Vladimir Putin

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

Moscow’s Leverage in the Balkans

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Since September, Kosovo’s fragile stability that has endured since 1999, following intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has grown progressively precarious. Clashes between ethnic Serbians and Kosovo security forces saw Serbia’s military placed on high alert in November. Several high-profile Serbian officials, including President Aleksandar Vučić, announced that the Serbian military could be deployed to northern Kosovo to protect the ethnic Serbs, who make up the majority of the population in the region.

Moscow has natural incentives to provoke the crisis. An unraveling of regional security would create more obstacles for Serbia’s EU aspirations, optimistically slated for 2025. The West’s support for Kosovo has historically undermined Serbia’s European integration effort, and 51 percent of Serbs polled by Belgrade-based pollster Demostat in June 2022 said they would vote against EU membership in a national referendum.

But by escalating tensions, Russia can also prevent further EU and NATO expansion in the region, and potentially reduce Western pressure on Russian forces in Ukraine by diverging resources from Kyiv to the Balkans.

Throughout the 1990s, NATO took a leading role in the breakup of Yugoslavia, perceived to be dominated by Serbia. While the West supported Bosnian and Croatian independence initiatives and Kosovan autonomy, Serbia was supported by Russia. These policies led to considerable tension between NATO and Russia, with the Kremlin’s occupation of Kosovo’s Slatina airport in 1999 leading to “one of the most tense standoffs between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.”

However, Russia was too weak to adequately support Serbia in the 1990s. And after then-Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević was overthrown in 2000 and Russian forces withdrew from Kosovo in 2003, Serbian political elites instead pursued cautious integration with Europe while keeping the U.S. at arm’s length. At the same time, Serbia and Russia forged closer relations through growing economic ties, embracing their common Slavic Orthodox heritage, and sharing resentment toward NATO’s role in their affairs.

Territories under Serbian control continued to secede in the 2000s, with Montenegro peacefully voting for independence in 2006 and Kosovo in 2008. Yet unlike other secession initiatives in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s failed to gain universal recognition. Almost half of the UN General Assembly refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, with NATO/EU members Spain, Greece, Slovakia, and Romania among them.

Moscow was firmly against Kosovo’s independence, and prior to the February 2008 declaration of independence, the Kremlin warned of geopolitical consequences if it were to move forward. Six months later, Russia invoked the “Kosovo Precedent” to invade Georgia and recognized the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent. The Kremlin is now using the same paradigm to justify its support for Russian-backed separatist territories in Ukraine.

Currently bogged down in Ukraine, the Kremlin is exploring fomenting additional unrest in the Balkans by exploiting Serbian nationalist sentiment. Doing so will undoubtedly redirect some Western political, economic, and military efforts away from Ukraine.

Russia’s influence over Serbia has grown in recent years, and Serbian politicians have become more assertive regarding northern Kosovo. Though overall trade between Russia and Serbia is negligible in comparison to the EU, Russia provides one-quarter of the oil imported to Serbia, while Gazprom finalized 51 percent share in Serbia’s major oil and gas company, Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS), in 2009.

Russia’s veto power at the UN Security Council has prevented greater international recognition of Kosovo, demonstrating Moscow’s usefulness as a diplomatic ally. Putin has, meanwhile, become Serbians’ most admired international leader, with pro-Putin and pro-Russia rallies having been held in Serbia since the invasion of Ukraine. According to recent polling, almost 70 percent of Serbians hold NATO responsible for the conflict.

Balancing Putin’s popularity and Serbia’s relations with Europe has been a delicate task for Serbian President Vučić. Though he condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he refused to implement sanctions against the Kremlin, prompting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to signal that Vučić had to make a choice between Europe and Russia in June.

But the Serbian leader had already signed a three-year gas deal with Russia in May, and in September agreed to “consult” with Moscow on foreign policy issues. Other ventures, such as doubling flights from Moscow to Belgrade, have demonstrated Serbia’s willingness to assist Russia in undermining Western sanctions.

More concerning to Western officials is Russia’s attempts over the last decade to alter the military balance between Serbia and Kosovo. A Russian humanitarian center located in the Serbian city of Niš, which is close to the Kosovo border and opened in 2012, is suspected of being a secret Russian military base “set up by the Kremlin to spy on U.S. interests in the Balkans.” Additionally, Serbia has increased imports of Russian weaponry, while joint military exercises between Russia, Belarus, and Serbia (labeled “Slavic Brotherhood”) have been held annually since 2015.

Russian-backed non-state actors have in turn become increasingly present in Serbia. In 2009, Russian private military and security companies, as well as organizations composed of Russian military veterans, began conducting, in coordination with Serbian counterparts, military youth camps in Zlatibor, Serbia. These were seen as attempts to develop the next generation of fighters and were eventually shut down by the local police in 2018.

Russia’s Night Wolves biker gang, which has played a pivotal role in the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the unrest that has followed in Ukraine since, also opened a Serbian chapter and conducted road trips in the region for years. And in December, a cultural center was opened by the Russian private military company Wagner—which is similarly fighting in Ukraine—in Serbia, “to strengthen and develop friendly relations between Russia and Serbia with the help of ‘soft power.’”

Using these forces to threaten a low-level insurgency in Kosovo would cause enormous alarm in NATO and the EU. But Russia’s efforts to fan the flames of Serbian nationalism will also be directed toward Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country’s Serb-dominated territory, Republika Srpska, accepted power-sharing stipulations as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, and Russian forces similarly withdrew from the country in 2003.

Nonetheless, Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska (who was also the president from 2010-2018), has increasingly allied himself with the Kremlin and has taken greater steps toward declaring his region’s independence from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina over the last decade. Republika Srpska security forces are now well-equipped with Russian weaponry, while Moscow has given subtle approval to supporting and developing Republika Srpska paramilitary groups. A Bosnian-Serb militia group called Serbian Honor is believed to have received training at the humanitarian center in Niš and the Night Wolves have also repeatedly held rallies in the territory.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dodik has expressed his support for Russia, raising alarm over his ability to instigate unrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina with limited Russian state and non-state support. In response, the EU’s peacekeeping mission in the country, EUFOR or Operation Althea, almost doubled its presence from 600 to 1,100 since the invasion in February.

Yet this still pales compared to the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), which has roughly 3,700 troops in a country with a smaller population and less territory than Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is further aided by the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Pushing Republika Srpska’s independence initiative to a point where Russia can officially recognize and support it may in turn rapidly overwhelm the smaller international force there. It would also provoke calls for independence among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethnic Croatian minority, whose leaders have close relations with Moscow.

Disagreements in the Western alliance over the collective approach to the Balkans have been revealed in recent months. While the UK and the U.S. placed sanctions on “various Bosnian politicians who are threatening the country’s territorial integrity,” the EU chose not to, notably due to opposition by Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary. And while Croatia was accepted into the Schengen area in December, Romania, and Bulgaria, already EU members since 2007, were denied entry by Austria, while the Netherlands similarly opposed Bulgaria being part of the Schengen area.

