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.

Russia, Iran open a trade route heralding a bloc


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A German-China-Russia triangle on Ukraine


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Indianpunchline

NATO nuclear compass rendered unavailing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Indian punchline. Click here to read the original

Modi ignores West’s sanctions on Russia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unrest in Mongolia: Who Stands to Gain?


The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a TV interview in Moscow on Sunday, when asked about where the relationship between Russia and the West is moving, “Well, we are not moving. We have already arrived at a station named ‘Confrontation’, and we have to be reserved, strong, to have underlying strength, because we will have to live in the environment of this confrontation.” 

There are no peace talks and no end in sight to the conflict in Ukraine. President Putin said last week that Moscow’s near-total loss of trust in the West would make an eventual settlement over Ukraine much harder to reach, and warned of a protracted war.

In such an apocalyptic scenario, Russia’s immediate neighbourhood is turning into severely contested zones of superpower confrontation, as the US and EU try to encircle Russia with a ring of unfriendly states.

Such confrontation can take different forms. In the Transcaucasian region, the Western efforts aim to replace Russia as the arbiter between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU has presented itself as an alternative to the Russian mediation and peacekeeping. 

Moscow viewed such attempts rather complacently initially, but has lately has begun worrying that the ground beneath its feet is shifting in Transcaucasia. The western ploy is to incrementally elbow out the Russian peacekeeping force deployed to the region following the renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Moscow plays both sides in the conflict and, quite obviously, the trapeze act is very delicate and taxing. Thus, in the period since Moscow’s special military operation began on February 24, the EU has succeeded in establishing a “monitoring mission” in Armenia and is advancing its plan to establish an OSCE mission to the region, which will challenge Russia’s monopoly in peacekeeping on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Another active theatre of contestation is Kazakhstan where the West is constantly working to erode that country’s close relations with Russia. Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy aimed at attracting western investment has created pro-western interest groups among the country’s elites. Kazakstan’s nationality question also creates sensitivity in its relations with Russia. Kazakhstan is a high stakes game for the West, as it borders China, too. 

In comparison, the covert western role in fuelling the recent clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as in encouraging Dushanbe to provide a “transit corridor” for the anti-Taliban rebels in Panjshir Valley poses a direct challenge to Russia in the security sphere. But much to the disappointment of the US, as tensions between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan flared last September and soldiers from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan exchanged gunfire along several points of the countries’ undemarcated border, Moscow and Beijing chose to remain on the sidelines. 

To be sure, the conflict was among the most serious interstate military escalations in Central Asia’s history since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The conflict posed a big embarrassment to Moscow and Russia-led regional security organisations in Central Asia. 

If the western role in the Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict was a covert one, that is not the case with its increasingly proactive moves to build up the Panjshiris in Afghanistan as a “moderate” resistance movement to overthrow the Taliban government in Kabul, which enjoys cordial relations with Russia. The Panjshiris enjoyed the patronage of the French intelligence during the anti-Soviet struggle in the 1980s and the old links have been revived. The French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a hands-on role to cultivate his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon.

Quite obviously, both in the case of the Kyrgyz-Tajik hostilities and in the spectre of another round of civl war in Afghanistan haunting the region, Russia’s security interests come under profound challenge. Russia remains the dominant presence in Central Asia and at the leadership level, Moscow wields much influence in Bishkek and Dushanbe. But the intra-regional strife and instability provide fertile ground for western manipulation of the ruling elites. 

However, the latest wave of unrest in Mongolia carries ominous signs of a colour revolution. As in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the social media is active in stirring up protests. The protests began a week ago against the “coal mafia,” which has been allegedly profiteering from doing business with Chinese companies. But various conspiracy theories are spreading on Twitter, including that there would be an internal power struggle within the ruling party elites. 

The government responded promptly with the cabinet deciding to put in the public domain for scrutiny nine contracts related to the state mining company at the heart of the affair and announcing that all future business deals on coal export will be with public knowledge. The government further announced that a parliamentary committee will probe the scandal. 

Several hundred protesters gathered in the freezing cold at the city’s Sukhbaatar Square during the weekend and marched to the presidential residence with some people attempting to force their way inside the building, chanting and singing while stamping their feet to stay warm — eerily similar to the coup in Kiev in 2014. 

