanks to climate change, the Arctic is increasingly becoming a navigable sea route. The expert opinion is that nations bordering the Arctic (eg., Sweden) will have an enormous stake in who has access to and control of the resources of this energy- and mineral-rich region as well as the new sea routes for global commerce the melt-off is creating. 

It is estimated that forty-three of the nearly 60 large oil and natural-gas fields that have been discovered in the Arctic are in Russian territory, while eleven are in Canada, six in Alaska [US] and one in Norway. Simply put, the spectre that is haunting the US is: “The Arctic is Russian.”

Just look at the map above. Sweden can bring quite a bit to the table to secure the Arctic through NATO. Finland may have a strong icebreaker-ship building industry, but it is Sweden’s highly effective submarine fleet that will be crucial — both for polar defence and for blocking Russia’s access to the world oceans.   

India: Crisis of self-identification

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The Brazilian news agency reported that Lula da Silva’s inauguration as the new president on January 1 for a historic third term amidst a carnival-like backdrop was attended by over five dozen foreign delegations, composed of heads of government, vice presidents, foreign ministers, special envoys and representatives of international organisations. It was the largest event with high-level international figures in Brazil since the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. 

The BRICS leaders flocked to Brasilia — the vice-presidents of China and Russia and the foreign minister of South Africa. The solitary exception was India. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar prioritised a tour of the beautiful Mediterranean island of Cyprus and Austria.

India’s “underrepresentation” probably was due to the close equations between PM Modi and Jair Bolsonaro, who served as the 38th president of Brazil from 2019 until 2022, whom Lula defeated. For some strange reason, Modi government invested heavily in Bolsonaro by inviting him as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day in January 2020. 

It was a controversial decision, given Bolsonaro’s obnoxious record on misogyny and homophobia, and his perversion for targeting the indigenous people. In a scandalous incident, he once told an opposition politician Maria do Rosario during a debate in the parliament, “I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it.”

Later, he explained that he wouldn’t rape her because she was “ugly”. Bolsonaro’s misogyny surged when he once remarked “I have five children. Four are men, and then in a moment of weakness the fifth came out a girl.” Again, his homophobic views got the better of him when he threatened that “if I see two men kissing each other on the street, I’ll beat them up.” 

Indeed, it remains a mystery what attracted the Indian ruling elite to Bolsonaro, an ex-military officer. Maybe, his “strong man” image and fascist ideology?  

Be that as it may, ignoring Lula’s historic return to power in Brazil is incomprehensible. It is not only that he’s, arguably, the most charismatic statesman from a developing country, but he is certain to steer the BRICS to a higher destiny during his 4-year term. 

Lula’s return comes at a juncture when the BRICS is going from introvert to extrovert and its greater global ambition raises hopes across the wide expanses of the Global South of material changes in the global economic system. The ongoing polarisation between the West and the Rest over Ukraine issue accentuates the trend. 

The hallmark of China’s BRICS chairmanship in 2022 has been the launch of the extended BRICS+ meeting at the level of foreign ministers. China also has plans to open up the possibility of developing countries joining the core BRICS grouping. In fact, Algeria, Argentina and Iran have already applied to join BRICS, while Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt have announced their interest in becoming the group’s members.

Looking ahead, the vitality of the BRICS trajectory will largely depend on the success of the BRICS+ enterprise. While an inert, introvert BRICS has neither global capacity nor global mission,  a stronger, more inclusive and open BRICS has the potential to become the basis for a new system of global governance. This is the crux of the matter.

To be sure, the BRICS association needs to overcome its mounting internal contradictions. On the one hand, a fundamental transformation of the globalisation process has begun (and this process is only gaining momentum) and there are calls for the basic principles and mechanisms which bring the BRICS countries together to undergo reform. On the other hand, this is also an inflection point as multipolarity gains traction and all global multilateral organisations are faced with the loss of their status as universal platforms for overseeing the global rules of the game.

India faces an acute problem of self-identification, since it notionally advocates the transformation of global mechanisms imposed by developed countries but also happens to be a votary of the so-called “rules-based order”, which is a metaphor for the political ideology of the US as the dominant state and “lone superpower” in the 1990s.

Indeed, the difficulties of the BRICS were also caused by internal reasons. BRICS became internally highly heterogeneous and the main reason for this is India’s unwillingness to work with China as leaders of economic growth. To be sure, the aggravation of contradictions between China and India has led to a slowdown in active work in the BRICS. 

