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.

Multipolarity shows up in Kazakh steppes

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The President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made a tantalising remark to reporters on Sunday that his country will pursue a multi-vector policy. As he put it, “I believe that given our geopolitical situation, given the fact that we have over $500 billion involved in our economy, given that there are global companies operating in our market, we simply have to pursue a multi-vector, as they say now, foreign policy.” 

Tokayev’s remarks hark back to the early post-Soviet era when Russia propagated a multi-vector approach in its foreign policies — de-ideologised, pragmatic and flexible. But Tokayev meant diversified relationships optimal for Kazakhstan’s development.

There is no question that the impact of geography on politics is acute for Kazakhstan, being a land-locked country that also happens to be a powerhouse. Europe, for instance, has turned its sights lately on distant Kazakhstan as it casts around for supplies of rare earth metals to meet its green economy targets.

Besides, Kazakhstan has to contend with the Big Brothers. Tokayev, a career diplomat by profession, has a way of warding off predatory Big Brothers by keep them guessing at the gate while at the same time using them selectively.  

But a challenge gloms ahead as the alchemy between and betwixt the Big Brothers has changed phenomenally during the past year. Against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Central Asia is becoming a turf where the West is beating a path to forge closer alliances and build new trade routes. 

The Central Asian states are coming under pressure to make choices and choose sides. The speech made by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Friday at the EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference: Global Gateway in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is particularly noteworthy. 

Borrell made an impassioned plea that the Central Asian states should align with “the rules-based international order” — a codeword for the collective West. He explicitly warned his Central Asian audience, “Having connections and options is good. But excessive dependencies and the absence of choice can come at a cost.”    

Borrell’s speech makes stunning reading. Only the other day, in a neocolonial rant, the plucky Spaniard had said that “Europe is a garden,” which is “beautiful” and superior to the vast majority of the countries on Earth. He claimed, “Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.” Borrell argued that “the world needs Europe,” because it is a “beacon” that must civilise the rest of the world. The enlightened Western “gardeners have to go to the jungle,” he insisted, because if the barbarians are not tamed, “the rest of the world will invade us.” 

But in Samarkand Borrell sang an entirely different song — the garden is apparently inviting the jungle to enter its gates! In a veiled reference to Russia, Borrell endorsed “the natural desire of our Central Asian partners to reject dependency on any single international partner, regardless of history or geography.” 

Borrell travelled to Samarkand via Astana where he had met Tokayev. While in Kazakhstan, Borrell paid fulsome praise to Tokayev’s “serious reform process to transform the country to make it more open, more inclusive, and more democratic,” etc. Presumably, while making the flattering remark, Borrell would have factored in that Tokayev’s victory in today’s presidential election was a foregone conclusion. 

But in reality, a report in the Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, an organ of the US foreign and security policy establishment, roundly debunks Tokayev’s credentials as a liberal, calling them “mainly cosmetic… (which) do not change the nature of the autocratic system in a country that has been plagued for years by rampant corruption and nepotism.” (here and here)

Apparently, Borrell was only indulging in sophistry. Or, more likely, the neocons in the Biden Administration feel frustrated that Tokayev may have pre-empted another potential colour revolution by detaining pro-western opposition and rights activists across Kazakhstan in the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for November 20. The scurrilous pieces that have appeared in the US-based media regarding Tokayev and his family, for sure, suggest that he is keeping the Beltway guessing.

Back in January, faced with sporadic nation-wide protests over a fuel price hike cascading into wider, nationwide anti-government mobilisations, Tokayev didn’t hesitate to get the Kremlin to despatch a CSTO contingent deployed to Astana to keep peace. Tokayev used the impressive Russian deployment to resort to a security crackdown. And it goes to the credit of President Putin that Russian policies toward Central Asian states in general are increasingly characterised by a collegial approach that allows Moscow’s interlocutors in the region enough space to work out their national priorities. 

Tokayev has since consolidated his grip on power. The regime of former President Nurusultan Nazarbayev was penetrated by the western intelligence but Tokayev, although a protege of that regime, has purged the last vestiges of his erstwhile mentor from Kazakhstan’s power calculus. It is a different matter, though, that Tokayev also exploited the Kremlin’s preoccupations over the Ukraine war to strengthen his country’s strategic autonomy vis-a-vis Russia. 

In comparison, with the two Big Brothers, China has done exceedingly well by pursuing an equal relationship with Kazakhstan. The cooperation list between the two countries today includes 52 projects worth a total of more than US$21.2 billion. China paid great attention to the relationship and maintained a high momentum of top-level exchanges. 

While the commentariat largely focuses on the implications of BRI elsewhere in Asia and Europe, the significant influence the project has and will continue to have in Kazakhstan gets overlooked. Lest it gets   forgotten, it was from Nur-Sultan that Chinese president Xi Jinping announced BRI in 2013.

Train lines linking Chinese industrial hubs to European cities have since emerged across Kazakhstan. The South China Morning Post calls Khorgos, the railway crossing at the China-Kazakhstan border, the “world’s biggest dry port.” From that transfer hub, the freight trains run north through Russia to the cities of Western Europe, “hungry for cheaper Chinese goods.” 

Clearly, the West sees a window of opportunity to make inroads into Central Asia while Russia is bogged down in Ukraine. But China remains a stakeholder in preventing a “colour revolution” in Kazakhstan. Unsurprisingly, Xi Jinping made his first foreign sojourn in almost 1000 days since the pandemic began when he traveled to Kazakhstan mid-September where he met Tokayev.

In retrospect, Xi’s meeting with Tokayev was a sort of renewal of vows aimed at revitalising the BRI. Given Kazakhstan’s historical role as a lynchpin of the Silk Road, both Kazakh and Chinese leaders are happy to position Kazakhstan to reap the benefits of increased trade through the Eurasian landmass. 

Significantly, speaking on Friday at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in Bangkok, Xi has announced that China would consider hosting the third Belt & Road Forum for International Cooperation next year.

Russia and China wish to see a stable Kazakhstan, and they play different roles: Moscow works with Kazakhstan on security and political questions, while China generally plays a financial and economic role. The CSTO military presence to quell protests in Kazakhstan in January underscored that Russia’s cultural and security influence remains paramount.

The growth of nationalism in Kazakhstan in a period of more assertive Russian foreign policy might have led to tensions into the Russian-Kazakhstan relationship, but curiously, the high level of Russian-Chinese relations helped to stabilise the political and military climate in Kazahkstan.

Tokayev’s affirmation of a multi-vector foreign policy can be seen as a polite rejection of Borrell’s thesis before the Central Asians that “seeking security in isolation is a fallacy.” 