Indeed, what lends enchantment to the view, from the geopolitical perspective, is that China is the destination of most of landlocked Mongolia’s exports of coal, cashmere, livestock and other resources.

The attempt at transforming the protests into a coular revolution proper is still work in progress. According to the Associated Press, “Economic conditions have deteriorated in the country of roughly 3.3 million as inflation has soared to 15.2% which has been exacerbated due in part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Coincidence or not, the protests in Ulaanbaatar followed the state visit by the president of Mongolia Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh to Beijing last month. This was the second meeting between Xi and Khurelsukh in two months. Beijing understands that it is also in the crosshairs of the West’s diplomacy in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. All these four countries fall in the first circle of Chinese interests in one way or another. 

They give “strategic depth” to China; the economic ties with these resource-rich countries are not only hugely beneficial but also growing rapidly; they are irreplaceable partners from the angle of connectivity and the Belt and the Belt and Road Initiative; and, regional security and stability are common concerns. 

The paradox is, despite the convergence of interests and strong political and economic interests, and although their core interests are involved, it is becoming increasingly uncertain whether Russia or China can deliver on regional security guarantees. Moscow is under western sanctions and Beijing remains extremely wary of confronting the US or the EU — although Mongolia is one country in Central Asia where the core interests of Russia and China overlap.   

The US and EU are calculating that this is the best opportunity to consolidate and expand their influence in Russia’s Trans-caucasian, Caspian and Central Asian backyard. Clearly, the western powers are wading into the regional tensions and the probability of the Russian and Chinese opposition to it falling short cannot be ruled out. 

The geopolitical stakes are high. Mongolia is the transit country for the proposed Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline channeling up to 50 billion cubic meters of gas from the Yamal Peninsula in the Russian Arctic to eastern China, and the construction work is due to start in 2024. Similarly, China, Mongolia and Russia have extended the Outline of the Development Plan on Establishing the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor by five years, which will unleash great economic potential and upgrade Mongolia’s role as a transit hub. 

China-Mongolia cooperation on the construction of transportation routes and corridors has been greatly boosted in recent years, which has strengthened the logistics between China and Mongolia and greatly increased their transport capacity for bulk commodities, especially mineral products. The two countries are looking to dock multiple new railway lines with Chinese ports. 

The US and the EU will do their utmost to wean Mongolia away from the Sino-Russian orbit, no matter what it takes. Interestingly, a NATO military delegation from Brussels travelled to Ulaanbaatar last week and held two days of talks with the Mongolian military leaders. Mongolia presents a combustible mix where all the key elements of the US’ confrontation with Russia and China are present, ranging from NATO’s mission creep to the Asia-Pacific to the BRI and Russia’s energy exports and of course the vast deposits of rare earths in the steppe. 

Visit the author’s blog at www.indianpunchline.com

Demons creep up from Europe’s attic

The visit of German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to New Delhi had an anti-climatic ending. Baerbock waxed eloquently about Germany as a paragon of democratic values and claimed affinity with India. She hoped to persuade Modi government to disengage from strategic partnership with “authoritarian” Russia. 

However, when Baerbock returned home, the cat was out of the bag — an (alleged) coup attempt in her country by the far-right nationalist group called Reichsbuerger” movement, which denies the existence of the modern German state and its trammels of democracy.

The Reichsbürgers use elements of the antisemitic conspiracy myths propagated by the Nazis and are wedded to the notion that Germany’s borders should be extended to include territories in Eastern Europe, which were occupied under Nazi rule. 

The active presence of right-wing networks within Germany’s security agencies and the German armed forces has been known for years. In July last year, then-Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer disbanded an entire company of the German army’s elite Special Commando Forces after several far-right incidents, where the banned Hitler salute had allegedly been used, and where far-right music was played at parties.

It is an open secret that followers of Nazi ideology found shelter in German society in the post-World War II years. Many people with Nazi background eventually rose to high positions. And they secretly helped each other to rehabilitate themselves and re-establish their credentials and prosper. Such incestuous relationships amongst the erstwhile Nazis enabled them a kind of privileges that far surpassed those of average Germans. 

The extremist ideology and revanchism found fertile soil in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. If the economic crisis deepens in Germany, similar conditions can arise again. To be sure, extremism is on the rise in Germany.

