Why sanctions against Russia may not work

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR, THE HILL

The unprecedented U.S.-led Western sanctions against Russia have been likened to economic weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that would ultimately destroy the Russian economy. In reality, the sanctions are like a double-edged sword — they inflict pain on Russia but also impose costs on their imposers.

The West, in fact, is caught in a trap: The sanctions and the deepening conflict, by helping to raise global commodity and energy prices, translate into higher revenues for Moscow in spite of a significant decrease in its exports. And the higher international prices, by fueling inflation, mean political trouble at home for those behind the sanctions.

Look at another paradox: Despite Russia being cut off from the world’s financial arteries, the Russian ruble has dramatically recovered through state intervention. But, as if to signal that Japan is paying a price for following the U.S. lead on Russia, the Japanese yen (the world’s third-most-traded currency) has sunk to a 20-year low against the U.S. dollar, ranking this year as the worst performing of the 41 currencies tracked — worse than the ruble.

Meanwhile, the runaway inflation and supply-chain disruptions are threatening Western corporate profits, while the interest-rate hikes to rein in inflation make a bad situation worse for consumers. With economic trouble looming large, April became the worst month for Wall Street since the pandemic-triggered March 2020 plunge. The S&P 500 fell 8.8 percent in April.

In the first two months of the war in Ukraine, those imposing the sanctions ironically helped Russia to nearly double its revenues to about €62 billion from selling fossil fuels to them, according to a report of a Finland-registered think tank, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The top 18 importers, with the sole exception of China, were the sanctions imposers, with the European Union (EU) alone accounting for 71 percent of the purchases of Russian fuels in this period.

While Turkey, South Korea and Japan also remain reliant on Russian energy supplies, the EU’s imports of gas, oil and coal from Russia totaled around €44 billion in this two-month period, compared with about €140 billion for the whole of 2021.

Russia, even as its economy takes a hit from the Western sanctions, is doing its bit to keep international energy and commodity prices high, including by cutting off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. Moscow could raise prices further through broader counter-sanctions and yet manage to cushion its export earnings.

The fact is that Russia is the world’s richest country when it comes to natural resources, including serving among the world’s largest exporters of natural gas, uranium, nickel, oil, coal, aluminum, copper, wheat, fertilizers and precious metals such as palladium, which is more precious than gold and used largely in catalytic converters.

Through no fault of theirs, the real losers from the Russia-NATO conflict, sadly, are the poorer countries, which are bearing the brunt of the economic fallout. From Peru to Sri Lanka, rising fuel, food and fertilizer prices have triggered violent street protests, which in some states have spiraled into continuing political turmoil. The debt woes of many poor nations have deepened.

In employing the full range of its economic weaponry, the West sought to unleash “shock and awe” on Russia, as if to underscore that sanctions are a form of war. But like armed conflict, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates, sanctions are unpredictable in shaping outcomes and often lead to unintended or undesirable consequences.

Squeezing a major power, especially one that has the world’s largest nuclear-weapons arsenal, with a raft of harsh sanctions is fraught with danger, especially as increasingly sophisticated and heavier Western weapons pour into Ukraine, with the United States also supplying battlefield intelligence, including targeting data.

Almost every day brings a fresh reminder that this conflict is not just about the control of Ukraine or its future status. Rather, this is a full-fledged new Cold War between Washington and Moscow, with Europe as the theater of the growing confrontation. President Biden’s strategy of Containment 2.0 against Moscow is designed to ensnare Russia in a military quagmire in Ukraine, trigger the collapse of the Russian economy and bring about the overthrow of President Vladimir Putin.

As the war has progressed, Biden has become bolder, including deepening America’s involvement in it. Biden’s implicit call for regime change in Moscow and his administration’s publicly declared goal of a “weakened” Russia, however, run counter to what the president said about two weeks into the war: “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.”

Unfortunately, there has been little American debate on whether sanctions can weaken Russia or whether the generous military assistance to Ukraine can really bog down the Russian military in a protracted conflict. What if, instead of a weakened Russia, a nationalistic backlash spawns a more militarily assertive, neo-imperial Russia?

After its initial missteps that resulted in heavy Russian casualties, Russia is now militarily focused on consolidating its control in the resource-rich east and south of Ukraine. Russia has carved out a land corridor to Crimea and gained control of regions that hold 90 percent of Ukraine’s energy resources, including all its offshore oil and much of its critical port infrastructure. The Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov and four-fifths of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline are now with Russia, which earlier established control over the Kerch Strait that connects those two seas. 

Can the flood of weapons the West is sending to Ukraine undo these new military realities? If Russia stays focused on narrow military objectives centered on establishing a buffer zone in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s south and east, it could avert a quagmire, while remaining free to continue systematically targeting military infrastructure across that expansive country.

Let’s be clear: Sanctions historically have worked better against small, vulnerable states than large or powerful ones. But they have rarely produced timely change. The current Western sanctions could take years to seriously hurt the Russian economy.

The irony is that, despite employing all possible coercive economic instruments against Russia and making it difficult to negotiate an end to the war, the Biden White House doesn’t believe that sanctions alone will work, which explains why it has increasingly turned to weapons supply, including asking Congress for a staggering $33 billion in additional military and economic funds to fuel the conflict and stymie Russian war objectives.

But the sanctions, by signaling the advent of a new era of U.S.-led unilateralism, are likely to weaken and ultimately even undermine the Western-controlled global financial architecture that they are meant to defend. The sweeping sanctions, by spurring broader concerns about the weaponization of finance and its implications for any country that dared to cross a U.S. red line, have created a new incentive for non-Western states to explore establishing parallel arrangements. China will not only lead this process but also is set to emerge as the real winner of the NATO-Russia conflict.

Biden’s belief that “this war could continue for a long time” is backed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who testified that he expects it to last years. But as the conflict drags on and the boomerang effects of the sanctions deepen the cost-of-living crisis, the divides in the Western camp will widen and “Ukraine fatigue” will set in.

The West will be left with little choice but to negotiate with Putin to end the conflict, as predicted by Javier Solana, a former NATO chief who also served as Spain’s foreign minister. Such negotiations will be vital to halt Ukraine’s destruction and avert Europe from paying the main price.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.

Washington’s clumsy attempts to bully India must stop

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Undermining its relationship with New Delhi will cost the U.S. dearly

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Joe Biden meets virtually with Narendra Modi in Washington on April 11: It is a challenging time for U.S.-India relations.   © AP

U.S. President Joe Biden’s concerted effort to cajole nations into joining the American-led coalition against Russia recalls the famous words of the legendary anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who said the grievous mistake some Westerners make is to insist that “their enemies should be our enemies.”