Enter Brazil. The victory of Bolsonaro in 2018 would also have been a moment of risk for the BRICS, as the new elites in power in Brasilia made no secret of their desire to place their main stake on rapprochement with the US. Surely, India saw in Bolsonaro a “natural ally” within the BRICS, which largely explains the high honour Modi bestowed on him on 2020 Republic Day. 

Bolsonaro, like Modi, felt no commitment to the idea of uniting the Global South under the banner of reshaping the world order. Both preferred pragmatic, technocratic areas as the BRICS agenda that are objectively beneficial to them (eg., technological cooperation, the fight against organised crime, digitalisation, the Development Bank and so on) although this resulted in an atrophy of the raison d’être of BRICS agenda. 

But, as luck would have it, Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 US election led to a cooling of the enthusiasm on the part of Bolsonaro and the Brazilian elites regarding the prospects for rapprochement with the US. The apple of discord was Bolsonaro’s policy toward the Amazon River. 

Bolsonaro worried about the inclusion of environmental issues in the NATO agenda and he discarded his previously restrained approach to the BRICS, recognising its importance as a tool to counter isolation in the event of worsening relations with the US and the EU.

Suffice it to say that Lula’s return is happening at a defining moment. In his first remarks after assuming power on Sunday, Lula vowed a drastic change of course to rescue his nation plagued by hunger, poverty and racism. 

Lula made clear his main focus would be on ending hunger and narrowing rampant inequality. He also said he aims to improve the rights of women, and attack racism and Brazil’s legacy of slavery.  Lula declared that social conscience will be “the hallmark of our government.” 

Unsurprisingly, India feels uneasy that the centre of gravity in BRICS is poised to shift further to the left of centre. Equally, India will find it difficult to maintain its role as a regional leader with the entry of Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia into the portals of BRICS. Being an acolyte of the US-led “rules-based order,” India faces the spectre of isolation.  

Beijing, whose approaches to diplomacy and international politics are known for their strategic vision for the long term, is biding its time. Lula told Chinese vice-president Wang Qishan who participated in the ceremony in Brasilia as Xi Jinping’s special representative, that he looked forward to visiting Beijing “to further deepen bilateral practical cooperation in various fields, enhance friendship between peoples, and lift Brazil-China relations to a new level.” 

Israel: Netanyahu wades into Ukraine war

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In his second coming as Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has hit the ground running. The international climate in which he skilfully operated for close to 15 years in two stints as prime minister has changed beyond recognition.

Netanyahu’s foreign policy legacy has become listless — principally, the Abraham Accords and Israel’s hugely consequential relationship with Russia, both of which significantly impacted the tough neighbourhood in which he successfully navigated Israel’s core interests. 

For sure, breathing new life into the above two vectors — Abraham Accords (Israel- Saudi ties) and Israel’s relations with Russia — will remain top priorities for Netanyahu. While Israel-Saudi relations impact regional security, Israel’s relations with Russia will have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s security. That is for three reasons. 

First, Putin is at war with the US and the Western world who are Israel’s traditional allies. But Netanyahu is anything but a one-dimensional man. Trust him to turn challenges into new opportunities.  

Second, recapturing the verve in the relationship with Moscow has a  great deal of collateral significance. Russia has become a full-fledged West Asian actor today and, arguably, in certain ways makes a more effective regional partner for Israel than the US. The US’ retrenchment is plain to see and the ensuing decline of its capacity to leverage allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Egypt hits Israeli interests. 

Third, during these 18 months that Netanyahu was out of office, Russia and Iran have turned around their difficult relationship into a quasi-alliance, thanks to western sanctions against Moscow. Netanyahu senses the folly of the West trying to “erase” Russia. 

The media is discussing a possible deal between Moscow and Tehran over Russia’s Su-35 Super Flanker multi-role 4+ generation fighter jets. What lends an intriguing touch is that the deepening military ties between them coincide with Tehran’s intention to expand its uranium enrichment program. Iran reportedly reached 60% enrichment of  uranium at its Fordow enrichment plant and has reportedly informed the IAEA that it had started to enrich uranium at the higher levels.

Then, there is the Syrian sub-plot where Israel continues to operate in that country’s air space, which Russia controls, largely due to the secret understanding between Netanyahu and Putin whereby Moscow acquiesced with Israeli activities to contain Iran and its militia groups and squash its attempt to turn Syria into yet another “resistance front” like Lebanon or Gaza. 

