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.

Free will trumps determinism in Gulf politics

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China’s mediation to normalise Saudi-Iranian diplomatic ties has been widely welcomed internationally, especially in the West Asian region. A clutch of unhappy states that do not want to see China stealing a march on any front, even if it advances the cause of world peace, mutely watched. 

The US led this pack of dead souls. But the US is also on the horns of a dilemma. Can it afford to be a spoiler? Saudi Arabia is not only the fountainhead of petrodollar recycling — and, therefore, a pillar of the western banking system — but also America’s number one market for arms exports. Europe is facing energy crisis and the stability of the oil market is an overriding concern. 

Saudi Arabia has shown remarkable maturity to maintain that its “Look East” policy and the strategic partnership with China do not mean it is dumping the Americans. Saudis are treading softly.  

After all, Jamal Khashoggi was a strategic asset of the US security establishment; the US is a stakeholder in the Saudi succession and it has a consistent record of sponsoring regime changes to create pliable regimes.      

Yet, the fact remains that the Saudi-Iranian deal drives a knife into the heart of the US’ West Asian strategy. The deal leaves the US and Israel badly isolated. The Jewish lobby may show its unhappiness during President Biden’s bid for another term. China has stolen a march on the US with far-reaching consequences, which signifies a foreign policy disaster for Biden. 

Washington has not spoken the last word and may be plotting to push back the peace process from becoming mainstream politics of the West Asian region. The American commentators are visualising that the Saudi-Iranian normalisation will be a long haul and the odds are heavily stacked against it.

However, the regional protagonists are already creating firewalls locally to preserve and foster the new spirit of recnciliation. Of course, China (and Russia) too lend a helping hand. China has mooted the idea of a regional summit between Iran and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council by the end of this year. 

An unnamed Saudi official told the establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat that Chinese President Xi Jinping approached Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister, last year about Beijing serving as a ‘bridge’ between the Kingdom and Iran and the latter welcomed it, as Riyadh sees Beijing being in a ‘unique’ position to wield unmatched ‘leverage’ in the Gulf. 

“For Iran in particular, China is either No 1 or No 2 in terms of its international partners. And so the leverage is important in that regard, and you cannot have an alternative that is equal in importance,” the Saudi official added.

The Saudi official said China’s role makes it more likely that the terms of the deal will hold. “It (China) is a major stakeholder in the security and stability of the Gulf,” he noted. The official also revealed that the talks in Beijing involved “five very extensive” sessions on thorny issues. The most difficult topics were related to Yemen, the media, and China’s role, the official said.

Meanwhile, there are positive tidings in the air too — the likelihood of  a foreign minister level meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the near future and, more importantly, the reported letter of invitation from King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Iranian President Ebrahim Raeisi to visit Riyadh. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian remarked on Sunday with reference to the Yemeni crisis that “We [Iran] are working with Saudi Arabia on ensuring the stability of the region. We will not accept any threat against us from neighbouring countries.” 

To be sure, the regional environment is improving. Signs of an overall easing of tensions have appeared. For the first visit of its kind in over a decade, the Turkish Foreign Minister was in Cairo and the Egyptian FM has been to Turkey and Syria. Last week, on return from Beijing, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council headed for the UAE where President Sheikh Mohammed received him.

Soon after that, on Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in the UAE on an official visit. “Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings,” Sheikh Mohamed told Assad during their historic meeting at the presidential palace.

In an interview with NourNews, Shamkhani described his 5 days’ talks in Beijing leading to the deal with Saudi Arabia as “frank, transparent, comprehensive and constructive.” He said, “Clearing misunderstandings and looking to the future in Tehran-Riyadh relations will definitely lead to the development of regional stability and security and the increase of cooperation between the countries of the Persian Gulf and the Islamic world to manage the existing challenges.” 

Evidently, the regional states are tapping the “feel-good” generated by the Saudi-Iranian understanding. Contrary to the western propaganda of an estrangement lately between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed is identifying closely with the positive trends in the regional environment. 

This is where China’s overarching role fostering dialogue and amity becomes decisive. The regional countries regard China as a benign interlocutor and the concerted attempts by the US and its junior partners to run down China make no impact on the regional states. 

China has immense economic interests in the region — especially, expansion of the Silk Road in West Asia. The region’s political stability and security, therefore, is of vital interest to Beijing and prompts it to become the sponsor and guarantor of the Saudi-Iranian agreement. Clearly, the durability of the Saudi-Iranian deal should not be underestimated. The Saudi-Iranian agreement will remain West Asia’s most important development for a long time. 

Fundamentally, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have compulsions to shift the locus of their national strategies to development and economic growth. This has received scant attention. The Western media has deliberately ignored this and instead demonised the Saudi Crown Prince and created a doomsday scenario for Iran’s Islamic regime. 

That said, the known unknown is the tension building up over Iran’s nuclear programme. The issue is among the most prominent points of contention between Tehran and the Kingdom. Also, Israeli threats of attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities are escalating. Significantly, Iran’s FM Amirabdollahian is expected to visit Moscow this week. 

A Russian-Chinese coordinated effort is needed to forestall the US from raking up the nuclear issue in tandem with Israel and ratchet up tensions, including military tensions, in such a way that a pretext becomes available to destabilise the region and marginalise the Saudi-Iran agreement as the leitmotif of regional politics. 

All parties understand only too well that “If the Beijing agreement materialises, the violent and fanatical right-wing Israeli government will be the first to lose out, as respecting the agreement would give rise to a stable and prosperous regional system that sets the course for further normalisations and all the achievements that ensue from them,” as a Lebanese columnist wrote today in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

On balance, the regional states are acting on free will, increasingly and eschewing their determinism that was wedded to decisions and actions that were thought to be causally inevitable. The realisation has dawned now that it is within the capacity of sovereign states to make decisions or perform actions independently of any prior event or state of the universe.

Russia-China Meeting Sparks Anxiety in Washington

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The arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against Vladimir Putin can only be seen as a publicity stunt by the Anglo-Saxon clique, with the US leading from the rear. Ironically, though, the ICC acted on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to horrific war crimes but the “judges” at Hague slept over it. Both Washington and London admit today that the 2003 invasion was illegal — based on trumped up allegations against Saddam Hussein.  

There’s no chance, of course, that the ICC warrant will ever be taken seriously. ICC has no jurisdiction in Russia, which, like the US, is not a signatory to the Rome Statute. But the intention here is something else.

The mud-throwing at Putin is yet another display of President Biden’s visceral hatred towards the Russian leader that goes back to a joust in Moscow well over a decade ago when Putin told him off brusquely, and is timed to distract attention from the state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow on Monday, an event that not only has spectacular optics but is sure to intensify the “no limit” partnership between the two superpowers. 

The Anglo-Saxon clique is watching with dismay the talks in Moscow tomorrow. To be sure, Moscow and Beijing have decided to stand together to bury the US hegemony.

Today, China exceeds the combined manufacturing capacity of the US and its European allies, and, equally, Russia has emerged as the world’s largest nuclear weapon state superior to the US both in the quantity and quality of weaponry. 

It has dawned on the American mind that Russia cannot be defeated in Ukraine. There is a chicken-and-egg situation facing NATO, according to a report in Politico. Massive investments are needed to catch up with Russia’s defence industry but Europe’s ailing economies have other critical priorities of survival and battling mounting social unrest.

The notions of defeating Russia in a proxy war in conditions of “sanctions from hell” have turned out to be delusional. It is the US banks that are collapsing, it is European economies that are threatened by stagnation. 

The US’ exasperation is evident in the top secret mission by MQ-9 Reaper drone near the Crimean peninsula on March 14. US Global Hawk drones have been spotted regularly over the Black Sea in recent years but this case is different. 