The G20 is dead. Long live the G20

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The seventeenth G20 Heads of State and Government Summit held in Bali, Indonesia, on 15–16 November stands out as a consequential event from many angles. The international politics is at an inflection point and the transition will not leave unaffected any of the institutions inherited from the past that is drifting away forever. 

However, the G20 can be an exception in bridging time past with time present and time future. The tidings from Bali leave a sense of mixed feelings of hope and despair. The G20 was conceived against the backdrop of the financial crisis in 2007 — quintessentially, a western attempt to burnish the jaded G7 by bringing on board the emerging powers that stood outside it looking in, especially China,  and thereby inject contemporaneity into global discourses. 

The leitmotif was harmony. How far the Bali summit lived up to that expectation is the moot point today. Regrettably, the G7 selectively dragged extraneous issues into the deliberations and its alter ego, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), made its maiden appearance in the Asia-Pacific. Arguably, the latter must be counted as a fateful happening during the Bali summit. 

What happened is a negation of the spirit of the G20. If the G7 refuses to discard its bloc mentality, the cohesion of the G20 gets affected. The G7-NATO joint statement could have been issued from Brussels or Washington or London.  Why Bali? 

The Chinese President Xi Jinping was spot on saying in a written speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Bangkok on November 17 that “The Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for big power contest. No attempt to wage a new cold war will ever be allowed by the people or by the times.” 

Xi warned that “Both geopolitical tensions and the evolving economic dynamics have exerted a negative impact on the development environment and cooperation structure of the Asia-Pacific.” Xi said the Asia-Pacific region was once a ground for big power rivalry, had suffered conflicts and war. “History tells us that bloc confrontation cannot solve any problem and that bias will only lead to disaster.”

The golden rule that security issues do not fall within the purview of G20 has been broken. At the G20 summit, the western countries held the rest of the participants at the Bali summit to ransom: ‘Our way or no way’. Unless the intransigent West was appeased on Ukraine issue, there could be no Bali declaration, so, Russia relented. The sordid drama showed that the DNA of the western world hasn’t changed. Bullying remains its distinguishing trait.

But, ironically, at the end of the day, what stood out was that the Bali Declaration failed to denounce Russia on the Ukraine issue. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey give reason for hope that G20 can regenerate itself. These countries were never western colonies. They are dedicated to multipolarity, which will ultimately compel the West to concede that unilateralism and hegemony is unsustainable. 

This inflection point gave much verve to the meeting between the US President Joe Biden and the Chinese President Xi Jinping at Bali. Washington requested for such a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit, and Beijing consented. One striking thing about the meeting has been that Xi was appearing on the world stage after a hugely successful Party Congress. 

The resonance of his voice was unmistakable. Xi underscored that the US has lost the plot, when he told Biden: “A statesman should think about and know where to lead his country. He should also think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world.” (here and here)

The White House readouts hinted that Biden was inclined to be conciliatory. The US faces an uphill challenge to isolate China. As things stand, circumstances overall work to China’s advantage. (here , here and here)

The majority of countries have refused to take sides on Ukraine. China’s stance amply reflects it. Xi told Biden that China is ‘highly concerned’ about the current situation in Ukraine and support and look forward to a resumption of peace talks between Russia and China. That said, Xi also expressed the hope that the US, NATO and the EU ‘will conduct comprehensive dialogues’ with Russia.   

The fault lines that appeared at Bali may take new forms by the time the G20 holds its 18th summit in India next year. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic. First and foremost, it is improbable that Europe will go along with the US strategy of weaponising sanctions against China. They cannot afford a decoupling from China, which is the world’s largest trading nation and the principal driver of growth for the world economy. 

Second, much as the battle cries in Ukraine rallied Europe behind the US, a profound rethink is under way. Much agonising is going on about Europe’s commitment to strategic autonomy. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China pointed in that direction. It is inevitable that Europe will distance itself from the US’ cold war aspirations. This process is inexorable in a world where the US is not inclined to spend time, money or effort on its European allies.

The point is, in many ways, America’s capacity to provide effective global economic leadership has irreversibly diminished, having lost its pre-eminent status as the world’s largest economy by a wide margin. Besides, the US is no longer willing or capable of investing heavily in shouldering the burden of leadership. Simply put, it still has nothing on offer to match China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This should have had a chastening influence and prompted a change of mindset toward cooperative policy actions, but the American elite are stuck in the old groove.

Fundamentally, therefore, multilateralism has become much harder in the present-day world situation. Nonetheless, the G20 is the only game in town to bring together the G7 and the aspiring developing countries who stands to gain out of a democratised world order. The western alliance system is rooted in the past. The bloc mentality holds little appeal to the developing countries. The gravitation of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia toward the BRICS conveys a powerful message that the western strategy in conceiving the G20 — to create a ring of subaltern states around the G7 — has outlived its utility. 

The dissonance that was on display in Bali exposed that the US still clings to its entitlement and is willing to play the spoiler. India has a great opportunity to navigate the G20 in a new direction. But it requires profound shifts on India’s part too –away from its US-centric foreign policies, coupled with far-sightedness and  a bold vision to forge a cooperative relationship with China, jettisoning past phobias and discarding self-serving narratives, and, indeed, at the very least, avoiding any further descent into beggar-thy-neighbour policies.

Russia strategises with Iran for the long haul in Ukraine

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Ignoring the hype in the US media about White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Kissingerian diplomacy over Ukraine, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, former KGB counterintelligence officer and longstanding associate of President Putin, travelled to Tehran last Wednesday in the equivalent of a knockout punch in geopolitics. 

Patrushev called on President Ebrahim Raisi and held detailed discussions with Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the representative of the Supreme leader and secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The visit marks a defining moment in the Russia-China partnership and plants a signpost on the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. 

The Iranian state media quoted Raisi as saying, “The development of the extent and expansion of the scale of war [in Ukraine] causes concern for all countries.” That said, Raisi also remarked that Tehran and Moscow are upgrading relations to a “strategic” level, which is “the most decisive response to the policy of sanctions and destabilisation by the United States and its allies.” 

The US State Department reacted swiftly on the very next day with spokesman Ned Price warning that “This is a deepening alliance that the entire world should view as a profound threat… this is a relationship that would have implications, could have implications beyond any single country.” Price said Washington will work with allies to counter Russian-Iranian military ties. 

Patrushev’s talks in Tehran touched on highly sensitive issues that prompted President Vladimir Putin to follow up with Raisi on Saturday. The Kremlin readout said the two leaders “discussed a number of current issues on the bilateral agenda with an emphasis on the continued building up of interaction in politics, trade and the economy, including transport and logistics. They agreed to step up contacts between respective Russian and Iranian agencies.” 

