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Mystery of the Pak fishing boat

The sensational reports in the Indian newspapers regarding the incident involving a Pakistani fishing boat in the high seas several hundred kilometers off the Gujarat coast two days ago leave one utterly confused. They demand a suspension of disbelief. The solitary exceptions are an excellent investigative report by Praveen Swami in the Indian Express and some tricky question marks put on the official version by the DNA newspaper.

The official version, a statement by the Defence Ministry, has been very carefully worded:

  • The intelligence inputs were to the effect that a fishing boat from Karachi “was planning some illicit transaction in the Arabian Sea.” (Comment: Gujarat coast is a playpen of smugglers.)
  • The statement carefully avoids implicating Pakistan. Nor does it say at any point that the fishing boat carried explosives.
  • Most important, it’s unclear where the incident took place – in Indian waters or international waters, or, worse still, in Pakistani waters. The statement merely says that upon interception, the fishing boat “tried to escape away from the Indian side of maritime boundary.” [Emphasis added.]
  • There is ambiguity whether the boat was sunk by the Coast Guard or by the guys on board the boat.

If there is a Pakistani hand in the incident, the government should say so openly. It is to India’s advantage if it says so, because the international attention is high. To be sure, facts can be established easily, because by now the American military satellites would have been positioned all over India to monitor even a kite flying — as a customary security precaution in the run-up to the visit by President Barack Obama three weeks from now.

The government needs to be transparent because speculative reports only whip up xenophobia and divert public attention from other pressing national issues at a time when the Modi government’s failings after seven months in office are being noted.

The government should have gone on the offensive and raised this matter by now with world capitals (especially, Washington), the United Nations and also lodge a strong protest with the Pakistani side. Alas, nothing of the sort has been done and the mass hysteria is being left to run its hapless course.

With regard to the violent incidents on the border with Pakistan in the recent months, there is already serious skepticism over the veracity of the Indian reports voiced by distinguished figures who had served in the security and defence establishment (here and here).

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Iran trumps Saudi project in Syria-Iraq

A grudging admission that Saudi Arabia has lost out to Iran in the regional rivalry is apparent in the opinion piece by a senior editor in the establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat. The hubris that money can buy anything or anyone in Washington, the triumphalism that the Islamic State spells the doom for the Iranians, the over-confidence that Sunni-Shi’ite schism transcends regional politics – all these Saudi assumptions have gone horribly wrong. In retrospect, 2014 stands out as the year the Saudis lost the plot.

As the year 2014 ended, it became clear that the Iranians outwitted the Saudis in both Iraq and Syria. Just as the Iranians turned the US invasion of Iraq and the Shi’ite empowerment that followed to their advantage ten years ago, they promptly seized the spectre of the IS (which haunted the West) to project themselves as the factor of regional security and stability.

Suffice it to say, Iranian influence in Iraq has surged through 2014. Tehran today wields influence not only with Shi’ites but also with the Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds (here). Tehran’s robust military intervention in Iraq has degraded the IS beyond all expectations. In sum, Iran has emerged as the provider of security for Iraq, as the visit of the Iraqi defence minister to Tehran last week testifies.

The fact of the matter is that IS is a much diminished force today and its ability to seize more territories – even to retain much of it – is in serious doubt, thanks to the effectiveness of the Iranian military intervention in Iraq. On the other hand, the spectre of the IS has brought the West to realize that the Syrian regime, which is supported by Tehran, is a bulwark against Islamist terrorism that threatens Europe.

The Saudi expectations on the one hand that Tehran will be bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq and on the other hand that the US intervention against the IS would logically reopen the agenda of ‘regime change’ in Syria and compel the Obama administration to put its weight behind the Saudi project have both been belied.

But the single biggest Saudi miscalculation has been as regards the raison d’etre of the US’ engagement of Iran. The Saudis estimated that President Barack Obama will be forced to backtrack in the face of the huge assault by their lobbyists in the US in tandem with the formidable Israeli Lobby in the recent months.

Instead, Obama stood his ground. He did that out of the strength of his conviction that Iran’s cooperation will have a multiplier effect on the US strategies to calm the Middle East and restore American prestige and influence in the region, while also enabling him to focus more on the full recovery of the American economy and give more attention to the US’ global strategies.

Obama candidly spoke about all this in a major interview with the NPR News recently. He taunted his domestic critics, “There are times here in Washington where pundits… think you can just move chess pieces around the table. And whenever we have that kind of hubris, we tend to get burned.” He rejected the idea of “devoting another trillion dollars” to put boots on the ground to fight the IS in Iraq. “We need to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding our schools, our roads, our basic science and research here in the United States,” Obama said.

This is where the Saudis got Obama all wrong. They are still stuck in the mud in an earlier era of US gunboat diplomacy and ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the Middle East. Significantly, Obama in his interview also acknowledged that Iran would become a “very successful regional power” if it seized the “chance to get right with the world” and concluded a nuclear agreement, which is “possible”. He said: “Because, if they [Iranians] do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran and it could be a very successful regional power that was also also abiding by international rules – and that would be good for everybody.”