However, it is the Ukraine war that has dramatically uplifted Russia-Iran strategic ties. Netanyahu realises that the fledgling Russo-Iranian quasi-alliance can be tackled if the Russian dependency on Iranian military technology is rolled back. 

That ultimately requires that the Ukraine war should be brought to an end sooner rather than later and also an easing of western sanctions. Most certainly, the war should not be allowed to run its current indeterminate course. This is precisely where Netanyahu can be expected to concentrate his formidable diplomatic skill. 

The signs are there already. Soon after taking over as the new foreign minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, on Monday, Eli Cohen stated that he was planning to have a conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on January 3. 

The manner in which way Cohen framed this disarmingly simple proposition during his inaugural speech (which was broadcast live by Israeli Foreign Ministry’s press service) needs to be carefully noted: “Tomorrow, I am supposed to talk with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and later on with other European ministers.” 

Earlier, in a recent speech, Cohen hinted that on the issue of Russia and Ukraine, Netanyahu government will be discreet in its public utterances, pointing toward a major course correction toward engaging  Russia. The outgoing Israeli PM Yair Lapid had condemned Russia publicly. Since the Russian operation in Ukraine began on February 24, Lapid as FM never once spoke with Lavrov — or with Putin, while officiating as interim PM. 

However, even under Lapid, Israel’s pro-Kiev policies did not go far beyond rhetoric. The Israeli ambassador to Kiev, Michael Brodsky told Washington Post recently that Israel’s relations with Russia are creating “limits that cannot be overcome.” Brodsky added that Israel is aware of the “frustration of some Ukrainian Jews,” but “no government in Israel is going to jeopardise this interest [with Russia] for anybody else, including the Ukrainians.” Brodsky also noted that Israel’s situation is “fragile,” as it is not part of NATO, and most Ukrainian Jews understand that Israel is in a “tough position.”

For Israel, Russia is not like any country. Russian-speakers constitute 15% of Israel’s population. It is an influential constituency in Israeli domestic politics and has kinship with the Jewish population in Russia. Russian investment in Israel is rather substantial and it is an open secret that Russia’s oligarchs viewed Israel as a home away from home. 

Truly, the umbilical chords that tie Russian culture and history with Jerusalem cannot easily be ruptured. Only last week, Moscow reiterated its demand to reclaim Russian assets in Israel. Former prime minister Sergei Stepashin who handles the issue announced in Moscow that Russia will submit a claim to Israeli court for the Church of Mary Magdalene, Chapel of the Ascension, and the Viri Galilaei Church!

Putin has also demanded an end to the litigation preventing the transfer of Alexander Nevsky Church in the Old City, after commitments made by Benjamin Netanyahu during a previous term as prime minister. Conceivably, such demands are part of internal Russian politics as well. 

The Kremlin feels elated that Netanyahu is back in the diplomatic circuit. What is most gratifying will be that unlike the previous Israeli set-up, Netanyahu will not passively accept a subaltern role in the US-Israeli partnership. 

Netanyahu has extensive networking with American elites and he won’t hesitate to leverage it if Israeli interests are at stake. And, without doubt, Israel is a stakeholder in the Ukraine crisis and Israeli interests are well served by creating space for peace talks to commence between Moscow and Kiev. 

Netanyahu has Putin’s ears and can play a role for the Biden Administration, too, like no other western leader can perform today. On the other hand, Iran’s nuclear programme is turning into a fuming volcano and a point may come very soon when Netanyahu will be compelled to act. And that could happen in the 2024 election year, something that the Biden Administration can ill-afford to see happening. Suffice it to say, the Ukraine conflict and Iran’s bomb are joined at the hips, as it were. 

Putin said in a message to Netanyahu on Thursday, “In Russia, we greatly appreciate your personal and longstanding contribution to strengthening friendly relations between our countries.” Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “ready for constructive cooperation” with Israel to “clear up the climate in the Middle East and the international scene in general”.

On December 22, Putin called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory and the establishment of a new government, while Netanyahu’s office disclosed in a statement that the conversation mainly revolved around the conflict in Ukraine. Netanyahu told Putin he hopes a resolution to end hostilities will be found as soon as possible, and the consequent suffering.

Netanyahu also told Putin that he is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Tehran’s attempts to establish military presence in Lebanon and Syria along Israel’s northern border. 