That said, most people suspect that the crackdown on Reichsbürger is largely political theatre. Is a far-right coup possible in Germany— an armed insurrection “to eliminate the free democratic basic order” by attacking politicians, storming parliamentary buildings, overthrowing the federal government, dissolving the judiciary, and usurping the military? Impossible. 

So, what is the coalition government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz up to? Frankly, creating such conspiracy myths serves to fragment the political opinion, which is snowballing against the Scholz government’s policies. Second, the crackdown on Reichsbürger can cascade into a suppression of the political party Alternative for Democracy (AfD), which is steadily improving its electoral performance and is known for its opposition to the EU and atlanticism. Third, it is a useful distraction at a time when social unrest due to the economic crisis (blowback from Russia sanctions) may trigger political unrest. There are reports that the government has put the police forces on alert. 

In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine last week, Scholz openly espoused the cause of militarism. He wrote: “Germans are intent on becoming the guarantor of European security… The crucial role for Germany at this moment is to step up as one of the main providers of security in Europe by investing in our military, strengthening the European defence industry, beefing up our military presence on NATO’s eastern flank… Germany’s new role will require a new strategic culture, and the national security strategy that my government will adopt a few months from now will reflect this fact…

“This decision marks the starkest change in German security policy since the establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1955… These changes reflect a new mindset in German society… The Zeitenwende [tectonic shift] also led my government to reconsider a decades-old, well-established principle of German policy on arms exports. Today, for the first time in Germany’s recent history, we are delivering weapons into a war fought between two countries… And Germany will continue to uphold its commitment to NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, including by purchasing dual-capable F-35 fighter jets…” [Emphasis added.] 

He writes: “Germany stands ready to reach arrangements to sustain Ukraine’s security as part of a potential postwar peace settlement. We will not, however, accept the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory… To end this war, Russia must withdraw its troops.”

Scholz overreaches and overlooks not only Germany’s past history of aggression in Eastern Europe but also its weaknesses as a military power when he presents the country as a bulwark against Russia. Even assuming Scholz can find the money for such an ambitious militarisation programme, Germany would cause shockwaves throughout Europe if it were to go ahead with such a plan.

While embarking on this militaristic path, Germany is decoupling France. The Franco-German axis has been the mainstay of European politics for the past several decades. But Scholz’s European Sky Shield Initiative with14 other European states on creating a joint air defence system in Europe excludes France! On defence tech issues, Germany’s cooperation with France is fast fading into the background.

Paris is also upset that Scholz’s 200 billion euro subsidy for German industry was announced without consulting France. Again, Scholz’s November visit to Beijing signalling readiness to accept Chinese investment, ignored French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion to plan a joint Franco-German initiative toward China. 

All this signals Berlin’s ambition to assume the unification of European leadership in German hands, both in political and economic terms. A big question mark hangs over the future of the Aachen Treaty of 2018 signed by Macron and then Chancellor Angela Merkel. Scholz is espousing that the European Union should switch to majority voting instead of unanimity. Being an economic powerhouse, Germany wields immense clout and Scholz’s plan is to leverage it for establishing the country’s predominance in Europe. 

But it will meet with resistance. Hungary opposes further EU sanctions against Russia. It vetoed the EU Commission’s zest to borrow money (accumulate debt) to finance Ukraine’s sagging economy and to fight Russia. The recent statement by the French President Emmanuel Macron that any European security architecture should “guarantee” Russia’s interests also highlights the fault lines. 

Interestingly, the veto against the Schengen membership of Romania and Bulgaria has come from the Netherlands and Austria. The argument is that both countries have not implemented sufficiently robust systems to register refugees on their borders with non-EU countries. Refugee policy is where Europe is at its most vulnerable and divisive.   

Meanwhile, the centre of gravity in European politics and geo-strategy has lately shifted toward “Mitteleuropa” — Germany and its eastern neighbours — as the conflict in Ukraine accelerates. Whereas the Franco-German tandem used to be the engine of European integration, Paris and Berlin are now faced with the need to look for new points of support within the EU, even choosing alternative interlocutors. 