The Reaper’s transponder was switched off as it approached Russia’s temporary regime for the airspace established for the purposes of the special military operation near the Crimean peninsula (which Moscow had duly notified to all users of international airspace in accordance with international norms.)

In the event, Russia’s Su-27 fighter jets outmanoeuvred the Reaper, which lost control and drowned in the Black Sea. Moscow conferred state awards to the two pilots who drove Reaper to the seabed.

Russian ambassador in Washington since warned that while Moscow is not seeking any escalation, any deliberate attack on a Russian aircraft in neutral airspace will be construed as “an open declaration of war against the largest nuclear power.” 

If the US had planned the drone incident to test Russia’s reaction, well, the latter has given an unambiguous response. And all this took place in the immediate run-up to President Xi’s visit. 

Biden since hit back by welcoming the ICC warrant on Putin saying “it’s justified… (and) makes a very strong point.” But Biden’s ageing memory is failing him again. For, the stated American position on ICC is that Washington not only doesn’t recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC but if any US national is arrested or brought before the ICC, Washington reserves the right to use military force to rescue the detainee! 

Furthermore, Washington has threatened reprisal against any country that cooperates with an ICC warrant against a US citizen. The George W Bush administration stated this categorically as US policy on ICC against the backdrop of the Anglo-American clique’s horrific war crimes in Iraq, and the US never resiled from it. 

By the way, there has been no referral by the UN Security Council or General Assembly to the ICC. So, who organised this arrest warrant? Britain — who else? The Brits bullied the ICC judges who are highly vulnerable to blackmail, as they draw fat salaries and would sup with the devil if it helped secure extended terms for them at the Hague. This becomes yet another case study of the piecemeal destruction of the UN system by the Anglo-Saxon clique in the recent years.

Suffice to say, the drone incident and the ICC warrant vitiate the climate for any dialogue between Moscow and Kiev. Evidently, the Anglo-Saxon clique is worried like hell that China might spring another surprise as it did by mediating the recent Saudi-Iranian deal. 

In a meaningful remark, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Friday that Xi’s visit is partially to promote “peace.” Beijing has already released a “peace plan” for Ukraine, a 12-point agenda for “a political resolution of the Ukraine crisis,” which is  on Zelensky’s desk in Kiev although the West studiously chose to ignore it. 

In a phone call on Thursday, Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang told his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba that Beijing hopes “all parties will remain calm, rational and restrained, and resume peace talks as soon as possible.” 

The Chinese readout said Kuleba discussed “the prospect of peace talks … and noted that China’s position paper on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis shows its sincerity in promoting a ceasefire and an end to the conflict. He expressed the hope to maintain communication with China.”

Unsurprisingly, Biden is paranoid about China’s push to mediate between Moscow and Kiev. The point is, he and Zelensky are locked in a deathly embrace — the corruption scam involving the activities of Hunter Biden in Kiev is hanging over the father’s political career like the Damocles’ sword, while on the other hand, Zelensky is also fighting for political survival and is increasingly daring to act on his own accord. 

Disregarding western doubts about the wisdom of holding the shattered frontline city of Bakhmut in Donbass, Zelensky is digging in and keeping up an attritional defence that may drag on. (Politico

Evidently, Biden is acting like a cat on the hot tin roof. He can neither let go Zelensky nor can he afford to be locked into a forever war in Ukraine while Taiwan Straits is beckoning him to a greater destiny.

Beijing’s stance has visibly hardened lately and the scorn that the US poured on China’s national pride by shooting down its weather balloon has only exacerbated the distrust. Similarly, the nadir has been reached for Russia with the Reaper drone provocation and the Anglo-Saxon clique’s ICC scam. 

Xi has chosen Russia for his first visit abroad in his third term also, the war in Ukraine notwithstanding. While announcing Xi’s visit to Russia, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “As the world enters a new period of turbulence and change, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and an important power, the significance and influence of China-Russia relations go far beyond the bilateral scope.”

Again, Biden would have thought he was putting Putin on the mat with the Reaper stunt and the ICC scam. But Putin is nonchalant, choosing today to make his first-ever visit to Donbass.

Putin toured Mariupol, the port city that was bitterly contested by the NATO operatives in league with the Ukrainian Neo-Nazi brigade, drove a vehicle along the city streets, making stops at several locations and surveying reconstruction works. It is a defiant signal to Biden that NATO has lost the war.

Sabotage of Nord Stream won’t go unpunished

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Next Monday, an uneasy anniversary arrives. It will be 20 years since the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Britain was a pillar of the US-led ‘coalition of the willing.’ The Guardian columnist John Harris wrote on Sunday that it was “the greatest political and humanitarian disaster the UK had been involved in since the second world war… when the supposed political centre ground suddenly lurched somewhere reckless and catastrophic.” 

The Iraq War caused endless violence and huge levels of death. Ironically, it was Seymour Hersh who exposed that horrific chronicle of torture in the Abu Ghraib by the US troops that shocked the world.

Harris made a debatable point that Iraq War had “profound effects” on the UK. He listed, amongst them, “a sense that politics and power had lurched away from the public, and left a huge and very uneasy gap.” Maybe he is right, but for the wrong reasons. As time passed, Iraq War made Britain’s party politics look farcical.

Britain today has a UniParty — the party of government, which seems to consist of the same people as the party of the opposition. Britain has reached where the US has been for quite some time  — a cabal of political elites hijacking the country, operating its own agenda, regardless of which political party is formally in power — and the people at large having lost control of their government. That is why crimes like Abu Ghraib and Nord Stream go unpunished.

On March 3, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had a top secret one-on-one with Biden in the Oval Office in what appears to have been an attempt, among other things, to reach a consensus on how to handle Hersh’s explosive report on the sabotage of Nord Stream. (Read my blog Ukraine: A war to end all wars in Europe.)

Look at the sequence of events: Four days after Scholz met Biden, New York Times carried a sensational media leak regarding Nord Stream, attributing the sabotage to a “pro-Ukrainian group” consisting of five men and one woman who used a yacht rented in Poland. 

The vessel was later found by German investigators — also a media leak in Berlin — and turned out to be the Andromeda, a Bavaria C50 sailing boat. The group reportedly embarked on their mission from Rostock on September 6, 2022. The equipment for the secret operation was allegedly transported to the port in a truck. 

Germany’s Die Zeit backed the Times narrative in real time. But the narrative itself is riddled with discrepancies. Questions are galore: How could a 15-meter chartered yacht have possibly carried an estimated 1,500-2,000 kilograms of explosives required for the sabotage? How could Andromeda, which doesn’t have a crane, hoist  such massive quantities of explosives safely into the water? 

A Russian analysis points out that “the site of the explosion, the Baltic Sea, is about 80 meters deep, which requires special diving equipment, including air tanks with a helium-oxygen mixture and pure oxygen. All in all, one would need 30 litres of a special gas mixture for one dive alone, which means there must have been dozens of bottles on board. In addition, there should have been a decompression chamber for the divers, something that the yacht is not fit for. Furthermore, it would have taken several dives and a few days to lay the explosives on the pipelines. It’s hard to imagine that these activities would have gone completely unnoticed.” 

The Times news desk evidently didn’t do any fact check. But on March 10, the chair of the Bundestag’s intelligence oversight committee, Konstantin von Notz from the Green Party, told Die Zeit that what happened was likely a “state-backed act of terrorism” and was likely conducted by a “state or quasi-state actor.” 

Scholz is skating on thin ice. He heads a coalition of Atlanticists. But Germany is not yet a UniParty country. Besides, unlike in the US or the UK, in the German political system, the public prosecutor who is investigating the Nord Stream sabotage is an autonomous entity who can’t be ordered around by politicians in power.  

