India, China in Europe’s crisis

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses the Munich Security Conference via video link, Feb 19, 2022.

The remarks by China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday constitute the first full statement on Beijing’s stance regarding Russia’s current tensions with the West and its sub-plot surrounding Ukraine. 

The key elements conform to a principled stance — and a balanced one. India’s stance so far has been one of a ‘standoffish’ attitude that basically absolves Delhi of the need to take a position on which its key ally the United States and the time-tested Russian friend have locked horns. 

But, arguably, India also needs to take a stance of ‘positive neutrality’ supportive of Russia, as Delhi surely would expect from if an existential crisis were to arise. After all, Russia is a friend who waded into the region and stood by India as the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sailed toward the Bay of Bengal. History has its ironies, isn’t it? 

Escapism comes easy. But this is not to overlook that India would have its limitations in influencing the outcome of the titanic struggle that has erupted in Europe. Nonetheless, India from the dawn of its independence took an active interest in issues of war and peace, and the issues involved here are so hugely consequential in a medium and long-term scenario that a tunnel vision is not sustainable over time.

To pretend that Europe is far away and what happens there does not concern India will not suffice, either. The locus of world politics is shifting toward Asia. With the decline of the West, neo-colonial tendencies have made their appearance in a newer form in many regions with an agenda to transfer as much wealth as possible for the salvation of the West’s prosperity and affluence, which of course necessitates interference in the internal affairs of smaller countries, be it in Ethiopia or Venezuela.

End of Cold War; end of history

Unsurprisingly, Wang Yi zeros in on the core issue right at the outset, which devolves upon the question of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) eastward toward Russia’s borders. This may surprise many Indians who may lap up the American narrative tend and to see things as a binary question of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s mental frame — to ‘invade’ Ukraine or not, to conform to the  ‘rules-based order’ or not’.

In reality, the situation surrounding Ukraine is rather a manifestation of a deeper and far more complex question of the absence of a post-Cold War security architecture in Europe and the feasibility of absolute security in an interdependent world.

Europe used to have a great tradition through its modern history since the Congress of Vienna (September 1814–June 1815), the climax of Prince Klemens von Metternich’s political life to reestablish peace and stability in Europe after the debilitating Napoleonic wars by restoring old ruling families and creating buffer zones between major powers.

The European tradition continued right up to the redrawing of the world after the defeat of Nazi Germany. But there it ended. It failed to work on the next cataclysmic event — the end of the Cold War. 

That was because of a variety of factors at work at that time that one doesn’t need to go into now, but essentially due to the ‘aberration’ that the Cold War itself actually ended as a negotiated settlement between Moscow on one side and the NATO powers on the other side. 

This failure is, paradoxically, at the very core of the present European crisis. It is an incontrovertible fact of history, borne out by the archives of European chancelleries, that at the crucial negotiations bringing the Cold War to an end in 1990, the complex question of Germany’s unification had come up again, inevitably. 

After all, it was the ‘German Question’, which led to the two world wars in history within the space of barely a quarter century. And in that context, the future of a unified Germany in the western security system appeared at the very top of discourses among world statesmen streaming into Moscow in the late 1980s.

The western leaders led by the then US Secretary of State James Baker III took turns literally to prevail upon the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to agree that a unified Germany could remain part of NATO (in the interest of European stability and balance of power) but with the guarantee that NATO itself  would not ‘move an inch’ eastward from its existing configuration (to borrow Baker’s words.) 

After much agonising, Gorbachev relented, partly due to his own compulsions relating to the terminal stage of his ill-fated reform programme known as ‘perestroika’ but largely because of the apparent reasonableness and appeal of Baker’s formula. 

The point is, no one imagined at that point in time — not even the CIA, as its erstwhile director Robert Gates later wrote in his memoirs —that the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist within a year’s time after German unification, or that by the beginning of 1991, Gorbachev would himself relinquish power! 