Effectively managing potential violence in the former Yugoslavia while continuing the integration efforts of other Balkan EU/NATO members would prove to be a difficult procedure for the Western alliance. Billions of dollars in aid and assistance have already been provided to Ukraine in 2022. Confronting additional instability in the Balkans would also highlight the flaws of NATO policy in the region since the 1990s and the lack of a viable, long-term solution to confront the issues plaguing the Balkans.

Yet regional integration efforts have picked up in recent months. In July, the EU restarted membership talks of bringing Albania and North Macedonia into the organization, Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially accepted as a candidate on December 15, and Kosovo applied for EU membership on December 14. NATO membership for both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina remains largely on hold, however, and is currently out of the question for Serbia, which considers NATO its “enemy.”

Considerable work will be required to integrate these divided states into the Western alliance, and recent attempts to speed up this process have been largely unsuccessful. The scheme by former President Donald Trump’s administration to change the Serbia-Kosovo border amounted to little, while the proposed Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo has been criticized for outlining the creation of another Republika Srpska.

The role of Russian intelligence and Serbian nationalists in the attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, which sought to derail the country’s NATO accession, reveals the lengths to which Moscow will go to achieve its aims. Western officials must, therefore, remain wary of Russia’s potential in the region. Escalating unresolved Balkan conflicts is now a major part of the Kremlin’s attempts to stall Western integration in Europe and take pressure off its war with Ukraine.

This article was produced by Globetrotter

Putin’s Endgame

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On the night of December 18, 1972, President Richard Nixon sent 129 B-52 bombers roaring over North Vietnam.  The idea was to break Hanoi’s will and force it to sign a peace treaty that would return our POWs and allow the U.S. to get out of the war.

By the time “the Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong ended 50 years ago on Sunday, some 1600 Vietnamese men, women and children had been killed—a number of them in a hospital—but the figure was probably much higher, observers said.  And that wasn’t the whole of it.  For several days before and after the week-long B-52 campaign, “the U.S. Air Force flew 729 night-time sorties over North Vietnam with devastating effect,” the BBC said. 

“It turned out to have been 57 consecutive nights of bombings—57 9/11s, if you will,” the popular historian Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, said in a 2020 interview.  “57 consecutive nights of bombings— How does anybody cope with that?”

Ukrainians, blasted daily by Russian missiles and drones, are finding out.  Like the North Vietnamese, and the British suffering under nightly Nazi German air raids in the early months of 1940, the Ukrainians are discovering depths of courage and resilience they probably didn’t know they had, in no small measure because of their unexpectedly inspiring, defiant leader. Volodymyr Zelensky has been regularly compared to Winston Churchill since he refused to abandon Kyiv under Russian fire last February and stood up to Vladimir Putin.

“Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios, Ukraine did not fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking,” Zelensky said in a rousing speech to Congress Wednesday night. “…Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender.”  Expertly reading the room, the erstwhile comic actor compared his nation’s plight to the American GI’s who bent but did not break under the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge. Indeed, his speech evoked nothing less than Churchill’s peroration to Britain in its darkest hour, that “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The terror bombings of London and Hanoi did not break their wills to win. It’s not breaking Kyiv. The same might be said of Tokyo’s denizens, 330,000 of whom died in conflagrations ignited by napalm jelly bombs dropped by American B-29s during the nights of March 9 and 10, 1944. Another year and a half would pass by, with air raids featuring napalm jelly-bombs on 65 more cities, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a looming invasion of its northern islands by Russia, before Japan surrendered. 

To be sure, the Japanese could be said to have been more mesmerized, rather than inspired by, their emperor’s supposed divinity to hold on. North Vietnam’s police-state leaders regularly invoked the memory of Ho chi Minh to harden the resolve of their people to survive the American bombing and go south to fight. But the point still stands that they did hold on: No emperor or communist dictator could manufacture such sacrifices from an unwilling people. Iran’s mullahs may be coming to that conclusion as well. China may be thinking twice now about an invasion of Taiwan.

Putin’s bombing of Ukraine will not bring him victory. Bogged down in Ukraine’s northeast and south, his conscripted troops facing a highly motivated foe, better and better U.S. and NATO-supplied weaponry, and more and more internal sabotage and subversion, it’s Putin who may end up suing for peace. And that, finally, should bring an end to the myth that air power alone can deliver a victory when ground troops and a navy cannot.

Source: SpyTalk. Click here to read the original

Ukraine- Russia Conflict: A Peace Formula

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The first world war was a kind of cultural suicide that destroyed Europe’s eminence. Europe’s leaders sleepwalked – in the phrase of historian Christopher Clark – into a conflict which none of them would have entered had they foreseen the world at war’s end in 1918. In the previous decades, they had expressed their rivalries by creating two sets of alliances whose strategies had become linked by their respective schedules for mobilisation. As a result, in 1914, the murder of the Austrian Crown Prince in Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serb nationalist was allowed to escalate into a general war that began when Germany executed its all-purpose plan to defeat France by attacking neutral Belgium at the other end of Europe.

The nations of Europe, insufficiently familiar with how technology had enhanced their respective military forces, proceeded to inflict unprecedented devastation on one another. In August 1916, after two years of war and millions in casualties, the principal combatants in the West (Britain, France and Germany) began to explore prospects for ending the carnage. In the East, rivals Austria and Russia had extended comparable feelers. Because no conceivable compromise could justify the sacrifices already incurred and because no one wanted to convey an impression of weakness, the various leaders hesitated to initiate a formal peace process. Hence they sought American mediation. Explorations by Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s personal emissary, revealed that a peace based on the modified status quo ante was within reach. However, Wilson, while willing and eventually eager to undertake mediation, delayed until after the presidential election in November. By then the British Somme offensive and the German Verdun offensive had added another two million casualties.

In the words of the book on the subject by Philip Zelikow, diplomacy became the road less travelled. The Great War went on for two more years and claimed millions more victims, irretrievably damaging Europe’s established equilibrium. Germany and Russia were rent by revolution; the Austro-Hungarian state disappeared from the map. France had been bled white. Britain had sacrificed a significant share of its young generation and of its economic capacities to the requirements of victory. The punitive Treaty of Versailles that ended the war proved far more fragile than the structure it replaced.

Does the world today find itself at a comparable turning point in Ukraine as winter imposes a pause on large-scale military operations there? I have repeatedly expressed my support for the allied military effort to thwart Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But the time is approaching to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation.

Ukraine has become a major state in Central Europe for the first time in modern history. Aided by its allies and inspired by its President, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine has stymied the Russian conventional forces which have been overhanging Europe since the second world war. And the international system – including China – is opposing Russia’s threat or use of its nuclear weapons.

This process has mooted the original issues regarding Ukraine’s membership in Nato. Ukraine has acquired one of the largest and most effective land armies in Europe, equipped by America and its allies. A peace process should link Ukraine to Nato, however expressed. The alternative of neutrality is no longer meaningful, especially after Finland and Sweden joined Nato. This is why, last May, I recommended establishing a ceasefire line along the borders existing where the war started on 24 February. Russia would disgorge its conquests thence, but not the territory it occupied nearly a decade ago, including Crimea. That territory could be the subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire.

If the pre-war dividing line between Ukraine and Russia cannot be achieved by combat or by negotiation, recourse to the principle of self-determination could be explored. Internationally supervised referendums concerning self-determination could be applied to particularly divisive territories which have changed hands repeatedly over the centuries.

