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Russia fighting its corner

Moscow’s resistance against NATO expansion non-negotiable

Russia fighting its corner

Cuts both ways: Why blame only Russia? The US has been following the Monroe Doctrine to gain world domination. AP

P Stobdan

Strategic Affairs Expert

World politics might not be the same after Putin has seriously challenged the current US-led ‘new international rule-based order’. As a continental land-based power, Russia has always retained a defensive posture in its strategic thinking and never ventured into the maritime domain, until the early 1960s. It also never conceded control over its strategic borderlands, but for the Soviet Union’s collapse.

If the West had shown less belligerency in trying to trespass upon the former Soviet space, Russia would have been more mindful of regional sensibilities.

Putin regretted the Soviet collapse as a ‘geopolitical disaster’, but reconciled to the post-Cold War reality — empathised with the US after 9/11, shared intelligence on Al Qaeda and facilitated military bases in Central Asia for war against terror in Afghanistan. But when the West stirred up colour revolutions in the former republics since 2003 and mechanised NATO’s expansion into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ (Georgia and Ukraine), Putin stood up to stave off any threat to Russian heartland and its ‘near abroad’, for Putin thought the idea is being set by people having a history of settler colonialism, the genocide of Native Americans and slavery.

When it became ‘a matter of time’ for Ukraine to join NATO, Putin reopened the chapters of Russia’s past history and took military actions against Ukraine after the West rejected the legal guarantee that Russia proposed. Putin declared 2014 as Russia’s ‘Year of Culture’ to revive the Russian ethnic roots — not akin to the Czarist imperialist or to the Soviet expansionist logic but on the belief in honouring and defending 1,200-year-old Russia’s civilisational identity from trespassers.

The West blamed Putin for working on Stalin’s playbook for annexing Crimea. But he was taking a reverse path to restore Russia’s destiny as a great power. After Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were to follow next.

In 1991, Andrei Kozyrev coined the blizhneye zarubyezhe (‘near abroad’) theory. It became ‘sphere of influence’ in the Putin Doctrine, through which Moscow acts as the protector of russkiy mir (Russian world), including millions of ethnic Russians living outside Russia from Moldova’s Transdniester to eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.

As much as we project digital platforms controlling the future direction, the facts of geography are once again becoming determinant of international security. Any omission can have serious consequences, Ukraine being a case in point. Even independence appears not an absolute state of affairs. Even for an abstract entity like the EU, that undermined the value of power politics and believed in the idea of promoting security by building the resilience of states and civil societies, may have to now relearn the basics of strategic geography — the normative heartland, rim-land, buffer zone, neighbourhood and borderlands concepts.

But why blame only Russia? The Americans have been following the Monroe Doctrine for the last two centuries to gain world domination. What underpins the Ukraine crisis is the declining strength of American power. Since the Cold War ended, the US has been following its Wolfowitz Doctrine that outlined a policy to prevent the rise of any potential rival that may challenge its supremacy. The doctrine envisaged the American right to intervene and undertake preemptive military actions to overpower potential threats, in particular against a resurgent Russia or an ascendant China.

The notion of ‘Middle-Kingdom’ defines China’s glacis. Beijing still follows the organic concept of Li — a ritualistic tributary system of the ‘core’ controlling the ‘peripheries’ through a myriad forms of economic, trade and cultural relationships. While citing the imperial-era history from the 7th century Tang to Qing Empire, Beijing views the rest of Asia within the pale of Chinese glacis. Communist China quickly nibbled its perceived glacis — Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, the Parcels, Spratly Islands and the South China Sea. Ladakh is the latest on its list of land to be grabbed through a slow invasive tactic.

China follows the edict with modern tools to gain both territory and market access outside. Unlike Russia, which plays a straight game of chess on a single front, the Chinese ‘go’ is a slow build-up game played on multiple fronts to inflict incremental losses upon its adversary. While China is still rising, Beijing uses its faltering client North Korea as a buffer against South Korea, Japan and the US. Similarly, Pakistan is used as a buffer against India. The duplicitous Chinese justify glacis for its unification agenda with Taiwan but tacitly dissuades inter-Korean or India-Pakistan reunion. Under the Kuomintang regime, Chinese soldiers were encouraged to marry Vietnamese brides, hoping that their offspring would uphold China as Vietnam’s protector. This is being experimented elsewhere, including in Central Asia now.

So far, Moscow’s resistance against NATO expansion appears non-negotiable. European borders are not clear-cut but Russia enjoys a much-coveted zone of influence like a ‘thick’ border. This has made the choice of many in-between central European countries, caught in intersecting spheres of influence of a traditional Russian and a modern European power, difficult. While some states have reconciled to maintaining their strategic neutrality, Ukraine’s desire for complete and dual accession to NATO and the EU remains flawed and should never have been encouraged by the US. Ukraine can never become a shield against Russia but will always remain a buffer. It was people like Brzezinski, who suggested that ‘Western establishment in Ukraine would be a strong sign of Russia ceasing to be an empire and of it becoming a Nation-State like any other’.

But Russia is harking back to playing the classical defence-in-depth to protect its glacis. If, indeed, the West had shown less belligerency in trying to trespass upon the former Soviet space, Russia would have been more mindful of regional sensibilities.

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