One Year Of War In Ukraine

Emerging Re-configuration of Geo-political Forces

Sumanta Banerjee

The war of devastation in Ukraine has completed one year. Despite appeals for peace by the UN, other international bodies and prominent personalities, both the two fighting powers–Russia which started the war by invading Ukraine on the one hand, and the US-led NATO-backed Ukraine which is retaliating on the other–are betraying an intransigent attitude. Refusing to sit around a table for negotiation, both are sticking to their respective positions and claims.

The situation has been further aggravated by some of the recent developments, following one upon another. In September last year, Russian President Putin issued a threat of nuclear retaliation against pro-Ukraine Western powers. After some months of exchanges of belligerent rhetoric between Moscow and Washington, on February 21 this year, US President Biden asserted his physical presence in Ukraine by visiting Kyiv and spending hours with its President. He openly declared the continuation of his country’s military support to Ukraine till Russia was defeated. Thus, in this US strategy, there is no scope for any peace talks, or a compromise formula to end the war. Biden’s statement is an open challenge to Russia. As if in a tit for tat gesture, on the same day Russian President Putin announced that he was suspending the last remaining nuclear arms control pact with the US. This can be viewed as yet another example of upping the ante in bargaining over nuclear threats and attempting to blackmail its rival. Is Putin threatening the US that it can use its option of using nuclear armaments against the weaponry that Washington and its allies are sending to Ukraine?

If the present trend is allowed to drift, the world will be on the edge of the outbreak of another world war involving confrontation between two major capitalist powers, the US and Russia–each working upon the fears of the other with threats of nuclear blackmailing. But this new world war will acquire a different shape. Instead of engaging in the old practice of a direct battle between the two, they are now using small states as proxies to further their respective plans of territorial expansion. One may therefore see more Ukraine-like wars in other parts of the world in the near future. In the Middle East, Syria and Iraq have already emerged as battlefields-sites of contest between the US and Russia.

The re-alignment of these two global powers in their relationship with other states, around the war in Ukraine, assumes significance. The Western states have fully thrown in their weight behind the US-backed military campaign to aid Ukraine in its resistance against Russia–although at times they express reservations about the need to continue the war. In contrast, Russia has failed to garner much support from major members of the international community, except China.

The only advantage that Russia has gained is the neutral stance which has been adopted by some states in South Asia and other parts of the world. They keep on abstaining from voting for resolutions condemning Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the UN and other international fora. Incidentally, most of these abstaining states benefit from trade with Russia and import military equipment from it. For instance, the Modi government in India is a beneficiary of Russian oil at concessional rates, and Russian military equipment that empowers its armed forces. Yet, instead of totally supporting Russia, Modi has taken on the posture of a neutral advisor, telling Putin that this is not an era of war. The UAE and other countries in the Middle East have been adopting a similar neutral stance.

As at present, the only states that Russia has managed to attract as its supporters are China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been in different ways subsidising Russian war efforts in Ukraine. China remains a firm political ally, true to the pledge that it took in February, 2002 (on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine), describing its relationship with Russia as “a friendship without limits.” As for Saudi Arabia (which was a loyal ally of the US till recently), its collaboration with Russia in the OPEC oil cartel, and Putin’s personal rapport with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have ensured Saudi support for Russia. Russia’s alliance with Iran is entrenched in military roots. Moscow is buying drones from Iran and using them against Ukraine.

Interestingly enough, all these allies of Russia share certain common characteristics. They are (i) authoritarian in their domestic policies, crushing political dissent and suppressing freedom of speech and media ; (ii) persecute religious and ethnic minorities inhabiting their territories; and (iii) assert nationalist ambition through both militarist rhetoric and aggressive actions against neighbouring states.

To start with Russia, under Putin it has acquired a long record of authoritarianism by punishing those who refuse to obey the oppressive rules that he has imposed on the citizens. The two most infamous examples are (i) the killing of the journalist Anna Politkovaskya in Moscow on October 7, 2006. Human rights activists and journalists have alleged that she was targeted because she exposed Putin’s misdeeds in her reports. (Till now, the Putin government has not yet carried out a fair investigation into her killing, and has failed to clear itself of the allegation); (ii) the victimisation of Alexei Navalny, a political opponent of the Putin regime, who was first poisoned, allegedly by Russian secret service agents in August, 2020, and then incarcerated, now undergoing a nine year prison sentence.