In this connection, Patrushev’s exceptionally strong support for Iran over the current disturbances in that country must be understood properly. Patrushev stated: “We note the key role of Western secret services in organising mass riots in Iran and the subsequent spread of disinformation about the situation in the country via Persian-language Western media existing under their control. We see this as overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” 

Russian security agencies share information with Iranian counterparts on hostile activities of western intelligence agencies. Notably, Patrushev sidestepped Iran’s suspicions regarding involvement of Saudi Arabia. Separately, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also publicly offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. 

All this is driving Washington insane. On the one hand, it is not getting anywhere, including at President Biden’s level, to raise the spectre of Iran threat and rally the Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf all over again. 

Most recently, Washington resorted to theatrics following up an unsubstantiated report by Wall Street Journal about an imminent Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia in the coming days. The US forces in the West Asian region increased their alert level and Washington vowed to be ready for any eventuality. But, curiously, Riyadh was unmoved and showed no interest in the US offer of protection to ward off threat from Iran.

Clearly, Saudi-Iranian normalisation process, which has been front-loaded with sensitive exchanges on their mutual security concerns, has gained traction neither side gets provoked into knee-jerk reaction.

This paradigm shift works to Russia’s advantage. Alongside its highly strategic oil alliance with Saudi Arabia, Russia is now deepening its strategic partnership with Iran.

The panic in spokesman Price’s remarks suggests that Washington has inferred that the cooperation between the security and defence agencies of Russia and Iran is set to intensify.  

What alarms Washington most is that Tehran is adopting a joint strategy with Moscow to go on the offensive and defeat the weaponisation of sanctions by the collective West. Despite decades of sanctions, Iran has built up a world class defence industry on its own steam that will put countries like India or Israel to shame. 

Shamkhani underscored the creation of “joint and synergistic institutions to deal with sanctions and the activation of the capacity of international institutions against sanctions and sanctioning countries.” Patrushev concurred by recalling the earlier agreements between the national security agencies of the two countries to chart out the roadmap for strategic cooperation, especially in regard of countering western economic and technological sanctions.

Shamkhani added that Tehran regards the expansion of bilateral and regional cooperation with Russia in the economic field as one of its strategic priorities in the conditions of US sanctions, which both countries are facing. Patrushev responded, “The most important goal of mine and my delegation in traveling to Tehran is to exchange opinions to speed up the implementation of joint projects along with providing dynamic mechanisms to start new activities in the economic, commercial, energy and technology fields.” 

Patrushev noted, “Creating synergy in transit capacities, especially the rapid completion of the North-South corridor, is an effective step to improve the quality of bilateral and international economic and commercial cooperation.” 

Patrushev and Shamkhani discussed a joint plan by Russia and Iran “to establish a friendship group of defenders of the United Nations Charter” comprising countries that bear the brunt of illegal western sanctions. 

With regard to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Shamkhani said the two countries should “intelligently use the exchangeable capacities” of the member countries. He said the danger of terrorism and extremism continues to threaten the security of the region and stressed the need to increase regional and international cooperation. 

Patrushev’s visit to Tehran was scheduled in the run-up to the conference on Afghanistan being hosted by Moscow on November 16. Iran and Russia have common concerns over Afghanistan. They are concerned over the western attempts to (re)fuel the civil war in Afghanistan. 

In a recent op-Ed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov alleged that Britain is financing a so-called “Afghan resistance”  against the Taliban (which is reportedly operating out of Panjshir.) Kabulov wrote that the US is baiting two Central Asian states by offering them helicopters and aircraft in lieu of cooperation in covert activities against the Taliban. 

Kabulov made a sensational disclosure that the US is blackmailing the Taliban leaders by threatening them with a drone attack unless they broke off contacts with Russia and China. He said, specifically, that the US and Britain are demanding that Kabul should refrain from restricting the activities of Afghanistan-based Uyghur terrorists. 

Interestingly, Moscow is exploring the creation of a compact group of five regional states who are stakeholders in Afghanistan’s stabilisation and could work together. Kabulov mentioned Iran, Pakistan, India and China as Russia’s partners. 

Iran is a “force multiplier” for Russia in a way no other country — except China, perhaps — can be in the present difficult conditions of sanctions. Patrushev’s visit to Tehran at the present juncture, on the day after the midterms in the US, can only mean that the Kremlin has seen through the Biden administration’s dissimulation of peacemaking in Ukraine to actually derail the momentum of the Russian mobilisation and creation of new defence lines in the Kherson-Zaporozhya-Donbass direction. 

Indeed, it is no secret that the Americans are literally scratching the bottom of the barrel to deliver weapons to Ukraine as their inventory is drying up and several months or a few years are needed to replenish depleted stocks. (herehere  ,here and here

Suffice to say, from the geopolitical angle, Patrushev’s talks in Tehran — and Putin’s call soon after with Raisi — have messaged in no unmistaken terms that Russia is strategising for the long haul in Ukraine. 

Biden nods to compromise in Ukraine

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The midterm elections in the US witnessed razor-thin races as Senate and House control hangs in the balance. But that didn’t discourage President Biden from holding a press conference on Wednesday to stake claim that the “giant red wave” didn’t happen. 

Biden said: “Democrats had a strong night.  And we lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than any Democratic President’s first midterm election in the last 40 years.  And we had the best midterms for governors since 1986.” 

Biden, however, eschewed triumphalist rhetoric and committed “to continue to work across the aisle… (although) it’s not always easy.” 

For the world capitals, Biden’s remarks relating to Ukraine were the most keenly awaited segment. Succinctly put, Biden was far from emphatic that Republicans in control of the House now would be cooperative. 

He said: “I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues.  The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well. In the area of foreign policy, I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.” 

When asked whether US military aid to Ukraine will continue uninterrupted, Biden merely replied, “That is my expectation.” He contended that the US hasn’t given Ukraine “a black check” and only equipped Kiev to have “the rational ability to defend themselves.”

Biden had an impressive record as senator in coalition building in the Congress. But today, his bid for a second term as president comes in the way.  If he chooses to be a candidate in 2024, that would leave Republicans with no choice but oppose him viscerally — personally and politically.

Biden had some interesting comments on the announcement in Moscow earlier on Wednesday regarding Russian troop withdrawal in Kherson city. Biden said the Russian move was on expected lines and the interesting part is that Moscow waited till the midterms got over.

Biden avoided giving a direct answer when asked whether the Russian evacuation would give Kiev the leverage to begin peace negotiations with Moscow. But he didn’t refute such a line of thinking, either. Instead, Biden added that “at a minimum, it (evacuation) will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period. And it remainsto be seen whether or not there’ll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia.” (Emphasis added.) 