In the period ahead, Germany’s main focus of interests will be directed to the north-eastern borders of the European Union — Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland — which, coupled with continued military assistance to Ukraine, will mean greater “Atlanticisation” of the German strategy. 

From an Indian perspective, the Zeitenwende that Scholz speaks of in his essay also implies that Germany’s approach to the Indo-Pacific will be characterised by a reluctance to seek confrontation with China. 

Italy distances from ‘cancellation’ of Russia

Noam Chomsky once wrote that the astronomical cost of the Bush-Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated into trillions of dollars, is a major victory for Osama bin Laden, whose announced goal was to bankrupt America by drawing it into a trap. 

The Ukraine war too was planned as a trap for Russia. No one other than the the Bill Clinton administration’s point person for Russia, Strobe Talbot tweeted early this year when Russia’s special military operations began congratulating President Biden’s foreign policy team — Victoria Nuland, Antony Blinken and JakeSullivan — for having successfully cornered Russia. 

Talbot didn’t call it a trap. For, a trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it; on the other hand, if you know about it, it’s a challenge. Russia already knew way back in 2014 that the US and its European allies — France, Germany and Poland — were posing a challenge to its security interests in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was Russia’s instinctive reaction. 

Where Talbot erred was that the US and its allies underestimated Russia, overestimated the trap and underestimated the fact that they overestimated themselves. 

To recapitulate, the so-called Agreement on settlement of political crisis in Ukraine signed by then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich and the leaders of the parliamentary opposition under the mediation of the European Union and Russia on 21 February 2014 was formally witnessed as guarantors by the Foreign Ministers of Germany and Poland and a French Foreign Ministry official, while Russia’s Special Representative, although a participant in the negotiations, refused to put his signature under the document. 

Moscow was unsure of the intentions of the three western “guarantors.” For sure, within the next 24 hours, the ground beneath the feet shifted dramatically in Kiev following the the takeover by the armed protestors backed by the western intelligence. Till today, the three “guarantors” have not cared to explain their strange acquiescence. 

But then, it is a well-known fact that the present US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland midwifed the transition in Kiev in February and even nominated the successor to Yanukovich. (By the way, Nuland was in Kiev last week amidst speculations about another regime change in Ukraine.) 

All this becomes relevant today, as the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a series of interviews recently with the Spiegel and Die Zeit admitted that the subsequent 2014 Minsk Agreement to address the Donbass situation was itself only “an attempt to buy time for Ukraine. Ukraine used this time to become stronger, as you can see today. Ukraine in 2014-2015 and Ukraine today are not the same.” 

Merkel added that “it was clear for everyone” that the conflict was suspended and the problem was not resolved, “but it was exactly what gave Ukraine the priceless time.” Indeed, the Minsk Agreement was intended as a wayside station as the US pursued the agenda to introduce NATO and build up Ukraine’s military capability to eventually take on Russia. 

President Putin has repeatedly argued that Russia was left with no option but to react as the US/NATO “mission creep” began slouching toward its west borders. This is also the reason why Russia cannot afford to leave an anti-Russian Ukraine as its neighbour. If the proxy war continues, Russia will reduce Ukraine to a rump state. 

And that is where trouble, big trouble, lies ahead. It is apparent that Polish nationalist elements who have been in deep slumber are waking up to ponder how to return their so-called historical territories that were taken away by Joseph Stalin after the Second World War and merged with Soviet Ukraine.

On the other hand, German revanchism is also apparent. Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote an essay last week in Foreign Affairs where he underscored the new “mindset” in Berlin — as he put it — against the backdrop of the “epochal tectonic shift” toward “this new multipolar world, [as] different countries and models of government are competing for power and influence.” 

Germany senses that its hour has come once again to lead in Mitteleuropa — German term for Central Europe. The Prussian vision of Mitteleuropa was a pan-Germanist state-centric imperium, an idea that was later adopted in a modified form by Nazi geopoliticians. The Mitteleuropa plan was to achieve an economic and cultural hegemony over Central Europe and subsequent economic and financial exploitation of this region, making of puppet states as a buffer between Germany and Russia. 

Scholz asserted in his essay that Germany is on a path of militarisation, shedding its post-World War II inhibitions, will promote arms exports hoping to be “one of the main providers of security in Europe… beefing up our military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.” 