In the conflict between the West and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much of the non-Western world has declined to take sides. So why has Biden especially bristled at India’s independent stance when the world’s major non-Western democracies — from Brazil and Mexico to South Africa and Indonesia — have all chartered a course of neutrality?

Because India is the world’s largest democracy, its neutrality undermines Biden’s narrative that the conflict symbolizes a “battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” Never mind that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s regime is no less autocratic than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.

The fact is that whichever side the U.S. has armed over the decades was invariably portrayed by it as “fighting for freedom” — from the anti-Soviet Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan from whom al-Qaida and the Taliban evolved, to Syria’s anti-Bashar Assad jihadists who gave rise to ISIS. Biden’s “new battle for freedom,” as he calls it, has led to increasingly sophisticated Western weapons pouring into Ukraine, with the U.S. also supplying battlefield intelligence, including targeting data.

Here’s the paradox: While seeking to co-opt New Delhi in his new Cold War with Moscow, Biden has still not uttered a single word on China’s two-year-long border aggression against India, which has triggered the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history. In keeping with Biden’s outreach to Beijing, his State Department, equating the victim with the aggressor, has urged India and China to find “a peaceful resolution of the border disputes.”

India holds more annual military exercises with America, its largest trading partner and an increasingly important strategic partner, than any other country. U.S. arms sales to India went from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020. India’s almost $150-billion goods and services trade with the U.S. dwarfs New Delhi’s $12.8 billion trade with Russia, its largest defense partner.

Indian and U.S. soldiers take part in a joint combat exercise in Ranikhet, India, in September 2016: India holds more annual military exercises with America than any other country.   © Reuters

Team Biden’s growing warnings to countries intent on sitting out the new Cold War to pick a side or face economic consequences could undermine the blossoming partnership with India, which stayed neutral even when the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq or waged regime-change war in Libya. Biden’s top economic adviser, Brian Deese, touched a raw nerve in India when he threatened that “the costs and consequences” for it would be “significant and long-term.”

However, the more positive tone emanating from Washington following the latest U.S.-India discussions suggests that the White House may have secured an Indian assurance on “sanctions compliance,” as an American background briefer phrased it.

On April 11, Biden held an hourlong virtual discussion with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a prelude to the “two-plus-two” discussions that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken jointly had with the visiting Indian defense and foreign ministers.

Encouraged by how America’s Iran sanctions have helped undercut India’s relationship with Tehran, Biden sees his Russia sanctions as opening a major opportunity to undermine the traditionally strong New Delhi-Moscow ties.

The U.S. used its Iran sanctions to deprive India of cheaper oil and turn it into the world’s largest importer of American energy. The main beneficiary of those sanctions has been India’s rival, China, which, without facing American reprisals, has been buying Iranian oil at a hefty discount, besides becoming Iran’s security partner and top investor.

Now Washington seems intent on employing its Russia sanctions to downgrade Indian defense ties with Moscow, with Austin calling on India to cut defense transactions with Russia and turn to America for all its military requirements. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Congress that the U.S. sees “a great opportunity” for defense sales to India to “surge.”

Energy purchases and payments are exempt from America’s Russia sanctions. Yet, as if heeding Biden’s call to India not to accelerate or increase imports of heavily discounted Russian oil, the state-run Indian Oil Corporation, the country’s leading refiner, recently dropped Russia’s flagship Urals crude from its newest tender. And Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, by saying that “we won’t be in the top 10” buyers of Russian oil, has signaled that India will not significantly go beyond its traditionally modest imports of Russian energy.

Still, Biden is not easing pressure on India. While appeasing communist China, his administration is paradoxically trying to employ human-rights issues as leverage against India. After the two-plus-two discussions, Blinken took a swipe at India, alleging “a rise in human rights abuses.” But barely nine months earlier, Blinken had sung a different tune, saying “both of our democracies are works in progress.”

These are challenging times for U.S.-India relations. Undermining what should be America’s most important strategic partnership in Asia makes little strategic sense, especially if the U.S. wishes to genuinely pivot to the Indo-Pacific.

India’s neighborhood is already troubled, with a crisis-torn Sri Lanka suspending foreign debt payments and mounting Chinese repression triggering fresh self-immolations in Tibet. Yet, Biden surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban terrorists, thereby strengthening Pakistan at India’s expense. And he is pushing military-ruled Myanmar into China’s arms with his sanctions policy.

Biden’s overriding focus on punishing Russia threatens to exacerbate India’s regional-security challenges, especially by aiding the further rise of an expansionist China. The U.S.-led sanctions will effectively put Russia, the world’s richest country in natural resources, in the pocket of a resource-hungry China.

The main brunt of the rise of a more powerful and aggressive China will be borne by its neighbors, especially India. Unlike Japan and Australia, which are under the U.S. security and nuclear umbrella, India must deal with China on its own, as the current Himalayan military crisis shows.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Can punishing Russia become an end in itself?

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Biden, going beyond the traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy, is relying entirely on his unprecedented sanctions to shape the behavior of a rival nuclear power, which has a long record of enduring economic hardship.

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, THE HILL

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President Biden’s gaffes during his recent European tour – from suggesting to American troops in Poland that they would be in war-torn Ukraine and saying NATO would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons to seemingly calling for regime change in Moscow – led to considerable clean-up efforts by his team. Biden, by his own admission, has a record of being a “gaffe machine.”

But the president’s misstatements on issues of war and peace in this perilous time carry significant risks, which explains why his top officials were quick to walk back his apparent regime-change call, lest it further erode U.S.-Russia relations. U.S.-Russia ties are already at an all-time low.

More fundamentally, Biden’s propensity for making misstatements that land his administration in difficult situations is detracting attention from the larger question of whether the president has a strategy to end the war in Ukraine.

Biden’s statements, in fact, are making it increasingly difficult to negotiate an end to the war. Washington’s overriding focus on punishing Russia for its brazen invasion suggests that top U.S. officials are not thinking of how to terminate the war, even as Moscow and Kyiv hold talks.

Punishing Russia for invading Ukraine, while essential, has ceased to be a means to an end and has apparently become an end in itself.

This may explain why Biden has discarded some key tenets of diplomacy, including avoiding insulting another country’s head of state or conveying an unintended policy message to preserve space for direct negotiations.

Biden has increasingly personalized the conflict by hurling a steady stream of insults at Russian President Vladimir Putin, while vowing to make him “a pariah on the international stage.” In the days before declaring, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden called Putin “a butcher,” “a murderous dictator,” “a pure thug” and “a war criminal” — a term whose past use against a foreign leader (for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) was usually accompanied by a U.S.-led campaign to topple him from power.   