Again, Obama went an extra league to recognize that Iran has “legitimate defense concerns” after it “suffered from a terrible war with Iraq” in the 1980s. Asked whether the US would restore relations with Iran, he replied, “I would never say never.”

Iran Daily, the influential newspaper that reflects the top leadership’s thinking in Tehran, has since responded with an editorial entitled “Obama’s suggestions need closer study”. The editorial appreciated Obama’s acknowledgement that stability in the Middle East requires Iran’s cooperation. It estimated that a rapprochement with the US will “not only spur activity by American investors, but also attract European investors” and revive the Iranian economy, and this in turn “will give rise to the importance of bilateral diplomatic ties [with US].”

The editorial concluded that “amicable relations” with Tehran will enable Washington to “press ahead with policies aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East” and will help the US “to mitigate its ongoing challenges in the region.”

Are the Saudis willing to see the writing on the wall? The Saudis stand pretty much isolated today. Neither Egypt under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (who opposes the rise of Islamism in Syria or anywhere in his neighborhood) nor Turkey (which backs ‘regime change’ in Syria but sees it through the prism of the Arab Spring and is championing the Muslim Brotherhood — which is of course anathema to the Gulf Arab regimes) supports the Saudi project in Syria. As for the West, it dreads the instability in Syria. As the Syria peace talks under Russian initiative come nearer, Saudis come under compulsion to reassess how their regional policies ended up in a cul-de-sac. A good starting point for the Saudis will be to retract from their latest bluster of using oil as a weapon to bring Iran down on its knees.

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If Jokowi could do it, why not Modi?

Indonesia’s president Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is at least five months junior to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi. He just about completed two months in office and, yet, has major achievements to his credit, which ought to make Modi sit up and take note of the wasteland surrounding him.

Jokowi has already delivered on the flagship program he promised during the election campaign – a massive welfare program for the poor – and has launched various other reform programs. The Indonesian economy is in difficulty due to the falling commodity prices and the drop in oil price. The main exports are timber, nickel and oil. Yet, Jokowi found the money to finance his costly welfare programs that aim to give to the poor people various entitlements through electronic cards.  The healthcare program for the poor is a great social support measure.

Unlike Modi who is often compared with Indira Gandhi for the sheer power at his command, Jokowi goes down as the weakest of all seven presidents Indonesia has had. Jokowi controls neither the country’s ruling coalition nor the parliament and the military. Imagine, L. K. Advani controlling the BJP, Rajnath Singh the Parliament and General Dalbir Singh Suhag the armed forces — and all these elites regard Modi as a quintessential ‘outsider’, and they are all in a position to frustrate or undermine his prime ministership unless he accommodated their interests.

Compared to Jokowi, Modi has everything going for him in the corridors of power. What, then, explains Jokowi’s accomplishments by far outstripping Modi’s? One, he effectively uses his charisma and popularity (comparable to Modi’s) to mobilize public opinion for his reforms. The strong social support programs have gone down well with the Indonesian people who have faith in Jokowi as the guardian of the interests and welfare of the teeming millions of poor.

In turn, Jokowi astutely exploited the people’s faith in him to introduce the 30 percent hike in fuel prices by cutting subsidies. People have so much trust in Jokowi that they know the savings will be utilized for the public good. Simply put, Jokowi displays great leadership skills.

Modi, on the other hand, still concentrates on deploying his charisma and mass appeal to win more elections – state assembly elections and, maybe, local body elections at a future stage – although the parliament is already in his control. The result is that Modi is forever winning elections, but it is others who are moulding the political narrative – RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, et al. In sum, while Jokowi’s weak political position doesn’t deter him, Modi’s strong political position is becoming irrelevant.

Jokowi places heavy reliance on mobilizing public opinion and he is managing this by employing volunteers. But the ‘volunteers’ in Modi’s camp are busy spiraling social and political tensions. The public expectations are running high for both Jokowi and Modi, but disappointment is rising in India.

Jokowi, like Modi, also had to make compromises in forming the Cabinet. But he ensured that he would have a line-up that is solidly united behind his vision of Indonesia. The ministers are not of similar political background and, yet, they have been consistent in saying there is but one vision guiding them – the Jokowi vision. Modi’s ministers, on the other hand, are largely of the same political background – rooted in the RSS or the BJP or both – but they keep mum and we won’t even know what thoughts cross their mind, whether they are enthused to solidly fight for the Modi vision.

The biggest difference between Jokowi and Modi seems to be that the Indonesian leader’s agenda to capture power was rooted in his identification with the poor people. After all, as the governor of Jakarta, he used to go to office on bicycle. He never cultivated the corporate industry and today he is not only not beholden to them, but can upfront take on crony capitalism and corruption. In fact, Jokowi’s ongoing crackdown on corruption in Indonesia’s oil industry has made him immensely popular among the people who were fed up with public corruption. In sum, his popularity and his reforms are mutually reinforcing.

