DAWN - Opinion; October 14, 2006

October 14, 2006


Relations with today’s Russia

By Tariq Fatemi

WHEN offered the opportunity last month of travelling to Moscow, I most eagerly accepted it. Having spent a year at the prestigious Moscow State University and then undertaken two long diplomatic assignments in this historic capital, Russia still holds tremendous fascination for me.

Of course, Moscow was then the capital of a superpower, vying for global influence. Though having suffered staggering losses in the Second World War, the country showed grit and resilience to transform itself into a most credible rival of the United States. Winston Churchill had described the country as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. But it was also then a safe, peaceful and well-organised capital, where though consumer goods were in short supply, the simplicity, warmth and friendship of the Russians more than made up for material shortcomings.

Since coming to power in March 2000, President Vladimir Putin has set the country on the road to economic recovery and political consolidation. Moscow’s earlier efforts were directed at trying to reestablish itself as the dominant player in the former Soviet republics, many of which are still learning to adjust to their independence. But in recent times, Russia is coming more into its own and as it does so, the US is no longer as considerate of Russia’s ambitions as in the earlier years.

In fact, there has been not too subtle an effort by the US to encourage some of these republics (e.g. Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan) to overthrow the existing political order on the plea that they need to institute democratic reforms. Nevertheless, Russia is still the region’s dominant power and its economic linkages to the former republics give it tremendous leverage. Moscow also has the added advantage that comes from the presence of large numbers of ethnic Russians in key positions in much of Central Asia.

While the Russians appear to be enjoying their newfound freedom and improved living conditions, many of those belonging to the urban elite allude to the demise of the USSR as a catastrophe for the Russian people. But moderate Russians recognise that there is no going back, especially as they are not willing to see their country pay the tremendous price that it had to in its endeavour to be one of the world’s two superpowers. Therefore, Russia is pursuing an increasingly pragmatic foreign policy, designed to take advantage of opportunities that come its way. On the strategic plane, President Putin has taken the decision to maintain cordial relations with the US, cooperate on issues such as the war on terror and to avoid irritants but to take a firm line when it comes to the protection of Russia’s core interests. The new leadership wishes to promote a multi-polar world and to this end, it strives where possible to reduce, even if marginally, the geo-political domination of the world by the US.

But Russia is not likely to become a rival of the US, and will continue to build “alliances of convenience” with the major powers, such as China, India, Japan, the EU, South Africa, Brazil and even Venezuela. This will be done in order to build credible relationships to shore up its global influence, without damaging its domestic and international standing. It is this philosophy that underpins Moscow’s policies towards them.

Admittedly, China’s impressive growth rate and its tremendous energy requirements pose a potential threat to Moscow. Russia has, therefore, followed a skilful policy of reinforcing its ties with Beijing, while also strengthening relations with China’s major neighbours. But there is recognition that Central Asia’s strategic location and its massive resources pose both a challenge and an opportunity. In fact, the decision to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation serves two important and complementary purposes: to work together on issues concerning Central Asia and to keep the major outside powers, primarily the US, out of the region.

Russia also recognises that Japan, currently the world’s second largest economy, is also dependent on huge imports of natural resources. This is likely to lead to fierce competition between China and Japan for the natural resources of Central Asia. This represents a dilemma for Moscow which would want to retain strong ties with Tokyo primarily to contain Chinese influence and to keep Japan from aligning itself too closely with the US, to the detriment of Russia. Currently, Moscow perceives China as a partner and a friend, but if China emerges as a possible threat, given its increasing need for natural resources, advanced technology and growing ambitions, Russia will attempt to seek partners in the region to check Beijing’s influence.

Russian policymakers are also supportive of the EU’s efforts to emerge as a major power centre, in line with Moscow’s support for a multipolar world. Apart from their strong mutual economic interests, the two also have common concerns in that their populations are decreasing. As they look around for new workforces, worryingly for both, the regions with surplus labour are southeastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. This would really amount to encouraging Muslim immigration. Neither the EU nor Russia is likely to regard this option favourably, especially as Muslims already constitute large numbers in some EU member-states, as well as in the southern districts of Russia.

The issue of energy is, however, becoming a major bone of contention between Russia and the EU, especially as the EU currently imports 25 per cent of its gas from Russia. By 2030, this figure is predicted to rise to 60 per cent. Europe’s vulnerability to Kremlin’s control over the pipeline network bringing gas from the Caspian states was starkly illustrated this year when the Russian energy giant Gazprom temporarily cut supply to Ukraine in a dispute over pricing. This drew a rebuke from US Vice President Dick Cheney, who accused Russia of using energy as a tool of “intimidation and blackmail”.

Russian analysts told me that instead of seeking to dominate the world as the Soviets had done; Russia can extract greater advantage from the many opportunities likely to come its way in the coming years. The fact that Russia will remain a great power cannot be denied, primarily because its vast natural resources enable it to affect the policies of many fast-growing economies.