Clearly, there isn’t going to be enough space for Poland and Germany in western Ukraine. While Ukrainian nationalists will resist Polish revanchism, they will see Germany as a counterweight to Poland. It is useful to recall that the  history of the Black Sea Germans is more than 200 years old. 

The group of settlers commonly referred to as “Germans from Odessa and the Black Sea” were immigrants from western and southern Germany who migrated at the invitations extended by Catherine the Great and Tsar Alexander I to colonise large areas of Russia. 

Scholz wrote: “Putin needs to understand that not a single sanction will be lifted should Russia try to dictate the terms of a peace deal… Germany stands ready to reach arrangements to sustain Ukraine’s security as part of a potential postwar peace settlement. We will not, however, accept the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory… To end this war, Russia must withdraw its troops.” 

Putin may have replied to Scholz — inadvertently, of course —  when in remarks on Wednesday, he said the Russian operations in Ukraine may be “a long process.” Putin said that “new territories have appeared – this is still a significant result for Russia, this is a serious issue. And, to be honest, the Sea of Azov has become the inland sea of the Russian Federation – these are serious things.” And, Putin remarked: “Peter I was still fighting to reach the Sea of Azov.” 

Scholz has opened a Pandora’s box. The ghosts of German history are returning — and the profound question in European history: Where are the borders of Germany? 

Poland announced in October that it wants to start negotiations with Germany on reparations during World War II, and Polish foreign ministry sent an official note to Berlin demanding around €1.3 trillion in damages to address the effects of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945.

To be sure, an assertive Germany will be a matter of disquiet for west Europe, especially France and Italy.

Interestingly, the new season at the La Scala theatre in the Italian city of Milan opened on Thursday with premiere of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, with the title role performed by prominent Russian opera singer Ildar Abdrazakov. Italian president Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Italy’s high society, including politicians, businessmen, actors, directors, fashion designers and architects, attended the Russian opera.

Italy is marking distance from the Russophobic narrative in Europe. Again, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that the West should consider how to address Russia’s need for security guarantees.

US internationalises Iran’s unrest


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macron’s US visit tells Europe’s alienation


The state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to the United States stands out as a signpost of the alignments taking place against the backdrop of the historic churning in the world order. The two leaders went to extraordinary lengths to display bonhomie but how far that impressed  the two statesmen — Macron, an erudite mind and the most vocal European statesman on his continent’s integration and strategic autonomy vis-a-vis the US, and Biden, a veteran of international diplomacy — time will show.

Macron already marked his profound difference with the US stance on Ukraine, a topic that dominated his visit, in a remark in Paris on Saturday after his return, during an interview for the French channel TF1. Macron said, 

“We must think about the security architecture, in which we will live tomorrow. I am talking, in particular, about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words that NATO is approaching Russia’s borders and deploys weapons that could threaten it. This issue will be a part of the peace discussions, and we must prepare for what will come after [the Ukrainian conflict], and think how we could protect our allies and, at the same time, provide Russia with guarantees of its own security, once the sides return to the negotiation table.” 

Macron made the above remark as the countdown begins for an expected large-scale Russian winter offensive in Ukraine. 

While the Joint Statement issued after Macron’s visit shows that the US and France are on the same page in their criticism of Moscow’s conduct of the war in Ukraine, the nuances in the respective articulation by the two leaders during their joint press conference cannot be missed. 

Biden, of course, tore into Putin, personally holding him responsible, but Macron held back. Interestingly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also may have marked his distance from Biden by initiating a call with Putin on Friday, his second in a row in successive months. 

The readout from Moscow highlighted that while Scholz criticised Russia’s conduct of the conflict, he went on to discuss other issues with Putin and they agreed to keep in touch. 

Both France and Germany are greatly concerned about a possible escalation of the war in Ukraine whereas the US is focused on supporting Kiev “for as long as it takes.” 

Macron highlighted France’s 3-pronged approach: “Help Ukraine resist”; “Prevent any risk of escalation in this conflict”; and, “make sure that, when the time comes, on basis of conditions to be set by Ukrainians themselves, help build peace.” But Biden was categorical that “there is one way for this war to end the rational way: Putin to pull out of Ukraine.”

