Six months from now, the West may face a sticky situation in New Delhi. At the G20 summit, its leaders would have to deal with the embarrassment of posing for the customary joint photograph with Vladimir Putin, the Russian they have tried in various ways to emasculate for two decades. The Ukraine conflict is the tussle’s latest and the deadliest manifestation although in this case, Putin fired the first shot.
Putin has worked towards making Russia a military hardware manufacturing complex, besides blunting effect of sanctions
Unlike Indonesia whose security ties with the US are too deep to ignore its pressure, New Delhi is unlikely to accede to western pressure to keep Putin away from the G20 summit as it did at the Jakarta summit last November.
The West also seems to have taken the cue. At the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in India late last month, there were angry bytes from western leaders wanting the G20 to join the sanctions against Russia announced by the G7 and European nations. A week later, at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, there was considerably less talk of dragooning the G20 into endorsing western sanctions.
Sanctions — a major weapon in the West’s hybrid war against Russia — has no remote possibility of ever entering a G20 communique. Nor has it shaken the foundations of the Kremlin as its framers had hoped. Trade magazines report that a lot of Russian exports are already back on the market such as fertilisers, coking coal and engineering goods. Under a Russian economy being steered by Elvira Nabiullina, head of the Russian Central Bank, there has been no massive shrinkage of the Russian economy. Its war chest has kept on growing on the back of positive revenues, and not just from oil.
If Putin has ensured that the average Russian would emerge relatively unscathed from sanctions, he also worked towards a well-oiled and functioning military hardware manufacturing complex over the past two decades. During the Yeltsin era, “it was easy to see the Russian military less as an asset and more as a security threat. Soldiers were hungry, under-trained and undisciplined”, wrote Mark Galeotti, an acclaimed expert on Russia. During operations against insurgents in Chechnya for three years from 1994 to 1996, all it could achieve was a draw. The Russian army lost cities and for some time lost control of the capital Grozny. Bloated and sickly, Yeltsin not only guided Russia into poverty and lawlessness but had sunk its military to a level where it could not prevent NATO’s bombing of Serbia, a fellow Slav nation.
Until 2007, the ‘New Look Army’ was largely cosmetic and limited to resumption of flights by strategic bombers over the Arctic. And now the hard work of Putin’s men — Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Generals Nikolay Makarov and Valery Gerasimov — is paying off. The West never encountered the problem in its previous wars it now faces. Unlike the US’ adversaries in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, the Russian military faces no problem with war stocks. With a little bit of surreptitious help from friends, it will never get out-produced by the West in a war of attrition. As CIA Director Bill Burns said, “I think Vladimir Putin is looking at the situation in the long term. I think he’s redoubling his efforts. I think he is convinced that he can make time work for him, that he can torture the Ukrainians in this war of attrition.”
On the other hand, the US has a problem. After diverting its ammunition stocks to the Ukraine theatre, it may not have enough to simultaneously sustain another conflict. “You have to crush the enemy’s production. You have to be denying the other side the ability to resupply on the battlefield. But we’re on the hook for Taiwan, and we’re four years behind now in supplying Taiwan for contractual orders of American and allied military equipment,” laments another strategic expert, Stephen Kotkin.
All through the conflict, the western media has frequently and fondly hoped for Putin to die from a terminal illness. But CIA chief Burns recently put paid to speculation on Putin’s health and videos show the 71-year-old leader as sprightly and in good shape. Its other hope is of Putin getting ousted in a palace coup. But coups are usually financed by high rollers and Putin snapped that connection with the West years back. Immediately after becoming President, he moved against Yeltsin’s consiglieri and oligarch Boris Berezovsky. The operation was capped by the imprisonment of one of the world’s richest men, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
One of the reasons for the souring of West’s heady romance during the Yeltsin years was the downswing in the fortunes of oligarchs with American connections. Khodorkovsky’s company had five Americans on its board and his charity ‘Open Russia’ listed Henry Kissinger and Lord Rothschild as chairmen, wrote Marc Bennetts, a long-time Moscow resident. As was the case when Putin began rebuilding the military manufacturing base, his tolerance of ‘atma nirbhar’ oligarchs will now too serve him well as the West tries to find chinks in his fortress.