The German defence minister Boris Pistorius’ reaction to the Times report shows it — that Germans don’t yet know whether this was a Ukrainian commando that acted with the knowledge of the Ukrainian government, a pro-Ukrainian group that acted without their knowledge, or whether it might have been a false flag operation. Berlin apparently doesn’t exclude official Ukrainian involvement. 

Scapegoating comes handy for Washington in such situations as an exit strategy. A report in Politico on Sunday distanced the Biden Administration from the Ukrainian regime of Zelensky, and Nord Stream sabotage is mentioned there as one of three reasons for the “growing differences behind the scenes” between Washington and Kiev. 

For the present, though, there seems to be a tacit understanding between Biden and Scholz that they will not tear each other up over this matter. As for Zelensky, he probably has no option but to play the role of a scapegoat when necessary.

By mentioning Nord Stream as a matter of discord between Washington and Kiev, the Politico report seems to hint to Zelensky that this is a high stakes game affecting transatlantic unity and scapegoat may become necessary. 

Meanwhile, instead of pointing finger at Washington, the Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev  was non-committal  on Sunday, saying, “I emphasise that any accusations that are not supported by the results of an impartial investigation cannot be trusted. Therefore, Moscow insists on an objective investigation with the participation of Russia and other interested countries. Without this, voicing one-sided subjective versions of the terrorist attack does not explain anything.” 

Patrushev has virtually challenged the Biden-Scholz tandem. To be sure, an impartial investigation will have political consequences. For one thing, German public opinion is relatively fickle on the issue of weapons deliveries. Second, Scholz cannot afford a perception that he is in collusion with Biden.

Of course, if it is established that a Ukrainian commando unit or an American outfit was responsible for the sabotage, the political consequences will be massive. German public may demand stoppage of arms supplies to Ukraine. On the other hand, if the US is responsible, the current renaissance in German-American ties will simply wither away.

Scholz is yet to understand that Transatlanticism is not the defining characteristic of the Democratic Party. His fate may turn out to be the same as Tony Blair’s. Harris wrote that the effects of Blair’s deceptions rippled on all the way to Brexit.

To quote him, “Iraq hideously sullied Blair and [Gordon] Brown’s domestic record and marked the end of the New Labour vision of Britain as a young, confident country. It reduced the fantasies of “liberal interventionism” to ash, and deepened the disaffection and unease that would lead to our exit from Europe.”

Handelsblatt newspaper in a report last Thursday pointed out that the investigation on Nord Stream may play politically into the hands of the far-left and the far-right in German politics. Can Scholz survive the deception over Nord Stream sabotage? If Ukraine is implicated, there is no going back for Germany.

Foreign devils on the road to Afghanistan

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On March 7, the western powers huddled together in Paris for a restricted meeting on Taliban and the Afghanistan situation. It was an exclusive meeting of the Special Representatives and Envoys for Afghanistan of Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The random pick was striking — on a need-to-know basis — Turkiye out, Norway in. Presumably, the West won’t trust the Turks to keep secrets. But Norway makes itself indispensable as a European country with a first-rate intelligence apparatus that has served  western interests.  

Curiously, Australia and Canada took part, but then, they belong to the Five Eyes. And the Five Eyes goes wherever an agenda to destabilise Russia or China is mooted. Washington decides such things. 

The Paris meeting rings alarm bells. On March 7, the UN Security Council also held a meeting on women and peace at UN headquarters in New York, where, interestingly, the US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield bracketed the “the violence and oppression of women and girls” in Afghanistan, Iran and “areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia.” 

France’s excessive interest in hosting the meeting comes as no surprise. France is mentoring the so-called National Resistance Front of Afghanistan [NRFA] headed by the Panjshiris loyal to Ahmad Massoud, eldest son of anti-Soviet military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

President Emmanuel Macron took a hands-on role to woo Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon to lend his country as the sanctuary for NRFA to stage an armed insurrection against the Taliban government in Kabul with western help. 

Macron has a chip on his shoulder that Russia’s Wagner Group replaced the French troops in the Sahel region in north Africa, which used to be France’s playpen since the deployment of troops in 2015 to Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to set up military bases, ostensibly to fight ‘jihadists’. 

But the French presence became increasingly unpopular in the region and the Islamist threat only spread while France dabbled in local politics in its former colonies, and eventually, Macron’s motives became suspect in the African eyes and the perception grew that the French expeditionary force was acting more like an occupation force.

As the African states began replacing the French contingents with Russia’s Wagner Group, Macron announced in November the end of his celebrated ‘Operation Barkhane’. 

Macron is looking for opportunities to hit back at Russia in its own backyard in the Caucasus and Central Asia. But he’s punching way above his weight. Nonetheless, the Paris meeting on Tuesday expressed “grave concern about the increasing threat of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including ISKP, Al Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistan and others, which deeply affects security and stability inside the country, in the region and beyond, and called on the Taliban to uphold Afghanistan’s obligation to deny these groups safe haven.” The joint statement is carefully drafted — an alibi for western intervention is available now. [Emphasis added.]

The Taliban has actually had considerable success on the ground in stabilising its rule against heavy odds. But the Western powers are furious that the Taliban is no longer bending over backward to seek engagement. The West’s sponsorship of NRFA antagonised the Taliban. Taliban sees NRFA as presaging the return of warlords bankrolled by the West. 

The NRFA has failed to get traction. Macron’s personal diplomacy with Rahmon notwithstanding, the latter cannot afford to annoy Moscow — and the Kremlin’s top priority is to somehow stabilise the Afghan security situation. The Russians and the Chinese are willing to work with the Taliban and make them stakeholders in the security and stability of their country. 

Indeed, on the same day the western powers ganged up in Paris, Delhi announced that it was shipping another consignment of 20,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan via the Chabahar route as humanitarian assistance. The Russian Ambassador in Kabul Dmitry Zhirnov also spoke about Russia’s deepening engagement with the Taliban, focused on economic ties. (Interestingly, the ambassador disclosed that Moscow may repair and reopen the hugely strategic Salang Tunnel — a Soviet legacy — connecting Kabul with northern Afghanistan and Central Asia.) 

China recently signed a $540 million oil-and-gas deal reached an agreement to extract oil in the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan. One of the first phone calls the new Foreign Minister Qin Gang made after his appointment was to call up the Taliban counterpart in Kabul to stress the security concerns in Afghanistan. No doubt, similar concerns were reflected in the meeting in the Kremlin between Russian President Vladimir Putin India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval recently. 

Russia is very keen to work with India regarding Afghanistan. China shares Russian concerns in Afghanistan’s security and stability. On the contrary, the US and EU visualise that Russia’s preoccupations in the Ukraine conflict is an opportune time to stir up the Central Asian pot. But that is a simplistic, self-serving assumption. 

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who toured Central Asia last month learnt to his dismay that the regional states are simply not interested in getting entangled in Washington’s zero sum games. The joint statement issued after Blinken’s meeting with his Central Asian counterparts steered clear of any references critical of Russia (or China.) 

Prof. Melvin Goodman at Johns Hopkins and noted author who used to be a CIA analyst, has described Blinken’s Central Asian tour, first by a senior Biden Administration official to the region, to be “a fool’s errand that merely exposed the futility of U.S. efforts to practice dual containment against Russia and China… All five Central Asian countries refused to support the United States in last month’s UN resolution calling for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and to recognise Ukraine’s full sovereignty over its territory. All five Central Asian countries will need support from Russia or China if faced with internal opposition in their own countries.”  

The neutral stance of the Central Asian states is consistent with their independent position alike on the breakaway ex-Soviet regions of Abkhazia, Ossetia, Crimea, Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhya and Kherson. The salience is: Moscow never threatened the Central Asians that ‘Either you’re with us, or are against us.’ 