The goal of a peace process would be twofold: to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe. Eventually Russia should find a place in such an order.

The preferred outcome for some is a Russia rendered impotent by the war. I disagree. For all its propensity to violence, Russia has made decisive contributions to the global equilibrium and to the balance of power for over half a millennium. Its historical role should not be degraded. Russia’s military setbacks have not eliminated its global nuclear reach, enabling it to threaten escalation in Ukraine. Even if this capability is diminished, the dissolution of Russia or destroying its ability for strategic policy could turn its territory encompassing 11 time zones into a contested vacuum. Its competing societies might decide to settle their disputes by violence. Other countries might seek to expand their claims by force. All these dangers would be compounded by the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons which make Russia one of the world’s two largest nuclear powers.

As the world’s leaders strive to end the war in which two nuclear powers contest a conventionally armed country, they should also reflect on the impact on this conflict and on long-term strategy of incipient high–technology and artificial intelligence. Auto-nomous weapons already exist, capable of defining, assessing and targeting their own perceived threats and thus in a position to start their own war.

Once the line into this realm is crossed and hi-tech becomes standard weaponry – and computers become the principal executors of strategy – the world will find itself in a condition for which as yet it has no established concept. How can leaders exercise control when computers prescribe strategic instructions on a scale and in a manner that inherently limits and threatens human input? How can civilisation be preserved amid such a maelstrom of conflicting information, perceptions and destructive capabilities?

This article originally appeared in The Spectator; click here to read the original version.

Modi ignores West’s sanctions on Russia

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday marks a new stage in the bilateral relationship between the two time-tested friends, both contextually and from a long-term perspective.

The media may find it alluring to link Modi’s call to Ukraine developments despite the Indian and Russian readouts (here and here) making it clear that Russian-Indian bilateral relations dominated the conversation. 

Nonetheless, it is very significant that Modi was not deterred by the fact that although this is not era for wars, the Ukraine conflict in all probability will only escalate, and there is a greater likelihood than ever before that Russia may be compelled to seek a total military victory, as the US is leaving it with no option by doggedly blocking all avenues for a realistic settlement and is furtively climbing the escalation ladder. 

Without doubt, the Biden Administration’s reported decision to deploy Patriot missile in Ukraine is a major escalation. Moscow has warned of “consequences.” Again, Moscow has confirmed that the US planned, masterminded and equipped Ukraine with the military capability to attack deep inside Russian territory — hundreds of kilometres, in fact — including against base at Engels where Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers are stationed. The two superpowers never before targeted each other’s nuclear assets. 

So, there is no question that Modi’s initiative at this point in time to discuss “the high level of bilateral cooperation that has been developing on the basis of the Russian-Indian privileged strategic partnership,” including in key areas of energy, trade and investments, defence & security cooperation, conveys a huge message in itself.

It quietly underscores a medium and long term perspective on the Russian-Indian relationship that goes far beyond the vicissitudes of the Ukraine conflict. Put differently, India will not allow its long-standing ties with Russia to be held hostage to Western sanctions. 

For India, the reorientation of Russian economic diplomacy toward the Asian region presents huge business opportunities. Who would have thought nine months ago that Russia was going to be the largest supplier of oil to India, leapfrogging Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the US? According to Reuters, India purchased about 40% of all export volumes of Russian Urals grade oil transported by sea in November, when European countries accounted for 25%, Turkey 15% and China 5%.

The figures speak for themselves: in November, while Russia supplied 909,000.4 barrels of crude oil to India per day, the corresponding figures were for Iraq (861,000.4), Saudi Arabia (570,000.9), and the US (405,000.5) Suffice it to say that when Modi upfront listed energy as his talking point with Putin, it reconfirms that India is giving a wide berth to the G7’s hare-brained scheme to impose a price cap on Russian oil exports. 

But all good things have a flip side to it. As the volume of India-Russia trade shoots up — with Russia emerging as India’s seventh largest trading partner, rising from 25th place — the imbalance in the bilateral trade is also widening, as Moscow prioritises India (and China) as preferred trading partners. 

EAM Jaishankar’s recent Moscow visit focused on a list of 500 items that Russia would be keen to source from India. Importantly, this is also about a supply chain for Russian industry / economy. Jaishankar reportedly gave an interim reply of India’s readiness to start supplying spare parts necessary for airplanes, cars and trains.

Some Russian experts have talked about India as a potentially significant “trans-shipment” state for Russia’s “parallel imports” — that is, Russia can buy not only Indian goods from India but also products from third countries.

Meanwhile, turning away from the European market, Russia also seeks business opportunities for its export basket that includes mineral products, precious metals and products made from them, aluminium and other non-ferrous metals, electric machines, vehicles, pharmaceutical, chemical, rubber products, etc. 

Clearly, there are systemic issues to be addressed such as transportation logistics; payment mechanism, collateral sanctions. However, for the near term, all eyes are on the Russian oil exports to India in the time of the G7 price cap. 

The Russian government daily Rossyiskaya Gazeta reported on Tuesday, “It is expected that Russia, in response to the price ceiling, will adopt an official ban on selling oil under contracts where the “ceiling” will be mentioned or the marginal price for our oil will be indicated.” That is, Moscow will insist on an embargo on supplies basically restricted to the G7 and Australia. 

China and India are  not affected, as they haven’t joined the price cap. The following excerpts from the Moscow daily outlines the state of play:

“There are no real mechanisms that could enforce these [G7] restrictions… already, about a third of Russian oil exports leave Russian ports without indicating the final destination. That is, a so-called “grey trade zone” is growing before our eyes, which allows traders to purchase Russian raw materials without the risk of falling under secondary sanctions… discount [ie., fair prices] allows the Asia-Pacific countries, primarily China and India, to increase purchases of Russian raw materials.” 

The fascinating part is that not only is the so-called “grey zone” expanding steadily but alongside, other suppliers have begun to adjust to the prices of Russian oil in the Asia-Pacific region — that is, to the real equilibrium prices or discounted prices. Curiously, even Western countries are in a position to receive relatively inexpensive Russian oil through third parties.

The bottom line is that the Biden administration’s goal was not to limit the volume of Russian oil exports but focused on the revenues of the Russian budget from oil production and the world oil market. Rissyiskaya Gazeta concludes: “In fact, so far what is happening does not contradict either our aspirations or the desires of the United States.” [See my article Race for Russian oil begins, The Tribune, Nov. 28, 2022]

This new-found pragmatism in the US calculus about the limits to sanctions took a curious turn in Thursday when the US blacklisted the Russian billionaire-oligarch Vladimir Potanin but exempted two of his biggest assets from the purview of sanctions — MMC Norilsk Nickel and Tinkoff Bank — on the specious ground that his holdings are less than 50% in these two companies [but are only 35%!]   

Why so? Because, MMC’s share in the world market of high-grade nickel is 17%, palladium 38%, platinum 10%, rhodium 7%, copper and cobalt 2% each; and, sanctioning the Russian company could sharply aggravate the world market for non-ferrous metals and can hurt US manufacturers. 