The use of aggressive language began long before the Ukraine war. Just weeks after entering the White House, Biden said Putin is “a killer,” vowing that the Russian leader will “pay a price” for allegedly meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

By contrast, Biden has treated Chinese President Xi Jinping with respect. Despite Xi’s coverup of the origins of the COVID-19 virus, his Asian expansionism and his Muslim gulag (which represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since Adolf Hitler), the president has not hurled any personal insult at him. Nor has he imposed any sanctions on the Chinese leader or those in his inner circle.

The unintended consequence of Biden’s vilification of Putin is to seriously crimp space for the U.S. and Russia to reach a modus vivendi to rein in their conflict. Putin now has a greater reason to double down and continue his invasion until the Russian forces carve out a strategic buffer against NATO that effectively partitions Ukraine into two, with the Dnieper River possibly serving as the approximate dividing line.

Biden, going beyond the traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy, is relying entirely on his unprecedented sanctions to shape the behavior of a rival nuclear power, which has a long record of enduring economic hardship. In the post-World War II period, the U.S. has generally relied on sanctions to help bring weak states to heel. Regime change likewise has been imposed only on weak, vulnerable nations.

Squeezing a major power with a raft of harsh sanctions is fraught with danger. The unforeseen consequences could trigger an escalating spiral leading to devastating armed conflict. It was U.S. sanctions against Imperial Japan that ultimately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific war and eventually the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today’s Biden-initiated Western sanctions on Russia are the largest, coordinated punitive measures ever rolled out against any country in history. But just as Biden’s threat to impose such sanctions failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, their actual imposition, far from chastening Moscow, is likely to resurrect the Iron Curtain and spur the emergence of a remilitarized, neo-imperial Russia.

The U.S.-led sanctions that followed Russia’s 2014 Crimea annexation, while fueling Russian nationalism, compelled Moscow to pivot to China, turning two natural competitors into close strategic partners. Those sanctions also led Russia to build a parallel payments system that has now helped take the sting out of the recent exit of Visa and Mastercard, thereby setting an example for other nations to invest in building their own payments infrastructure.

Today, the rise in international oil and gas prices, by directly contributing to inflation and political trouble at home, is underscoring that sanctions also impose costs on their imposers. Those costs would escalate and possibly even engender recession if the cycle of sanctions, counter-sanctions and fresh sanctions substantially diminished Russian energy exports.

In a further reminder that sanctions are blunt instruments and often produce unintended and undesirable consequences, the West’s comprehensive hybrid war against Russia is helping boost Putin’s popularity at home. According to a poll by the Levada Center, an independent, Moscow-based pollster that has been designated a “foreign agent” in Russia, Putin’s approval ratings shot up from 69 percent in January to 83 percent in late March.

Biden’s primary strategic focus ought to be on preserving America’s global preeminence. For years, the U.S. waged self-debilitating wars in the Islamic world, allowing China to emerge as its primary challenger globally. Now, as it pours military resources into Europe, America’s renewed focus on European security threatens to distract it from its long-term strategic objectives.

After losing Afghanistan to sandal-wearing terroristsBiden should not allow the impulse for revenge against Moscow to drive his foreign policy. Ukraine is Europe’s problem, and he should exert pressure on Europeans to take greater ownership of their security so that the U.S. can single-mindedly focus on arresting its relative decline.

If a war-torn Ukraine were to become another Syria or Libya, the grave implications for Europe’s security would extend far beyond the refugee flow turning into a torrent. In such a scenario, some of the lethal arms the West is pouring into Ukraine could eventually flow back westward to haunt European nations’ internal security.Behind the negotiations, Russia’s elites are pulling strings of their ownAs social media turns 25, we’re still perplexed about regulating bad actors

The current crisis represents the most dangerous period since the end of the Cold War. Stable Washington-Moscow relations can help to avert a wider conflict and reach a NATO-Russia agreement on Ukraine modeled on the 1955 treaty under which Austria established itself as a buffer state between the East and West and declared its neutrality.

More broadly, the U.S. should seek to drive a wedge in the China-Russia axis, instead of becoming a bridge that unites them. The deepening China-Russia entente is perhaps the biggest U.S. foreign-policy failure of the post-Cold War era.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

China continues its territorial advances in Asia

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Chinese troops at their mountaintop bunkers in Ladakh’s Pangong region in February 2021: what stands out is the speed and scale with which China is redrawing facts on the ground without firing a shot.   © AP

Strategy relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver rival states

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is helping to obscure China’s expansionism in Asia, where it continues to redraw its land and maritime borders and exert growing pressure on Taiwan. Unlike Russia’s frontal military assault, China’s preferred mode of expansionism is salami-slicing, or altering the status quo in its favor, little by little.

In the latest example, the Chinese government’s news website Tibet.cn reported earlier this month that the People’s Liberation Army had quietly completed the 624 villages that China had set out to build in disputed or captured Himalayan border areas.

China’s militarized villages in the Himalayan borderlands, that India, Bhutan and Nepal consider to be within their own national boundaries, are the equivalent of its artificial islands that it is turning into forward military bases in the South China Sea.

What is remarkable about its village-building spree in the Himalayas is that China has reportedly managed to complete it despite the specter of armed conflict raised by its ongoing military confrontation with India. The Indian and Chinese militaries have remained locked in multiple Himalayan standoffs for the past 23 months after China stealthily encroached on some key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh, leading to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes since 1975.

Recent talks to defuse the military crisis, including between military commanders and later between the foreign ministers, made little headway. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s New Delhi trip on Mar. 25 was the highest-level visit between the two countries since the standoffs in the frigid Himalayan heights began.

Effective control is the most vital element of a strong territorial claim in international law. This explains why establishing new facts on the ground, whether in the form of high-altitude artificial villages with planted settlers or human-made islands, is integral to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s territorial aggrandizement.

Xi’s expansionism has not spared even tiny Bhutan, with a population of barely 800,000. In disregard of a 1998 bilateral treaty that obligated its parties “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border,” several of China’s militarized villages have come up in Bhutan’s northern and western borderlands.

More broadly, China’s territorial revisionism follows a cabbage strategy: gradually wrapping a claimed or contested area in multiple layers of security, like the concentric leaves of a cabbage, thereby denying access to any rival.

Just like the concentric layers of occupation around the South China Sea islands by Chinese fishing boats, coastguard ships and naval ships, expansionism in the Himalayas has involved bringing in people from afar to settle in desolate, previously uninhabited areas, with civilian militias, paramilitary police and regular PLA forces forming multilayered security.

