By Harsha Kakar
The west, led by the United States, is presently involved in a new cold war with Russia. Post the re-election of President Putin and Donald Trump’s congratulatory call, it appeared that the relations could again be moving forward. However, to support the United Kingdom on its tough stand against Russia over the poisoning in London on 4 March of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian Military Intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the US led the way by expelling 60 Russian diplomats, including 12 from its mission to the UN in New York. It also ordered the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle.
The US termed all the diplomats it expelled as intelligence operatives and its reason for closing the Seattle Consulate was its proximity to a US submarine base and Boeing. Alongside the US and Canada, a host of nations belonging to the EU also expelled varying numbers of Russian diplomats. A total of 27 nations expelled 150 Russian diplomats. The US statement on the expulsion read, “Today’s actions make the US safer by reducing Russian ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security. With these steps, the US and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences.”
Earlier, the UK had expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the incident, with Russia responding similarly. For the UK, this attack on its soil was a violation of international norms. Russia has denied its involvement. It criticised the US and the European Union on their step and responded expelling the same number and closing the US consulate in St Petersburg.
This tit for tat action has pushed relations already strained since its annexation of Crimea, further downhill. The Russian Ambassador to Australia stated that the western action could lead the world into a cold war situation. Simultaneously, the Russian Ambassador to Indonesia added that it could escalate beyond a cold war to an ice war, which could be fatal.
President Putin had to respond in kind, failing which he would be considered weak. Obama’s expulsion of Russian diplomats in his final days in office over possible Russian interference in the US presidential elections, had received no immediate Russian response, as it hoped Trump would take a different view. Not this time.
In Syria, the worsening of relations now places US and Russia on different sides of the fence, adding to increased casualties, more brutality by the Syrian regime and no end to the conflict. The only sufferers would remain the local population. There is no way that the US would be able to push any further strictures through the UN Security Council on Syria. Trump frustrated with no progress announced a possible withdrawal from Syria.
Further, Russia has supported North Korea in multiple ways, as it also shares a small land border with it. The recent visit of Kim Jong Un to China indicates Chinese proximity to the nation re-emerging. This would open doors for Russia to wander back in, adding to an already doubtful case of any early resolution of North Korea’s nuclear status. There are reports that the North Korean Foreign Minister would shortly travel to Russia, even before the meeting between the two Korean heads.
Simultaneously, the Russian involvement in Afghanistan has also witnessed an upswing. The US even accused Russia of arming the Taliban. In an interview to BBC, General John Nicholson, the head of US forces in Afghanistan, stated, “We know that the Russians are involved”. He added that Russian weapons were being smuggled to the Taliban across the Tajikistan border.
For Russia, the rise of the ISIS in Afghanistan is a major threat. Hence it is seeking to enhance its involvement in that country. It is also aware that without the support of Pakistan, it could never become a major player there. Thus, there is a sudden warming of relations between the two. Joint military exercises, diplomatic exchanges and even a decision to sell military hardware are on the cards. Russia is known to be in direct parleys with the Taliban, a fact accepted by their foreign minister. The official reason being quoted is the Taliban’s enmity with the ISIS.
With India moving closer to the US, there is already a slow distancing with Russia. Though we continue to purchase military equipment from them, the warmth and support which existed earlier appears to be waning. Russia continues to fulfil diplomatic essentials with India, including the hosting of bilateral agreements and summits, but its decision to enhance its ties with Pakistan against Indian requests, indicates a change. Similar problems would flow by the increased warmth between China and Russia. It is unlikely that India could depend on Russia in the days ahead, as it had previously.
India has neither commented on the Sergei Skripal incident nor on the actions undertaken by the US and its allies. It is attempting to follow the middle path, ignoring both sides. However, while its silence may be appreciated by the west but could be misconstrued by Russia. For Russia, silence would imply tacit support to western actions, while even commenting on maintaining diplomatic norms and avoiding plunging the world into a cold war, could be considered more favourable.
India must act more professionally in the diplomatic sphere, if it desires to maintain steady relations with both camps. The defence minister is scheduled to visit Moscow shortly, and is expected to firm up agreements on the purchase of the S-400 Triumf Missile system. The minister is also expected to place Indo-Russian ties back on a firm footing. Whether there would be any success on either of the two issues, time would tell. However, assuring Russia of Indian support and seeking to reduce Russian tilt towards Pakistan should remain her priority.