Clearly, the law of diminishing returns is at work in the continued weaponisation of sanctions against Russia. Indian business and industry should pay close attention to Modi’s far-sighted initiative on Friday.

US internationalises Iran’s unrest

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5 mins read

The ongoing unrest in Iran since mid-September following the death of a Kurdish woman in police custody shows no signs of abating as of now. The unrest has drawn support from all social strata and assumed anti-government overtones. The efficacy of suppressing the unrest is doubtful. Iran is entering a period of turmoil. 

Indeed, the government faces no imminent threat but seems cognisant of the imperative need to address the hijab policy to pacify the protestors. As the protests continue, many women are walking on the streets of cities across Iran, especially in Tehran, without head coverings.

There is a long history of Western countries fuelling public unrest in Iran. Regime change agenda must be there in the western calculus but,  curiously, Washington is also signalling interest in reaching an accommodation with Tehran under certain conditions relating to the regime’s foreign and security policies in the present international milieu. 

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian stated explicitly on Monday that the US and a number of other Western countries have incited riots, because “one of the US’ objectives was to force Iran to make big concessions at the negotiating table” for the revival of the JCPOA. Amirabdollahian’s remark followed some megaphone diplomacy by Rob Malley, the US special envoy on Iran last weekend.

Speaking in Rome, Malley connected the dots and outlined the linkages in the matrix. He said: “The more Iran represses, the more there will be sanctions; the more there are sanctions, the more Iran feels isolated. The more isolated they feel [isolated], the more they turn to Russia; the more they turn to Russia, the more sanctions there will be, the more the climate deteriorates, the less likely there will be nuclear diplomacy. So it is true right now the vicious cycles are all self-reinforcing. The repression of the protests and Iran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine is where our focus is because that is where things are happening, and where we want to make a difference.”

In effect, Malley admitted that the Biden Administration is a stakeholder in the ongoing protests in Iran. Importantly, he also hinted that although Iran has taken a series of fateful decisions that make a full revival of the nuclear deal and a lifting of some economic sanctions a political impossibility for now, the door to diplomacy is not shut if only Iran’s leadership changed course on relations with Russia. 

In further remarks to Bloomberg on Saturday, Malley said that “Right now we can make a difference in trying to deter and disrupt the provision of weapons to Russia and trying to support the fundamental aspirations of the Iranian people.” 

As he put it, Washington now aims to “disrupt, delay, deter and sanction” Iran’s weapon deliveries to Russia, and any supplies of missiles or assistance in the construction of military production facilities in Russia “would be crossing new lines.” 

In sum, Malley has linked the US approach toward Iran’s protests with Tehran’s foreign and security policies in regard of Russia and its war in Ukraine. 

The first signs that the US intelligence was focusing on Iran-Russia military ties — in tandem with its Israeli counterpart, of course —appeared in late July, when the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made an allegation during a media briefing at the White House that Iran wanted to sell weapons-capable unmanned aerial vehicles to Moscow. 

Sullivan claimed that Iran was already training Russian personnel in using the drones. Within the week, Sullivan doubled down on that allegation. 

The timing of Sullivan’s disclosure must be noted carefully — coinciding with a visit to Tehran by Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 19. Putin’s talks with the Iranian leadership messaged a strategic polarisation under way between Moscow and Tehran with far-reaching consequences for regional and international politics. 

Putin’s discussions ranged from the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to the legality of Western-led sanctions regimes, de-dollarisation, geopolitics of energy, the International North-South Transport Corridor, defence cooperation and so on, anchored on the congruent interests of the two countries on a number of important strategic and normative issues. 

Following up Putin’s discussions, Iran’s armed forces Chief of Staff, General Mohammad Bagheri travelled to Moscow in mid-October. Gen. Bagheri met Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, which signalled that the military relations between the two countries was acquiring an irreversible momentum

A fortnight after Gen. Bagheri’s visit, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev came to Tehran to discuss “various issues of Russian-Iranian cooperation in the field of security, as well as a number of international problems,” according to Interfax news agency. 

Russian state media said Patrushev discussed the situation in Ukraine and measures to combat “Western interference” in both countries’ internal affairs with his Iranian security counterpart Ali Shamkhani. Patrushev also met with Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi. 

Meanwhile, Washington senses that there is disharmony within the Iranian establishment on how to handle the protests, and, in turn, this is sharpening the internal Iranian debate about the wisdom of growing alliance with Russia vis-a-vis re-engaging with the West in a fresh attempt to revive the nuclear deal. 

Clearly, Malley’s remarks hinted that amidst the US’ support for protests in Iran, it still remains open to doing business with Tehran if the latter rolls back its deepening strategic partnership with Moscow and refrains from any involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. 

In fact, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi (who holds Washington’s brief) also chipped in with a remark on Monday that the UN watchdog has no evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon programme, implying that the resumption of negotiations in Vienna faces no “systemic” block. 

That said, Tehran’s cooperation with Moscow on foreign and security policy policies is of long-term consequence to Iran and there is no question of the Iranian leadership putting all its eggs in the American basket. For Russia, too, the partnership with Iran is of strategic importance in the conditions of multipolarity. 

Significantly, Iranian media has reported that Iran’s nuclear negotiator and deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani visited Moscow last weekend and met his Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov in Moscow to “discuss the prospects of full-scale implementation” of the JCPOA (2015 nuclear deal) “in order to strengthen the approach of multilateralism and confront unilateralism and adhere to the principles contained in the United Nations Charter” as well as the two countries’ “efforts to prevent instrumental political abuse and selective treatment of human rights issues by Western powers.” 

The official news agency IRNA later reported from Tehran quoting Bagheri Kani that the two sides “reviewed bilateral relations over the past months and created frameworks and mechanisms in agreement with each other for developing relations.” He mentioned Syria, South Caucasus and Afghanistan as areas of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. 

Most certainly, the latest round of Iran-Russia consultations was noted in Washington. On Saturday, the Director of National Intelligence in the Biden Administration Avril Haines held out a veiled threat that while Iranian leaders may not see the protests as a threat now, they could face more unrest because of high inflation and economic uncertainty. She said, “We see some kind of controversies even within them about exactly how to respond — within the government.”

On the other hand, Bagheri Kani’s consultations in Moscow would have taken into account the large-scale US-Israeli air exercises last Tuesday simulating strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. The Israeli military said in a statement that joint flights of four Israeli F-35i Adir stealth fighter jets that accompanied four US F-15 fighter jets through Israel’s skies simulated “an operational scenario and long-distance flights.”

The statement added, “These exercises are a key component of the two militaries’ increasing strategic cooperation in response to shared concerns in the Middle East, particularly those posed by Iran.” 

The US-Israeli exercises underscores the criticality in the situation surrounding Iran. Tehran’s shift to enrichment at 60% causes disquiet in Washington. But a military strike on Iran is fraught with unpredictable consequences not only for West Asian region but also the global oil market, which is facing uncertainties due to the US attempt to put a price cap on Russian oil. 

The bottom line is that the protests in Iran are assuming the proportions of a casus belli. The US has internationalised Iran’s internal upheaval. 