Moreover, its military research and development will ensure that it remains a major supplier of military hardware. In fact, Russia is increasing arms sales to developing countries, while agreeing to write off some Soviet era debts. Apart from traditional buyers of Russian arms such as India and Iran, Moscow has also been seeking a breakthrough with Latin America, primarily through Venezuela, with which it has signed an arms contract worth more than three billion dollars. In defending this policy, Putin recently remarked that “in terms of its significance and scope, the global weapons market is comparable with such segments of the global economy as energy and food”.

Russia has lost much of its earlier influence in the Middle East, but its policy has become more pragmatic. While courting strong and more stable regimes, it remains a supporter of the weaker ones, in order to remain a player at the international negotiating table. According to Russian observers, Moscow will allow Washington to take initiatives, such as lobbying for democratisation, but then step in as an ally, or even as a possible competitor should Washington’s mistakes offer it the opportunity.

On the domestic front, Putin, like other strongmen, has come up with his own version of democracy. He calls it “sovereign democracy”, which conveys two messages: first Russia’s regime is democratic and, second, that this claim must be accepted, with no attempt at verification. During Putin’s presidency, fundamental elements of democracy such as the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, the rule of law and press freedom have been undermined. Over the past 18 months, the Kremlin has also conducted electoral reforms aimed at consolidating the dominance of the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia. The average Russian, however, sees Putin not as a dictator, but as someone under whom the per capita GDP has gone up from $600 to $4,500 and the poverty rolls have fallen from 42 million to 26 million. No wonder Putin enjoys a 75 per cent approval rating.

This summer’s G-8 summit held in Moscow was celebrated as Putin’s triumphant entry into the world’s most exclusive club. Soaring energy prices have given Putin’s gas-rich country a genuine claim to sit alongside the mature economies of North America, Europe and Japan. But Russia’s growing power has been accompanied by differences with the West, which accuses the Kremlin of using its position as a key energy supplier to bully neighbours. Other issues, such as Putin’s human rights record and Moscow’s policy towards Iran, are irritants as well, but given the overwhelming body of opinion which believes that the fate of Eurasia’s vast gas and oil fields will dictate international politics in the next half century, the G8 participants were more than eager to sit back and enjoy Putin’s hospitality.

Pakistan’s relations with Russia have always been problematic. The historical baggage continues to inhibit the establishment of trust and confidence between the two, notwithstanding tentative initiatives taken by them. But with the end of the Cold War and America pursuing unilateralist policies, with little consideration for international commitments and even less for promoting multilateral institutions, it is imperative that we accord greater time and attention to identifying areas where we could work with Russia.

It was pointed out to me in Moscow, with justification, that notwithstanding a history of tension in Pakistan-Soviet relations, Moscow’s contribution to Pakistan’s economic development has not been insignificant. In difficult times, Soviet diplomacy played a helpful role, even on Indo-Pakistan issues. While Moscow’s role in Tashkent is well known, not many people are aware of the quiet but helpful role played by the Soviet leadership in the days after the breakup of Pakistan. At Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s request, made during his visit in March 1972, Moscow agreed to use its influence with both Delhi and Dhaka on the issue of Pakistani POWs.

Russia’s technology, both in the civilian and defence sectors could be more suitable to our needs than what we are trying to acquire from the West. Moreover, given Russia’s tremendous experience and expertise in the field of power and energy, Islamabad should chalk out a comprehensive programme that would include extending Moscow incentives similar to those we are proposing for China. Economic linkages would create a degree of confidence that could facilitate cooperation in the defence field as well. This would give Pakistan’s diplomacy greater strength and credibility.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Loss of faith at Kargil

By Kuldip Nayar

I KNEW that the air force was not satisfied over the conduct of operations at Kargil. Vinod Putney, head of the Western Air Command and deputy to the air chief A.Y. Tipnis, ran into me twice during those days. We had known each other since 1990 when I was the high commissioner in London and he the air attache.

Putney did not say anything when we met but unhappiness was writ large on his face. I imagined he felt frustrated because he or, for that matter, the air force, I had heard, wanted to target the training camps of terrorists across the border. But the then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had said: “Please don’t cross the LoC,” and repeated, “No, no crossing the LoC.”

Yet, that was not the full story. It turns out that the air force was sullen because the army had not taken it into confidence on Pakistan’s intrusion into the Kargil area. For the first time, a newspaper article by Tipnis has revealed that the air force felt let down on Kargil. Even when it checked with the army on the intrusion, the latter gave no information except that there was “reportedly unusual artillery firing” in the Kargil area.

Tipnis alleged that when he found out that the ground situation was “grave” he offered the air force’s help. “But it (the army) was not amenable to the air headquarters position to seek government approval for use of air force offensively.”

The army wanted helicopters, not the air force. After Tipnis refused to deploy helicopters, believing they would be “too vulnerable”, army chief General V.P. Malik said, “I will go it alone.”