China’s strategy of territorial creep relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver a rival state, in keeping with the ancient Chinese game of Go, in which the goal is to incrementally gain more territory through unrelenting attacks on the opponent’s weak points. Before initiating a jurisdictional claim through a rising tempo of incursions, Beijing has a history of constructing a dispute.

In the East China Sea, China succeeded in getting the world to recognize the existence of a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands by steadily increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into their territorial waters and airspace and by popularizing the islands’ Chinese name Diaoyu.

Chinese marine surveillance ship cruising in the East China Sea near Senkaku Islands in February 2021. (Photo by Hitoshi Nakama)   © Kyodo

Even as Beijing started dispatching armed ships and larger vessels, Japan has recoiled from purely defensive steps like building a lighthouse on the Senkakus. Indeed, no Japanese defense minister has conducted an aerial survey of the uninhabited Senkakus in order not to provoke China.

By keeping opponents off-balance, Xi’s strategy bears all the hallmarks of brinkmanship, including reliance on stealth, surprise and an indifference to the risks of military escalation. Camouflaging offense as defense, it casts the burden of starting a war on the other side.

In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. But even after an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing imposed “might makes right” in that region.

In more recent years, however, China has increasingly employed new domestic law both as a cover for unlawful actions and to underpin its territorial claims in international law. Through domestic legislation, Xi has sought to legitimize Chinese actions ranging from the human-made militarized islands and new administrative districts in the South China Sea to the Himalayan border villages.

China’s shadowy expansionism in the Himalayas extends far beyond the 624 border villages whose construction a 2017 Chinese government document unveiled. To project power and enable more rapid movement of troops, weaponry and equipment, Beijing has pursued frenzied construction of new military infrastructure, including in disputed borderlands. New Chinese roads through Bhutanese territory have opened an axis against India’s most vulnerable point — the Siliguri Corridor, which connects the country’s far northeast to the Indian heartland.

What stands out is the speed and scale with which China is redrawing facts on the ground without firing a shot. China’s territorial creep is contributing to increasing insecurity in Asia, the world’s most dynamic region economically.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Putin’s War and the Mirage of the Rules-Based Order

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For all the talk of a rules-based order, the world’s rule-makers have reverted unhesitatingly to unilateralism during the Ukraine war. While this will leave Russia and the US worse off, it will enable China to advance its interests and bolster its global influence.

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the West’s unprecedented response, represent a watershed in international relations, marking the formal end of the post-Cold War era and setting the stage for seismic geopolitical and geo-economic shifts. But one defining feature of international relations will remain: to paraphrase Thucydides, the strong will continue to do what they can, and the weak will continue to suffer what they must.

It is true that leaders and observers around the world often speak of strengthening or defending the “rules-based international order.” But that order was always more aspirational than real. Countries that possess military or economic might reserve the right not only to make and enforce the rules, but also to break them.

It is when the rule-makers disagree that the greatest risks arise. The Ukraine war – the first conflict of the post-Cold War period that pits great powers against each other – is a case in point. On one side, Russia has been carrying out a brutal conventional military assault on Ukraine, in an apparent effort to bring the country – which Russian President Vladimir Putin believes is rightly part of his country – back into the Kremlin fold. On the other side, NATO, led by the United States, has been waging a comprehensive hybrid war against Russia.

The West’s war has included the supply of huge quantities of weapons to Ukrainian forces: US President Joe Biden alone has authorized the transfer of $1.35 billion worth of lethal weapons since the war began, with much more to come. The West has also implemented ever-escalating economic and financial sanctions, virtually expelling Russia from the Western-led financial order and sequestering the assets of many wealthy Russians. And it has sought to shape international opinion, with many countries now blocking access to Russian state media.

For all the talk of a rules-based order, the world’s rule-makers have reverted unhesitatingly to unilateralism. The risks are legion. The flood of weapons the West is sending to Ukraine – a country with a long history of weak governance and widespread corruption – could eventually flow westward, fueling organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and terrorist violence across Europe. And the Iron Curtain’s revival may hasten the emergence of a militarily robust, neo-imperial Russia. Putin, who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “tragedy” and the end of “historical Russia,” has indicated that Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, is not a country.

And it is not just Russia that will become isolated. The Ukraine war could trigger the unraveling of decades of broader global economic engagement, long viewed as a key deterrent to great-power conflict.

Of course, the notion that countries would rather trade than invade has never been unassailable. Economic interdependence has not stopped China, for example, from engaging in relentless expansionism, from the South and East China Seas to the Himalayas.

Even today, however, economic interdependence has forced rule-makers to exercise some restraint. Despite the raft of financial and economic sanctions it has imposed on Russia, Europe continues to support the Russian economy’s mainstay: oil and gas exports. This undermines the West’s own mission, especially as the confrontation drives up energy prices. But Europe’s longstanding dependence on Russian energy supplies has left it with no good alternatives – at least for now.

Such a tradeoff may not arise in the future. The European Union has already vowed to eliminate its dependence on Russian energy by 2030. At the same time, countries that want to uphold trade ties with Russia are seeking solutions outside Western-controlled channels. For example, India is buying Russian oil with rupees. Similar moves elsewhere – for example, Saudi Arabia is considering renminbi-based oil sales to China – threaten to erode the US dollar’s global supremacy.

This is probably the beginning of a broader bifurcation of the global economy. At a time when economic power has shifted eastward but the West still controls the world’s financial architecture – including the main international payments system, the primary currencies for trade and financial flows, and the leading credit-ratings agencies – the establishment of parallel arrangements seems imminent.

China, which dwarfs Russia in terms of both economic power and military spending, will likely lead this process. In fact, China is set to emerge as the real winner of the NATO-Russia conflict. An overstretched America’s renewed preoccupation with European security will create strategic space for China to press its strategic objectives – its leaders have been as clear about absorbing Taiwan as Putin was about claiming Ukraine – and bolster its global influence, at the expense of the US.

Chinese global dominance would amount to the final nail in the coffin of the rules-based order. Since its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic has displayed blatant contempt for international law, more than doubling its land mass by annexing Xinjiang and Tibet and currently detaining over a million Muslims. Yet China has paid no tangible price. The Kremlin, for its part, probably did not think twice about rejecting the International Court of Justice order to suspend its military operations in Ukraine.

International law may be powerful against the powerless, but it is powerless against the powerful. The League of Nations, created after World War I, failed because it could not deter important powers from flouting international law. Its beleaguered successor, the United Nations, may be facing a similar reckoning. How can the UN Security Council fulfill its mandate of upholding international peace and stability if its five veto-wielding permanent members are arrayed into two opposing camps?