To be sure, Putin is all ears and eyes for Netanyahu. The point is, Moscow gains if diplomacy reappears on the wasteland of Ukraine issue. Certainly, it is  far from the case that Russia is enjoying the destruction of Ukraine or the sorrows of the fraternal people. 

Source: India Punchline

Russia, Iran open a trade route heralding a bloc

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Consequent upon the Ukraine war, as the Sea of Azov becomes an inland sea for Russia, bracketed by the Crimean Peninsula and the mouth of the River Don, the sea and rail networks of the region extend to Iranian hubs on the Caspian Sea and ultimately lead to the Indian Ocean. A feature article in Bloomberg last week titled Russia and Iran Are Building a Trade Route That Defies Sanctions brings to centre stage this “sanctions-busting” project in the region. 

Last month, Mehr News Agency reported that a first 12 million–ton shipment of Russian grain bound for India already transited Iran. The time has come for the inland trade corridor known as the International North-South Transport Corridor or the INSTC, which was launched in 2000 to connect the Baltic Sea with the Indian Ocean. 

Ironically, the West’s “sanctions from hell” against Moscow roused the INSTC to life. Moscow is currently finalising the rules that would give ships from Iran the right of passage along inland waterways on the Volga and Don rivers!  

The INSTC was conceived as a 7,200 km-long multimodal transportation network encompassing sea, road, and rail routes to move freight between Russia, Central Asia and the Caspian regions, Iran and India. At its core, this is a Russian-Iranian project who are stakeholders in countering the West’s weaponisation of sanctions. 

But there is much more to their congruent interests. The Western sanctions motivate them to look for optimally developing their economies, and both Russia and Iran are pivoting to the Asian market, and in the process, a new trading bloc is forming that is completely free of Western presence. “The goal is to shield commercial links from Western interference and build new ones with the giant and fast–growing economies of Asia, ” Bloomberg noted. 

Speaking to a group of senior Russian editors on Monday in Moscow, Foreign Minister Lavrov said, “Rest assured that in the near future, we will see a serious drop in the West’s ability to ‘steer’ the global economy the way it pleases.  Whether it wants it or not, it will have to sit down and talk.” This is the crux of the matter — force the western powers to negotiate. 

In the near term, INSTC’s takeoff will depend on some big projects. On Monday, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak spoke about an energy grid involving Russia, Iran and Central Asia and the South Asian region. 

Novak said, “A constant influx of national currencies gives confidence to the market. At the beginning of the year, we faced a situation where it was not very clear what to do with these currencies. At the moment, they are traded on the stock exchange and ensure mutual trade turnover… If at the beginning of the year this flywheel swayed very hard, then in just a few months it became commonplace, and we began to trade steadily in national currencies.” De-dollarisation provides an underpinning of the INSTC. This is one thing. 

Second, Novak made the disclosure that Russia and Iran may reach an agreement on swap supplies of oil and gas by the end of this year. As he put it, “If we talk about perspective, this includes exports of gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan — either using the infrastructure projects of Central Asia, or through a swap from the territory of Iran. That is, we will receive their gas in the south of the country [Iran], and in exchange we will supply gas to the north for Iranian consumers.” 

Novak added, “We expect around 5 mln tons [of oil] per year and up to 10 bln cubic meters [of gas] at the first stage.” Pakistan is interested in sourcing Russian gas. Novak referred to Russia’s agreement with Azerbaijan, which is set to increase gas supplies, and “when they increase gas production, we will be able to discuss swaps.” 

Pakistan has an inherent advantage, as all the participating countries of the INSTC except India also happen to be members of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. At some point early enough, the two designated Iranian ports in the INSTC — Bandar Abbas and Chabahar — will likely get linked to Gwadar Port, which is the gateway to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] leading to Xinjiang, and an important component of the BRI. 

Clearly, the INSTC will spawn a web of international economic corridors. Iran is destined to become the hub of converging strategic interests with significant economic dimensions that will determine new alliances and impact the geopolitics of South and West Asia in the 21st century.

The US has been waging an information war to debunk the CPEC and fuel anti-China sentiments in the Pakistani public opinion. But it is a hopeless endeavour to malign the INSTC as a geopolitical project and impractical to threaten regional states from associating with what is an intercontinental trade route that is no single country’s franchise. After all, how to sanction a trading bloc? 