Biden said that on the sidelines of the G20 summit at Bali (November 15-16), there there might be consultations with world leaders, although Putin himself was not going to be there. Indeed, some sort of diplomatic messaging is going on. In fact, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Tass on Thursday that “It was decided that Russia will be represented by (foreign minister) Sergey Lavrov at the G20 summit.” 

Biden took a second question on Kherson developments to say furthermore that the Russian evacuation will not only help the sides to “lick their wounds” but “decide whether — what they’re going to do over the winter, and decide whether or not they’re going to compromise.” (Emphasis added.) 

Notably, Biden has spoken twice about “compromise” (read territorial concessions) by Kiev, which is a major shift from the US stance that the Russian forces should get out of Ukraine. Biden concluded: “That’s — that’s what’s going to happen, whether or not. I don’t know what they’re going to do.  And — but I do know one thing: We’re not going to tell them what they have to do.” 

Taken together, Biden’s remarks are consistent with the “scoop” by NBC News on Wednesday, citing informed sources, that during the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s unannounced visit to Kiev last week, he studied Ukraine’s readiness for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. 

The NBC channel reported that Sullivan was exploring options for ending the conflict and the chance of starting negotiations and raised the need for a diplomatic settlement during meetings with Ukrainian authorities. It said some US and Western officials increasingly believe that neither Kiev nor Moscow can achieve all of their goals, and the winter slowdown in hostilities could provide a window of opportunity to start negotiations.

Interestingly, Kremlin-funded RT promptly picked up the NBC report and highlighted it. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also chipped in commenting, “We are still open to negotiations, we have never refused them, we are ready to conduct them – taking, of course, into account the realities being established at the moment.”

The Russian authorities continue to maintain that the evacuation of their forces in Kherson stems purely out of security considerations. The onus has been put on the recommendation by Army General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. The general claimed in a televised speech that the evacuation from Kherson  creates stronger defensive lines for the troops and will save the lives of soldiers and civilians. 

Suffice to say, Lavrov’s presence in Bali will be of pivotal importance. Presumably, he will have contacts with western counterparts. Indeed, Biden’s remarks about territorial compromise signal a sea change in the calculus. 

Also, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while opening a discussion with the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday about the possibility of peace between Ukraine and Russia, confirmed that there is indeed “a window of opportunity for negotiation” moving forward. 

The general urged, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.” To be sure, he spoke with an eye on the Russian military command. 

The backdrop is that the Democrats’ loss of control of the House of Representatives makes it difficult for them to freely promote the foreign policy line of the Biden administration, including assistance to Ukraine. Henceforth, Biden will have to negotiate decisions on Ukraine with the Republicans. This is one thing. 

Second, the cascading economic crisis in Europe holds explosive potential for political turmoil, especially if there is another refugee flow from Ukraine in the harsh winter conditions, which is a real possibility.

The blowback from sanctions against Russia has lethally wounded Europe, and bluster aside, there is really no replacement for the inexpensive, reliable, abundant Russian energy supplies via pipelines.

All this is becoming hugely consequential for western unity. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China shows that dissent is brewing.

Above all, the massive Russian mobilisation threatens to give a knockout blow to the Ukrainian military, but there is no appetite among Europeans for a confrontation with Russia.

The UK, Washington’s steadfast ally in Ukraine, also is under immense pressure to disengage and concentrate on the domestic crisis as the new government tackles a funding hole of the order of £50bn in the budget.

Going ahead, the notions of regime change in Moscow that Biden had once espoused publicly and the neocon project to “cancel” Russia has hit the wall and crumpled. That said, the US can draw comfort that the Russian pullout from the west of Dnieper implies that Moscow is not intending to make any move on Nikolaev, leave alone Odessa — at least, in the near term.

On the other hand, if the Ukrainian forces surge and occupy Kherson and threaten Crimea, it will pose a big challenge for the Biden Administration. From Biden’s remarks, the is confident that it has enough leverage in Kiev to ensure that there is no escalation.

For the present, it is premature to estimate that Moscow only took the bitter decision to abandon Kherson city, which was founded by a decree of Catherine the Great and is etched deeply in the Russian collective consciousness, with a reasonable certainty that Washington will restrain Kiev from “hot pursuit” of the retreating Russian army to the eastern banks of the Dnieper river.

No end in view for Ukraine war

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The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s meetings with Ukrainian leaders, including President Vladimir Zelensky, in Kiev has created a lot of confusion and misperceptions. One one side, the White House maintains that the trip aimed “to underscore the United States’ steadfast support to Ukraine and its people.” The readout stated that Sullivan also affirmed “the continued provision of economic and humanitarian assistance, as well as ongoing efforts with partners to hold Russia accountable for its aggression.” 

However, unnamed US officials gave the spin that Sullivan’s real mission was to “nudge” Zelensky to negotiate with Moscow and urge that “Kyiv must show its willingness to end the war reasonably and peacefully.” Politico later reported that Zelensky indeed heeded Sullivan’s “soft nudging”. The US media also reported that the US officials have been nudging the Ukrainians for sometime. 

The Washington Post reported last week that the Biden administration privately encouraged Ukrainian officials to show they are willing to engage in dialogue with Russia, in an acknowledgment of the growing frustration in the US and some of its allies at the cost and duration of the war. But, apparently, the Ukrainians pushed back.  

Sullivan also added some spice to the media speculation by claiming on Monday that the US has channels to communicate with Russia at senior levels. The Wall Street Journal had earlier reported, citing unnamed US and Western officials, that Sullivan had allegedly held a series of confidential meetings recently with Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev on the conflict in Ukraine. (Moscow has not reacted to these reports.) 

The heart of the matter is that Sullivan has been on a PR exercise in the run-up to the midterms in the US (November 8) in a concerted strategy aimed at countering the growing criticism among the Democrats and Republicans that the Biden Administration is avoiding the diplomatic track to try to end the war in Ukraine. That apart, Sullivan’s theatrics also achieved the purpose of distorting the perception that it is Zelensky who is recalcitrant about dialogue and peace talks — not Biden.

In fact, all indications are that the Biden Administration is preparing for the long haul in Ukraine. Stars and Stripes reported on Wednesday that a three-star general will lead a new Army headquarters in Germany called the Security Assistance Group Ukraine, or SAGU, that will include about 300 US service members responsible for coordinating security assistance for Ukraine. On Sunday, The New York Times had reported last Friday that Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto Jr., head of the First US Army headquarters at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, was a leading candidate for the new job. 

