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Analysis

Updated on: Monday, January 10, 2022, 08:30 AM IST

30 years post-USSR, a multipolar world order is back, write R K Raghavan & Ajay Goyal

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The two recent telephonic conversations between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin over the simmering situation in Ukraine were, by all accounts, sedate. Contrary to the projected polemics, the occasion turned out to be an insipid proclamation by each leader, ending with an agreement on face-to-face talks. To those desirous of peace in the world - a majority of us belong to this group - this is how it should be in a dangerously sensitive region of the globe, that too at a time when a deadly pandemic is still sweeping across the globe.

Any military offensive by Russia in Ukraine might lead to an uncontrollable conflagration, with immense consequences for the rest of the world. With the US invitation for direct talks, Russia has once again taken a seat on the global high table. Not unsurprisingly, it was quick to flaunt its strategic relations with the other global economic, technological and military power – China – with which it shares a 4,200km peaceful border. Since the last conflagration in 1969, when the Soviet Union and China were on the brink of an all-out war, their relations have been business-like and quiet.

The US and Russia are led by two seasoned politicians with decades of foreign policy experience. Neither of them seem to be itching for a headlong military confrontation. They are both aware of catastrophic consequences of a war for their own countries, as well as the world. Biden was quick to rule out any military involvement publicly even in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine (which Russia has strenuously denied it intends). Instead, he stopped with a threat of ‘sanctions from hell’.

While Putin did not exactly tremble over the prospect of such sanctions, it is obvious he too wants a non-aggression pact, rather than a confrontation. While the recent Biden-Putin virtual conversations did not throw up any pointers as to how Russia and the west would move forward in the coming months, face-to-face talks on the Russian charter of security guarantees is a very significant development. The US has been the lone global superpower for more than three decades, since the dying days of the Soviet Union and the early years of a weak Russian Federation as its successor state. The Soviet Union was terminally weakened by its war in Afghanistan largely because the United States, through its ally Pakistan, armed the Mujahideen, leading to a defeat of the mighty USSR.

With the collapse of the USSR, there was no second super power and the non-aligned movement of 120 states led by India also came to a silent death. The prospect of a new multipolar world seemed distant with American power growing unchallenged, until now. After an absence from the global stage for three decades, in 2014, Russia swallowed up Crimea, which was a part of Ukraine but its more than 90 per cent of ethnic Russian population voted overwhelmingly to join Russia when the west caused a regime change in Ukraine that brought anti-Russian nationalists to power. Russia did not pay any heed to western objections and sanctions and completed the integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation.

Those not familiar with the currents and cross-currents of the region may be intrigued at all this fuss between the US, Europe and Russia about Ukraine. The country’s geopolitical importance cannot be overemphasised. For centuries, it has been at the heart of KievanRus empire. Several European wars have been fought on present day Ukrainian territory by the Russian empire with Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and Prussia. It has also been a central battlefield in the Napoleonic and German invasions of Russia and the Soviet Union. It is a multi-ethnic country of Russians and several Central European ethnicities, sharing a 7000 sq km border that touches seven countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Russia, and Belarus. With a population of 44 million, the country has vast fertile lands, with grain production of more than 60 million metric tonnes a year, wheat alone accounting for one-third of the yield.

While its Soviet era industry has been in decline, it has emerged as an IT powerhouse in recent years. Exports of steel, coal and chemicals are the mainstay of the economy, albeit mainly to Russia and the former Soviet Union countries. The US leads the most powerful military bloc in the world, NATO, whose 30 member countries spend nearly 25 times more on military than Russia and it has played a very active role in internal Ukrainian politics. Just when the NATO and US march into Ukraine seemed unstoppable, Putin threw down the gauntlet. He deployed more than 75,000 troops along the Ukrainian border and western intelligence predicted an all-out invasion by Russia. Military analysts predicted that Russia could achieve complete military supremacy within weeks in the event of a war.

Set against this background, Joe Biden warned Russia against an invasion, invited Russia to first express its concerns and then to talks. The US has, for the first time in recent times, acknowledged Russian security concerns and agreed to talk about them. Putin is now globally looked at as a strong global leader who cannot be taken for granted, one who is capable of springing surprises and causing tectonic shifts in the global order. These moves in Europe came soon after Putin’s success in Afghanistan, where he played his cards extremely well while the Americans were making a chaotic withdrawal and India was losing all diplomatic ground and presence built over 20 years.

It suddenly became obvious that the Russian military effectiveness seen in Syria, Georgia and Crimea could be fatal for Ukraine if Russians were pushed too far and into a corner. It is also clear that western assurances about sanctions are useless for Ukrainian security in the face of a very confident and modern Russian military. The proposed bilateral talks between the US and Russia heralds the beginning of a new era of multipolarity. Together with Russia, the emergence of China and India as powers in their own rights is unstoppable and the US, despite its military power across the word, is limited in how it can call the shots in regional conflicts or make demands of individual nations. To sum up the interesting turn of events, it is clear that Russian moves have effectively changed the rules of the game and created an opening for a multipolar world so desperately sought by India. It is a chance and an opening Indian strategists must not miss.

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Published on: Monday, January 10, 2022, 08:30 AM IST
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