Thus it was that the triumphalism came about — that the US ‘won’ the Cold War; that capitalism ‘buried’ communism; that America ‘defeated’ the Soviet Union, etc. (although Washington was opposed to the dissolution of the USSR, which was a thermonuclear power, and tried to discourage Boris Yeltsin from taking such a risky path.)

America’s triumphalism, in turn, fostered the notion of a ‘unipolar world’ and of the US being the ‘lone superpower’ dominating a New American Century, as the neocons in America described the 21st century. Entrenched in the naïveté that history had ended, the Bill Clinton administration began considering circa 1993 the expansion of NATO as the necessary platform for the projection of power globally, notwithstanding warnings of many thoughtful minds at that time that going back on Baker’s solemn assurance to Gorbachev would have grave consequences — including the iconic figure George Keenan who said that it would lead to a geopolitical catastrophe and irreparably damage the prospects of the West’s reconciliation with Russia. 

In the early 1990s, Russia indeed was in a state of penury, weak and demoralised — an ineffectual butterfly beating its wings in the void. It nonetheless protested at the US move. But the Clinton administration decided to proceed regardless and expand the NATO to the territories of the former Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe. Clinton showed some mercy toward Yeltsin, though, by offering the sop of a NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997) to the effect that the alliance would consult Moscow if a need arose. 

However, by 1999, NATO went ahead anyway and intervened in Yugoslavia, a Slavic country with historical ties to Russia and carried out a brutal aerial campaign (including bombing of Belgrade) without bothering to secure any mandate from the UN Security Council.

The sheer arrogance of the western powers and the ruthless dismemberment of Yugoslavia (a pluralistic society very much like India or Russia) was symbolically a triumphalist proclamation by Washington that there was no force on earth that could counter the NATO’s unilateral military actions or the US hegemony. 

Certainly, Russia understood the hidden warning. Within no time, the NATO marched into Afghanistan (2002) — again, unilaterally — and by 2003, the US and a coalition of NATO partners invaded Iraq (on the basis of a questionable mandate extracted out of the UN SC through doctored evidence relating to Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD programme.) Of course, the NATO went on to occupy Afghanistan for the next two decades. 

Furthermore, in early 2011, a NATO-led coalition began a military intervention in Libya whose real objective was the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi from power and instal a puppet regime in Tripoli, enabling the West to monopolise that country’s vast oil reserves and open a gateway for the NATO’s eventual entry into the ‘dark continent’ proper. (The Russian involvement in Libya and the Sahel region has blocked NATO’s plans to colonise Africa.) 

The US, brimming with the confidence that it could unilaterally do just about anything it wanted and there was no force on the planet to counter it, began openly espousing the NATO as a world security organisation outside the ambit of the UN. As things stand, the US is persuading reluctant European allies to mandate the NATO’s future role as provider of security in the Indo-Pacific! 

Ukraine as East-West Bridge

Meanwhile, in the European theatre, since 1997, the US adopted a strategy to stealthily keep expanding NATO eastward. By the time of the Bucharest Summit in 2008, the salami tactic had reached an advanced stage, as the decision was taken to absorb Ukraine and Georgia as its newest members! This was followed up by the regime change in Ukraine in 2014, which Washington masterminded and in which the CIA played a direct role, to instal a puppet regime in Kiev. 

Ukraine has a special place in Russia’s history, culture and politics. An analogy would be the India-Nepal relations. It is impossible for Moscow to accept that the US, which controls the levers of power in Kiev, is steadily transforming Ukraine as an anti-Russian state. 

Evidently, there are profound security considerations too. Right from the time of the Great Northern War, the campaign against Russia by Charles XII in 1702, the present-day Belarus and Ukraine have been invasion routes for aggressive western powers against Russia — Napoleon, Weimar Germany and Nazi Germany. 

President Putin literally spoke the truth when in remarks to top military officials in Moscow on December 21, he said that Russia had no room to retreat in a standoff with the US over Ukraine and would be forced into a tough response unless the West dropped its “aggressive line”. 