Of course, Modi also spoke a great deal about corruption during his election campaign. But he has since lapsed into silence and seems disinterested in the topic — although India is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The point is, Modi has been eloquent – ‘development agenda’ – but his genuine commitment to the poor people  remains unclear. Unlike Jokowi’s, therefore, Modi’s reform agenda may undercut his popularity. The impending labor reforms become a test case. Modi seems to be wary of public outcry and the proposed legislation is being drafted in great secrecy.

Now, Jokowi will never hide things from his people. On the contrary, he draws strength from the people. Which of course helps him fight political battles on multiple levels – within his government, in the parliament and against the entrenched privileged classes in the country. But then, Modi indeed is having an easy time with political battles — and they have been reduced to solo acts.

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Ice cracking in US-Russia ties

The fascinating thing about the Russian-American relationship is that it is seldom what it seems to outsiders. The two powers dissimulate so often like cats snarling – you never know whether they are actually fighting or are getting into a romantic foreplay. One reason why China could be very cautious about the Ukraine crisis is this real difficulty to be judgmental. The safe thing is, perhaps, to keep a wary distance.

Russia on its part appreciates Beijing’s circumspection, and it did not strain to get China to share its Ukraine woes, either. Simply put, Russia preferred to keep it a ‘bilateral’ affair with the West and is pleased that no undue demands were put on the Sino-Russian ties (which are doing splendidly well at any rate) on account of the tensions over Ukraine. Read a riveting interview, here,  to the Russian state news agency TASS by Russia’s ambassador to China Andrey Denisov.

Why I began with a long-winded preface is because I have been getting the sense that the worst in US-Russia relations could be getting over. See my recent blog Obama’s Russia fiasco where I wrote that “it is inconceivable that a cerebral man like him [Obama] would want to be known in history for the dubious twin reputation of being the US president and a Nobel Laureate who rekindled the flames of the Cold War.”

Indeed, James Rogin, the familiar American columnist specializing on security and foreign affairs has just disclosed that Obama could be brooding over an “outreach” to Russia that may not amount – initially, at least – to “a wholesale reset” of the US-Russia ties and is limited to forging “a new working relationship” with Moscow, but based on an offer to partially ease “some of the most onerous” the Western sanctions as quid pro quo for a via media over Ukraine, which would “isolate the issue s of Donetsk and Luhansk from the issue of Crimea.”

Rogin flags that Secretary of State John Kerry spearheads this “thaw” and even contemplated a visit to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin to talk things over directly face-to-face, and that the Obama administration approached the redoubtable Henry Kissinger to act as back channel. But, Rogin claims, quoting US officials, the “Russian leadership has been rejecting Kerry’s overtures both in public and private.”

Rogin apparently had access to top sources in the Obama administration and his report’s hidden message could well be that Obama is battling a wave of anti-Russia sentiments in the US Congress while initiating a “thaw” with Russia, and therefore it is unwise for Moscow to push the envelope, as the US president too is “unwilling to place his own credibility behind any outreach to his nemesis Putin.” (Inside Obama’s Secret Outreach to Russia, Bloomberg)

Equally, there are a couple of other indicators. One is the piece that appeared this week, again, authored by three top Russian hands in the Rand Corporation (which of course often does the thinking for the Pentagon on Russia), whom Moscow would easily recognize as familiar faces. Interestingly, the New York Times reproduced the RAND piece titled Rapprochement with Russia?. It has been co-authored by Hans Binnendijk, a former senior director for defense policy on the National Security Council and a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, Christopher S. Chivvis, associate director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and Olga Oliker, director of the RAND Center for Russia and Eurasia.

Their thesis is that Russia’s current economic difficulties open a window of opportunity for the US to offer a lifeline in the nature of a “truly comprehensive package” on Ukraine crisis consisting of five “basic elements”:

  • Full implementation of the Minsk accord on Eastern Ukraine;
  • NATO retaining its “deterrent posture” in Eastern Europe and strengthening it through “forward deployments” in the Baltic states as “essential insurance against another breakdown in the West’s relationship with Russia”;
  • No NATO membership for Ukraine;
  • Russia’s acceptance of “a closer Ukrainian relationship with the European Union” on the one hand and reciprocal moves to address “Russian concerns with being cut off from access to Ukrainian markets”; and,
  • Long-term and “firmer” Western commitment to supporting reforms in Ukraine.

Interestingly, the RAND scholars take note that “Moscow may still be seeking a deal” over Ukraine, and advocate a package that would offer Russia “a brighter economic future along with recognition of Russia’s enduring importance to the West”. They specifically recommend Russia’s return to the G8 grouping, revival of the NATO-Russia Council “and other channels as part of a comprehensive deal”, notably including the creation of a high-level forum of EU-Eurasian Union summits. (Rapprochement with Russia?)

Meanwhile, it might be a coincidence, but the Pentagon spokesman told the Russian official media on Tuesday, “The United States is reviewing Russia’s new military doctrine. Neither the United States nor our NATO allies are a threat to Russia, and for more than two decades, NATO worked to build a partnership with Russia. The United States and its NATO allies do not seek confrontation with Russia.”