The world is headed for an era of greater upheaval. However it plays out, the pretense of a shared commitment to international law will be the first casualty.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

The new US-Russia cold war will accelerate China’s rise

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, THE HILL

President Biden has made clear that the United States has embarked on a strategy of Containment 2.0 against Russia with what he calls “the broadest sanctions in history.” But Biden is unlikely to have factored in the possibility of a boomerang effect. The unintended consequences could bifurcate the global economy, polarize international politics and strengthen China at America’s expense.

Over the years, the relative ease of imposing economic sanctions has turned them into a grossly overused tool of American diplomacy. The efficacy of U.S. sanctions has been eroding with the relative decline of American power, and a growing body of evidence suggests that such measures have often proved counterproductive to America’s own economic and geopolitical interests. 

The U.S. has virtually ejected Russia from the Western-led financial order at a time when economic power is moving east. Expelling the world’s 11th-largest economy from an order that the U.S. seeks to uphold could intensify the search for a viable alternative system that isn’t dominated by the West. 

What is more certain is that the new U.S.-led hybrid war against Russia, centered on unparalleled sanctions, will help deepen the undeclared Beijing-Moscow axis against Washington and make China the big winner financially and geopolitically, thereby aiding its expansion of economic and military power.

The West’s heavy economic penalties on Moscow, including unplugging key Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system, are set to turn China into Russia’s banker, enabling it to reap vast profits. In structural terms too, Russia’s sanctions pain will be China’s gain: To help insulate itself from similar Western sanctions if it were to invade Taiwan, Beijing is seeking to boost the payments and reserve role of the yuan and the international use of its competitor to the SWIFT network — the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, or CIPS. The West’s Russia sanctions are likely to provide a fillip to both efforts. 

Furthermore, the sanctions have opened the path for China to build an energy safety net through greater land-based imports so that it can withstand a potential U.S.-led energy embargo or blockade in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The re-imposition of sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is welcome news for Beijing, which is seeking to further boost energy imports from Russia after concluding new oil and gas deals worth a whopping $117.5 billion during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Beijing visit last month.

Here’s the paradox: China has faced no Western financial or other meaningful sanctions despite swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea, expanding its land frontiers in the Himalayas and establishing a Muslim gulag with more than one million detainees in what two successive U.S. administrations have called “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” By contrast, as Biden’s two rounds of sanctions last year underscored, Russia has remained an easy target for escalating American sanctions over the past decade because the U.S. has little stake in the Russian economy.

In this light, the West’s targeting of just Russia is certain to make China the main beneficiary of the sanctions, thus aiding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” of supplanting the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power.

The new Biden-led sanctions against Russia will likely be undercut by Xi’s regime — unless the West goes after China too. But that possibility seems remote.

As part of a diplomatic strategy to extract important concessions from the West, Beijing will play the same cat-and-mouse game with Washington over the Russia sanctions that it has long played vis-à-vis the North Korea sanctions. It will pretend to cooperate with the U.S. while quietly undermining the Western sanctions, including by helping Russia to find China-centered financial workarounds.

The outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should not obscure one key fact: China, with about a 10 times larger population and economy than Russia, poses the biggest challenge to America. Whereas Russia’s strategic priorities and ambitions are concentrated in its neighborhood, China is working to supplant the U.S. as the dominant global power.

As FBI Director Christopher Wray said last month, “There is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China.” And the “scale of their hacking program…is greater than every other country combined.” China has expanded its spying in the U.S. to such an extent, according to Wray, that the FBI is launching one new counterintelligence investigation on average every 12 hours.

For China, whose global image is at a historic low, the new Washington-Moscow cold war (with Russia reemerging as the “evil empire” in Western perceptions) couldn’t come at a better time. Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks, believing China has a narrow window of strategic opportunity to modify the international order in its favor before it confronts a demographic crisisstalled economic growth and an unfavorable global environment. 

Putin, through his war of aggression, is unwittingly helping Beijing, including distracting the U.S. from its China challenge. The war, which has the makings of a drawn-out and dangerous confrontation between Russia and NATO, will help Xi’s pursuit of his “China dream.”

Biden is likely to live up to his pledge to make Russia pay “dearly, economically and strategically.” Taming a largely hostile Ukraine could mire Russia in a quagmire, especially as Western lethal weapons continue to flow to Ukrainian resistance forces. Biden’s request to Congress for a staggering $10 billion in additional Ukrainian assistance shows that his Containment 2.0 strategy includes an Afghanistan 2.0 plan to replicate in Ukraine the CIA-led covert war of the 1980s that ultimately drove Soviet forces out from Afghanistan.

America’s increasing entanglement in European security, however, will open greater space for Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, a region that will shape the new world order. In fact, U.S. policy, instead of driving a wedge between Russia and China, is serving as a bridge that unites them against an overstretched America.

More fundamentally, U.S. policy has learned little from its strategic blunder in aiding China’s rise under successive American presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, which has resulted in that country today posing a military, economic and technological challenge on a scale America has not seen before. Almost every time the U.S. has slapped any country with sanctions in the post-Cold War period, it has helped advance Chinese commercial and strategic interests.

The Russia sanctions, although they hold no promise of changing Putin’s behavior, constitute one of the biggest gifts American policymakers have delivered to Beijing. By effectively putting Russia, the world’s richest country in natural resources, in Beijing’s pocket, the sanctions will yield major dividends for a resource-hungry China, including allowing it to dictate the terms of the bilateral relationship and secure greater access to Russian military technology. 

After Biden’s Afghan debacle and failure to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, could Taiwan become his next foreign policy disaster? Xi will likely bide his time and wait for an opportune moment before moving on Taiwan, taking a distracted U.S. by utter surprise and bringing down the curtain on the West’s long ascendancy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

The US and India in a new world

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Brahma Chellaney, The Spectator

The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. The new global order will be shaped by developments in a sprawling region where interstate rivalries and tensions are sharpening geopolitical risks. Building a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific has become more important than ever, but China’s territorial and maritime revisionism, and its heavy-handed use of economic and military power, are causing instability and undercutting international norms.

Against this background, the expanding strategic partnership between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies — the United States and India — has become pivotal to equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. With India’s closer integration, the four-nation Quad — Australia, India, Japan and the US — is blossoming as a strategic coalition of the leading Indo-Pacific democracies.

The Quad is central to the US’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. As American preeminence erodes, the US must augment its power with that of allies and partners. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad in 2018 as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” Instead, and thanks to China’s expansionist policies, the Quad continues to gain strength — despite the new, US-initiated AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain. The US cannot build an Asian power equilibrium without India, Japan and Australia — and they cannot build it without the US.