The Central Asians witnessed the retreat of the Western alliance from Afghanistan and will not regard them as dependable providers of security. They are also wary of the West’s dalliance with extremist groups. The widely held belief in Central Asia is that the Islamic State is an American creation. Above all, the western countries pursue mercantilist foreign policies eyeing the region’s mineral resources but take no interest in the region’s development. On the other hand, they are intrusive and prescriptive. 

At the Paris meeting, behind closed doors, the American input would have been that the Central Asian states will not support a regime change project in Afghanistan. Even Tajikistan, which has ethnic affinities with the Tajik population of Afghanistan, will mark distance from the NRFA lest it got sucked into an Afghan civil war. Macron fancies himself to be a born charmer, but Rahmon is a harcore  realist. 

Looking ahead, the real danger is that, having failed to get the Taliban to bend while also unable to build an anti-Taliban resistance movement or incite the Central Asian states to decouple from Moscow and Beijing, the US and its allies may now be left with the only remaining option, which is to create anarchical conditions in Afghanistan where there are no winners. 

The ascendance of the Islamic State and its open threats to the Russian, Pakistani, Chinese, Iranian and Indian embassies functioning in Kabul are signposts. The Paris meeting of western spies and ‘diplomats’ was an exercise in stocktaking.

US occupation of Syria will continue

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The sudden unannounced arrival of the top US military officer General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a dusty American base in Syria’s remote northeast on Friday may call to mind a famous quote by Dick Cheney, vice-president in the George W Bush presidency: “The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States. Occasionally we have to operate in places where, all considered, one would not normally choose to go. But we go where the business is.” 

According to eyewitness accounts, as recently as last week, on 27 February, US troops transported at least 34 tankers filled with stolen Syrian oil through the illegal Al-Mahmoudiya border crossing to their bases in Iraq. In the estimation of the Syrian foreign ministry, the cumulative losses incurred by the country’s oil and gas sector on account of theft and other US actions were to the tune of $107 billion as of August last year. 

Oil is a unique mineral that anaesthetises thought, blurs vision, corrupts. But according to a Reuters report, Milley’s visit was about something else than oil —  purportedly “to assess efforts to prevent a resurgence” of the Islamic State militant group and “review safeguards for American forces against attacks, including from drones flown by Iran-backed militia.” 

Now, that is a stretch for two reasons — one, there are only around 900 US troops all in all in Syria and Milley doesn’t have to undertake such routine mission; two, there is actually no history of the Islamic State [ISIS] having ever attacked the US forces in Syria. 

On the contrary, the folklore among regional states is that the US mentors the Islamic State, gives training to the cadres of the shadowy militant group at the remote American base at Al-Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border, and even provides logistical support to the group’s operations in Syria’s desert region. 

It is unclear whether Milley met with commanders of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that have been the main ally of US forces in north-eastern Syria. 

One plausible explanation will be that Milley came on White House instructions against the backdrop of a legislation to end the US involvement in Syria that will be up for a vote in the US Congress this week. US Congressman Matt Gaetz (Republican from Florida) who last month introduced a  War Powers Resolution to direct President Joe Biden to remove the US Armed Forces from Syria has frontally attacked Milley’s visit. 

Gaetz said in a statement on Friday, “If General Milley wants this war so bad, he should explain what we are fighting for and why it is worth American treasure and blood. An America First foreign policy demands realism, rational thought, and seriousness.”

He pointed out that “Syria is a quagmire of a tinderbox. America has no discernible interest in continuing to fund a fight where alliances shift faster than the desert sands.” 

But Milley is unfazed. Asked by reporters if he believed the Syria deployment is worth it, Milley said, ”I happen to think that’s important.” Milley added, “So I think that an enduring defeat of ISIS and continuing to support our friends and allies in the region … I think those are important tasks that can be done.”

Congressman Gaetz tabled the draft legislation following a press release by the US Central Command on February 17 announcing that four service members were wounded during a helicopter raid in northeastern Syria when an explosion was triggered from the ground. 

The bottom line is that there is no rationale other than geopolitical considerations for the continued US occupation of about a third of Syrian territory. These considerations are principally: 

  • Need to keep US footprint in the strategic Eastern Mediterranean;
  • US’ troubled relations with Turkey; 
  • Israel’s security; 
  • Russian bases in Syria; 
  • the Russian-Syrian-Iranian axis; and, most important, 
  • the geo-strategy to keep Syria weak and divided for the foreseeable future. 

A commentary last year in the government-owned China Daily poignantly captured the Syrian tragedy: “The alleged plunder of Syrian oil by the United States and its proxies will only worsen conditions in the sanctions-hit country as it struggles to rebuild after years of war… consumption of Syria’s limited resources by the hegemonic power and its proxy groups in the troubled nation will encourage militancy and undermine efforts to stabilise the wider region.”

The commentary cited the Syrian Foreign Ministry to the effect that the presence of US forces in the country’s northeast and the plundering of Syrian oil is an attempt to obstruct a political solution and undermines stability and security. It said “the way Washington is acting and its unlimited support of terrorist groups show the hypocrisy of the US in the region, a situation that is no longer acceptable morally or politically.” 

The Assad government’s normalisation process with the regional states in the Gulf — especially, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar — as well as Egypt and Turkey has put the US in a predicament. It is particularly galling for the US that Russia is mediating the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement. 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov announced on Monday that his country, Turkey, Iran, and Syria are discussing organising a meeting of their respective foreign ministers — “We are working on it. I can say that we agreed not to disclose details for the time being; not everything is so simple; we must work discretely on the principles of quiet diplomacy,” he added in an oblique reference to devious attempts to derail the process. 

Suffice it to say that Washington is increasingly left with no option but to stir up the Syrian pot again and create turmoil with a view to create an alibi for the continued occupation of Syria. The Syrian government has drawn attention to this in a statement condemning Milley’s “illegal visit to an illegal US military base.” 

The statement alleged that “the international community knows very well that Daesh [ISIS] is an illegitimate offspring of US intelligence… [and] the support provided by the US forces to terrorist and separatist militias in the areas of its occupation is a declared American stance aimed at prolonging the terrorist war against Syria for goals that are no longer hidden from anyone.” 

Milley himself has been candid that the US military occupation must continue. Given Milley’s professional reputation as a ‘yes’ man, who is acutely conscious of the ‘wind factor’ (as the Chinese would say) in the corridors of power in DC at any given time, it is entirely conceivable that President Biden will now get exactly the feedback and recommendation he needs to block the momentum in the US Congress for withdrawal of American troops from Syria. 

The Moscow daily Vedmosti reported today, citing an informed diplomatic source, that Assad plans to pay an official visit to Russia in mid-March. Assad last visited Russia in September 2021. 

The Russian daily estimated that humanitarian issues relating to the recent earthquake and Russian assistance would be the focus of the talks, but it is also “important for the parties to compare each other’s positions and develop common approaches” on a range of political issues. Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria have a common position calling for an end to the 7-year old US occupation of Syria.

Ukraine: A war to end all wars in Europe

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The dash for the White House in Washington on Friday by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery. Scholz landed in DC, drove to the White House and was received by President Biden in Oval Office for a conversation that lasted over an hour. No aides were present. And he flew back to Berlin. 

Associated Press reported cryptically, “If any agreements were reached or plans made, the White House wasn’t saying.” Scholz had insisted while leaving Berlin that he and Biden “want to talk directly with each other.” Scholz mentioned “a global situation where things have become very difficult.” He said, “It is important that such close friends can talk about all of these questions together, continually.”

The official readout of the meeting mentioned that the two leaders discussed the war in Ukraine and “exchanged perspectives on other global issues.”