Sanctions Batter Russia as the Kremlin Attempts to Overcome Them

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Immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the U.S., the UK, and the EU placed major sanctions on Russia to constrict its economy and restrain its war effort. Having been updated several times since, these sanctions have compounded the effects of the previous sanctions placed on Russia in 2014 after it annexed Crimea.

The Russian “economy contracted for the second quarter in a row,” according to a November 16 article in the Financial Times, which attributed this downturn to the Western sanctions. Undermining the sanctions through a variety of methods, including cooperating with other countries with sanctions evasion experience, has become an even greater priority for the Kremlin.

Russia has decades of history in helping other countries evade sanctions. In recent years, Russia has exported oil to North Korea and employed its laborers in Siberia in violation of international sanctions, while Russian entities have also been sanctioned for aiding North Korea’s weapons programs.

The Kremlin is now calling in its own favors. Weeks after North Korea and Russia pledged “to strengthen ties” in August 2022, North Korea is believed to have supplied Russia with millions of rockets and artillery shells, undermining Western attempts to isolate the Russian military-industrial complex.

Using North Korean laborers to help rebuild Donetsk and Luhansk—Russian-supported eastern Ukraine breakaway republics—has also been proposed. Additionally, Moscow has recently shown greater enthusiasm toward cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions, and may also look to emulate North Korea by mining bitcoin to increase its access to fiat currencies and facilitate underground trade.

Iran has faced heavy Western sanctions since 1979, aimed at restricting its economy and curbing its weapons programs. In November, Iran was suspected of asking Russia for aid with nuclear energy materials, which could significantly shorten the “breakout time” needed to create a nuclear weapon.

Russia will likely acquiesce, having received significant drone and missile shipments from Iran since September. With the “price cap on Russian seaborne oil” coming into effect from December 5 (and the ban on most petroleum products expected to take place by February 5, 2023), Iran’s assistance in evading oil sanctions will be greatly appreciated in Moscow.

Iranian oil exports, for example, plummeted by 90 percent following the reintroduction of sanctions after former President Donald Trump’s administration pulled out from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2018. However, a mix of tactics has allowed Iranian oil exports to rebound in the years since.

These included sanctioned ship-to-unsanctioned ship transfers, changing ship names and other identification markers to disguise Iranian oil tankers, turning off Automatic Identification Systems to make sanctioned ships completely vanish off the radar, and blending Iranian oil with bulk cargoes from other countries to disguise its origin.

Oil giant Shell faced criticism in April for undermining sanctions by purchasing “Latvian blend” oil, almost half of which (49 percent) originated from Russia. The UK has also received hundreds of millions of dollars of Russian oil since its invasion of Ukraine, even as some of this oil “was registered as imports from Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.”

Russian and Iranian officials have also discussed using Iran as a “backdoor” to allow Russian oil products to enter global markets, which will become easier should a renewed nuclear deal between Iran and Western states go through.

Russian entities have similarly shown effectiveness in getting sanctioned Venezuelan oil to global markets in recent years. After Russian oil giant Rosneft was sanctioned in 2020 for doing so, the Kremlin quickly created a new oil company, Roszarubezhneft, to continue operations after Rosneft left Venezuela.

With Russian assistance, Venezuela’s oil exports doubled from December 2020 to December 2021, finding many other facilitators and buyers in the global market. In 2021, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned several European oil traders who were working with a Mexican network that was shipping Venezuelan oil to companies in China, Indonesia, and other countries in Southeast Asia.

Creating shell companies has also historically blunted the effectiveness of sanctions. Syrian officials have created countless shell companies to blur ownership of economic assets in recent years, and Iranian clearing houses and foreign-registered front companies have conducted tens of billions of dollars in sanctions-evading trade annually, according to Politico.

Western banks, like Germany’s Commerzbank AG and Deutsche Bank AG, and the U.S.’ Citigroup, often unknowingly, helped Iran conduct underground export transactions and may face Russian attempts to use these banks to facilitate similar transactions—“either wittingly or unwittingly.” Russian oligarchs also have plenty of connections to Western financial actors and the ability to expand their economic empires in other countries.

Nonetheless, the ambitious Russian oil price cap that has been introduced on December 5 has worried some in Moscow as “About 95 percent of the world’s tanker liability coverage is arranged through a City of London-based insurance organization called the International Group of Protection and Indemnity Clubs.” Russia will struggle to export large volumes of oil without the insurance coverage required to secure its transport options, and Western officials hope Moscow will accept shipping oil at a reduced price rather than find other alternatives.

Lifelines, however, exist for the Kremlin. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated in June 2022 that the Russian government would “replace commercial insurance and reinsurance cover of oil exports by sea and the vessels that carry them in a bid to counter the European Union ban on companies providing services.” This would be similar to the measures the Japanese government took in 2012 when it provided “a sovereign guarantee of up to $7.6 billion in liability for a tanker carrying Iranian oil” to maintain trade with the country.

Additionally, “There are probably insurers in Russia capable of writing third party liability and reinsurance programs that could then be backed by a sovereign fund from China or Russia,” according to Mike Salthouse, chairman of the International Group’s sanctions subcommittee.

Indian companies also agreed to certify Russian tankers in June, raising suggestions of “a non-Western fleet with sovereign Russian or Chinese insurance and financing, and Indian certifications for the vessels.” Shipping companies and maritime services based in India, China, and the Arabian Gulf would be essential for Russia to successfully achieve this.

Russia is also using former Soviet states to bypass sanctions. In May, Ukraine accused Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan of helping Russia reexport its products to international markets after more than 200 companies were established and tens of thousands of Russians settled in these countries in the months after the February invasion.

Smuggling routes through Central Asia have historically facilitated the northern drug trade route to Europe. But these routes have also allowed Central Asian states to emerge as integral entry points for Western technology sought by Russia in recent months, including microcircuits and semiconductors.

Five Russian nationals were charged with sanctions evasion in October for shipping military technologies, including semiconductors, radars, satellites, and other equipment, from U.S. manufacturers to Russia. Tens of millions of dollars were spent to supply U.S.-origin technologies for use in Russian fighter aircraft, missile systems, smart munitions, and other systems. The deals were facilitated through a mix of real and fake companies and falsified documents, while cryptocurrencies were used for the transactions and to launder the proceeds afterward.

Three Latvian and Ukrainian nationals were also charged in October for attempting to ship U.S. technology for use in Russia’s nuclear and defense industries, in violation of U.S. export controls. Though unsuccessful, the brazenness of Russian networks attempting to penetrate the U.S. points to greater success in other countries with higher bribery rates and laxer inspection policies.

Isolating Russia will also require the assistance of other major economic centers. But China has received resources from IranVenezuela, and North Korea in recent years in violation of U.S. sanctions, and is already pursuing the same policies with Russia. Small refiners in China are able to ignore the risk of U.S. penalties since they are “hard to reach with sanctions,” according to Anders Corr, founder of Corr Analytics.

In July, India set up a framework to conduct international trade in rupees. Vostro accounts required to facilitate this trade have been opened by Russia’s Gazprombank (with India’s UCO Bank), VTB Bank, and Sberbank, with six more Russian banks in talks to do so. A major gas pipeline deal with Pakistan, an agreement to use local currencies in trade with Egypt, and increased energy exports to Brazil in recent months have further demonstrated Russia’s attempts to diversify its economic options.