Today, the US is also close to achieving a long-sought goal: a “soft alliance” with India that needs no treaty. The US has already emerged as the largest arms seller to India, leaving its traditional supplier, Russia, far behind. US defense transactions with India went from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020. Furthermore, India has signed the four “foundational” agreements that the US maintains with all its close defense partners. These accords range from providing reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities and securing military communications to sharing geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensors.

India, a founder and leader of the Nonaligned Movement that sought to chart a neutral course in the US-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Instead, it is multi-aligned and building close partnerships with democratic powers from Asia to Europe. India now holds more annual military exercises with America than any other country.

The main driver of the growing US-India strategic collaboration is China’s neo-imperial expansionism. President Xi Jinping believes that China has a narrow window of strategic opportunity to modify the international order in its favor before it confronts a demographic crisis, stalled economic growth and an unfavorable global environment. Accordingly, Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks.

American and Indian strategic priorities regarding China are, however, not the same. The US has never considered fighting a land war against China. The primary American objective is non-military: to counter China’s geopolitical, economic and ideological challenges. By contrast, China poses a pressing military challenge for India. The spotlight on the Chinese threats against Taiwan has helped obscure China’s more serious military confrontation with India along the long Himalayan frontier — a confrontation that is still raging.

The US and India, however, are united by other shared strategic interests. These include the rule of law, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, freedom of navigation, peaceful dispute resolution and a rules-based Indo-Pacific free of coercion. The biggest challenge to all these principles comes from China.

In May 2020, a shocked India discovered that China had stealthily encroached on several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. The discovery led to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes in the Himalayas since 1975, including China’s first combat deaths in over four decades. The Indian and Chinese militaries remain locked in multiple standoffs, and the steadily increasing introduction of new weapons and troops by both sides has amplified the risk of renewed border skirmishing, if not outright war. Xi has picked a border fight with India that China cannot win. A war between these two nuclear- armed demographic giants is likely to end in a bloody stalemate with heavy losses on both sides. This is not the only instance in which Xi’s aggressive policies have proved to be counterproductive.

For India, China’s territorial aggression proves the importance of building close strategic collaboration with the US and likeminded powers. India today seems more determined than ever to frustrate China’s ambition to achieve Asian hegemony. By locking horns with China in tense military standoffs despite the risk of a full-scale war, India has openly challenged Chinese capability and power in a way no other power has done in this century. Since 2020, when India let Australia join the annual Exercise Malabar war games with the American, Japanese and Indian navies, the Quad has possessed a platform for an annual military exercise involving all its members.

Xi must now also contend with the strengthening US-India relationship. In a pivot to Asia that much of the US media either ignored or derided, the Trump administration gave India pride of place in its Indo-Pacific strategy. It also instituted fundamental shifts in US policies on China and Pakistan, two close allies whose strengthening strategic axis in southern Asia imposes high security costs on India, including raising the specter of a two-front war. Trump reversed the forty-five-year US policy of aiding China’s rise; with bipartisan support, he designated China as a strategic rival and threat. His administration also cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups.

Relations between the Indo-Pacific’s two largest democratic powers thrived during the Trump presidency. Trump built a personal rapport with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, with whom he shares a love for big audiences and theatrics. Trump joined Modi’s September 2019 public rally in Houston, which was attended by 59,000 Indian Americans and a number of US congressmen and senators. Then, during his February 2020 standalone visit to India, Trump spoke at the largest rally any American president has ever addressed — at home or abroad.

More than 100,000 people packed the world’s largest cricket stadium, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people,” Trump declared. After returning home, Trump called India an “incredible country,” saying, “Our relationship with India is extraordinary right now.”

The US and India are both bitterly polarized democracies. In each, rival political forces are self-segregated into their own ideological silos. Trump and Modi have faced similar accusations from critics. Both are accused of being blinkered demagogues, of pursuing divisive policies and choosing populism over constitutionalism. Each consciously avoided saying anything that could give a handle to the other’s domestic critics.

President Biden, by contrast, entered the White House after criticizing Modi’s government on issues like Kashmir and a new Indian law on citizenship for non-Muslim refugees who had fled religious persecution in neighboring Islamic countries. Biden’s election victory created uncertainty over the future direction of US-India ties. Indeed, as a senator, Biden had spearheaded a congressional sanctions move in 1992 that helped block Russia’s sale of cryogenic-engine technology for India’s civilian space program, setting it back many years.

Yet President Biden has sustained the momentum in the growth of the bilateral relationship. As with tacit acceptances of Trump’s other unorthodox foreign-policy initiatives, Biden has no choice but to recognize India’s centrality in an Asian balance of power. Despite his party’s hostility to Modi and Hindu nationalism, Biden’s interactions with Modi have been characterized by ease and warmth. In September, Biden welcomed Modi to the White House as “my friend” and said, “I’ve long believed that the US-India relationship can help us solve an awful lot of global challenges.”

Booming US exports to India — one of the world’s fastest-growing markets —reinforce bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with New Delhi. The US has rapidly become an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, which is the world’s third-largest oil consumer after the US and China. But the US and India are not entirely on the same page.

America’s self-inflicted defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan at the hands of a Pakistan-backed terrorist militia have compounded India’s security challenges at a time when it should be fully focused on countering China’s Himalayan expansionism. Worse still, Team Biden, unlike the Trump administration, has placed outreach to Beijing as a high priority, and has been wary of publicly supporting India against Chinese aggression. The Democrats’ Russia fixation, meanwhile, is only strengthening under Biden.

Nevertheless, India will continue to quietly gain greater salience in US policy — especially as Russia and China deepen their entente. Instead of driving a wedge between these two natural competitors, US policy has helped turn them into close strategic partners. If the US is not to accelerate its relative decline through strategic overreach, it needs India more than ever. It would be doubly ironic, given Vice President Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage, if Biden did not seize the opportunity to formalize the US’s de facto and deepening security alliance with India.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition. 

Ukraine war puts U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy in jeopardy

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Focus on Russia will curtail efforts to limit Chinese expansionism

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Joe Biden meets virtually with Xi Jinping from the White House in November 2021: Biden has sought to stabilize the geopolitical competition with China so as to focus on containing Russia.   © AP

The Indo-Pacific region — home to the world’s most populous nations, largest economies and largest militaries — has emerged as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub. This vast region will shape the new world order, including America’s geopolitical standing, in the coming years.

Greater volatility in the Indo-Pacific, however, seems inevitable as a result of the deepening international crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western retaliation in the form of an unprecedented hybrid war against Moscow.