All things taken into account, it stands to reason that the Kremlin’s recent decision to update Russia’s military doctrine has set alarm bells ringing in the Western capitals that the troubled relationship with Russia may be approaching a dangerous turn or even a point of no return. Again, the defining moment is approaching with regard to the Iran nuclear issue and the conflict in Syria and in both cases, Russia’s cooperation becomes critical. Last week, in conciliatory remarks aimed at calming the tensions with Russia, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini pointedly called for “a direct debate with Moscow on our relations and the role Russia could play in other scenarios of the crisis.”

To be sure, these are early days but the crunchy sound of the ice breaking on the frozen US-Russia lake is unmistakable. Kazakhstan, which is a close ally of Russia, is hosting a summit meeting of the presidents of France, Russia and Ukraine and the German chancellor on January 15. The so-called Normandy format on Ukraine is apparently being revived. (Obama had originally given blessing to it.) In the run-up to the summit, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has unilaterally announced that Kiev no longer intends to militarily regain control of the eastern territories.

But the stunning part is that Poroshenko also revealed that he had phoned Obama and ascertained the possibility of the US president joining the talks in Astana. Now, that may be far too rushed an invite for a laid-back statesman like Obama to act on, but the fact that Poroshenko broached the idea betrays an audacity of hope.

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Obama’s gift to Indians

The pockets of Christian communities (population 24 million) spread over India (population 1260 million) are highly likely to get a reprieve from physical attacks and vandalism and desecration of churches until the Republic Day gets over in faraway Delhi. Without doubt, the rising criticism in the influential American media lately will drive home the message to whoever is behind the attacks on the Christian communities in India that President Barack Obama may take note unless this madness is halted forthwith.

The American opinion matters like hell at all times to India’s political class – BJP and Congress alike. Nonetheless, two or three troubling questions remain. First and foremost, a good case can be made that even if Obama were not coming to India, what is going on in our country is appalling and the authorities should have clamped down on it.

A second thing that will be troubling arises, paradoxically, if at this point, the attacks on the Christian communities indeed come to a halt. For, in that case, it becomes at once clear that someone very powerful in our country who is above the law has been micromanaging these attacks from behind the scene and could stop it just like that if he wanted — and, worse still, that quarter is also passionately sensitive about Obama’s opinion of India.

In short, Obama calls the shots even with quarters who stand at dizzying heights above the law in our country, who are not accountable to any canons. But then, that makes us look a very sheepish, cowardly ‘civilization’, isn’t it?

The third thing is of course what is currently agitating the minds of our intellectuals, namely, Prime Minister Narednra Modi’s own eloquent silence over what has been happening. Two schools of thought have sprung up: one, Modi knows pretty much what is going on and is actually acquiescing with it by keeping silent; two, he is genuinely helpless in front of the quarters who are far more powerful than him, and is genuinely unable to act in the spirit of the Indian constitution under which he took oath and became prime minister.

One of India’s eminent editors Shekhar Gupta put it nicely when he admitted recently he doesn’t know which of the two above is worse for the country – that is, a prime minister who dissimulates or a diffident prime minister.

At any rate, the bottom line here is that it is about time the Modi government realizes what sort of ridiculous image his country is projecting abroad when his followers go on a rampage (here, here, here and here). Obama or no Obama, this is a matter where the government ought to have acted ruthlessly by cracking the whip on the zealots right at the outset.

Meanwhile, let us sit upon the ground and pray for Obama’s good health in the New Year. We are grateful to him for putting the fear of God into the minds of our authorities and elites that if you attack the Christian communities in India, there is a going to be a price to pay, namely, India will be in the doghouse. Amen.

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Russia reopens Syria peace talks

The announcement by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday that Moscow could host peace talks on Syria sometime toward the last week of January did not exactly come as surprise. Much diplomatic effort had gone into it. The UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was in Moscow and Russia’s special presidential representative on the Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov had been swinging his way through the region in recent weeks and also touching base with the protagonists in Syria – government and opposition alike.

Most important, despite the tensions in Russian-American relations, the two big powers have been consulting on Syria on the basis of shared concerns (as much as differences). Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dropped a broad hint of stirrings in the air when in an interview with TV Channel France 24 some ten days ago he all but forecast that Moscow might host a Syrian “warming-up” as prelude to a Geneva III under the formal UN umbrella.

Lavrov said it could be “a preparatory meeting just to bring the opposition groups together for them to try to develop a common approach to the negotiations with the government, then to bring the government representatives to meet with them informally, and to agree the agenda of the process, which could be resumed. Because one of the reasons the Geneva, the previous Geneva process, failed was they could not agree on the agenda, which comes first – fighting terrorism or discussing political transition. I believe this could be done in parallel.”

Lavrov also disclosed that Moscow is moving in tandem with the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who also “has some ideas on this score, which we [Russia] support.” Lavrov explained that Russia hoped to persuade the Syrian opposition groups to come together and to form a common delegation, “probably with more than one spokesman but in a delegation, which would be based on the same principles.”