The past one year of the war has shown that many of the G20 — India, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China — as well as a substantial number of major countries outside it such as Iran, Malaysia, Angola, Egypt and Vietnam look at the ongoing escalation with great distaste as their strategic aims are at complete variance with that of the West. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments that “this is not the era of war’’ has to be situated in that context — the message is also to those who fuel the war.
Among several of the reasons that have enabled Russia to keep well-wishers on board despite the West’s strident campaign to isolate Putin is that he has fought the war with a light hand. “He can cut the undersea cables. He can blow up the infrastructure that carries gas or other energy supplies to Europe. He’s got submersibles, he’s got a submarine fleet, he’s got special ops who can go right down to the ocean floor where those pipelines are located,” points out Kotkin.
Putin’s conduct of “half a war” is a gesture seen in statecraft as leaving room for negotiations, which tallies with the second part of PM Modi’s statement of allowing dialogue and diplomacy to play a role. On the other hand, the West seems to have no cards to play. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants to regain every inch of territory, receive reparations from Russia and take the Kremlin to the war crimes tribunals. This wishlist can only be fulfilled if the Ukrainian military captures Moscow and brings the Russian army to its knees. That is a cul de sac, as opposed to Putin’s approach of leaving room, just as he has done with respect to foreign companies operating in Russia.
The Duma did prepare a Bill to nationalise the assets of foreign companies but there was no further movement. The foreign companies have been left to their devices. Those who have left can return when they wish. This is yet another instance of a man who has played with a weakly despite all the cards stacked in his favour.
Rather than tottering a year after the war, Putin is talking of an International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that will open up new routes for business cooperation with India, Iran and West Asian countries. “Why only China and India? It is also Latin America. Perhaps, Africa today is still sleeping, but it is waking up, 1.5 billion people live there. What about Southeast Asia,” Putin said recently. So far, he has walked his talk that “it is impossible to fence off a country like Russia from the outside”.
Bonanza for US corporates
- As Russia’s share of oil and gas has gone down, American corporates have struck a windfall.
- In 2022, the US oil shipments to Europe rose 70 per cent over 2021 and were estimated at 17.5 lakh barrels per day. There is a double bonanza for them.
- The rising exports of the American West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude to Europe means that in June, it will become the first non-North Sea crude to be included in the Brent oil benchmark. Gas exports from the US to Europe have galloped an even bigger 130 per cent in 2022.
- American LNG is predicted to have a dazzling future in Europe buttressed by the sabotage to the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. There are reports of six long-term US-Europe gas purchase agreements that could triple the volumes of US gas to Europe.
Vladimir Putin’s path to power
- 1952 Born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), he grew up in the city’s ruins as a result of a 872-day siege by the Nazi Army.
- 1975 Joined KGB when 23 and served till 1991; unclear if he was a KGB reservist thereafter.
- 1991 Got a non-teaching job in Leningrad State University. Political break came when ex-university colleague Anatoly Sobchak became Mayor and Putin rose to the post of Deputy Mayor.
- 1996 After Sobchak was defeated, he moved to Moscow and got a job in a Presidential Department.
- 1998 President Yeltsin appoints him head of FSB (revamped KGB).
- May 1999 President Yeltsin appoints Putin Prime Minister of Russia.
- May 2000 Putin takes over as President of Russia, serving for eight years.
- 2008 Putin becomes Prime Minister and elevates PM Dmitry Medvedev as President of Russia.
- 2012 Swaps posts with Medvedev and becomes President of Russia again.
- April 2021 After a referendum, law was changed to let him contest twice more. He can remain President till 2036 (84 years of age).
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