Beijing will also look to use Russia’s isolation to increase Eurasian trade through its Belt and Road Initiative, as well as use other economic mechanisms to undermine traditional U.S. dominance. After Russian banks were blacklisted from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) payment-verification system, China and Russia have taken greater steps to develop their own alternatives.

This includes Russia’s System for Transfer of Financial Messages (SPFS) and the National Payment Card System (now known as Mir), as well as China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) and UnionPay.

Russia’s economy will continue to face significant hurdles, particularly with the imposition of the oil price cap. While U.S. officials have stated that the aim of sanctions is to change Moscow’s behavior, Russia and other countries may double down on developing rival official trade mechanisms to the West and expanding a globalized black market with other rogue states.

What to expect in Russia’s winter offensive in Ukraine

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Wading through the 18,000-word transcript of an hours-long meeting that President Vladimir Putin took with the “soldiers’ mothers” last Friday in Moscow, one gets the impression that the fighting in Ukraine may continue well into 2023 — and even beyond. 

In a most revealing remark, Putin acknowledged that Moscow blundered in 2014 by leaving Donbass an unfinished business — unlike Crimea — by allowing itself to be lured into the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France and the Minsk agreements. 

Moscow took some time to realise that Germany and France connived with then leadership in Kiev to scuttle the implementation of Minsk accord. Then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko admitted in a series of interviews with western news outlets in recent months, including on Germany’s Deutsche Welle television and Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian unit, that the 2015 ceasefire was  a distraction intended to buy time for Kiev to rebuild its military. 

In his words, “We had achieved everything we wanted, our goal was to, first, stop the [Russian] threat, or at least to delay the war –- to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces.”  

The so-called Steinmeier Formula (proposed by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier back in 2016 when he was foreign minister) on the sequencing of the Minsk agreement, had called for elections to be held in the separatist-held Donbass territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE; and, if the OSCE judged  the balloting to be free and fair, then a special self-governing status for the Donbass territories would be initiated and Ukraine’s control of its easternmost border with Russia restored.   

Putin admitted that Russia accepted the Minsk agreements ignoring the wishes of the Russian population in Donbass. To quote him, “We sincerely went to this. But we didn’t fully feel the mood of the people, it was impossible to fully understand what was going on there. But now it has probably become obvious that this reunion [of Donbass] should have happened earlier. Maybe there wouldn’t have been so many losses among civilians, there wouldn’t have been so many dead children under shelling…” 

For the first time, perhaps, an incumbent Kremlin leader admitted making mistakes. The above poignant passage, therefore,  becomes a touchstone for Putin’s future decisions, as the Russian mobilisation approaches the final stage and by end-December, an estimated 4 lakh additional Russian troops will have been deployed in forward positions. 

The bottom line is that Putin slammed the door shut on another Minsk-like hodgepodge of modern furniture and antiques. How does this translate as political reality? 

First and foremost, much as Moscow is open for dialogue without preconditions, Russian negotiators will be bound by the recent amendments to the country’s Constitution, which incorporated Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhye regions as part of the Russian Federation. 

Second, Friday’s meeting has been, by any reckoning, an audacious initiative by Putin — risky, politically speaking. His interlocutors included mothers drawn from far-flung regions, whose sons are either actively fighting on the warfront, or have experienced the tragedy of sons having been killed in the fighting, or seriously wounded and need prolonged rehabilitation. 

They were strong-willed women, for sure, and yet, as one of them from the small town of Kirovsk in Luhansk told Putin while recalling the death of her son Konstantin Pshenichkin on the frontline, “My heart bleeds, my soul freezes, gloomy memories cloud my mind, tears, tears, and suddenly my son asks me: “Mom, don’t be sad, I’ll see you – you just have to wait. You will go through this life for me, and in that life, we will be together again.”

Putin claimed openly — highly unusual for a Kremlin leader — that he went prepared for the meeting. But he still had surprises in store. Such meetings are impossible to be choreographed as pent-up emotions are in play in front of TV cameras. 

Thus, Marina Bakhilina from Sakha Republic,mother of three sons (one of whom is a highly decorated soldier from the elite Airborne Forces, 83rd Brigade and recipient of the Order of Courage) complained that there’s no hot food on the frontline. She told Putin: “Do you understand what’s going on? If our people can’t provide our soldiers with hot meals, I, as a master of sports and a shooting CMC, would love to go there, to the front line to cook.” 

Putin replied gently, “It would seem that the issues have already been mostly resolved… it means that not everything is normal…” 

What stands out in such frank exchanges is Putin’s massive political capital, derived out of the great consolidation he has mustered in getting the nation to rally behind him. The overall mood at the meeting was one of commitment to Russia’s cause and the confidence in ultimate victory. Of course, this strengthens Putin’s hands.

This is where the analogy of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis comes unstuck. Public opinion wasn’t a key factor 60 years ago. In a nutshell,  common sense prevailed in 1962 as realisation dawned that any failure to take into account the rival power’s security interests could have an apocalyptic outcome. 

The difference today is that while President Joe Biden has insulated  himself and is not accountable for his dogged pursuit of a Russian defeat on the battlefield in Ukraine and an ensuing “regime change” in Moscow, Putin insists on holding himself accountable to his people. Will any western “liberal” politician in power dare emulate Putin’s extraordinary meeting with the “soldiers’ mothers”? 

If economic hardships lead to social unrest and political turmoil in western Europe, the politicians in power will be at a disadvantage. Putin is fighting a “People’s War,” while western politicians cannot even admit that they are fighting Russia. But how long can it be hidden from the public view in Poland or France that their nationals are getting killed in Ukraine’s steppe? Can the western politicians pledge that their “volunteers” didn’t die in vain? What happens if a refugee flow out of Ukraine into western Europe begins as winter advances? 

In military terms, Russia enjoys escalation dominance — a markedly superior position over its NATO rival, across a range of rungs as the conflict progresses. The accelerating Russian operation in Bakhmut is a case in point. The deployment of regular troops in the recent days shows that Russia is on the escalation ladder to wrap up the 4-month old “grind” in Bakhmut city in Donetsk, which military analysts often describe as a lynchpin of Kiev’s defence in the eastern Donbass region. 

New York Times report on Sunday highlighted the enormous scale of losses Ukrainian forces suffered in recent weeks. Evidently, the Wagner Group of Russian military contractors who were doing the fighting pinned down the Ukrainian forces in defensive position, estimated in the region of 30000 troops including crack units “that have been worn down by nonstop Russian assaults.” 

The Times report admits, citing a US defence official, that the Russian intention could have been to make Bakhmut city “a resource-intensive black hole for Kyiv.” This paradigm will repeat elsewhere, too, except that the Russian forces will be much stronger, far superior in numbers and vastly better equipped and will be fighting from heavily fortified positions. 

Putin made it clear at Friday’s meeting that vanquishing the neo-Nazi Banderites will remain a firm objective. Although regime change in Kiev is not a stated purpose, Putin will not settle for a repetition of the ceasefire and peace as in 2015, which left an anti-Russian, proxy regime of the US in power.  