Interestingly, Lavrov disclosed that on a parallel track, “we have to support another UN idea, which is the so-called freezing of the hostilities, starting from Aleppo. Staffan de Mistura has some specific plan, and we would be supportive of his efforts.” In sum, Lavrov insisted that there is room for optimism about the whole idea since the “majority of our interlocutors” have responded favorably to it.

The diplomatic track is indeed showing new activism. Damascus has voiced over the weekend that its decision to participate in the peace talks in Moscow. The Syrian rebels initially sounded a discordant note but that also seems to be changing.

Lebanon’s Daily Star today reported from Cairo that a conclave of the Syrian opposition groups meeting in the Egyptian capital currently is on the ball and has even begun working on a peace plan. The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri has been quoted as saying that the Syrian opposition has indicated its agreement in principle to attend the Moscow meetings.

Indeed, the chances of the peace doves taking off in Syrian skies are almost evenly divided. On the plus side, the success of the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad in gaining control over most of the urban areas along the west coast and the virtual extinction of the ‘moderate’ opposition groups has created a “chaotic stalemate”, as New York Times put it in an insightful report last week. The spectre that is haunting the proponents of regime change in the West is a long insurgency and a Syria that would be mostly controlled either by the government forces or the extremist Islamist groups.

Unsurprisingly, the EU is backing de Mistura’s mission and implicitly signaling go-ahead for Moscow’s initiative. Alongside, there is a grudging acknowledgement in the western capitals – albeit in hushed tone so far – that Assad stands between Europe and the Islamist deluge. The fact remains that the Barack Obama administration has also withstood immense pressure from lobbies in the US to intervene in Syria. It remains to be seen how far the Obama administration will remain committed to building a new ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel force from scratch.

However, there are negative factors that cannot be underestimated, either. First and foremost, the Islamic State, which controls a lot of Syrian territory, is not going to be present at the meeting in Moscow. Put differently, one of the main ‘protagonists’ in the conflict in Syria stands excluded and any peace plan on Syria’s democratic transformation suffers without a strategy to fight the IS and eradicate it from the political landscape. This alone becomes a formidable challenge, since the IS is not confined to Syria alone.

Second, the regional states wedded to the regime change agenda in Syria – Turkey, Saudi Arabia principally – are not showing any signs of having given up their pipedream. Foreign fighters are still arriving in Syria through Turkish territory and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has made Washington’s support for the ouster of Assad as his pre-condition for lending a hand in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan is in a defiant mood as the participation of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in the ruling party AKP’s annual congress last week shows.

As for Saudi Arabia, it sees Syria through the prism of its animosity toward Iran. The Saudi strategy to hurt Iranian economy by engineering the drop in oil price has only exacerbated the regional rivalry between Riyadh and Teheran. The Iran Daily newspaper linked to the office of the Supreme Leader carried a tough editorial on Sunday, capturing the big tensions with Saudi Arabia. The editorial, inter alia, underscored that the forthcoming peace talks in Moscow will be “a significant setback” for the Saudi plans to topple Assad, coming on top of the “victory” Tehran scored in the Syrian conflict.

On the other hand, the US’ capacity to influence Turkey and Saudi Arabia cannot be exaggerated — and, indeed, the political will itself may be lacking. An excellent piece in the National Interest, here, points out that Washington would know that its “toxic Middle East allies” engage in behavior that contradicts US interests, including by supporting terrorism, but “Outdated and misguided ideas about the importance of our Persian Gulf allies, driven by an imprudent and expansive grand strategy, continue to incentivize [US] policymakers to overlook the substantial costs associated with them.”

Suffice it to say, the ‘known unknown’ at this point is how far the Russian initiative to kickstart peace talks on Syria would form a calming vector in the overall US-Russia ties. Of course, Moscow will be only too keen to work with the US on any common problem impacting regional and international security that would hold the potential to improve Russia’s standing with the West.

In Europe, Russia’s peacemaking role on Syria can only burnish its image. The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (former Italian foreign minister and an erstwhile youth leader of the Italian communist party) might have held out an olive branch yesterday to the Kremlin, saying the West wants to end the “logic of confrontation” in relations with Russia, and wants to “begin direct discussions with Moscow over our mutual relations and the role Russia can play in other crises.” Mogherini actually listed Syria as one such hotspot. (Sputnik)

The big question is what Obama has to say when he returns to Washington from the golf course in Hawaii. The chronicle of Russian-American relations is replete with such tantalizing moments. although four days have passed, the US is yet to react negatively to the announcement in Moscow last Thursday on the Syria peace talks and that must be taken as a good sign.

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China refines diplomatic realism

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s address at a symposium of think tankers in Beijing on Thursday, taking stock of the directions and achievements of the country’s diplomacy through the year 2014, has some interesting ‘takes’ on Asia. On the whole, Chinese diplomacy has been presented (rightly so) as if on a roll, proactive and robust – with “salient Chinese features, Chinese style and Chinese confidence”.