In remarks before the meeting, Biden effusively welcomed Scholz and paid tribute to the latter’s “strong and steady leadership.” Scholz briefly responded that “this is a very, very important year because of the very dangerous threat to peace that comes from Russia invading Ukraine.” The optics of the White House readout is that the two leaders “reiterated their commitment to impose costs on Russia for its aggression for as long as necessary.”

Scholz’s dash to the Oval Office came at a defining moment in the Ukraine conflict. Russia has seized the initiative in the Donbass campaign and its spring offensive may start in the coming weeks. Ukraine’s military took heavy battering and the country depends almost entirely on western financial handouts and military aid for survival.

Most important, Kiev’s western backers are no longer sure of its ability to reclaim all the territory under Russian control — roughly, one-fifth of erstwhile Ukraine. An inchoate belief is also gaining ground in the western mind, behind all rhetoric, that the burden of the war effort is not going to be sustainable for long if the conflict extends into an indeterminate future.

Support for Ukraine is waning in the western public opinion. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research shows that while 19% of Americans repose confidence in Biden’s ability to handle the situation in Ukraine, 37% say they have only some confidence and 43% have hardly any. 

Vast majority of adults, including most Democrats, do not want Biden to run for president in 2024. Many also express little confidence in his abilities. 

Scholz’s one-on-one with Biden took place only a week after the latter’s triumphant secret trip to Kiev to mark the first anniversary of the war. In reality, the display of Western unity with Ukraine that Biden claims is wearing thin against a backdrop of strains within the trans-Atlantic alliance and a growing sense of despondency that the war has no end in sight. 

The heart of the matter is that the Ukraine conflict has shattered the existing security architecture of Europe. Germany, Europe’s powerhouse, is hit badly. The German electorate is increasingly skeptical about the West’s approach to the war. There has been animated discussion in Germany over the findings of the renowned American journalist Seymour Hersh regarding the sabotage of the Nord Stream. 

After Scholz’s return to Berlin, on Saturday, Sevim Dagdelen, leader of the Left Party — a four-term MP since 2005 — labeled the sabotage of the Nord Stream as a terrorist attack, adding that the German government is obligated to look into the case and find the culprit. 

If Scholz was privy to Biden’s plan to destroy Nord Stream, it signifies an act of collusion. A major German national strategic asset owned in joint venture with Russia was destroyed, seriously damaging the country’s economy and impacting tens of millions of jobs, putting many lives at risk. 

Germany has had to pay 10 times the market price for gas to bolster its reserves. Europe has fallen into the trap of becoming highly dependent on US energy imports. The US is the main beneficiary of Europe’s energy crisis and its ensuing “deindustrialization” and “industrial hollowing-out.” A deep recession appears inevitable in Germany. This climate forebodes dire consequences for the German government, as the election to the Bundestag in 2025 draws closer. 

Two days after Russia’s special operation in Ukraine began, Scholz had vowed in his famous “Zeitenwende” speech in the Bundestag that Germany, long wary of militarisation, would take steps to boost defence spending. But Wolfgang Schmidt, Scholz’s chief of staff and longtime friend, acknowledged this week that a budget crunch was likely to prevent Berlin from fulfilling the promise of increased defence spending. “We must be honest about this,” he told Wall Street Journal. “Ambition and reality are diverging.” 

What complicates matters further is an emerging divide in Europe over how to end the war. While Old Europeans, including Scholz, are urging peace talks now, the Russophobic East European and Baltic leaderships are clamouring for Russia’s defeat and a regime change in Moscow. According to Politico, Biden had to deliver a reminder to the Bucharest Nine with whom he had a meeting in Warsaw after his trip to Kiev that the goal of the war is not to remove the regime under Putin.

Meanwhile, there is frustration building up in Europe that the continent finds itself in a cul-de-sac. So far, the lack of European cohesion provided policy space for the US to divide and rule. However, if Europe finds itself today in a subordinate position, it must also own part of the blame for it. Europe’s inability to define its own core interests so far weakened  its internal cohesion, while the lack of internal cohesion condemned it to subaltern role.

Thus, European strategic autonomy has become meaningless talk. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said last week that the most important realisation of the war is that “Europe has retired from the debate.” 

“In the decisions adopted in Brussels, I recognise American interests more frequently than European ones,” he added, also pointing out that today in a war that is taking place in Europe, “the Americans have the final word.”

Belling the cat 

Enter Rishi Sunak. In the prevailing complex situation, there is no one better than the UK Prime Minister Sunak to bell the cat, as it were. Britain has impeccable credentials as a trusted friend of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and Sunak inherits the legacy left behind by his discredited predecessors Boris Johnson and Lis Truss. 

More importantly, this erudite, youthful PM is raring to go. Sunak was never an ardent believer in Brexit — nor is he a mindless Russophobe. He has set his compass navigating Britain toward calmer waters, which requires making up with the EU that helps the UK’s economic recovery, and he hopes to lead the Conservatives in next year’s general election with a solid record in office. An overreach in Ukraine he cannot risk. Period. 

Thus, it is that Sunak floated the tantalising idea last month to put Ukraine on the NATO summit’s agenda in June in Madrid an offer to Zelensky to discuss a package of incentives that would give Kiev much broader access to advanced military equipment and convince the Ukrainian leader to pursue peace talks with Moscow realistically, given the deepening private doubts among politicians in London, Paris and Berlin about the trajectory of the war and the gut-wrenching belief that the West can only help sustain the war effort for so long. 

The French President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Scholz are on the same page as Sunak. The Biden Administration is in the loop but Zelensky is not a pushover and a NATO security pact may be needed, apart from bringing on board the fiery “New Europeans” of Eastern Europe and the Baltic. 

The good part is that the UK, France and Germany are in this together. Yet, the road ahead is long and winding. For Putin, the bottomline will be that no NATO membership for Ukraine and  the ground realities must be heeded. But, fundamentally, peace talks would vindicate the raison d’être of Russia’s special military operation, which aimed to force the West to negotiate regarding NATO expansion. 

AP reported that when the one-on-one meeting in Oval Office ended, Biden and Scholz walked across the hall to the Roosevelt Room, where the American and German officials had been mingling. Biden apparently joked that the two leaders had solved all the world’s problems by themselves. That gives a positive spin.

Blinken gets Bibi to bend on Ukraine

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The United States and Israel make quite a pair. They tango, they align, they scratch each other’s back, they can be bitchy toward each other, and have a Faustian deal but are also lone rangers — and Israel lets the Big Brother feel he’s the one taking all major decisions.

Which of the above templates is currently at work is a moot question, as the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday to persuade the latter not to press ahead with the UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. 

The proposed resolution, drafted by the UAE is in response to the announcement by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday that it would be “legalising” nine outposts and advancing future plans for creating around 10,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank. It demands that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

Consistent with the US doublespeak on the Palestinian problem, the Biden Administration spoke on record against Jerusalem’s plans but is also pushing back against the Palestinian effort to bring the resolution to a vote. If push comes shove, US won’t hesitate to veto the resolution but its optics will be very damaging at a time when Biden is holding high the banner of democracy, human rights, UN Charter, rules-based order, etc. 

Blinken later also called Netanyahu to update him on his conversation with Abbas. There is nothing new in this pattern. But an interesting coincidence merits attention — Blinken’s activism came just two days after the visit by Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen to Kiev and his meeting with President Vladimir Zelensky on Thursday. 

This is the first visit by a Israeli foreign minister to Ukraine since the Russian special operations began and during this period, some chill had descended on the Ukraine-Israel relations as Tel Aviv stood neutral on the conflict in Ukraine and refused to criticise Russia or supply Ukraine with military hardware, the US entreaties notwithstanding. 