That said, Putin underscored that “despite all the issues related to the special military operation, we do not change our plans for the development of the state, for the development of the country, for the development of the economy, its social sphere, for national projects. We have huge, big plans…” 

Taken together, all these elements define Russia’s so-called winter offensive. Putin’s hand-picked theatre commander in Ukraine General Sergei Surovikin is not in the mould of Patton or MacArthur. Basically, he holds the compass of the special military operations, while incorporating the experience accruing through the past 8 months of NATO involvement in the fighting. But never once did Putin use the expression “war” to characterise the conflict. 

Who’s afraid of US troops in Ukraine?

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Very innocuously, the Biden Administration has ‘sensitised’ the world opinion that American troops are indeed present on Ukrainian soil in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. Washington made a “soft landing” with an unnamed senior Pentagon official making the disclosure to the Associated Press and the Washington Post. 

The official gave an ingenious explanation that the US troops “have recently begun doing onsite inspections to ensure” that Ukraine is “properly accounting” for the Western weapons it received. He claimed that this was part of a broader US campaign, announced last week by the State Department, “meant to make sure that weapons provided to Ukraine don’t end up in the hands of Russian troops, their proxies or other extremist groups.” 

In effect, though, President Biden is eating his own word not to have ‘boots on the ground’ in Ukraine under any circumstances.  There is always the real danger that the clutch of Americans on tour in Ukraine may come under fire from the Russian forces. In fact, the US deployment comes against the backdrop of intense Russian missile and drone attacks currently on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. 

Plainly put, wittingly or unwittingly, the US is going up the escalation ladder. So far, the US intervention involved deployment of military advisors to the Ukrainian military command, supply of intelligence in real time, planning and execution of operations against Russian forces and allowing American mercenaries to do the fighting, apart from steady supply of tens of billions of dollars worth weaponry. 

The qualitative difference now is that the proxy war may turn into a hot war between the NATO and Russia. The Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu said today at a joint board meeting of the Russian and Belarusian defence ministries that the number of NATO forces in Eastern and Central Europe had risen by two and a half times since February and might increase further in the near future.

Shoigu underscored that Moscow understands fully well that the West is pursuing a concerted strategy to destroy Russia’s economy and military potential, making it impossible for the country to pursue an independent foreign policy. 

He flagged that NATO’s new strategic concept suggested moving from containing Russia “through forward presence” to creating “a full-scale system of collective defence on the eastern flank,” with the bloc’s non-regional members deploying troops to the Baltic countries, Eastern and Central Europe, and new multinational battalion tactical groups being formed in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. 

It may not be a coincidence that Washington acknowledged the presence of its military personnel in Ukraine at a point when the Russians have alleged the participation of British intelligence in the recent sabotage act on the Nord Stream pipelines and the drone strikes on Saturday at the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

There are grey areas, historically speaking, in the so-called “special relationship” between the US and the UK. The chronicle of that relationship is replete with instances of the tail wagging the dog at critical moments. The point is, interestingly enough, on the attack on Sevastopol, Moscow is pointing the finger more at the MI6 operatives than at Kiev. (here and here)

The US-UK calculus was originally to get the Russians bogged down in a quagmire in Ukraine and to incite an insurrection within Russia opposing ‘Putin’s war.’ But it failed. The US sees that over 300,000 trained ex-military personnel from Russia are being deployed to Ukraine for launching a major offensive to end the war in the coming 3-4 months. 

That is to say, the roof is coming down on the entire edifice of lies and deceptive propaganda that formed the western narrative on Ukraine. The defeat in Ukraine could have disastrous consequences for the US’ image and credibility as a superpower not only in Europe but on the global stage, undermine its leadership of the transatlantic  alliance and even disable NATO. 

Curiously, however, it cannot be lost on Washington that even at this juncture, Moscow is nudging Kiev to resume the negotiation process. In fact, in a significant development on Tuesday, Ukraine gave written guarantees to the joint coordination centre in Istanbul (comprising Turkey, Russia and the UN) that the humanitarian corridor and Ukrainian ports designated for the export of agricultural products for military operations will not be used henceforth against the Russian Federation. Kiev assured that “the maritime humanitarian corridor will be used only in accordance with the provisions of the Black Sea Initiative and the related JCC regulation.”

In retrospect, the Biden Administration made a terrible mistake in its estimation that the war would lead to a regime change in Russia following a collapse of the Russian economy under the weight of western sanctions. On the contrary, even the IMF admits that the Russian economy has stabilised. 

The Russian economy is expected to register growth by next year. The comparison with the western economies that are sinking into high inflation and recession is far too glaring to be missed by the world audience. 

Suffice to say, the US and its allies have run out of sanctions to hit Russia. The Russian leadership, on the other hand, is consolidating by pushing ahead with the shift to a multipolar world order challenging the US’ century-old global dominance.

Fundamentally, it is the capitalist system itself which is responsible for this crisis. We are currently suffering under the effect of the longest and deepest crisis the system has known since the redivision of the world that took place in World War II. The imperialist powers are once again preparing for war to redivide the world in the hopes of getting out of their crisis, much as they prepared prior to World War II. 

The big question is what Russia’s response is going to be. It is all but certain that Moscow hasn’t been caught by surprise at the revelation in Washington regarding the presence of US troops in Ukraine. It is highly unlikely that Russia will resort to knee-jerk reaction. 

The so-called ‘counter-offensive’ by Ukraine has fizzled out. It made no territorial gains or any significant breakthrough. But the Ukrainian military suffered heavy casualties in the thousands and huge losses in military  equipment. Russia has gained the upper hand and it is conscious of that. All along the frontline, it is becoming evident that the Russian forces are steadily seizing the initiative.  

Neither the US nor its NATO allies are in a position to fight a continental war. Therefore, it will be entirely up to the American troops moving around in the steppes of Ukraine auditing the US-made weaponry to stay out of trouble and keep their body and soul together. Who knows, the Pentagon may even decide to work out a ‘deconfliction’ mechanism with Moscow, as in Syria!  

That said, seriously, from the Russian perspective, the auditing of US weaponry on Ukrainian soil per se may not be a bad thing. There is real danger that the weapons supplied by the US may reach Europe and turn that beautiful manicured garden into a jungle (like Ukraine or America) — to borrow the stunning metaphor used by Josep Borrell, EU’s foreign policy chief, recently.  

Ukraine: Zelensky’s Politics of Contrast

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According to a New York Times report of March 1985, former president Ronald Reagan had this to say about the infamous Nicaraguan Contras (guerrillas) who were opposing the Sandinista Communists in that Central American country:

“Speaking about Nicaragua, Mr. Reagan called the rebel forces “our brothers” and ”freedom fighters.And we owe them our help,” he said. ‘You know the truth about them, you know who they’re fighting and why. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance.”We cannot turn away from them,” he said. ”For the struggle here is not right versus left, but right versus wrong…In making his speech today, against the backdrop of a campaign for renewed Congressional financing for the rebels, the President also sought to provide assurances against United States military involvement in the region.