The SAGU will be based out of US Army Europe and Africa headquarters in Wiesbaden. Sabrina Singh, the deputy Pentagon press secretary, told reporters the new command will “ensure we are postured to continue supporting Ukraine over the long term.” She added the US remains “committed to Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

It is improbable that Moscow has fallen for Sullivan’s dissimulation. There is reason to believe that Sullivan who is a thoroughbred neocon from the Clinton clan would only have urged Zelensky to expedite the planned Ukrainian offensive on Kherson, which has been in the making for quite a while as a decisive battle for the Crimea and control of the Black Sea/Azov Sea ports and is critical for Ukraine’s long-term viability as a prosperous nation and of vital interest to the US and NATO for the encirclement of Russia.

Above all, the Biden Administration is badly in need of a success story from Ukraine as the newly-elected Congress convenes in January with a likely  Republican Party majority in the House of Representatives. 

No doubt, the Russians are taking the Ukrainian offensive in Kherson seriously. In a stunning announcement in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered a troop pullout from the western side of the Dnieper River in the Kherson Region. The fact that the Kremlin is risking criticism from the Russian public opinion for ordering such a retreat (from a region that Putin decreed is an integral part of Russia) underscores the gravity of the Ukrainian military threat and the imperative needs to strengthen the defence line.

Zelensky is forcing Moscow to literally eat its words about the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine! He continues to be in a belligerent mood. On Monday, Zelensky did make a peace offer but with five conditions for a settlement:  

  • Restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity; 
  • Russia respecting UN Charter on sovereignty and territorial integrity;
  • Russia paying off all war reparations; 
  • Punishing each war criminal; and,  
  • Guarantees that such an invasion and atrocities will not happen again.

The only “concession” Zelensky made is that he didn’t mention his earlier precondition that President Vladimir Putin should relinquish office before any negotiations. It is a non-starter. 

There is no end in view for the war in Ukraine. By the way, although the midterm elections are typically the point in a US presidential cycle where one expects to see top Cabinet members being replaced, but there is no sign of that happening to Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. 

Austin, 69, being a critical voice in the Ukraine conflict, who mobilised billions of dollars worth of military aid from around the world for Kiev, Biden anticipates that the war effort may only become more entrenched and this is not the time to change the top ranks of the Pentagon.

Indeed, the ground situation shows that the ongoing Russian operations in the areas of Ugledar and Bakhmut in Donetsk have run into strong resistance from Ukrainian forces, contrary to the Russian narrative that Kiev’s military is in a shambles and is a demoralised lot. 

In particular, the advance of the Russians around Ugledar got stuck in the mud in the village of Pavlovka, located on the important crossroads, and in a fierce battle three days ago, reportedly, there were heavy casualties on both sides. Putin’s decision to retreat in Kherson was probably with the hope of avoiding a similar fate, as the Russians are experiencing logistical difficulties to supply their forces on the western side of Dnieper river. 

Of course, this seamy picture is not the whole picture insofar as the phase of regrouping and resupplying following the Russian mobilisation is still a work in progress and the ongoing fighting in Donbass and Kherson is at the tactical level and does not involve large movements of troops. 

Equally, the intensive Russian strikes on Ukrainian depots, command centres and artillery and air-defence systems plus the destruction of Ukraine’s military-industrial facilities and energy system are yet to impact Kiev’s capacity to wage the war.  

Meanwhile, the situation on the front lines in Kherson region remains extremely tense for the Russians. The Ukrainian forces are on the prowl poking the Russian defence line incessantly to break through to advance toward the city of Kherson. A large-scale Ukrainian offensive backed by western advisors and mercenaries is to be expected any day. So far, Russian are holding their positions, repelling the ongoing Ukrainian attacks and fortifying their defences. 

From Kherson city, Ukrainian artillery can threaten Crimea. In the prognosis of Moscow’s close ally, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, “Challenging times are ahead of us. Next winter will be even harsher than this one because we’re facing the Battle of Stalingrad, the decisive battle in the conflict in Ukraine, the battle for Kherson.” He predicted that both sides are likely to deploy thousands of tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces in the struggle for the key city.

Vucic said, “The West thinks it’ll be able to ruin Russia that way, while Russia believes it’ll be able to defend what it secured at the start of the war and bring it to an end.” 

Historic significance of Xi’s Saudi visit

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The report that Chinese President Xi Jinping is planning his first overseas trip after the Party Congress and it may be to Saudi Arabia drips with enormous symbolism. According to the Wall Street Journal, the visit is likely to take place early December and hectic preparations are under way. 

The daily cited people familiar with the preparations that the Chinese leader’s “welcome is more likely to resemble” the 2017 visit by Donald Trump in its pomp and pageantry. 

Predictably, the focal point will be the future trajectory of Chinese-Saudi oil “alliance” — rather, the making of an oil alliance comparable to the Russian-Saudi framework of OPEC Plus. That said, there is a great deal more to the forthcoming visit by Xi in geopolitics in the dramatically shifting alignments in the West Asian region and indeed its impact on the world order can be far-reaching.

The point is, both China and Saudi Arabia are major regional powers and any matrix involving them bilaterally will be highly consequential to international politics. The Wall Street Journal said “Beijing and Riyadh seek to deepen ties and advance a vision of a multipolar world where the US no longer dominates the global order.” 

No doubt, the war in Ukraine provides an immediate backdrop. It is going to be extremely difficult for the United States to extricate itself in a near term from the war without suffering a huge loss of face tarnishing its credibility as a superpower, undermining its transatlantic leadership and even risking the future of the western alliance system as such. 

Both China and Saudi Arabia will have drawn the conclusion that the “bipartisan consensus” over the war in Ukraine may not survive the fierce tribal war among the American political elite that is certain to break out very soon once the midterm elections today get over. If the Republicans gain control over the House of Representatives, they will proceed to initiate proceedings for the impeachment of President Biden. 

Guardian survey of expert opinion on Sunday was entitled These are conditions ripe for political violence: how close is the US to civil war? At its core, therefore, both China and Saudi Arabia see the US retrenchment gathering momentum in the West Asian region.

One major item of discussion during Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia will be the latter’s “Look East” foreign-policy strategy that anticipated the US retrenchment at least by the middle of the last decade. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016 was a landmark event.

No doubt, Beijing has been closely watching the deterioration of US-Saudi relations since then. And it cannot be lost on Beijing that lately, Saudis have been plotting energy cooperation with China amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tensions with Biden. 

The surest signal was the virtual meeting on October 21 between Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Minister of Energy and Zhang Jianhua, China’s National Energy Administrator, a senior politician (who was a member of the 19th Central Discipline Commission of the Chinese Communist Party.) The meeting took place amidst a deep crisis in the US-Saudi relations with the US elite threatening to impose sanctions against Riyadh.  

Unsurprisingly, one of the key issues discussed between the Chinese and Saudi ministers was the oil market. According to the Saudi statement, the ministers “confirmed their willingness to work together to support the stability of the international oil market” and stressed the need for “long-term and reliable oil supply to stabilise global market that endures various uncertainties due to complex and changeable international situations.” Isn’t this more or less what the OPEC Plus (Russian-Saudi oil alliance) keeps saying? 