A running theme of the speech was that China’s growth and prosperity can be an engine for the promotion and expansion of global security and stability with ‘win-win’ outcomes all around. Unsurprisingly, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road were highlighted as of pivotal significance. But the emphasis was on the Eurasian landmass. Wang said that externally, the projects under these rubrics are designed to boost win-win cooperation between China and Eurasian countries, but internally, “this initiative dovetails with China’s development strategy of developing our [China’s] central and western regions while addressing regional imbalances and fits well with our ‘go global’ strategy.”

Wang said the ‘win-win’ approach to the Silk Road projects will involve “consultation, joint development and sharing” among participants. He claimed that “over 50 countries” have responded positively and “signed on, ready to align their cited respective development schemes” with the Chinese Silk Road projects. He cited the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund as providing the underpinning for the Silk Road.

Wang listed Afghanistan as one of the “global hotspot issues” in which “we [China] have played our part” – alongside Iran nuclear issue, Ebola, Ukraine, Korean Peninsula, Palestine-Israel conflict, Syrian issue and South Sudan. But Wang was conspicuously circumspect in living up to the hype generated by the United States lately about a “proactive” Chinese role in Afghanistan. He refrained from articulating any Chinese effort to kick start the Afghan peace process as such. He merely voiced China’s support to the Afghan transition and claimed that China “worked hard to maintain peace and stability” in that country.

Unsurprisingly, the ASEAN and Central Asia received prominent attention in Wang’s speech, whereas, to the likely consternation of Indian pundits, South Asia took a back seat in China’s order of priorities. Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh did not figure at all for reference, while Maldives and Sri Lanka were singled out as countries President Xi Jinping visited during the year, which in turn has given “a strong boost” to the building of the Maritime Silk Road.

Curiously, Wang discussed India not as a South Asian country but as a member country belonging to the BRICS, a country which Xi visited against the backdrop of solidarity and cooperation deepening among the member states. On the bilateral ties, Wang said: “China and India agreed to make their strategic and cooperative partnership more development-focused, and breakthroughs were made in China-India pragmatic cooperation.” It can be taken as a fulsome tribute to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development agenda and his innate pragmatism that defines his outlook on relations with China.

By the “breakthroughs” in “pragmatic cooperation” with India, Wang presumably had in mind the partial removal of the mental blocks in the Indian thinking with regard to Chinese investments and economic cooperation.

It is a positive assessment, no doubt — although, noticeably modest in comparison with the big strides Chinese diplomacy took through past year on the whole. Wang said, for instance, that China made “solid progress” in relations with the US — deepening mutual understanding and making “major progress in a wide range of areas” such as climate change, reciprocal visa arrangement and mil-to-mil CBMs.

Elsewhere in the speech, Wang flagged that “keeping relations between countries unaffected by military factors” will be one of the “basic features” of the network of partnerships China hopes to forge, so that state-to-state relations can be handled with “a cooperative rather than confrontational, and a win-win rather than zero sum approach.” This was not with reference to India specifically, but would have bearing on China’s diplomacy towards India.

Wang quoted Xi to the effect, “Those who share the same vision and follow the same path are partners. Those who seek common ground while shelving differences can also be partners.” Wang viewed this as “a new dimension to realism-based traditional theory of international relations” within which China would seek to build a network of partnerships, each with unique features attuned to the interlocutor involved, instead of seeking allies.

Wang estimated that China has established 72 partnerships “in different forms and at different levels” with sixty-seven countries and five regions or regional organizations “which cover all the major countries and regions of the world.” A lone rider, all in all, who will be, nonetheless, never short of company and whom it will be simply impossible for any power on earth to ‘contain’.

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Russia brands NATO as threat

A crisp two-line announcement by the Kremlin on Friday may have punctuated the run of the quarter-century old post-cold war era in world politics. It merely said that President Vladimir Putin has approved certain changes (“clarification”) to the Russian Military Doctrine.

Russia’s Security Council has separately amplified that the updates pertained to several developments in the recent period. But, principally, it appears that the revised version highlights the expansion of NATO’s military capabilities as one of the main threats to Russia’s national security.

It flagged that NATO is actively moving toward unfolding a global antiballistic missile system, increasing its military potential, violating norms of international law by arrogating to itself global functions, and deploying its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s border, including through the expansion of the alliance. The thrust of the revised document is on the NATO’s expansion towards Russia’s borders. Once bitten twice shy, as they say. Russia is not leaving anything to chance, given the likelihood that the US is pushing for Ukraine’s membership of the alliance.

Moscow would have reason to suspect the motivations behind the move by the Ukrainian government, which is stacked with pro-US figures (including a finance minister who used to be a former US state department official), to pass a resolution annulling the country’s ‘non-aligned’ status. Moscow’s reaction was immediate and strong, warning that Ukraine’s NATO membership would “affect Russia’s national security interests and compel our country to retaliate appropriately.”

In sum, faced with the all-round faceoff with the West, Russia is expanding and  sharpening its deterrent capabilities and accelerating the modernization of its military. Seventy percent of equipment used by the Russian armed forces and sixty-five percent of its strategic nuclear weapons are to be modernized by 2020 at a cost of nearly $400 billion.