Blinken must be pleased about the development. He can take credit for it, since a subtle shift in the Israeli stance on Ukraine began appearing following his visit to Israel on January 30 and his meeting with Netanyahu. 

At the joint press conference of with Blinken, Netanyahu made a cryptic remark about how Iran has begun “export[ing] aggression beyond its border and beyond the Middle East.” And Blinken completed with alacrity the ellipsis in Netanyahu’s articulation: “Just as Iran has long supported terrorists that attack Israelis and others, the regime is now providing drones that Russia is using to kill innocent Ukrainian civilians. In turn, Russia is providing sophisticated weaponries to Iran. It’s a two-way street.”

Blinken went on to disclose that “Russia’s ongoing atrocities only underscore the importance of providing support for all of Ukraine’s needs — humanitarian, economic, and security — as it bravely defends its people and its very right to exist, a topic that we also discussed today. One of the most effective ways to make Israel more secure is to continue to build bridges in the region and even well beyond the region.”

Ukraine issue and the Iran question have become intertwined in the US-Israeli talking points. But this is not so much because Iranian drones are being used by Russia to attack Ukrainian targets, but the alchemy of Russia-Iran relations has dramatically changed since the drone deal. A strategic axis is taking shape between the two countries with a robust military and economic content to it, which has the potential to radically change the balance of forces in Israel’s security environment. 

Netanyahu appreciates that the Biden Administration is determined to use all options on the table to contain Iran and that includes regime change. No American president has gone thus far. This was also the impression created by the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan when he met Netanyahu on January 19 (ahead of Blinken’s visit) — albeit Sullivan’s visit was packaged as consultations over the new Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan and Biden’s concerns over “the effect it might have on Israel’s democratic institutions.” 

Israel’s dependence on US to contain Iran is more critical than ever before. Tensions are spiralling since the drone attack on the Iranian assets in Isfahan on January 28. Two Israeli officers have since been killed; an Israeli tanker attacked. On Saturday, there was a missile attack on the US base near Al-Omar oil field in Deir Ezzor (Syria), and early Sunday, central Damascus came under Israeli missile attack. Meanwhile, the US has begun a renewed attempt to incite anti-government protests in Iran.  

In sum, the US and Israel realise that Iran has gained huge strategic depth during the past year in the geopolitical realignment triggered by the Ukraine conflict. Thus, During the state visit of President Ebrahim Raisi to China last week, President Xi Jinping voiced strong support for Iran against US interference in its internal affairs and for Iran’s nuclear brief. 

In a highly significant statement, the Chinese Communist Party daily Global Times wrote that “Iran’s ‘Look to the East’ policy meant the transition from its policy of negative balancing and non-alignment to building alliances with non-western world powers that have similar political structures to Iran, such as Russia and China.” 

Since his return to Tehran, Raisi disclosed that Xi has supported Iran’s BRICS membership. Iran recently became a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, too. 

Now, what form the Israeli shift on Ukraine conflict will take remains to be seen. Israel participates in the Pentagon’s Ukraine Defence Contact Group. But Cohen gave few details after his meting with Zelensky other than that they agreed to step up cooperation in a shared struggle against Iran. He was evasive: “We spoke about deepening cooperation with Ukraine against the Iranian threat in the international arena.” 

Cohen said Israel would provide $200 million in loan guarantees to build hospitals in Ukraine and reiterated an Israeli pledge to give Ukraine a sophisticated air-defence warning system. But he was not specific when that system might be delivered; nor did he make any mention of Russia or how Israel would respond to Ukrainian appeals for Israeli arms.

Cohen said, “Israel, as stated in the past, stands firmly in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and remains committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” He refused to answer questions on intelligence cooperation.

The big question is whether Israel will continue to walk a tightrope between assisting Ukraine and avoiding friction with Russia with which it has strategic regional interests. But Ukraine conflict has shown the potential to reshape global alliances and Russia has warned Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine. 

The Russian ambassador in Tel Aviv told Jerusalem Post on Friday that Moscow has taken “serious note” of Israel’s “diplomatic and balanced position” and would hope that “this position … will remain unchanged and there will be no weapons components provided by the Israeli authorities to Ukraine.” 

Israel’s understanding with Russia is far from limited to Syria. It is a multifaceted relationship where “Russia holds many important cards,” as a commentary in Middle East Monitor took note even as Cohen was travelling to Kiev. 

Netanyahu would have to convince himself first about the wisdom of jettisoning Israel’s neutrality, as he’d know that with all his ingenuity, it will be difficult to characterise any Israeli move to supply weaponry to fight Russian forces in Ukraine as an act directed against Iran.

India: NSA Doval creates synergy in India-Russia ties

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The scheduled visit of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to Moscow on February 7-9 was in connection with the multilateral consultations of the secretaries of security councils and national security advisors regarding Afghanistan hosted by the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. 

However, it was Doval’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin that inevitably became the meridian. Indeed, it was an exceptional event. Putin’s meeting with Doval signified two things — it was a recognition both of Doval’s unique standing as a meaningful interlocutor in the Indian government as well as his standing as an accomplished professional with vast experience in the regional security issues, in particular, Afghanistan.

Doval doesn’t have the luxury of being an armchair strategist. He lived and worked in the real world and kept up with Russian counterparts at a working level. As time passed, friendships forged in the fires of adversity — Khalistan, cross-border terrorism, political islam, insurgencies — became strong and weathered the test of time. Unsurprisingly, Doval’s equation with Patrushev is one of its kind. Therefore, the enormous symbolism in Putin’s face-to-face interaction with  Doval must be properly understood.

Putin’s remarks at the regional meeting of security advisors underscored the high importance Moscow attaches to the Afghan situation. He said Afghanistan “has always been important for us [Russia] and now it is important more than ever because we do not want more points of tension on our southern borders.” 

Putin mentioned three reasons for saying so. First, the Afghan security situation remains critical. To quote Putin, “International terrorist organisations are stepping up their activities, including al-Qaeda which is building up its potential.” Moscow is greatly concerned about negative fallouts in the Central Asian region. 

Russia sees India as a like-minded country — alongside China, Iran and the Central Asian states — that is genuinely interested in the stabilisation of the Afghan situation. The MEA readout mentions that Doval in his remarks at the regional meeting “stressed the need to ensure that the territory of Afghanistan does not become a source of radicalisation and terrorism, regionally or globally, as well as to intensify intelligence and security cooperation to deal with terror outfits.” 

Evidently, Moscow is conscious of the convergence of interests with Delhi on this front. The Afghan situation would have figured prominently in Doval’s talks with Patrushev, who is an old and trusted associate of Putin over decades. 

Second, Russia has specific concerns over the problem of drug trafficking, which is on the rise. Putin mentioned that 80% of opiates in the world market originate from Afghanistan. Russia and Iran are two major transit routes for drug trafficking. During the two decades of US occupation, the Americans virtually acquiesced with drug traffickers. Occasional reports showed that some Pentagon commanders even made fortunes out of the smuggling. 

Drug trafficking is inextricably linked to the security situation. Again, the Taliban government lacks resources to provide alternate livelihood to the poor farmers to induce them to give up poppy cultivation. In this connection, Putin made a cryptic remark that “there are plans to implement large economic projects that could stabilise the situation.” Russia has a masterplan to revive the Soviet-aided economic projects in Afghanistan. 

India too has a brilliant track record in undertaking developmental projects in Afghanistan. Doval’s assertion that India “is and will remain an important stakeholder in Afghanistan” is to be understood in this context.

Third, Putin stated: “We are also worried about attempts to use the situation in Afghanistan to allow extra-regional forces to expand or build their infrastructure. These countries will create this under the pretext of countering international terrorism, but they are not doing anything that is really necessary in the real counterterrorism struggle.” 