Meanwhile, the two ministers also discussed cooperation and joint investments in countries that China sees as part of its strategic Belt and Road vision and stated their intention to continue to implement an agreement about peaceful uses of nuclear energy (which Washington has opposed.) 

Without doubt, the meeting of the ministers was a clear rebuke aimed at Washington, designed to remind the Biden administration that Saudi Arabia has other important energy relationships and that Saudi oil policy does not come from Washington. Most important, the calculus here is that Riyadh is seeking a balance between Beijing and Washington. Biden’s vacuous talk about a “battle between autocracy and democracy” would bother Saudi Arabia, but China has no ideological agenda. 

Notably, the Saudi and Chinese ministers agreed to deepen cooperation in the energy supply chain through establishing a “regional hub” for Chinese manufacturers in the kingdom to take advantage of Saudi Arabia’s access to three continents. 

The bottom line is that Saudi political and business elites increasingly perceive China as a superpower and expect a global engagement that is transactional, similar to how both China and Russia generally engage in the world. The Saudis are convinced that their “comprehensive strategic partnership” (2016) with China would enhance the kingdom’s growing geopolitical importance amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, and that it underscores that Riyadh has more choices now and will further seek balance.

Saudi Arabia has increasingly close ties with Russia, too. With one leg inside the SCO tent (having gained observer status), it is now seeking BRICS membership. These are complementary moves but BRICS format is also working on an alternate currency system, which attracts Riyadh. 

Coincidence or not, Algeria and Iran, two other leading oil producing countries which keep close ties with Russia, have also sought BRICS membership for the same reason. The very fact that Saudi Arabia is joining them and is willing to bypass Western institutions and reduce the risk of interaction with them, and is instead exploring parallel ways of conducting financial, economic, and trade relations without relying on US or EU-controlled instruments does convey a big message to the international system.

The paradox is, the Saudi drive to strengthen strategic autonomy will remain fragile so long as the petrodollar ties it down to the western banking system. Therefore, Saudi Arabia has a big decision to make in regard of the continued relevance of its 1971 commitment enshrining the American dollar as the “world currency” (replacing gold) and its resolve to use only dollar for trading in oil — all of which has enabled successive US administrations through the past half century to print paper currency as they pleased, live it up by laundering the money — and eventually to weaponise dollar as its most potent instrument to impose American hegemony globally.  

While reporting on Xi’s forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, The Wall Street Journal added that the “strategic recalibration of Saudi foreign policy is bigger than the recent blowup with the Biden administration over oil production… More recently, their (China-Saudi) courtship has intensified with discussions on selling a stake in Saudi Aramco, including yuan-denominated futures contracts in Aramco’s pricing model, and possibly pricing some Saudi oil sales to China in yuan.” 

Traditionally, things used to move at a glacial pace indicative of Saudi policy shifts. But Crown Prince Salman is in a hurry to rest the Saudi compass and can take difficult decisions, as the creation of OPEC Plus in alliance with Russia testifies. Therefore, the likelihood of Saudi Arabia changing course to do part of its pricing in oil sales in yuan currency is stronger than ever today.

If things indeed move in such a direction, to be sure, a tectonic shift may be taking place — a major geo-strategic recalibration — and Xi’s visit gets elevated as an event of historic importance. 

The West bullies Iran, again

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The manner in which Tehran handled its drone deal with Russia has been somewhat clumsy. The fact that the first ‘leak’ on this topic originated from none other than President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan should have alerted Tehran that something sinister was afoot. 

Instead, for whatever reasons, Tehran went into a flat denial mode. And now in a turnaround, we are given to understand that Iran’s denial was factually correct, albeit not wholly true in content. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has acknowledged that the “drone part is true, and we provided Russia with a small number of drones months before the Ukraine war.” 

The minister added the caveat that “This fuss made by some Western countries, that Iran has provided missiles and drones to Russia to help the war in Ukraine — the missile part is completely wrong.” 

Howsoever good Iran’s drone technology might be, it has not been a game changer for Russia in the war in Ukraine. Russia’s own missile capability is surprising even the western experts who had predicted months ago that it was “running out” of its inventory. In fact, the missile strikes may continue until Ukraine collapses and the West has no meaningful interlocutor left in Kiev’s rubble. 

Russia and Iran seem to have got mired in a controversy unnecessarily. What seems to have happened is that just as Iran did reverse engineering on US’ drone technology, Russians also did a good job to remake the Iranian kamikaze drones that were in its inventory prior to the special military operation in Ukraine. Kiev now says, after examining the debris of the Russian drones that it shot down, that they had Ukrainian parts, too! 

It stand to reason that the Russian defence industry picked something from Iran’s technology, something else from Ukraine’s, and came up with a startling “Russian model”. That probably explains the sophistry in Moscow’ consistent stance that it didn’t use Iranian drone. 

Amirabdollahian revealed that Iran offered to explain the situation to Ukrainian authorities and a meeting was even set up in Poland to clear the misunderstanding and restore Iran’s diplomatic ties with Kiev, but the Americans got it scuttled. Evidently, the US is not interested in a normalisation of Ukraine-Iran relations. Israel too would have an interest in keeping Iran at arm’s length from Kiev. The US and Israel would apprehend that a strong Iranian diplomatic presence in Kiev might work to Russia’s advantage.  

Be that as it may, Amirabdollahian’s candid admission will have consequences. Iran possibly got carried away by the exhilarating feeling that a superpower stooped to source its military technology, and furthermore, relished the high publicity its drones  received — not to mention the embarrassment caused to Ukraine’s western patrons who watched helplessly when the Russian drones created panic on such a scale. 

However, belatedly, Iran realised the potential political and diplomatic fallout. In reality, all this “fuss,” as Amirabdollahian put it, stems from Tehran’s refusal to sign the EU draft nuclear agreement at Vienna, which infuriated Brussels and Washington, dashing their hopes that Iranian oil would come to the rescue of Europe by replacing the Russian oil imports that are being terminated w.e.f December 5. 

Again, Iran’s increased oil production was what the US was counting on to introduce tensions within the OPEC and split the cartel. 

According to a Spiegel report, Germany and eight other EU states have put together a new package of sanctions against Iran in Brussels on Wednesday, which contains 31 proposals targeting officials and entities in Iran connected with security affairs as well as companies, for their alleged “violence and repressions” in Iran. The alibi is human rights violations. 

Evidently, the West has reverted to its bullying tactic. President Biden has pledged to “free Iran” from its present political system — although the Americans know from past experience that public protests are nothing unusual for Iran but regime change remains a pipe dream.