Russia’s characterization of NATO as a threat to its security has profound implications. The security environment in Europe changes beyond recognition and the Russian-US equations undergo a big shift. In the mid-1990s, when Yeltsin’s Russia was ‘persuaded’ to acquiesce with the NATO expansion into Central Europe (violating the assurances given to Mikhail Gorbachev while agreeing to the re-unification of Germany), the sop offered by Bill Clinton (and Strobe Talbott) was that Russia and NATO would independently build the sinews of a cooperative relationship. Russia was eventually compelled to accept NATO’s incremental expansion into the territories of the former Soviet Union. But Moscow has decided to draw a ‘red line’ to make it clear that it will not accept any further expansion by the alliance. Of course, the NATO-Russia Council has now become history.

A flashpoint will arise if the NATO moved into Ukraine, an eventuality that can no longer be ruled out. Russia is forcing Europe to make a choice: Does it want to tag along with the US agenda on NATO expansion (and provoke Russian retaliation) or cry halt to any further expansion? On the other hand, Moscow appreciates that Europe’s capacity to stall a US-driven NATO expansion plan has also become more limited than ever.

Presumably, Russia would also have reached the conclusion by now that the US simply will not allow a resolution of the Ukraine crisis and the pro-American government led by President Petro Poroshenko follows the American script, recent positive trends notwithstanding. Indeed, the current chill in Russia-Europe ties works to the US’ strategic advantage.

Meanwhile, there is a high probability that Russia is possessing incriminating evidence that implicates the US and Ukraine in the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft MH17 in July. (See my earlier blog Who shot down MH17 in Ukraine?). Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov may be already slowly and steadily tightening the screws on Washington and Kiev. In an interview with Russian state television on Thursday, Lavrov virtually taunted that US and Ukraine have to answer some tricky questions:

“We still have no replies to the questions: Where are the data from the US satellites that monitored the area on that day? Where are the data from US planes that were flying over that area? Where are the testimonies by Dnipropetrovsk air traffic controllers who were responsible for keeping track of flights in that part of Ukraine’s airspace? We have long requested a logbook of all sorties Ukrainian combat planes based on that area flew on that day… We only hear accusations that Russia is to blame for everything, that the militias are to blame for everything, and that our questions are being asked for the sole purpose of misleading the investigation… It is impossible to pretend ignorant on and on when very specific questions are asked again and again. We have opened a criminal case. It will be impossible to ignore this process. The questions will have to be answered.”

For sure, the New Year is set to begin on an acrimonious chapter in the Russian-American relationship. The evidence is piling that taking stock of the ‘big picture’ that the US is across the board challenging Russia’s core interests and vital concerns, Moscow is taking the gloves off instead of remaining on a defensive mode as it has been so far. The Xinhua news agency in a Moscow datelined report quoted Russian experts who “believe that further sanctions are likely to be imposed by the West against Russia, while indirect military confrontations are also possible, especially on Ukrainian territories, between Russia and NATO troops.”

Posted in Military, Politics.

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Obama’s Russia fiasco

The Cold-War style propaganda against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the western media may have peaked. So much garbage has been thrown at the Russian leader that the inventory must be getting depleted. But amidst all the mudslinging, Putin himself remains nonchalant, again belying the western character sketches of him that he can’t take criticism. Apparently he can.

Besides, Putin’s popularity within Russia itself is soaring above 80 percent currently. It is doubtful if any world leader can match Putin’s popularity today. And that also probably explains Putin’s indifference to the western media attacks on him. As he told an interviewer once, he was elected, after all, to serve his country and not for being ‘nice’ to Barack Obama.

An American poll conducted by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago has come up with some stunning results:

  • Putin is extremely popular among the Russian people, enjoying an approval rating of 81 percent;
  • Economic woes are top of mind among the Russian people and they agree western sanctions are hurting the economy, but they do not yet feel a negative impact on their pocketbooks;
  •  Most Russians feel their country is headed in the right direction and are optimistic about their own personal fiancés in the coming years;
  • Two thirds of Russians favor supporting the separatist movement in Ukraine.

The poll is particularly interesting because NORC in the University of Chicago (where Obama taught for 12 years ending as a professor) also works for the “government agencies” to provide data and analysis that “support informed decision making in key areas.” Suffice it to say, the AP-NORC poll would have come to the attention of the White House and possibly, Obama’s aides might even have drawn his attention to it.

How should Obama view the startling results of the AP-NORC poll? Evidently, the poll shows that his Russia policy is in a shambles. If the hope was that under the weight of sanctions, Russian economy will pack up and popular disaffection with Putin will cascade and that in turn will be the end of the Russian leader’s political life, well, things are going haywire.

Objectively speaking, the Russian people are pretty much pleased with Putin’s policies. And Obama’s calculation that he is cleverly separating the Russian leader from his people has gone horribly wrong. Putin is actually enjoying a popularity, which is more than double that of Obama’s. Self-styled Russian hands in the US were forecasting cracks in the Russian system. But nothing of the sort happened.

