The two takeaways from French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow and his six-hour long talks with president Vladimir Putin have been the assurance held out by the latter that Russian forces would not ramp up the crisis near Ukraine’s borders — “there would be no deterioration or escalation” — and second, an agreement that Russia would pull troops out of Belarus at the end of exercises taking place currently near Ukraine’s northern borders.
The very fact of the French side putting such sensitive details in the public domain suggests that Moscow sees nothing wrong in it. Moscow has simply clarified that the redeployment of troops out of Belarus is not to be construed as any “deal” with France.
The paradox is, instead of working on these crucial assurances from Moscow, Washington has since chosen to travel in the opposite direction with the White House orchestrating a war hysteria through last week. President Biden and his advisor Jake Sullivan have conjured up an apocalyptic scenario.
The White House claims it has intelligence but dodges details. All we have are some satellite imagery from Max (which works for US intelligence). The patchy details have led to Biden speculating about a world war!
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration is creating diplomatic synergy out of the war hysteria. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an audacious bid to hustle the US’ QUAD partners to endorse Washington’s allegations of Russia’s “aggression” — although the group has nothing to do with European security issues.
Again on Friday, Biden with a stroke of his pen effectively commandeered the foreign reserves of Afghanistan to the tune of 7 billion-plus dollars. According to the New York Times, “It is highly unusual for the United States government to commandeer a foreign country’s assets on domestic soil.”
But Biden is getting away with such high-handed behavior that might be deemed illegal or immoral or cynical when the Beltway is caught up in a frenzy over an incoming war with Russia! To be sure, all through Friday, the White House strove to keep the headlines on “Russian aggression.” Biden held a videoconference with the European allies while Sullivan networked with the EU bureaucrats in Brussels to coordinate on “preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia should it choose military escalation.”
Sullivan also gave a press briefing at the White House to highlight that “we are in the window when an invasion [by Russia] could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it. I will not comment on the details of our intelligence information. But I do want to be clear: It could begin during the Olympics.”
So, that’s it. Sullivan’s latest version is that Russia may invade Ukraine before Feb. 20. The timeline has been tweaked, as the prognosis a week ago was that such an invasion was “imminent” — and still earlier, that it would happen no sooner than deep frost set in so that tank maneuvering on Ukrainian terrain would become feasible!
Yet, isn’t it amazing that at such a tumultuous time in modern history when Biden visualizes a potential world war, he sent away his state secretary on a 6-day tour of Asia-Pacific? In fact, at the moment, Blinken is shuttling somewhere in the tropics — between Suva (Fiji) and Honolulu (Hawaii)!
What do we make out of this charade of war hysteria? Three things can be said. First, the US feels a constant need to rally European allies who are skeptical about the Russia bogey, and the war hysteria helps. Second, Washington is overtly keen to severe Russia’s relations with European countries where energy cooperation is a template — especially, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Three, most important, the war hysteria provides the alibi to step up US deployments in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The size of the NATO deployment on Russia’s western borders already stands at 175,000 troops! Advanced weapons have been deployed too. (Eight nuclear-capable heavy B-52 members are deployed to a forward base in the UK.) Over and above, US has established an air bridge to ferry weapons to Ukraine. As of Friday, more than 15 military flights landed in Ukraine with 1200 tonnes of materials.
Quite obviously, this war hysteria cannot be sustained indefinitely. Something has to give way. Now, the big question is: What if Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, as Putin reportedly assured Macron as recently as on Monday?
Evidently, the US predicament is two-fold: While war hysteria helps to rally the European allies, Washington also cannot afford to let the Europeans dominate the dialogue track with Moscow lest it created a dynamics of its own. Washington has a trust deficit with Macron who is a passionate advocate of European initiatives on European security issues.
Macron is in record that Europe’s security cannot be assured without Russia’s security! Equally, there is panic in the Beltway that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also heading for Moscow on Tuesday. And, Macron is expected to have a call with Putin today! Curiously, Biden decided that he too should have a call with Putin later today!
Above all, the UK too has entered the diplomatic fray. All indications are that Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Friday was substantive. (Interestingly, the UK Chief of Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin who accompanied Wallace separately met with his Russian counterpart General Valery Gerasimov.)
Wallace described his talks as “frank and constructive.” The MOD readout in London was couched in a restrained tone as if UK is impervious to Biden and Sullivan’s war hysteria. Importantly, it highlighted Shoigu’s assurance to Wallace that Russia will not invade Ukraine.
Notably, the Russian readout too sought to put the accent on “urgent measures to ensure security guarantees” to Russia. It said, “Army General S. K. Shoigu pointed out that the military and political situation in Europe had worsened considerably due to tension whipped up around Ukraine and NATO’s military presence near the Russian borders.”
How far this pantomime on the diplomatic stage continues is unclear. There is the lurking danger that extreme nationalist forces who call the shots in Kiev, egged on by Washington, may feel emboldened to create new facts on the ground in Donbass. This was precisely how the Georgian war had erupted in 2008.
Indeed, a new level of criticality has appeared lately in Donbass with large scale mobilization by Ukrainian forces and reports of western mercenaries in the guise of military advisors. The US intentions remain unclear.
A conflict in Donbass will put the Kremlin in dilemma. If Russia intervenes in Donbass to keep at bay the rampaging radical Ukrainian nationalist forces, Washington will certainly use it as alibi to impose harsh sanctions to isolate Russia and severely damage Moscow’s ties with European countries.
On the contrary, Russia will have no option but to intervene, as hundreds of thousands of Russian passport holders live in Donbass. (Some put the figure around 700,000.) The radical neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists are known to be notoriously anti-Russian and all sorts of atrocities — even genocide — may take place.
The likelihood of conflict erupting in Donbass remains high. Biden may get a splendid opportunity to salvage his reputation after the debacle in Afghanistan. He has an eye, for sure, on the mid-term elections in November and the bipartisan consensus supportive of tough line on “Putin’s Russia” also helps.
Fundamentally, the US has no intentions of giving Russia the security guarantee it needs. For, NATO’s eastward expansion and encirclement of Russia happens to be Washington’s core agenda. And, since 2014, that agenda has been so far advanced that there is no turning point now. It must be carried forward to its logical conclusion.
The Washington elites realize that the US lacks the capability to take on China and Russia simultaneously. A paradigm shift is needed. In the US calculus, forcing Putin to abdicate after a humiliating retreat over Ukraine and a severe weakening of Russian military power only can bring about the strategic rollback of Russia’s resurgence and its alliance with China.
It is, therefore, an imperative first step on the pathway to an eventual epochal confrontation with China, which poses a formidable challenge to America’s global hegemony in the 21st century.
M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.