To quote Putin, “What the US is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep… And they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly? If the aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues, we will take adequate military-technical response measures and react harshly to unfriendly steps.” 

Putin did not spell out the nature of these measures but his phrasing mirrored that used previously by other senior officials who had been warning that Russia might redeploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. 

The bottom line is: Russia’s showdown with the US has existential overtones, and is the culmination of a history of American betrayal of promises made to Russia since 1990, much as Washington would twist it out of context and dub it today as a matter of ‘imminent’ Russian invasion. 

Wang Yi remarked that “ since the Cold War is long gone, NATO, a product of the Cold War, needs to adapt itself to the changing circumstances. If NATO keeps expanding eastward, will this be conducive to peace and stability in Europe, and will this contribute to long-term stability in Europe? This is a question that merits serious consideration by European friends.” 

This is the crux of the matter. Any number of European covenants exist in the post-Cold War era underscoring that while every state is entitled to security, that cannot be at the cost of the security of other states. 

Coming to the Ukraine situation, Wang Yi stressed the imperative need to implement the Minsk II Agreements to settle the discord over its breakaway regions. Interestingly, he also envisages a future Ukraine acting as “a bridge for communication between the East and the West, not a frontier for confrontation between major powers.” 

Most important, Wang Yi upheld that “Russia’s reasonable security concerns should be respected and taken seriously.” That said, he also underscored that “dialogue and consultation” is the appropriate route “to find a solution that is truly conducive to safeguarding the security of Europe.” 

By now, it is becoming clear that the White House’s war hysteria is sheer baloney with a view to obfuscate the real issues in the present crisis. Territorial conquest is far from Russia’s agenda. 

In fact, the Russian agenda in Ukraine narrows down to Kiev implementing the Minsk 2 agreement that provides for constitutional amendment to give special status to the Russian-dominated eastern region of Donbass, which would by itself scatter the likelihood of a NATO takeover in Ukraine.

The 18 million plus Russians inhabiting Ukraine would militate against their country being hijacked by the US and rehashed into an anti-Russian European state right on the Russian doorstep. 

The real paradox here is that the present President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky won his huge mandate (73%) in the 2019 election with overwhelming from the Russian electorate who were responding to his electoral pledge to initiate dialogue with Russia, improve relations and work with Russia! 

However, lacking a mass base of his own, and hamstrung by zero political experience, the ex-comedian became vulnerable to US manipulation in no time. The US has a powerful ally in the extreme nationalist Ukrainian forces with neo-Nazi ideology who are virulently anti-Russian historically. 

To conclude, it is possible to see that there is a lot of similarity between the Chinese position and Indian interests both as a principled stance as well as with an eye on the future world order where the emerging powers, especially in Asia, will come under immense western pressure. 

Lest it gets forgotten, Ukraine is a potentially major emerging power with high literacy, trained power and a strong agricultural and industrial base — thanks to the Soviet era. It can be the granary of Europe and has extremely rich and complementary mineral resources in high concentrations and close proximity to each other. 

Curiously, amidst the current crisis, China and France just signed up on a further expansion of their Third-Party Market Cooperation Pilot Project List, outlining seven projects in such areas as infrastructure, environmental protection and new energy with a total value of over $1.7 billion in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Only two days before Wang Yi’s keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference, President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron had a conversation at the latter’s initiative where they agreed on a road map to boost the bilateral cooperation which includes accelerating the implementation of the China-France Project List and as the next step, by creating conditions and building platforms for companies of the two countries to implement more demonstration projects.

Significantly, Macron congratulated Xi on the success of the Beijing Olympics, while Xi singled out for appreciation Macron’s push to strengthen Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’. They discussed Ukraine and the current tensions in Europe with Xi stressing that “relevant parties should stick to the general direction of political settlement, make full use of multilateral platforms including the Normandy format, and seek a comprehensive settlement of the Ukraine issue through dialogue and consultation.”

Evidently, China hopes for a peaceful resolution of the present crisis, which is in its interests, Ukraine being a key partner for the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Europe.