Sanctions are a form of warfare whose unforeseen consequences have, historically, set in motion an escalating spiral leading to devastating armed conflict. It was a raft of U.S. sanctions intended to squeeze Imperial Japan that ultimately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific war and eventually the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Russia, now the world’s most-sanctioned country, remains a nuclear and cyber superpower, as well as the world’s richest country when it comes to natural resources, and its own likely reprisals to the West’s hybrid war will increase the risks of a wider conflict.

The new Cold War will constrain an overstretched Washington from genuinely pivoting to the Indo-Pacific or robustly countering the challenge to its global preeminence from China, which dwarfs Russia in economic power and military spending.

Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to stabilize the geopolitical competition with China so as to focus on containing Russia, in keeping with what he told CBS “60 Minutes” just before being elected: Russia is “the biggest threat to America” and China “the biggest competitor.”

As part of that approach — a reversal of the Trump administration policy of treating the Chinese Communist Party as an existential threat to U.S. interests — Biden last year poured a record $650 million in military aid into Ukraine. Last autumn’s U.S.-NATO military exercises near Russia’s Black Sea coast incensed Moscow, foreshadowing Russian aggression today.

To help stabilize relations with Beijing, Biden has taken a number of steps, including a decision not to reinstate certain tariffs. Biden allowed Beijing to escape scot-free over its failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with the Trump administration. China’s increased purchases of U.S. goods and services fell far below its commitment of $200 billion over 2017 levels during the deal’s two-year period that ended on Dec. 31, 2021.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unrelenting expansionism from the South and East China Seas to Hong Kong and the Himalayas has essentially been cost-free. Even Xi’s mass incarceration of over a million Muslims in Xinjiang, which the Biden administration acknowledges is “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” has gone unpunished, with the U.S. imposing only symbolic sanctions.

Biden, after more than a year in office and barely two weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unveiled the “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.” This followed criticism at home that he lacked clarity on a region central to long-term U.S. interests.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, while acknowledging that “our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost” of China’s “harmful behavior,” goes out of its way to mollify Xi’s regime, stating that America’s “objective is not to change the PRC (People’s Republic of China) but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” It also says the U.S. will “manage competition with the PRC responsibly” and “work with the PRC in areas like climate change and nonproliferation.”

As if seeking to allay China’s concerns, Biden has also progressively diluted the Quad’s agenda, broadening it, as his Indo-Pacific strategy attests, to everlasting universal challenges like climate change, sustainability, “global health” and “advancing common technology principles.” The Quad, however, was designed as a bulwark against China’s expansionism.

Biden has yet to comment on China’s nearly two-year border aggression against India. Nor has the U.S. asked Beijing to pull back the nearly 200,000 Chinese troops it has massed along the Indian frontier. Yet Biden, seeking to co-opt India in his new Cold War with Russia, hosted a special Quad summit by video link on Mar. 3 to discuss the Russian aggression.

But the summit, as the unusually short White House statement indicated, achieved little. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put his foot down over extending the Quad’s sphere to Ukraine, saying the group must “remain focused on its core objective… in the Indo-Pacific region.”

India — the only Quad member not under the U.S. security and nuclear umbrella — has taken an independent stance on Ukraine, calling for an end to hostilities and a return to the path of diplomacy but abstaining from the United Nations votes to condemn Russia.

As Biden steps up his hybrid war against Russia, his conciliatory approach will become more pronounced toward China, which has the capacity to bail out the Russian economy. But Xi is likely to work toward neutralizing similar Western sanctions against China in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Xi is expected to fast-track progress on parallel international financial arrangements that are free from Western domination and weaponization.

Biden’s imperative to win Chinese cooperation on his sanctions against Russia gives Beijing important leverage. Like a double-edged sword, it will wield that leverage to extract U.S. and Russian concessions. With Biden’s characterization of Russia as Enemy No. 1 becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, a major casualty is likely to be America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Ukraine crisis: Perils of a ‘with us or against us’ approach

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Brahma Chellaney, The New Indian Express

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just the latest example of “might makes right”. Despite claims to the contrary, the world has never had a rules-based order. Just consider the history of this century, especially the number of military invasions of sovereign states that have occurred since the year 2001.

International law is powerful against the powerless, but powerless against the powerful. Both the Russian invasion and the West’s no-holds-barred retaliatory economic war against Russia, including practically expelling it from the Western-led financial order, mock a rules-based order. While Russia’s aggression is violating Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, the West’s economic warfare is violating Russia’s economic sovereignty.

Yet this conflict holds global implications, with the potential to remake our world, including spawning the polarization of both the world economy and international politics.

As a new Cold War dawns, the US appears returning to a “with us or against us” approach. This promises to bring countries that take an objective and balanced view under intense pressure. It is also likely to complicate, if not strain, American ties with countries that insist on remaining neutral or taking a more nuanced approach than Washington’s black-and-white portrayal of the situation.

In echoes of a familiar Manichaean logic, US President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking to prod India to be on America’s side against Russia by implicitly asking, “Are you with us or against us?”

Team Biden has bristled at India abstaining from the United Nations votes to condemn Moscow, including at the Security Council on February 25 when Russia vetoed a US-sponsored resolution deploring the Russian invasion as a violation of the UN Charter. India, however, has implicitly criticized Russia’s abandonment of the path of diplomacy and repeatedly called for an end to all violence.

According to the US-based news website Axios, the State Department has recalled a strongly-worded cable to American embassies instructing them to inform India and the United Arab Emirates that their neutral stance on Ukraine put them “in Russia’s camp”. US diplomacy has a record of using media “leaks” to convey messages or warnings. In 1998, to spoil India’s ties with China, the White House leaked Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s letter to President Bill Clinton about the Indian nuclear tests.

The Axios story ended by saying that India “has faced allegations — rarely discussed by the US in public — of democratic backsliding and repression of religious minorities.” The implication is that, unless New Delhi falls in line, the Biden administration could start discussing such allegations in public.

US pressure has already compelled the UAE to reverse course. After abstaining in the Security Council, it voted in support of the March 2 non-binding resolution in the General Assembly condemning Russia. However, 35 countries abstained on the General Assembly resolution, including all of India’s major neighbours, while a further 11 didn’t vote at all.

Here’s the paradox: No head of a Western government has condemned China’s nearly 23-month-long border aggression against India or even urged Beijing to pull back the nearly 200,000 troops it has massed along the Himalayan frontier in violation of binding bilateral accords. Yet the Western bloc demands that India be firmly on its side over the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which is a member of neither NATO nor the European Union.

When Donald Trump was the US president, his top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, regularly blasted China’s aggression against India, calling it “incredibly aggressive action”, “unacceptable behaviour” and part of a “clear and intensifying pattern of bullying”.

