‘Czar’ Putin’s Game Plan For India

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Putin is intent on economically strangling Ukraine and daring Biden to do something

BHARAT KARNAD

THE most absolute ruler in the world today, other than Kim Jong-un of North Korea, is Vladimir Putin of Russia – not Xi Jinping in China, who has to play and balance a number of powerful entities and vested interests, especially the pampered People’s Liberation Army which, no surprise, has the run of the Treasury. It is the reason why the Communist party continues to be in the wheelhouse and Xi at the wheel. Putin has no such opposition and rules virtually by decree. He also has the Stalinist state apparatus that never really disappeared, with KGB at its core, as his handmaiden.

Vladimir Putin spent long years in the State Committee for Security – KGB. Posted to the Second Chief Directorate (counterintelligence) in Dresden in East Germany during the Cold War, he was shifted to the First Chief Directorate (foreign operations) and finally to the Fifth Chief Directorate (internal security). He thereby pulled time in the three most powerful arms of the KGB.

Putin is a martial arts expert, hunts with a Baikal Rifle, sea dives for fun, rides around in a Harley Davidson Lehman Trike hog, has authored a regime of physical exercises to keep fit, and inaugurated the new HQ in Moscow of the Russian military intelligence (GRU) by loosing off a few rounds at a moving target in its underground firing range. When this man – the Russian President – says “we know how to defend our interests”, Delhi better believe he will not take anything lying down.

The Biden administration signalled the end of the four-year ‘Trump honeymoon’ with Russia by announcing a slew of economic sanctions against Russian entities and notables. Moscow retaliated and then upped the game just to see what Washington would do. So, on the southern NATO tier, Putin massed over 40,000 Russian troops, including as BBC reported, “16 tactical groups”, on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea that he had annexed in February 2014. Ukraine Defence Minister Andrii Taran informed the European Parliament’s security and defence subcommittee that Russian military strength on Ukraine’s borders may soon “reach 56 battalion tactical groups with 110,000 troops”.

Russia’s objective to eventually re-absorb all of Ukraine is based on Russia-leaning separatists already controlling much of the Donbas country in eastern Ukraine roughly up to the line Mariupol-Petrivsk-Donetsk-Horlivka-Debaltseve-Luhansk.

Speaking on April 13 at the NATO HQ in Brussels, a shaken Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that Russia was “openly threatening Ukraine with war and destruction of our statehood”. But unlike in 2014, he added, “Russia won’t be able to catch anyone by surprise anymore”. Kuleba got it wrong.

Putin has been beefing up Russian forces on the Ukrainian front for a while now not so much to catch Ukraine, NATO or the US by surprise but to see if the American President Joe Biden is risk-acceptant enough to chance a military confrontation. Indeed, Moscow is going the extra mile to needle Washington by choking off Ukranian naval access to its Black Sea ports. The Ukrainian defence minister Taran fears this Russian blockade in the Black and Azov Seas is designed to severely hinder his nation’s “important trade routes in international waters” accounting for $103 billion in foreign trade. This action suggests Putin is intent on economically strangling Ukraine and daring Biden to do something. That he can throttle the confrontation up or down at will is indicated by his latest move to de-concentrate his forces on the Ukraine border.

So far the US, other than venting hot air, has not reacted. Sustained Allied military action may, in any case, be difficult considering the NATO main air base in Incirlik in Turkey for a southern approach may be unavailable to US forces because America is in the same jam with Ankara as it is with Delhi – the S-400!

President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey has made clear – almost in so many words – that he will have the S-400 and, should Washington threaten CAATSA sanctions, NATO can go find another Incirlik for itself! By getting close to Turkey in the last several years, Putin may, in fact, have planned and prepared for a contingency as is developing. With so many chess-like moves (like cultivating Germany and other west European states with piped oil and gas), Putin has shored up his country’s security perimeter before going on the offensive. The point to make is this: Putin is a careful but ruthless player willing to push the envelope. For Modi to rub him the wrong way by sidling up to America may be to goad Moscow into unsheathing its numerous options which will only worsen the regional balance of advantage against India.

Consider how Erdogan in contrast is playing it. His stance, unlike Modi’s, is stern. Ankara is very sure what it brings to the table is something the US and NATO cannot do without. Modi, on the other hand, advised by the likes of Jaishankar, acts unsure, as if Delhi has no leverage at all with Washington. Thus, India’s peninsular expanse sticking halfway into the Indian Ocean, which makes it pivotal to any Indo-Pacific security scheme, is a basic fact of geography that is evident to any school child looking at a map but apparently isn’t visible to the Indian government.

Or, why else would the Indian government be content with the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s expressing satisfaction (in his January 30 telephonic talk with Jaishankar) with the state of bilateral relations which, other than the same old, same old – Malabar naval exercises, blah, blah, blah – have not, in real terms, benefitted India much?

Trouble is the Modi government makes no demands on Washington, only concedes whatever the Americans want, as I have long been saying. Thus, Jaishankar did not challenge Blinken on the US not coming through on promises to transfer advanced military technology (made vide Defence Technology & Trade Initiative 20 years ago!). Nor asked for a show of good faith by going beyond the transactional mindset and immediately reviving, say, the US participation in the Indian combat aircraft jet engine development programme which, Modi’s great and good friend Donald Trump, abruptly terminated. Because Delhi makes few demands and does not insist that these be met as condition for furthering cooperation, it has led Washington to assume it can rely on India to do whatever it bids it do without the US requiring to put out at all.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was recently in town to assess the extant state of affairs. He assured the Modi government that Moscow, while not an ally of China was only partnering it in the latter’s face-off with the US, and that it would do nothing to hurt India’s vital interests. In return, he was told that the boom of the CAATSA sanctions hanging over India’s head, notwithstanding, the $5 billion deal for the S-400 air defence system was on.

Instead of picking up on the space Putin is deliberately leaving for Delhi to manoeuvre in by, for instance, carving out a loose security coalition with BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa) out of BRICS by cutting out China, Indian officials have been heard muttering within Moscow’s earshot about Delhi, may be, doing a rethink specifically on the S-400 contract and, more generally, on the time-tested military supply links with Russia. Modi, aided by Jaishankar, seems intent on losing India the leverage with Putin and Russia. Wrong move!

Just to make sure India doesn’t deviate from its traditional policy line, Lavrov hopped across the Radcliffe Line and, in his meeting with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa, promised him whatever he wanted! By way of sprinkling gasoline on fire Moscow clarified that Russian arms supply to Pakistan would be limited to goods to fight terrorism with. One of the things in the pipeline, for instance, is the Kamov attack helicopter. May be these will be deployed by GHQ, Rawalpindi, in anti-terrorist ops!