Why is the West resuscitating the “Iran question” at this point? There are two underlying reasons — perhaps, three. One is, Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli election last Sunday virtually guarantees that Israel’s existential rivalry with Iran is once again in the centre stage of West Asian politics. Without that happening, Netanyahu will come under pressure to address the core issue in West Asia, namely, the Palestinian problem. 

As things stand, the “Iran question” will return to the centre stage of West Asian politics. There is a congruence of interests between Tel Aviv and Washington on that score at a time when there is going to be some friction inevitably in the US-Israel relations, as the racist anti-Arab Religious Zionism alliance, Netanyahu’s latest coalition parters, contains elements that the US once regarded as terrorists. Whipping up frenzy over Iran comes handy for both Israel and the US.

But on the other hand, Netanyahu is realistic enough to know that it will be suicidal for Israel to attack Iran militarily without American support and second, that the Biden Administration has not yet entirely given up hope on a nuclear deal with Iran. 

Therefore, in the event of the midterms radically changing the profile of the Congress to the detriment of the Biden Administration, trust Netanyahu to insert Iran nuclear issue as a key template of US domestic politics and the US-Israel relations.

A second factor is the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. Although the proxy war is in the home stretch and the US and NATO are staring at the defeat and destruction of Ukraine, the Biden Administration cannot simply walk away in humiliation, since this is Europe and not the Hindu Kush, and the fate of the western alliance system is at a crossroads. 

Most certainly, US troops have appeared on Ukrainian soil and they can only be regarded as an “advance party.” Will Ukraine turn out to be another Syria, with the regions to the west of the Dnieper River — “the Rump” denuded of natural resources — coming under US occupation so that its NATO allies in the periphery do not jump into the fray of dormant ethnic tensions inherited from history to carve out their pieces out of the carcass? Or, will a US-led “coalition of the willing” be preparing to actually fight the Russian forces in eastern and southern Ukraine?

Either way, the point is, the strategic ties developing between Iran and Russia will remain a focal point for the West, Amirabdollahian’s “clarification” notwithstanding. It is only natural that in the conditions under sanctions, Russia’s external relations are in the cross-hairs of the US. Iran has a stellar record of rubbishing the “maximum pressure” strategy. 

Put differently, having Iran as an ally will be a strategic asset for Russia in a multipolar setting. Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union have decided to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement while Tehran is also working out swap deals involving Russian oil. Simply put, Europeans can keep their SWIFT for whatever it is worth and that is not going to make any difference to Russia or Iran — and the rest of the world is watching this happening in real time, especially in Iran’s neighbourhood where oil is traded in dollars. 

By now it is also clear to the US and its allies that JCPOA or no JCPOA, the overarching tilt toward Russia and China is Tehran’s version of the Israeli Iron Dome, in diplomacy. The bottom line is that Iran is becoming a role model for the Persian Gulf region, as is evident from the queue lengthening for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, even as the parallel track of the Abraham Accords has disappeared in the endorheic basin of the Arabian Peninsula. 

A Biden-Putin meeting in Bali cannot be ruled out

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The Russian-American summit meetings have a history of calibrated foreplay. As the G20 summit in Bali on November 15-16 draws closer, the big question is still hanging in the air: Will there be a meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the event? 

From the look of it, a meeting cannot be ruled out. It increasingly seems that the scheduling of such a meeting may even be under discussion between Washington and Moscow.   

On Wednesday afternoon, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that Putin had a call with Indonesian President Joko Widodo (who is hosting the G20 summit.) 

Parrying questions, Peskov cryptically added that “we are currently working on a statement” and declined to answer if Putin and Widodo had discussed the Russian president’s possible participation in the G20 summit. Instead, he simply told reporters to wait for an official statement on the phone call. 

The Russian-American meetings at the highest level are customarily announced simultaneously in the two capitals. The delay in the release of the statement that Peskov referred to can only be taken to mean that consultations are still going on. 

A readout drafted by a Kremlin official would have served the purpose in the normal course on the phone conversation between Putin and Widodo, but in this case, there has been an undue delay while a statement is still under preparation. Given the state of relations between the US and Russia, a unilateral announcement of a Biden-Putin meeting by either side is simply inconceivable. 

Then there are discernible signs that both sides are striving to lower the tensions as much as they can so as to create a “cordial” enough atmosphere. Thus, from the American side, the White House spokesman John Kirby went on record yesterday to categorically state that the US does not see any signs that Russia is making preparations to use nuclear weapons. 

From the Russian side too, it is apparent that Moscow has virtually ignored the media leaks in the US that American military personnel are on Ukrainian soil on a mission to audit the weaponry given to Kiev to fight the war with the Russian forces. The US has a record of staying put in foreign countries and Moscow is in all likelihood conscious of that. Yet, it is keeping mum. 

Again, on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Ministry issued an important statement proposing out of the blue that the atomic powers should “demonstrate in practice” their own commitment to the principle that a nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought as well as “abandon dangerous attempts to infringe on each other’s vital interests, balancing on the brink of direct armed conflict and encouraging provocations with WMD, which can lead to catastrophic consequences.” 

The statement reaffirmed categorically that “Use of nuclear weapons by Russia is hypothetically allowed only in response to aggression carried out with the use of WMDs, or aggression with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.” 

Interestingly, the IAEA inspectors on a mission to Ukraine have given a clean chit to Kiev on Wednesday regrading the latter’s “undeclared nuclear activities and materials.” This followed Moscow’s recent allegation that Kiev was working on a “dirty bomb.” 

Clearly, there will be no need now for Biden and Putin to squander away their time discussing the spectre of Armageddon if they meet in Bali.

Today, again, Moscow and Kiev conducted a second major prisoner swap in under a week. 

Meanwhile, Russia has returned to the UN-brokered grain deal to facilitate the transportation of Ukraine’s produce to the world market. Of course, this followed written guarantee from Kiev that the humanitarian corridor will not be used for military purposes. Foreign Minister Lavrov, in turn, expressed appreciation that such an assurance has been held out by Kiev. 

Neither Moscow nor Washington has shown any inclination to dial up tensions over the Russian allegation regarding the involvement of British intelligence in the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines and the drone attack on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. 

Curiously, Washington has been somewhat indifferent washing its hands off the entire unsavoury episode involving Britain, while the Russian demarche with the UK ambassador today suggested good behaviour by the British intelligence in future and hinted at a desire to move on. Indeed, Russia is not contemplating any retaliation against the UK. 

Quite obviously, if a Biden-Putin meeting indeed takes place, the discussion will be largely devoted to the Ukraine situation. Significantly, the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration Magomedsalam Magomedov said today at a public function in Moscow that Putin’s decision to launch the special military operation in Ukraine was not an easy one but he had no other choice given existing dangers.  