The facts speak for themselves. The INSTC trials carried out to transport containers from Mumbai to St Petersburg using the trade corridor are able to reduce the delivery time of cargo from 45 days to 25 days at 30% cheaper rates than via Suez Canal, justifying the hopes for enhanced connectivity and utility of the corridor. Clearly, the trade potential of INSTC is immense.

However, Russia and Iran are determined to decouple the West. Lavrov said on Monday, “We can no longer rely on these people.  Neither our people nor history will forgive us if we do… we too openly and naively put our faith in the assurances that we heard in the early 1990s about a common European home and the need for an international division of labour that would rely on the best performance and competitive advantages of each country, so that, by pulling our efforts together and saving resources, we would be able achieve the best and cost-effective results. All of that was empty talk.” 

Iran and Eurasian Economic Union [comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan] have reportedly finalised the terms for a free trade agreement involving more than 7,500 types of commodities. A market as big as $700 billion is opening up to Iranian products and services as of the next Iranian year [starting March 21, 2023]. 

The FTA encourages free movement of goods and services, and provides for common policies in the macroeconomic sphere, transport, industry and agriculture, energy, foreign trade and investment, customs, technical regulation, competition, and antitrust regulation. It will be a game changer for the INSTC,  transforming the power dynamic in the vast Eurasian landmass and the Gulf region. The INSTC signifies a strategic axis between Russia and Iran built around a trade route heralding a non-western trading bloc of free-wheeling regional states with common interests in resisting western hegemony.  

A German-China-Russia triangle on Ukraine

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The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken probably thought that in his self-appointed role as the world’s policeman, it was his prerogative to check out what is going on between Germany, China and Russia that he wasn’t privy to. Certainly, Blinken’s call to Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday turned out to be a fiasco.

Most certainly, his intention was to gather details on two high-level exchanges that Chinese President Xi Jinping had on successive days last week — with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Chairman of the United Russia Party and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev respectively. 

Blinken made an intelligent guess that Steinmeier’s phone call to Xi on Tuesday and Medvedev’s surprise visit to Beijing and his meeting with Xi on Wednesday might not have been coincidental.  Medvedev’s mission would have been to transmit some highly sensitive message from Putin to Xi Jinping. Only last week, reports said Moscow and Beijing were working on a meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping later this month. 

Steinmeier is an experienced diplomat who held the post of foreign minister from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2017, as well as of Vice Chancellor of Germany from 2007 to 2009 — and all of it during the period Angela Merkel was the German chancellor (2005- 2021). Merkel left a legacy of surge in Germany’s relations with both Russia and China. 

Steinmeier is a senior politician belonging to the Social Democratic Party — same as present chancellor Olaf Scholz. It is certain that Steinmeier’s call with Xi was in consultation with Scholz. This is one thing. 

Most importantly, Steinmeier had played a seminal role in negotiating the two Minsk Agreements (2014 and 2015), which  provided for a package of measures to stop the fighting in Donbass in the downstream of the US-sponsored coup in Kiev. 

When the Minsk agreements began unravelling by 2016, Steinmeier stepped in with an ingenious idea that later came to be known as the Steinmeier Formula spelling out the sequencing of events spelt out in the agreements.

Specifically, the Steinmeier  formula called for elections to be held in the separatist-held territories of Donbass under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE. It proposed that if the OSCE judged the balloting to be free and fair, then a special self-governing status for the territories would be initiated. 

Of course, all that is history today. Merkel “confessed” recently in an interview with Zeit newspaper that in reality, the Minsk agreement was a western attempt to buy “invaluable time” for Kiev to rearm itself.

Given this complex backdrop, Blinken would have sensed something was amiss when Steinmeier had a call with Xi Jinping out of the blue, and Medvedev made a sudden appearance in Beijing the next day and was received by the Chinese president. Notably, Beijing’s readouts were rather upbeat on China’s relationship with Germany and Russia. 

Xi Jinping put forward a three-point proposal to Steinmeier on the development of China-Germany relations and stated that “China and Germany have always been partners of dialogue, development, and cooperation as well as partners for addressing global challenges.” 

Similarly, in the meeting with Medvedev, he underscored that “China is ready to work with Russia to constantly push forward China-Russia relations in the new era and make global governance more just and equitable.” 

Both readouts mentioned Ukraine as a topic of discussion, with Xi stressing that “China stays committed to promoting peace talks” (to Steinmeier) and “actively promoted peace talks” (to Medvedev). 