Putin, of course, was alluding to the continuing attempts by the US to return to Afghanistan and establish a security presence with a view to influence the geopolitics in the surrounding regions of Iran, North Caucasus, Central Asia, Xinjiang, etc. Taliban resisted the American pressure. Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov recently alleged on state television that the US is giving covert support to the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan. 

Russia finds itself between the rock and a hard place. It harboured a  notion in the recent years that Pakistan would be a potential ally to stabilise the Afghan situation under Taliban. But that turned out to be a flawed assumption. On the contrary, the overthrow of Imran Khan led to the installation of a US-backed regime in Islamabad that is completely at the bidding of Americans. The US stranglehold is destined to tighten further as the IMF begins to dictate Pakistan’s economic policies

A sharp deterioration in Pakistan’s equations with the Taliban followed after Imran Khan’s overthrow. An easing of tensions between Islamabad and Kabul is not to be expected, as the military leadership in Rawalpindi has reverted to its historical role as the cats-paw of the Pentagon and the CIA. The Taliban harbours deep suspicions regarding the US-Pakistani intentions. 

According to reports, the US is sourcing military supplies from Pakistan for use in its proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. In sum, the Pakistani civilian and military elite are reverting to their historical role as  hirelings of the US. Russia and Iran are in the US crosshairs. Moscow is vainly hoping to engage Pakistan in a constructive relationship, whereas, in reality, it is dealing with a vassal state of the US.  

Suffice it to say that India is sailing in the same boat as Russia when it comes to the Afghan conundrum and Pakistani shenanigans. Conceivably, at some point soon enough, the Pakistani military will resume its interference in Afghanistan by projecting power into that country to keep it weak and subservient —something that dovetails with the US’ current regional strategy. 

From various accounts, Putin’s conversation with Doval largely focused on the Russian-Indian special and privileged strategic partnership. Afghanistan would have been a key topic of discussion. To be sure, Putin would have spoken to Doval about the Ukraine situation as well. That said, Putin’s focus is on the bilateral cooperation with India. 

The US lobbyists in the Indian media are upset that Doval visited Moscow. A Delhi newspaper wrote an editorial today warning the Modi government about its dealings with Russia, which, according to the paper, stands “isolated” in the international community! (Twenty years back, this very same newspaper had written that then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s refusal to join the US’s “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq would cost India dearly, as a vengeful George W. Bush was sure to punish Delhi by evicting it from Kashmir Valley!) 

What these lobbyists overlook is that India’s relationship with the US is transactional and the Americans are rank opportunists. It is about time they got accustomed to the idea that India cherished its strategic autonomy. Why do some of our journalists behave like a comprador class? 

Moscow appreciates India’s neutrality and on its part, the Modi government also knows that in this titanic struggle between the US and Russia, there is very little it (or any third party) can do to persuade the Biden Administration to call off the proxy war and begin negotiations. 

Apparently, the Biden Administration still thinks that the proxy war will lead to the dismemberment and destruction of Russia. So long as the US neocons who dominate Biden’s team remain delusional, this conflict will continue and may even escalate. Delhi is doing the right thing to remain non-aligned and astutely pursue its national interests.  

Britain rebuilds ties with France

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A Bloomberg report cited unnamed British ministers, diplomats and officials to the effect that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has tasked senior ministers and officials to draw up plans for rebuilding the UK’s relations with the EU after years of acrimony since Brexit, “across a range of policy areas” on defence, migration, trade, energy and  international standards. 

Britain hopes to come up in the coming days with a new initiative on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. The policy shift is projected as “a reflection of a changing reality” rather than an admission of the colossal failure of Brexit.

The “changing reality” could be anything ranging from the political necessity for Sunak who completed this first 100 days in office as PM to show dynamism as the country heads for general election next year. But the signs are that Britain could be in the long game. 

In politics and diplomacy, the sub-plot often turns out to be more far-reaching than the main plot. In the present case, the Brexit is the main plot but laying the foundation for a more comprehensive improvement in UK’s ties with the EU bloc constitutes a consequential sub-plot that is even more consequential. 

Sunak’s blossoming personal equations with French President Emmanuel Macron pave the way for cooperation with France, as Europe’s power dynamic after the yearlong Ukraine conflict is evolving. Sunak and Macron are on the same page on Ukraine,  although the UK is far more vocal and takes a hands-on role in the war. Last week, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky travelled from Kiev to London and then onward to Paris to meet Macron on a British government plane. 

Sunak and Macron have much in common as two highly educated politicians and finance ministers. Politico dubbed them as “two peas in a pod” who favour tailored skinny blue suits; Guardian labelled it as a “bromance” of two ex-finance ministers with common threads in their backgrounds and routes to politics. (Both millionaires are the eldest sons of doctors.) 

That said, the UK and France are great powers with a rich historical memory who wouldn’t act impulsively. In the context of the  realignment under way in European politics since the war began in Ukraine, there is an opportunity and need to reset Franco-British ties. Both countries are at sea, rudderless as past certainties — EU anchor sheet for Sunak and the Franco-German axis for Macron — have vanished.  

The pomp and ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty in Paris on January 22 exposed the futility of recapturing the verve of the Franco-German axis in the dramatically changed milieu in European politics. As for post-Brexit Britain, it finds itself in a cul-de-sac and is struggling to figure out an exit strategy. 

The future challenge for both countries is about the need to work on a way ahead for the “big picture” of European integration while also seeking compromise and a common path on many complex and difficult policies. 

At the time of the Brexit negotiations six years ago, Britain didn’t reciprocate the EU’s push for more defence cooperation. On the contrary, one of the proposals under consideration in London currently is a formal defence and security relationship and dialogue between the UK and EU, as well as a legal agreement to more easily allow the British military to join EU operations. 

Macron no longer says that the NATO is “brain-dead.” Britain intends to propose a plan at the NATO summit in Lithuania in July for a defence budget by member states going beyond the group’s existing commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence.

Sunak will accept Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s call for greater investment in Britain’s Armed Forces, and a post-Ukraine update to the Integrated Review of British defence, security and foreign policy, which is due in the coming weeks. In political terms, he is consolidating his credentials to lead his party. 

On the other hand, the recent heated behind-the-scenes disagreements with Germany regarding the Ukraine war on issues such as tanks saw France and the UK more aligned on foreign and defence policy than at any point in decades. Historically, the UK and France have the most powerful militaries in Europe. But the so-called Zeitenwende is Germany’s biggest rearmament since World War II.

What is unspoken is about the trend toward the rearmament of Germany and about the global role that Berlin will play. Two days after Russia’s special military operation began in Ukraine, in an emotional speech to the Bundestag, Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared: “We are experiencing a Zeitenwende.” 

The Zeitenwende becomesa watershed moment, a changing of the times, a “turning point” in German security policy, as Scholz promised to raise military spending to at least 2% of GDP and create a 100 billion euro defence fund. The ratings of Scholz and his Social Democratic Party soared. 

The Bundeswehr may be in some ways a domestic political project but it has a foreign policy dimension. The Zeitenwende will make Germany’s military budget the third largest in the world, coming after the US and China and leaving France and the UK trailing behind. 

Indeed, the game between all parties around the West’s conflict with Russia has intensified, and the geopolitical situation in Europe has undergone drastic changes. It is against this background that Poland  has sought nuclear sharing with the US to relieve its own security pressure.

On September 1, the 73rd anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland, Warsaw released the final report which maintained that the country was entitled to approx. $1.39 trillion as war reparations from Berlin. Following Germany’s refusal to pay war reparations, Poland is calling on the US and the UN for support.

Britain and France know only too well from history that militarisation does not guarantee peace. With the Zeitenwende, Germany is set to become a cornerstone of conventional interstate war power in Europe. And the machine behind this will be a German military-industrial complex. 