But the Biden administration, having placed outreach to Beijing as a high priority, has been wary of publicly supporting India against the Chinese aggression. Biden hasn’t uttered a word on that aggression. Indeed, Biden’s recently unveiled “Indo-Pacific Strategy” refers to China’s military actions against India since 2020 not as “aggression” but in neutral language — as “the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India”.

Even in the India-Pakistan context, Team Biden isn’t firmly on India’s side. It has hedged its bets by retaining Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally”, despite America’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of Pakistan-backed Taliban terrorists. Biden’s failure to impose any penalties on Pakistan also explains why that country is still missing from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Yet now Team Biden demands that India side with the US against Russia over Ukraine, which historically has been viewed by Moscow as its strategic buffer. Its unstated message to India is: “Do as I say, not as I do”.

India’s measured response to the Russian aggression enjoys bipartisan support at home. For India, the US has increasingly become an important strategic partner. But Moscow, which rescued India half a dozen times by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions over the decades, remains an equally important friend.

Had India voted with the Western bloc to condemn Russia, it would have burned its bridges with a country that remains a critical source of weapons and military technology in projects ranging from the Brahmos missile to nuclear submarines. To help shore up India’s defences against China, Russia has advanced the delivery of its S-400 air and anti-missile system.

The US values its strategic autonomy. So should India. Undermining ties with Moscow would make India dependent on America, whose unpredictability is legendary.

The US is already bagging billions of dollars worth of Indian arms contracts every year. Yet it is working to make India its sole arms client, including by seeking to leverage its domestic law — the 2017 ​Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — to downgrade Indian defence ties with Moscow. Given the advent of the new Cold War, it is likely to step up that effort.

India now holds more annual military exercises with America than any other country. The US has already overtaken Russia as the largest arms seller to India. New Delhi wishes to further deepen its ties with Washington. But such cooperation cannot be exclusionary.

A “with us or against us” approach that seeks to compel India to make a choice between the US and Russia will only bring the blossoming Indo-American relationship under strain. 

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

America Is Focusing on the Wrong Enemy

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US President Joe Biden is treating a “rogue” Russia as a peer competitor, when he should be focused on the challenge from America’s actual peer, China. Not only is China more powerful than Russia; it also genuinely seeks to supplant the US as the preeminent global power.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

Much of the democratic world would like the United States to remain the preeminent global power. But with the US apparently committed to strategic overreach, that outcome risks becoming unlikely.

The problem with America’s global leadership begins at home. Hyper-partisan politics and profound polarization are eroding American democracy and impeding the pursuit of long-term objectives. In foreign policy, the partisan divide can be seen in perceptions of potential challengers to the US: according to a March 2021 poll, Republicans are most concerned about China, while Democrats worry about Russia above all.

This may explain why US President Joe Biden is treating a “rogue” Russia as a peer competitor, when he should be focused on the challenge from America’s actual peer, China. In comparison to Russia, China’s population is about ten times bigger, its economy is almost ten times larger, and its military expenditure is around four times greater. Not only is China more powerful; it genuinely seeks to supplant the US as the preeminent global power. By contrast, with its military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, Russia is seeking to mitigate a perceived security threat in its neighborhood.

Hastening the decline of US global leadership is hardly the preserve of Democrats. A bipartisan parade of US leaders has failed to recognize that the post-Cold War unipolar world order, characterized by unchallenged US economic and military predominance, is long gone. The US squandered its “unipolar moment,” especially by waging an expensive and amorphous “Global War on Terrorism,” including several military interventions, and through its treatment of Russia.

After its Cold War victory, the US essentially took an extended victory lap, pursuing strategic maneuvers that flaunted its dominance. Notably, it sought to expand NATO to Russia’s backyard, but made little effort to bring Russia into the Western fold, as it had done with Germany and Japan after World War II. The souring of relations with the Kremlin contributed to Russia’s eventual remilitarization.

So, while the US remains the world’s foremost military power, it has been stretched thin by the decisions and commitments it has made, in Europe and elsewhere, since 1991. This goes a long way toward explaining why the US has ruled out deploying its own troops to defend Ukraine today. What the US is offering Ukraine – weapons and ammunition – cannot protect the country from Russia, which has an overwhelming military advantage.

But US leaders made another fatal mistake since the Cold War: by aiding China’s rise, they helped to create the greatest rival their country has ever faced. Unfortunately, they have yet to learn from this. Instead, the US continues to dedicate insufficient attention and resources to an excessively wide array of global issues, from Russian revanchism and Chinese aggression to lesser threats in the Middle East and Africa and on the Korean Peninsula. And it continues inadvertently to bolster China’s global influence, not least through its overuse of sanctions.

For example, by barring friends and allies from importing Iranian oil, two successive US administrations enabled China not only to secure oil at a hefty discount, but also to become a top investor in – and security partner of – the Islamic Republic. US sanctions have similarly pushed resource-rich Myanmar into China’s arms. As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose country has faced a US arms embargo over its ties to China, asked last year, “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?”

Russia has been asking itself the same question. Though Russia and China kept each other at arm’s length for decades, US-led sanctions introduced after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea drove President Vladimir Putin to pursue a closer strategic partnership with China. The bilateral relationship is likely to deepen, regardless of what happens in Ukraine. But the raft of harsh new sanctions the US has promised to implement in the event of a Russian invasion will accelerate this shift significantly, with China as the big winner.

The heavy financial penalties the US has planned – including the “nuclear option” of disconnecting Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system – would turn China into Russia’s banker, enabling it to reap vast profits and expand the international use of its currency, the renminbi. If Biden fulfilled his pledge to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is set to deliver Russian supplies directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, China would gain greater access to Russian energy.

In fact, by securing a commitment from Putin this month to a nearly tenfold increase in Russian natural gas exports, China is building a safety net that could – in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan – withstand Western energy sanctions and even a blockade. China could also benefit militarily by demanding greater access to Russian military technology in exchange for its support.

For the US, a strengthened Russia-China axis is the worst possible outcome of the Ukraine crisis. The best outcome would be a compromise with Russia to ensure that it does not invade and possibly annex Ukraine. By enabling the US to avoid further entanglement in Europe, this would permit a more realistic balancing of key objectives – especially checking Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific – with available resources and capabilities.

The future of the US-led international order will be decided in Asia, and China is currently doing everything in its power to ensure that order’s demise. Already, China is powerful enough that it can host the Winter Olympics even as it carries out a genocide against Muslims in the Xinjiang region, with limited pushback. If the Biden administration does not recognize the true scale of the threat China poses, and adopt an appropriately targeted strategy soon, whatever window of opportunity for preserving US preeminence remains may well close.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2022.