Macron maintained  that “We need to work on what could lead to a peace agreement, but it is for him [Ukrainian president Zelensky] to tell us when the time comes and what the choices of the Ukrainians are.” 

Macron indirectly stressed the need for flexibility, saying, “If we want a sustainable peace, we have to respect the Ukrainians to decide the moment and the conditions in which they will negotiate about their territory and their future.” 

Curiously, Biden never once mentioned Zelensky, whereas, Macon openly commended “the efforts of President Zelensky to try and find a way, a path to peace while leading the heroic resistance.” 

Macron stressed, “I believe, very much need to continue to engage with him [Zelensky] because there is a genuine willingness, on behalf of Ukraine, to discuss these matters.  And we acknowledge it, and we commend it.”  

Apart from Ukraine, as expected, Macron’s main concern was the recent Inflation Reduction Act, a $369 billion package of subsidies and tax breaks enacted by the Biden Administration to boost American green businesses, which, from a European perspective, constitutes a protectionist measure that encourages companies to shift investments from Europe and incentivises customers to “Buy American”. 

Only a month remains before the final provisions of the US law enter into force on January 1. Germany and France have hit back by joining forces to back a French push for a more subsidy-based EU industrial policy. 

At the White House talks with Macron, Biden conceded that there were “glitches” in the roll-out of America’s multi-billion-dollar package of green subsidies. To quote Biden, “There’s tweaks that we can make that can fundamentally make it easier for European countries to participate and, or be on their own, but that is something that is a matter to be worked out.” 

The remark, perhaps, allows Macron to claim a takeaway from his visit. But how far Biden’s words get turned into practice remains to be seen, as chances of Congress amending the law is debatable, especially as Republicans are set to take narrow control of the House. 

Clearly, the Biden-Macron meeting does not include a breakthrough on Europe’s concerns. Biden’s basic stance is that “United States makes no apology,” since the IRA legislation aims to “make sure that the United States continues… not to have to rely on anybody else’s supply chain. We’re — we are our own supply chain.” 

Macron noted that he had “some very frank discussions.” He stressed, “France simply did not come to ask for an exemption or another for — for our economy but simply to discuss the consequences of this legislation… We will continue to move forward as Europeans.  And we’re not here simply, really, to ask for ‘proof of love’.”  

The Americans are making a fortune from the Ukraine war — selling more gas to Europe at vastly higher prices and boosting arms exports to NATO countries who have supplied military hardware to Ukraine. The EU countries are suffering when the war in Ukraine is tipping them into recession, with inflation rocketing and a devastating squeeze on energy supplies threatening blackouts and rationing this winter.

The greening of America at the cost of European industry casts  shadows on the Indo-Pacific strategy. The recent visits by Scholz and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, to Beijing in quick succession underscores that the tensions in the transatlantic alliance as a fallout of the Ukraine war have a spillover effect. 

Macron’s visit to Washington showed that France’s main interest lies in “building resilience in the Pacific Islands.” Apropos China, the Biden-Macron joint statement had nothing new to announce. It resorted to a balanced formulation that the US and France will “continue to coordinate on our concerns regarding China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, including respect for human rights, and to work together with China on important global issues like climate change.” 

On Taiwan, the joint statement simply reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Conceivably, the crushing defeat Tsai Ing-wen suffered in the recent Taiwanese local elections had a sobering effect. 

At any rate, in their respective opening remarks at the press conference on the Indo-Pacific strategy, while Biden limited himself to an anodyne remark or two, Macron simply glossed over the subject.

Beijing must be quietly pleased that Michel picked Thursday for his visit. President Xi Jinping appreciated the EU’s ‘“goodwill of furthering relations with China.” Xi noted that the more unstable the international situation becomes and the more acute challenges the world faces, the greater global significance China-EU relations take on.

The EU’s foreign policy is at a juncture on whether to confront or cooperate with China. Global Times wrote that Michel’s visit “sent a signal that represents rational voices, that is, refusing to follow the US and treat China primarily through a political and ideological perspective…What the US wants is hegemony, but Europe wants survival, and the EU cannot achieve that without China.”

The bottom line is that as the conflict in Ukraine escalates, the neocons in the Biden Administration may feel elated, but the incipient tensions in the transatlantic relations can only aggravate. 

What to expect in Russia’s winter offensive in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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