What Obama overlooks is that the Russian people are very different from the average American who is gullible about what goes on in the world outside. The Russian people are literate and politically conscious – thanks to the Soviet legacy – and they do understand what the US’ ‘containment strategy’ toward Russia or NATO’s expansion is all about. They understand that Ukraine crisis is an existential struggle for strategic balance with America. So, they want Putin to stay on course.

Putin intends to exploit his popularity to implement something that seems close to his heart, namely, a restructuring of the Russian economy and cutting down its heavy dependence on oil income. It’s a long haul, but reform is in the air. Putin’s address to the council of ministers in the Kremlin on Thursday leaves one in no doubt that Russia is digging in. True, Russian economy is in difficulty, but aside the propagandists in the West presenting apocalyptic visions, no one seriously expects the Russian economy to come down on its knees.

All in all, Obama faces a formidable intellectual challenge here. Does he press ahead with more of the same mindless bluster passing off as Russia policy in the next year too? If that is the case, what is it that he hopes to achieve? By now it is widely accepted by American pundits that Putin doesn’t blink. What does that belated realization mean?

It can only mean that this confrontation, unless ended now, could be about to enter a dangerous escalatory spiral. The dynamic at play is unmistakable. And yet, Obama just signed the bill empowering him to impose further sanctions on Russia and, worse still, to give Ukraine $350 million worth of arms. Putin – and the Russian people – only feel convinced more than ever before that what Obama aims at is a regime change in Russia.

But regime change is, clearly, not something the Russian people want – according to the AP-NORC poll. Where does that leave Obama? Without doubt, Russia has become a major foreign-policy challenge for Obama and it is inconceivable that a cerebral man like him would want to be known in history for the dubious twin reputation of being the US president and a Nobel Laureate who rekindled the flames of the Cold War.

Posted in Politics.

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China’s Maritime Silk Road enters Suez

China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road took a great leap forward this week when the visiting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Tuesday that he visualized the two projects as providing “an important opportunity for the rejuvenation” of his country. Sisi was on a four-day state visit to China. (Xinhua)

From all accounts, China has scored a major diplomatic coup, as evident from the announcement by Xi and Sisi elevating the relationship between the two countries to “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Xi assured Sisi that China will “integrate the initiatives of jointly constructing the Silk Road Belt and the Maritime Silk Road with major developmental plans of Egypt, enhance cooperation in the fields of including infrastructure construction, nuclear power, new energy and aerospace, and supplement it with appropriate investment and financing arrangement.”

Interestingly, military and security cooperation also figured on the agenda. Xi reportedly offered that the two countries could “jointly crack down on terrorism.” The Joint Statement signed by the two leaders includes a section on ‘Military and security fields.’

Sisi remains eternally vigilant about radical Islam and China gets a useful partner in Egypt in tracking down the Islamist elements who foment trouble in Xinjiang. Given the nature of the Egyptian power structure, China will be keen to foster military-to-military relations. Indeed, as Chinese navy expands further and makes its presence felt in the Mediterranean in the coming decades, the Suez Canal will be of great importance in Beijing’s military strategy.

Sisi pitched for Chinese participation in his pet project for the New Suez Canal. For China, it is a strategic bonanza, since it is through the Suez Canal that the Maritime Silk Road envisages its progression to the Mediterranean and on to Venice where it meets up with the land-based New Silk Road (originating from Xi’an in central China and runs through Xinjiang and Central Asia to northern Iran before swinging west through Iraq, Syria and Turkey and heads northwest through Europe taking in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Germany, to Rotterdam in the Netherlands and thereupon running south to Venice in Italy.)

The Maritime Silk Road originates from Quanzhou in Fujian province and heads to the Malacca Strait and the Indian Ocean to reach Nairobi from where it goes north around the Horn of Africa and moves through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. (By the way, Maldives last week joined Sri Lanka as participants in the project.)

A Xinhua commentary highlights that China’s main focus is on expansion of economic ties with Egypt, where it sees huge opportunities. But the burgeoning strategic dimension to the relationship is at once obvious. The point is, Egypt becomes a pivotal country in China’s Maritime Silk Road strategy. It seems Xi may pay a return visit to Egypt in a near future to seal the strategic partnership.

China has scrupulously avoided getting mixed up with the Arab Spring and Xi made it clear to Sisi that Egypt’s political system or its path of development is its sole business. Xi has taken a stance ditto that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Sisi visited Moscow in August.)

Sisi’s comfort level with Russia and China should be very high. The Egyptian prime minister recently constituted a special unit to monitor, promote and accelerate ties with Russia and China. Cairo hopes to leverage the ties with Russia and China to ward off intrusive American policies.

Of course, Washington cannot but feel troubled over these unmistakeable signs of the deepening of Russian and Chinese engagement with Egypt, a key ally of the US until recently. President Barack Obama must have felt sufficiently worried to put a phone call through to Sisi and chat up with him last week just before the Egyptian leader emplaned for Beijing.

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