China, the other partner of Russia, shares a similar record of violation of human rights of its citizens. The World Report 2022 of Human Rights Watch lists cases of arbitrary detention, torture, and suppression of media under the regime of Xi. A typical instance is the arrest of the journalist Zhang Jialong, who wrote against the government’s censorship of reports, and was therefore sentenced to one and a half years in prison.

When people turn to Russia’s latest ally, Saudi Arabia, they come across a regime, notorious for the worst crimes against its citizens–ranging from sexual assaults on women to imprisonment and killing of political opponents–all documented in reports by international human rights organisations like Amnesty International. One of the most infamous cases was the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (an outspoken critic of the regime) in 2018 inside the premises of the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, by agents of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman–Putin’s present friend.

Russia’s other ally Iran is no better, as far as the record of human rights violation is concerned. The recent reports of the Ali Khamenei-led Islamist orthodox regime’s brutal offensive against women who are asserting their right to refuse to wear the hijab, bear testimony to the authoritarian character of the regime. The Iranian women’s anti-hijab demonstration was sparked off by the death of a young woman Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for not wearing hijab and died in the custody of the state-sponsored ‘morality police’.

Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran–all of them discriminate against and oppress ethnic and religious minorities who inhabit their territories. Russia for instance is embroiled in a continuing war to suppress the Muslim Chechens, who inhabit the south-western part of the country and who have been fighting for independence from Russia. Similarly, China is trying to destroy the identity of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by herding them into camps, in order to ‘re-educate’ them–in other words, to force them to sink their cultural identity and join the majoritarian Chinese nationalist mainstream. To turn to the next ally of Russia’s–Saudi Arabia; it has earned notoriety for persecution of those Muslim citizens who follow religious practices that are different from the state-imposed Wahabi doctrine. It mainly targets the Muslim Shia citizens, who constitute a religious minority in the Sunni–dominated Saudi society. As for Iran, which is ruled by the orthodox Shias–rivals of the Sunnis–a UN-appointed experts committee which examined the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, came out with its report dated August 22, 2022, where it stated: “We are deeply concerned at the increasing arbitrary arrests, and ….enforced disappearances of members of the Bahai faith”. The latter belong to a section of the Muslim community, following different practices.

Coming to the third characteristic shared by these allies of Russia, they all indulge in militarist rhetoric and aggressive acts in relation to neighbouring states. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, under the euphemism of ‘special military operation’ is a case in point.

China is embroiled in a long standing border dispute with India, often marked by armed clashes. It is also engaged in regular sabre rattling against Taiwan. As for the other two allies of Russia–Saudi Arabia and Iran–although they have not yet invaded any state (like Russia), they have been directly conducting military operations in some of their neighbouring states. In such operations, they choose their supporters and opponents according to their respective religio-political priorities. For instance, since 2015 the Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia has been leading a military operation in Yemen in support of its present ruler against the Houthi militants (loyal to the former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh)–who are incidentally being militarily aided by Shia-ruled Iran. The UN and human rights organisations have accused Saudi Arabia of widespread and systematic airstrikes that have led to the killing of civilians there (echoes of the after effects of the present Russian airstrikes in Ukraine).

Similarly, Iran has asserted its military presence in the Middle East by forging an alliance with Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Asad–who happens to belong to its Shia faith. It has been providing military aid to his regime–which is facing opposition and rebellion from heterogeneous groups ranging from Sunni victims of religious persecution to pro-democracy activists, many of whom are being aided by the US. Iran has also found an ally in Russia which is militarily helping Bashar al-Asad to remain in power. Thus, Syria is fast becoming another arena of a proxy war between the US and Russia.

The growing convergence of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, over the war in Ukraine, as well as their collaboration over commercial deals, indicates the appearance of a new constellation of powers on the global scene. Interestingly enough, this constellation is replicating the same pattern of military invasion that was pursued by the US and its Western allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya a few years ago. Devoid of any alternative political ideology, this emerging group of states will become yet another replica of the US-led camp–a rival within the same boxing ring.

But there is a problem. While building up this axis, can Putin’s Russia, aiming to expand its influence in the Middle East, bring together on the same table the two rivals divided by religious loyalties–a Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia and a Shia dominated Iran?

If anything this global conglomeration may also become a 21st century replica of the axis forged in the 1930-40 period by Germany’s Hitler, Italy’s Mussolini and Japan’s emperor Tojo. The policies and practices pursued by this new Sino-Russian led alliance, both in their domestic sphere and foreign affairs often resemble those followed by that infamous Nazi German-Fascist Italy-imperial Japan axis.

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Vol 55, No. 38, Mar 19 - 25, 2023