Malik and Tipnis are two outstanding officers with the highest integrity. Their knowledge of their respective field is beyond question and they have excelled in their careers of 40-odd years. They were batch mates at the training academy in Pune. What struck me about the episode was not the difference between the two on the use of air force but the distance between the two main wings of the armed forces. However, the question is bigger than that of personalities. It is that of coordination — and equation — between the army and the air force.

This is not the first time that such differences have come to the fore. They were there during every war — in 1962, 1965 and 1971. In 1962, former Air Vice-Marshal A.K. Tewary tells us that the use of the air force was not even considered against the Chinese because New Delhi’s attention was focused on getting an air umbrella from the US.

The Kargil operation has only underlined the basic problem of how to harness all the three wings to achieve the best results. I am sure that the navy has its own tale of woes but it is yet too small to create a shindy. That it should have an equal say cannot be questioned. Probably, the practice of the three chiefs meeting every week has been abandoned. In fact, there is a standing committee of three service chiefs. Therefore, the lack of coordination among them is not understandable. They should be talking on the phone all the time.

No doubt, the army is the leader in any combat. Tipnis concedes this in his article: “It was the army’s leadership...we were only in support.” But he also says that because disturbing inputs continued to be brought in by his staff, he inquired “whether all was well”. The deputy chief of the army indicated that “the army could handle the situation on its own.”

Disclosures by Tipnis should have led to a healthy discussion. This does not seem to be the case. Already I hear accusations and counter-accusations from the two sides. Lt Gen Arjun Ray, the then army spokesman, has said: “Such utterances will create friction between the two services.” True, but somebody has to tell the full story. Putney is right in his comment: “When national security is at stake it is important for us to admit our mistakes. The air force has done it.”

The nation is not concerned about the personal ego of a particular chief or a particular service. It wants to be assured the armed forces can amass all information and the capability to defeat the enemy if and when there is a war. It expects the three services not to stand on ceremony but to pool their resources to fight.

The Subramaniam Committee which went into the acts of omission and commission in Kargil should have brought out the contradictions and lack of coordination. Maybe it did not want to open a Pandora’s box. The composition of the committee was also defective. The only member from the armed forces was from the army. The air and army headquarters have also undertaken studies and reviews and concluded their findings. I think there should be a re-look at the air force participation at Kargil because Tipnis has complained that it was not involved from the beginning.

Still, the government has to think of ways to effect coordination and cooperation among the three services. Apparently, the ministry of defence or, for that matter, the defence minister, have not been doing their job properly. I wonder if they knew what Tipnis has brought out in his article.

The government may seek a convenient way out and create the post of the chief of defence staff. This is nothing new. Soon after the Manmohan Singh government took over, a decision was almost taken to have such a post. A former air chief was able to persuade the government not to do so. His arguments were different. But I think such an appointment might encourage Bonapartism in the force which is apolitical.

The three chiefs are experts in their respective fields. Who can excel them? Their input has to be there all the time. No one person can replace them, however brilliant. The army, the air force and the navy are individually important and together they form the country’s armed forces. They are answerable to the country. The chief of defence staff may turn out to be only a clog in the wheel. What is required is joint planning, joint handling and joint fighting from the word go.

In the meanwhile, the government must find out why the army was reluctant to talk about Pakistan’s intrusion even to the ministry of defence. As Tipnis says, the army did not want to inform the ministry of defence about it until very late, possibly because “it was embarrassed to have allowed the present situation to develop.” This amounts to lack of faith, not so much in the air force as in the government.

The writer is a leading columnist based in New Delhi.

Rice’s baffling trip

AFTER circling the Baghdad airport for 40 minutes because of mortar and rocket fire, travelling by helicopter to the Green Zone to avoid the deadly bomb-strewn highway into the city and holding a meeting with President Jalal Talabani in darkness because the power was suddenly cut off, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a news conference to talk about all the progress being made in Iraq.

This kind of clueless happy talk in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary might produce great material for political satirists, but it’s not very encouraging for those looking for signs of hope in the Middle East. Rice’s recently completed six-day trip to the region, which included her sixth visit as secretary of state to Israel and the Palestinian territories, probably ranks as her least productive. She spent most of her time talking with leaders who don’t trust her about issues they’d rather not discuss.

In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Rice met with leaders of eight moderate Arab governments whom she had hoped to persuade to join US efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Instead, they were more interested in pushing for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Bush has said the United States will not impose a settlement; Arab leaders want at least as much focus on Israel as Iran.

The next stop was the West Bank. Last year, Rice was able to broker a deal to open border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Israel, but they have been mostly closed since Palestinian guerillas captured an Israeli soldier on June 25. It’s critical that they be reopened soon because Palestinian crops are nearly ready for harvest, and if they can’t be exported, it will result in more suffering than the territories are already enduring in the face of an economic embargo. When Rice talked about the crossings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he was noncommittal.

—Los Angeles Times