But Blinken went about his mission clumsily by bringing to the fore the contentious US-China issues, especially “the current COVID-19 situation” in China and “the importance of transparency for the international community.” It comes as no surprise that Wang Yi gave a stern lecturing to Blinken not to “engage in dialogue and containment at the same time”, or to “talk cooperation, but stab China simultaneously”. 

Wang Yi said, “This is not reasonable competition, but irrational suppression. It is not meant to properly manage disputes, but to intensify conflicts. In fact, it is still the old practice of unilateral bullying. This did not work for China in the past, nor will it work in the future.” 

Specifically, on Ukraine, Wang Yi said, “China has always stood on the side of peace, of the purposes of the UN Charter, and of the international society to promote peace and talks. China will continue to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis in China’s own way.” From the US state department readout, Blinken failed to engage Wang Yi in a meaningful conversation on Ukraine.

Indeed, Germany’s recent overtures to Beijing in quick succession — Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s high-profile visit to China last month with a delegation of  top German CEOs and Steinmeier’s phone call last week — have not gone down well in the Beltway. 

The Biden Administration expects Germany to coordinate with Washington first instead of taking own initiatives toward China. (Interestingly, Xi Jinping underscored the importance of Germany preserving its strategic autonomy.) 

The current pro-American foreign minister of Germany Annalena Baerbock distanced herself from Chancellor Scholz’s China visit. Evidently, Steinmeier’s phone call to Xi confirms that Scholz is moving according to a plan to pursue a path of constructive engagement with China, as Merkel did, no matter the state of play in the US’ tense relationship with China. 

That said, discussing peacemaking in Ukraine with China is a daring move on the part of the German leadership at the present juncture when the Biden Administration is deeply engaged in a proxy war with Russia and has every intention to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”  

But there is another side to it. Germany has been internalising its anger and humiliation during the past several months. Germany cannot but feel that it has been played in the countdown to the Ukraine conflict — something particularly galling for a country that is genuinely Atlanticist in its foreign-policy orientation. 

German ministers have expressed displeasure publicly that American oil companies are brazenly exploiting the ensuing energy crisis to make windfall profits by selling gas at three to four times the domestic price in the US. Germany also fears that Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act building on foundational climate and clean energy investments may lead to the migration of German industry to America. 

The unkindest cut of all has been the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline. Germany must be having a fairly good idea as to the forces that were behind that terrorist act, but it cannot even call them out and must suppress its sense of humiliation and indignation. The destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines makes a revival of German-Russian relationship an extremely tortuous affair. For any nation with a proud history, it is a bit too much to accept being pushed around like a pawn. 

Scholz and Steinmeier are seasoned politicians and would know when to dig in and hunker down. In any case, China is a crucially important partner for Germany’s economic recovery. Germany can ill afford to let the US destroy its partnership with China also, and reduce it to a vassal state. 

When it comes to Ukraine war, Germany becomes a frontline state but it is Washington that determines the western tactic and strategy. Germany estimates that China is uniquely placed to be a peacemaker in Ukraine. The signs are that Beijing is warming up to that idea too.

From Indianpunchline

NATO nuclear compass rendered unavailing

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The visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Minsk on Monday, accompanied by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, turned out to be immensely consequential for European security. 

Putin drew attention to it rather obliquely at his news conference with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko at the fag-end of his initial statement when he revealed in an undertone the dramatic decision that Russia will provide a de facto “nuclear umbrella” to Belarus. Putin framed the historic decision in the following way: 

“I believe it is also possible to continue implementing President Lukashenko’s proposal on training the Belarusian Army combat aircraft crews that have been re-equipped for potential use of air-launched ammunition with special warheads. I want to stress that this form of cooperation is not our invention. For example, the United States have conducted similar activities with their NATO allies for decades. These coordinated measures are extremely important in view of the tensions at the external borders of the Union State [Russia and Belarus.]” 

Moscow has long voiced concern over the US keeping nuclear weapons in Europe and providing to NATO allies the technical capability to deliver nuclear warheads with nuclear-certified fighters. Air forces from across NATO regularly exercise nuclear deterrence capabilities. 

In fact, disregarding the current heightened tensions, the NATO held a “routine, recurring training activity” through the fortnight from October 17 to 30 in an exercise over north-western Europe involving 14 countries and up to 60 aircraft of various types, including fourth and fifth generation fighter jets, as well as surveillance and tanker aircraft, and as in previous years, US B-52 long-range bombers flying from Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana. 

