The cold wind from Russia

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, almost certain to win the Russian presidential elections this Sunday, has laid out a tough foreign policy vision for his third term in the Kremlin that may entail changes in Russia's relations with its main partners East and West.

In an article titled “Russia and the Changing World,” the last in a series of election manifestos Mr. Putin has published in Russian newspapers in recent weeks, he mounted a scathing attack on the United States and its western allies accusing them of exporting “rocket-bomb democracy” and working to undermine Russia's security and global stability.

Mr. Putin said “certain aspects” of western policies, “based on the stereotypes of bloc mentality,” are “impairing our security and upsetting global stability.” He hit out at Nato's Eastward expansion in Europe, plans to set up a U.S. missile defence system in Europe, and “ever more frequent cases of crude and even armed outside interference in the domestic affairs of countries.”

On Afghanistan, he said the Nato operation had “not resolved its set tasks” and “it clearly does not suit us” that “the Americans are creating military bases there and in neighbouring countries,” even as they plan a withdrawal.

Denunciation of U.S. and Nato

Mr. Putin's article is reminiscent of his hard-hitting denunciation of the U.S. and Nato in the famous 2007 speech in Munich and stands in stark contrast with the Kremlin's friendly tone during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.

Many analysts say Mr. Putin has ratcheted up the anti-West rhetoric ahead of the elections to capitalise on the high level of hostility that persists in Russian society towards the U.S. (According to a January poll, 76 per cent of Russians, four percentage points more than a year ago, see the U.S. as an “aggressor bent on imposing its control on all countries.”) However, Russia's policy on the ground has indeed taken a harder line in recent months.

The veto Russia slapped jointly with China on two United Nations Security Council resolutions that sought the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad marked the most serious East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War. It was a u-turn from Moscow's stand on Libya last year, when it voted for a no-fly zone to protect civilians, which led to the toppling of Muammar Qadhafi. In the case of Syria, Russia has firmly dug its heels in against regime change.

Western arguments that Russia is trying to save its last ally in the Middle East and a major customer of its weapons miss the point. Moscow feels its cooperation with the West on Libya was wilfully abused when Nato countries, in Mr. Putin's words, “did away with the Libyan regime by using air power under the pretext of humanitarian support.”

Mr. Putin reiterated Russia's opposition to the “right to protect” concept of foreign intervention on humanitarian grounds. “A string of armed conflicts under the pretext of humanitarian concerns has undermined the principle of national sovereignty, which has been observed for centuries.”

‘No replay of Libya'

Mr. Putin said Russia would not allow a replay of the Libya scenario in Syria. “Sadder but wiser, we are against any U.N. Security Council resolutions that could be interpreted as a signal for military interference in Syria's domestic processes.”

Russia's intransigence on Syria steps from a clear understanding that the U.S. and the Saudi-led group of Arab countries are out to pull down the Assad regime in order to weaken Iran, change its political regime, and remodel the entire region. The Russian leader warned that a military strike against Iran would have “catastrophic” consequences, whose “real scale is impossible to imagine.”

Mr. Putin's new anti-Americanism reflects his disappointment with the policy of “reset” in relations with the U.S. that has been the hallmark of Mr. Medvedev's presidency. The “reset” did bring its dividends in the form of the New START arms reduction treaty and Russia's membership in the World Trade Organisation but, as Mr. Putin pointed out in his article, Russia and the U.S. “have failed to fundamentally change the matrix of our relations.”

The U.S. and Nato “have developed a peculiar understanding of security which is fundamentally different from our view. The Americans are obsessed with the idea of providing themselves with absolute invulnerability,” Mr. Putin said adding that “absolute invulnerability for one means absolute vulnerability for everyone else.”

‘Not the 19th or 20th century'

“We cannot agree to this,” he warned. “A qualitative breakthrough” in Russia-U.S. relations was still possible, but on the condition that “the Americans are guided by the principle of equal and mutually respectful partnership.” In Russia's view, such partnership has been woefully lacking so far. “The West is too quick to grab the cudgel of sanctions or even military force to ‘punish' certain countries. Let me remind you that this is not the 19th century or even the 20th century today,” Mr. Putin said.

The standoff on Syria may also trigger shifts in Russia's relations with its two main strategic partners, India and China. The crisis has strengthened the strategic alliance of Russia and China. The veto the two countries used twice in four months was unprecedented in the recent history of the Security Council. Both refused to join the Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis and denounced attempts by outside forces to impose solutions on Syria. In his foreign policy manifesto Mr. Putin predicted that Russia's partnership with China will keep going stronger, and welcomed China's “ever more confident” voice in the world.

By contrast, India and Russia found themselves on different sides of the barricade. India's decision to side with the West raised eyebrows in the Kremlin. As recently as October, India stood with Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council as they opposed a one-sided censure of the Syrian government. New Delhi reasonably argued that violence in Syria came from two sides and the government was fighting an armed insurgency.

However, on February 4, India turned around and voted for a similar resolution that again addressed the demand to end violence to only the Syrian government. At the same time New Delhi said that, like Russia and China, it supported “a Syrian-led inclusive political process.” How can one be in favour of an “inclusive political process,” Russians wondered, while backing a resolution that supports the ouster of President Assad as a precondition for launching such a process?

A day before India sent a high-ranking diplomat to the Friends of Syria meet, senior Indian and Russian diplomats held annual foreign policy consultations in New Delhi. Disagreement over Syria was apparently so serious that a Russian Foreign Ministry communiqué on the talks did not even mention that the Middle East was discussed.

‘India's stand surprising'

“India's stand on Syria came as a surprise to the Kremlin,” says Prof. Andrei Volodin of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy. He thinks it is shortsighted on the part of India to cast its lot with the U.S., whose global power is declining, and with conservative Gulf monarchies, which are historically doomed. But he admits that India's Syria stand falls into a trend.

“Some upper echelons in the Ministry of External Affairs, alarmed by China's fast rise and backed by the U.S. Indian community and a corporate lobby, are trying to impose a foreign policy course on the country's leadership that goes against India's long-term interests,” the Russian scholar who closely follows India's political scene told The Hindu. Prof. Volodin sees this trend as part of an ongoing struggle in the Indian elite between advocates and opponents of the foreign policy tradition of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, a struggle aggravated by a general decline in the level of strategic thinking in the Indian foreign policy establishment.

“India's stand on Syria betrays the same lack of strategic foresight as its recent decision to buy in a tender a 20th century fighter plane for 21st century tasks at a time when a fifth-generation platform that India is jointly developing with Russia is in the pipeline.”

Five years ago, Mr. Putin, then President, placed India along with Russia and China in an exclusive club of world powers that “can afford the luxury of genuine sovereignty”. As he prepares to reclaim presidency, Mr. Putin has again invoked the issue of sovereignty in foreign policy.

“Everything we do will be based on our own interests and goals, not on decisions other countries impose on us … Russia has practically always had the privilege of pursuing an independent foreign policy and this is how it will be in the future,” Mr. Putin wrote in his election manifesto.

“Syria has put to the test the ability of countries to take sovereign decisions,” says Prof. Volodin. “Russia and China have passed the test; India, unfortunately, has not.”

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2021 3:16:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-cold-wind-from-russia/article2954867.ece

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