That said, if a meeting between Biden and Putin were to take place, that would create a piquant situation insofar as the stated American position all along has been that the US will not discuss Ukraine with Russia without President Zelensky’s participation. 

However, on his part, Zelensky said today that Ukraine will not participate in the upcoming G20 summit if Putin also attends the event. He sounded wary of being left out. One possible way out of the labyrinth would be that Putin also meets Zelensky at Bali. Perhaps, that is precisely what the wily TV actor himself has in mind.  

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.  

Lula never left Brazil’s centre stage

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The former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, has won the country’s presidential election by an incredibly narrow margin of 50.90% of the vote against his right-wing rival and incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro’s 49.10%.

When Lula stepped down as president in 2010, he was enjoying the approval of 80% of the Brazilian people. How Lula came to lose his carisma makes a complicated story. He attributed it entirely to the ground reality that he was fighting not an individual but the Brazilian state apparatus. Clearly, Lula’s strongest support base — over two-thirds of the vote — among poor, rural voters in the northeast part of Brazil held firm. 

Lula is anything but a one-dimensional man. Not many would know that he was the first Latin American leader to be invited to Camp David — by none other than President George W. Bush in 2007. Bush said, “You come as a friend, we welcome you as a friend, and our discussions were very friendly.” 

In March 2009, after receiving Lula at the Oval Office in the White House, Bush’s successor President Barack Obama said that he was “a great admirer of Brazil and a great admirer of the progressive, forward-looking leadership that President Lula has shown throughout Latin America and throughout the world.” 

The accolades were improbably similar. There are several reasons why Lula’s victory matters a great deal to the US — trade, democracy, Donald Trump and climate change. Lula’s new greener stance pleases the US. The Amazon rainforest may stop burning. Washington has been enthusiastic about Lula’s business-friendly economic policies, too. 

Lula could be a friend of right-wingers and yet be an iconic progressive leader. His magnetism attracts diverse minds. Lula’s immediate successor as president who was part of a revolutionary underground at one time, Dilma Rousseff, would attribute it to his “rational assessment and emotional intelligence” — a gifted politician’s secret weapon to connect him with human minds across vast political space.

There is record trade between the US and Brazil — aircraft, petroleum, iron and steel — and they also make similar commodities. Brazil is the largest producer of soy and orange, followed by the US, while the Americans are ahead in corn, beef, turkey and chicken production, with Brazil just behind. At a time of recession, there’ll be competition for market share. 

The best piece I read on Lula over the years was an incisive essay dating back to 2011 by Professor and author Perry Anderson (who sits on the editorial board of New Left Review, alongside Tariq Ali) in the London Review of Books. In that 22000-word essay titled Lula’s Brazil, Anderson deftly navigated Lula’s sharply contrasting and yet mutually complementing facets of his two full terms in office as president from 2003 to 2010. 

The broad hinterland of corruption behind Lula’s conquest of power in his first term almost cost him a second term in 2006. But Lula had two assets in reserve. First, his neoliberal economic policies led to sustained economic growth, and, second, as business and jobs picked up, not only the mood in the country changed, but the government’s coffers were filled with larger revenues. 

Succinctly put, although Lula had been committed to helping the poor, he realised early enough in power that accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, and only with the larger revenues, could he launch the programme that is now indelibly associated with him, the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school and getting their health checked. 

The transfers reached more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population, messaging that Lula cared for the lot of the wretched or downtrodden, as citizens with social rights. “Popular identification of Lula with this change became his most unshakeable political asset,” Anderson wrote.  

A succession of increases in the minimum wage followed. These conditional cash transfers, higher minimum wages and the novel access to credit set off popular consumption leading to an expansion of the domestic market that finally began creating more jobs. 

To quote Anderson, “In combination, faster economic growth and broader social transfers have achieved the greatest reduction in poverty in Brazilian history. By some estimates, the number of the poor dropped from around 50 to 30 million in the space of six years, and the number of the destitute by 50 per cent.” Since 2005, government spending on education trebled and the hope of betterment was a great popular success.

Lula’s foreign laurels were no less impressive. Lula took care not to confront Washington, but gave greater priority to regional solidarity, promoting Mercosur with neighbours to the south, and refused to cold-shoulder Cuba and Venezuela to the north. Lula recognised Palestine as a state and opposed the sanctions against Iran. No doubt, the increasing weight of Brazil as an economic power and his own aura as the most popular ruler of the age enabled Lula to pull it off. The new position he had won for Brazil came with the formation of the BRIC quartet in 2009, which was virtually a declaration of diplomatic independence from the West.

These paradoxes get reflected today in the complimentary messages flowing in from the collective West and Moscow and Beijing alike wishing Lula success. The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message of greetings underscores how Brazil has become a high-stakes turf in geopolitics. Indeed, China’s ascent as a countervailing economic power in Brazil is a compelling reality. In 2021, China was the number one investor in Brazil.

Latin America is hurtling to the left. Taken together, this group is extremely mixed, differing on economic policy and commitment to democratic principles but they are in unison in their resistance to US hegemony. The ensuing solidarities among governments of the left, cradle Lula’s Brazil within a hospitable environment. In turn, Lula will extend a mantle of protective friendship to regimes –- Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador –- more radical than his own, while at the same time remaining a moderating influence on them. 

To be sure, Lula brings gravitas to the BRICS agenda. Democratisation of the international political and economic order is  very much to his heart. He is the one BRICS leader who can galvanise the grouping as a “counterpoint” to G7 in international politics. 

However, world politics has changed phenomenally in the past 12 year period. The BRICS itself is on the cusp of change. During his two terms as president, the international context was benign for Brazil as Washington lost concentration as continental overlord in the hemisphere and the War on Terror became the front lines of American global strategy.

But in the new cold war conditions, Washington’s traditional mechanisms of hegemony will almost certainly return in Latin America in one form or the other, especially as President Biden is going to have to take some difficult decisions over Ukraine, with a major collapse of the NATO project eastwards coming. 

This is where Lula’s margin in the presidential election is worryingly thin in a political economy with persistently high unemployment, high inflation, and staggering wealth inequality and extreme polarisation. Washington is very good at exploiting such contradictions.

However, the one factor that can restrain the Biden Administration would be the big picture in the hemisphere, which is that there is no nuance whatsoever today in the left versus right map for Latin America. 

Biden’s call with Lula on Monday is an extraordinary gesture underscoring the high importance of Brazil both in the US regional strategy and domestic politics where Latino voters matter profoundly, and affirming strong interest in a cooperative relationship with the towering, charismatic Brazilian leader. Biden must be thrilled to have Lula on his side as he prepares to combat Trumpism.