Russia kept protesting against such brazen acts by the US and NATO in violation of the 1970  Treaty on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation, which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Apparently, the Kremlin has decided to react to the US belligerence, even if modestly and somewhat apologetically. 

To be sure, in the backdrop of the NATO’s direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict and the new policy by the Biden Administration allowing “first use” of nuclear weapons, Moscow is left with no choice.  

Over the past two decades, there has been a steady proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world and nuclear stockpiles have increased around the globe, while international relationships that could limit their proliferation have soured. And in the most recent months or weeks, the threat posed by these weapons has loomed larger than ever before since the end of the Cold War. 

On March 28, over a month after the conflict erupted in Ukraine, the White House announced that President Joe Biden had signed off on a months-long, Pentagon-led review of US defence strategy and nuclear weapons policy and transmitted to Congress the classified version of the National Defense Strategy, which included the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the Missile Defense Review (MDR) as annexes. 

The NPR reflects Biden’s rethink not to follow through on his 2020 electoral pledge to declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons was to deter a nuclear attack. Succinctly put, Biden’s new thinking leaves open the option to use nuclear weapons not only in retaliation to a nuclear attack, but also to respond to non-nuclear threats. 

Biden’s policy declares that the fundamental role of the US nuclear arsenal is to deter a nuclear attack, but will still leave open the option that nuclear weapons could be used in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the US or its allies and partners. The Wall Street Journal reported quoting US officials that those extreme circumstances might include nuclear use to deter enemy’s conventional, biological, chemical, and possibly cyberattacks. 

Although Cold War ended and nuclear war plans have been reduced since the mid-1990s, the US and Russia maintain their strategic forces on a “launch under attack” posture. Conceivably, Biden’s latest decision was likely influenced by the looming confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

It will be a huge risk for Moscow to disregard the possibility of the US resorting to a nuclear strike against a non-nuclear threat in the Ukraine conflict, such as, for instance, Russia’s use of hypersonic weapons, which the NATO simply lacks the capability to counter. 

Suffice to say, by providing nuclear umbrella to Belarus, Moscow is both strengthening its deterrent capability against a western attack as well as enhance its second strike capability. This is by no means an impromptu decision. 

In retrospect, Defence Minister Shoigu’s unannounced visit to Belarus on December 3 falls into perspective. During the visit, Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed a protocol on amendments to the two countries’ joint regional security agreement of 1997. 

Neither side divulged the contents of the secret protocol. However, there was a small giveaway —  the signing ceremony was held at the Machulishchy air base outside Minsk, rather unusual. Now, Machulishchy air base in the Minsk oblast used to serve as a strategic bomber base and interceptor base for the Soviet Union. It was one of nine major operating locations for the Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder in the mid-1960s, the first supersonic bomber to enter production in the Soviet Union. 

After the signing ceremony, Shoigu went over to Minsk and met Lukashenko. Indeed, there are rumours floating around that a Russian attack on the Ukraine’s western region and Kiev (100 kms away from Belarus border) cannot be ruled out in a forthcoming winter offensive. 

Be that as it may, prior to the visit to Minsk, Putin chaired a meeting with permanent Security Council members, via videoconference, last Friday to “review current issues of ensuring national security in various spheres… [and] also discuss our interaction with neighbours on certain highly significant aspects.” 

And on Saturday, Putin visited the joint staff of all military branches involved in Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, to be briefed by commanders about future operations from a short-and mid-term perspective. Indeed, things are happening on expected lines.

Back on July 3, this was what Lukashenko said in a speech at the wreath-laying ceremony on the occasion of Belarus Independence Day: “We are the only country that supports the Russians in this struggle. Those who reproach us, did you not know that we have the closest alliance with the Russian Federation? With a state with which we are building a single, powerful, independent state – a Union state. Where there are two independent nations in the Union.

“And that they [Washington] didn’t know that we had created a single group of armed forces in the union of Belarus and Russia for a long time? In fact, a unified army. You knew all this, so why are you reproaching us today? We were and will continue to be together with fraternal Russia. Our participation in the ‘special operation’ was determined by me a long time ago.”

Equally, on Monday, Lukashenko announced the deployment of S-400 and and Iskander missile systems. All in all, it is possible to view Putin’s Minsk visit, first in 3 years, from the angle of Russia’s expected winter offensive. The NATO has been put on notice about Belarus’ deterrent capability. 

from Indian punchline. Click here to read the original

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