Enter Seymour Hersh. The investigative report by the renowned American journalist Seymour Hersh on February 8 lays bare that the US Navy executed the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines and, furthermore, that the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan himself oversaw the plans for the covert operation — even before the Russian operation began in Ukraine.

This sabotage is the culmination of a long-term American strategy dating back to the cold war era to dismantle the extensive economic links between Moscow and Germany. The US oil companies have profited immensely by shifting German energy consumption away from Russia, which has also created a difficult environment for broader German industry as a competitor to American goods.

Hersh’s report deals a humiliating blow to German pride and national honour. There is deafening silence in Berlin. What ensues can only be known if and when the Ukraine conflict ends. But the Biden Administration is in no hurry to end the conflict and is instead leading from the rear a campaign to lock in Germany to the fight against Russia in Ukraine. 

A more dangerous world is ahead, which dictates that there is no choice but to work closely with allies. This means Britain and France moving away from the past collisions with each other and toward a more stable relationship as critical friends. 

Waiting for Biden’s definition of victory in Ukraine

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There was an air of magical realism in the daylong visit to Kiev last Friday by the EU’s policy commissioners comprising the executive branch of the group — the so-called College — led by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. 

At the end of the day in Kiev on Friday, during a joint press conference in Kiev with President Volodymyr Zelensky, all that the EU’s super bureaucrats would promise was that “Ukraine’s future is in the EU.”

However, as the BBC reported, “Typically, it takes years for countries to join — and the EU has declined to set a timescale, describing the sign-up process as “goal-based.” It all depends now on what sort of Ukraine emerges out of the war. 

Surely, there is a pall of gloom in the western media lately about the war storms gathering on the horizon. A Ukrainian military officer told the BBC that the Russian forces have occupied a third of the highly strategic Bakhmut city, the hub of the so-called Zelensky Line in Donbass. Since then, there have been reports of more Russian successes. The Ukrainian defence line is cracking through which an elephant can pass to the steppes en route to the Dnieper River. 

An AP report quoting Ukrainian officials in Kiev says, “Russian forces are keeping Ukrainian troops tied down with attacks in the eastern Donbass region as Moscow assembles additional combat power there for an expected offensive in the coming weeks.” Reuters too reports that  Russian forces have been advancing “in relentless battles in the east. A regional governor said Moscow was pouring in reinforcements for a new offensive that could begin next week.” 

Writing for Bloomberg, Hal Brands at the American Enterprises Institute, drastically trims the Biden Administration’s priorities to “reluctance to further inflame Putin’s ire.” Hal sums up: “Washington’s goal is a Ukraine that is militarily defensible, politically independent and economically viable; this doesn’t necessarily include retaking difficult areas such as the eastern Donbass or Crimea.” 

There is no more talk about destroying the Russian “war machinery” or an insurrection against the Kremlin and a regime change.  

Two recent think tank reports that appeared in the US last month — Avoiding a Long War by the Rand Corporation (affiliated to the Pentagon) and Empty Bins by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies — epitomise a rude awakening. 

The Rand Corporation report starkly warns that given the NATO countries’ indirect involvement in the war — “breathtaking in scope” — keeping a Russia-NATO war below the nuclear threshold is going to be “extremely difficult.” 

It introduces another chilling thought that a protracted war in Ukraine, which “many” in the Beltway subscribe to as a means to degrade the Russian military and weaken the Russian economy, “would also have consequences for US foreign policy,” as the US’ ability to focus on other global priorities — particularly, competition with China — will remain constrained. 

The Rand report argues that “Washington does have a long-term interest in ensuring that Moscow does not become completely subordinated to Beijing.” The report concludes that the paramount US interest lies in avoiding a long war, since “the consequences of a long war — raging from persistent elevated escalation risks to economic damage — far outweigh the possible benefits.” 

The report presents a frank assessment that “it is fanciful to imagine that it [ Kiev] could destroy Russia’s ability to wage war.” Its most astounding finding, perhaps, is two-fold: firstly, the US does not even share Ukraine’s drive for retrieving “lost” territories”; and, secondly, that it is in the American interest that Russia remains independent of China with a measure of strategic autonomy vis-a-vis the US-China rivalry. 

On the other hand, the CSIS report, authored by the well-known strategic thinker Seth Jones (formerly at the Rand) is a wake-up call that the US defence industrial base is grossly inadequate for the “competitive security environment that now exists.” The report has a chapter titled Ukraine and the Great Awakening, which underscores that the US arms supples to Ukraine have “strained the [US] defence industrial base to produce sufficient quantities of some munitions and weapon systems.” Jones represents the duality of the US military-industrial complex, which is disinterested in the objective of the war in Ukraine as such.  

His grouse is that the US defence industrial base — including the munitions industrial base — is not currently equipped to support a protracted conventional war, although, as the UK newspaper Sunday Times wrote last week, “All wars spawn profiteers, and the Ukraine conflict is no exception… The enormous supply of western arms to Ukraine has bolstered all weapons manufacturers, mainly in restocking Nato’s own arsenals and fulfilling the big orders from countries now spending more on defence….In the US, Lockheed, Raytheon and Northrop are among the big arms and jet fighter manufacturers with bulging order books.” 

The Rand and CSIS reports appeared at a time when the war has reached a tipping point. Thus, within the last month, the US has announced three of the largest aid packages to Ukraine in a sign of ongoing support as the war nears its one-year mark. And on Friday, the Biden Administration announced yet another new Ukraine security package worth approximately $2.2 billion that includes longer-range missiles with a range of 90 miles for the first time.

Herein lies the paradox. On February 1, four senior Defense Department officials reportedly told the US House Armed Services Committee lawmakers in a classified briefing that the Pentagon doesn’t believe Ukraine has the ability to force Russian troops out of the Crimean peninsula. After the briefing, the House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) asserted in an interview that the war “needs to end this summer.”

Senator Rogers said: “There’s a school of thought … that Crimea’s got to be a part of it. Russia is never going to quit and give up Crimea…  What is doable? And I don’t think that that’s agreed upon yet. So I think that there’s going to have to be some pressure from our government and NATO leaders with Zelensky about what does victory look like. And I think that’s going to help us more than anything to be able to drive Putin and Zelensky to the table to end this thing this summer.” 

This is the first time that a top US political personality has called for a timeline for the war. It came as no wonder, as Senator Bob Menendez the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who presided over the hearings on Ukraine on January 26 — also addressed the core issue in a question for the record to the US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland who was testifying. 

The influential senator bemoaned that Washington has “no definition of victory,” and sought an answer from Nuland, who was rendered speechless. But it must have rankled her, for, at the fag-end of the hearing, she volunteered a reply: “If we define winning as Ukraine surviving and thriving as a cleaner democratic state, it can, it must, it will.” Period. 

Nuland fudged. But that is also what President Biden did in his State of the Union address on Wednesday by sticking to his tiresome  mantra — that the US will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” That said, significantly, Zelensky has taken off for a tour of major European capitals to discuss what could possibly constitute peace. 

Indeed, all this is a far cry from Von der Leyen’s rhetoric as she set out for Kiev last week: “With the visit of the College to Kyiv, the EU is sending today a very clear message to Ukraine and beyond about our collective strength and resolve in the face of Russia’s brutal aggression. We will continue supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes. And we will continue to impose a heavy price on Russia until it ceases its aggression. Ukraine can count on Europe to help rebuild a more resilient country, that progresses on its path to join the EU.” 

There is something that either Von der Leyen doesn’t know about, or doesn’t want to talk about. Meanwhile, Biden seems closer to her than to Rand and the CSIS or Senator Menendez and Nuland — leave alone Republican Senator Rogers. That must be an optical illusion. 

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