Fast forward to a report in Associated Press in April 2022:

“President Joe Biden pledged an additional $1.3 billion Thursday for new weapons and economic assistance to help Ukraine in its strong but increasingly difficult battle against the Russian invasion, and he promised to seek much more from Congress to keep the guns, ammunition and cash flowing.The latest military aid, Biden said, will be sent “directly to the front lines of freedom“…Sometimes we will speak softly and carry a large Javelin, because we’re sending a lot of those, Biden said, paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt and referring to an anti-tank missile system.”

Biden has referred to sanctions as a new form of Statecraft. No, it’s just robbing nations of their money.

Same Old Song and Dance

I’ve been thinking to myself, where have I seen the current Russia-Ukraine war verbiage/template before with the same presidential speeches, the insidious censorship? Hey! It is the return of the pro-Contras format, except the Ukrainians are a million miles away and they have flags with the colors of the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams.

The Washington Post and the New York Times—and the former military talking heads on NBC, CBS and CNN portray Zelensky as pure of heart, courageous, and leading the charge on the Donbass frontlines. And according to General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, saving the Western way of life is at stake, or at least Europe’s, and on Zelensky’s broad shoulders this task must fall (until he has to exercise the US promised Golden Parachute on his exit).

“What’s at stake is the security of Europe,” Milley said, adding that Russia’s invasion “is the greatest challenge to the security of Europe since the end of World War II…And indeed, you can easily make the case that what’s at stake is the global international security order that was put in place in 1945,” reported Business Insider in April 2022.

“Milley said the post-war world order has prevented great power war, and underlining that entire concept is the idea that large nations will not conduct military aggression against smaller nations, and that’s exactly what’s happened here, an unprovoked military aggression by Russia against a smaller nation.”

General Milley, what about Vietnam, Panama and Grenada? I mean, you are a Princeton graduate.

So, how did that Nicaragua thing work out? A CIA led war in and out of that country, plus a nifty CIA campaign to sell drugs in the USA to make money to buy weapons and supporting material for the Contras;  the Iran Contra Scandal out of which came the sentences placed on US officials Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter, and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger (they all were pardoned by Reagan’s successor, former president George H.W. Bush).

According to the Harvard Crimson reporting in March 1986;

“…it is clear now that the Contras are entirely a creation of U.S. foreign policy–dependent on their paymaster for their limited ability to inflict malicious harm on the Nicaraguan people.There should also be little surprise at the Contras’ brutal methods. Reports from Nicaraguans who have left the rebel organization indicate that 46 of 48 Contra field commanders are former members of late dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard. And, as if their experience in oppression were not enough, CIA advisers supplied the exiles with a training manual which encourages political assassination and details methods of torture.”

Ditto for the Ukrainians too!

Gary Webb, RIP

Gary Webb of the Mercury News wrote a series called Dark Alliance which exposed alleged CIA involvement in supporting drug running in the USA which was then used to funnel cash proceeds to the Contras. Webb was pilloried by the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times and was basically “canceled” his career ended when he resigned from the Mercury News.

Think of it. US officials were pardoned (see above) for their roles in the Iran Contra scandal and Gary Webb’s journalism career was tanked in what was a USGOV-MSM setup to discredit him. Controversy still remains over Dark Alliance but it shows how powerful the USGOV-MSM is when it decides to eliminate a journalist who causes trouble. Who is going to be the next Gary Webb?

With the current mainstream media blackout over any criticism of Ukraine—which is the direct result of an effective US military information support operation (MISO) deployed to shape global environments/opinions— no notable MSM reports on Ukraine black market weapons sales, Ukraine using lunatic World War 1-style infantry attacks, crushing opposition parties, censoring criticism and media, attacks on Kherson repeatedly repulsed by the Russians, etc. All we get is MSM visiting the front lines with the 101st Airborne in Romania which is ready to fight yesterday!

It is probably one of the better US government propaganda efforts; well, then again, there are so many US campaigns to choose from. But they all have the same set of lies that support them, always with the words freedom, from the Contras to the Ukrainians. But here is the reality:

“Even before the war erupted, there were ugly examples of authoritarianism in Ukraine’s political governance. Just months after the 2014 Maidan revolution, there were efforts to smother domestic critics, which accelerated as years passed. Ukrainian officials also harassed political dissidents, adopted censorship measures, and barred foreign journalists whom they regarded as critics of the Ukrainian government and its policies. Such offensive actions were criticized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other independent observers. The neo‐​Nazi Azov Battalion was an integral part of President Petro Poroshenko’s military and security apparatus, and it has retained that role during Zelensky’s presidency.

Indeed, some repressive measures deepened under Zelensky even before the outbreak of war with Russia. In February 2021, the Ukrainian government closed several (mostly, but not entirely pro‐​Russia) independent media outlets. They did so on the basis of utterly vague, open‐​ended standards. Zelensky has now used the war as a justification for outlawing 11 opposition parties and nationalizing several media outlets. Those are hardly appropriate measures in a democracy, even in wartime,” according to a report in the American Conservative Magazine in October 2022.

West Seeks to Expunge a Civilization

And why the longing to expunge Russia from the face of the earth? Why the hiding behind “I am a minority and my ancestor was killed by the Soviets? Is every Russian guilty of the past? I mean, give me a break. When Russia’s mobilization officials started to call up the wrong citizens and botched up the first steps of the process, it was the Russian people and the media that protested. The president of Russia Valdimir Putin owned up to the error and it was fixed.

I just can’t figure out the basis for the hatred of Russia unless it is that US political and military leaders are so incompetent they don’t know how to deal with an emerging multipolar world.

I was in Russia in 2014 roaming around by myself from Moscow to Crimea and I saw nothing that would threaten me except running out of US dollars, which I did, as US sanctions took effect in the summer of 2014. I could not use my credit card either due to the sanctions. I was in a fix so a history professor that was showing me around Crimea—who worked for the tour company that booked all my flights and hotels—lent me $100 on behalf of the company on a handshake with a promise I would send cash when I returned to Virginia. I did that one day after I got back. Anywhere I went I was usually asked where I was from. I’d say the United States of America. No one attacked me. I was treated with respect and a helping hand wherever I went.

Perhaps the most interesting place to visit was a former Soviet-era nuclear submarine pen in Crimea. It was turned into a tourist attraction. Talk about capitalism!

According to Vladimir Putin who spoke for hours at the recent Valdai Club (can any US politician do that plus Q&A, or can any US citizen listen for hours), the West has gone crazy, indeed:

The very liberal ideology today has changed beyond recognition. If initially classical liberalism understood the freedom of every person as the freedom to say what you want, to do what you want, then already in the 20th century liberals began to declare that the so-called open society has enemies – it turns out that an open society has enemies – and the freedom of such enemies can and should be limited, if not abolished. Now they have reached the point of absurdity, when any alternative point of view is declared subversive propaganda and a threat to democracy.

Whatever comes from Russia is all the “intrigues of the Kremlin”. But look at yourself! Are we all that powerful? Any criticism of our opponents – any! – is perceived as “the machinations of the Kremlin”, “the hand of the Kremlin”. This is some nonsense. What have you fallen to? At least move your brains, state something more interesting, state your point of view somehow conceptually. It is impossible to blame everything on the machinations of the Kremlin.”