• The “killer” exchange
• “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” – but in Moscow, Doha, Istanbul & New York
• Russia and China define democracy, human rights and the international order
• Global arms transfers: US rising, Russia falling
The “killer” exchange
By accident, coincidence or design (or a combination of them), US-Russia relations are administered a jolt whenever they show the slightest signs of a thaw. This time, the jolt came from a March 15 decision of the US Director of National Intelligence to declassify a January 2021 US intelligence assessment that President Putin had authorized operations to denigrate Candidate Biden, support President Trump, undermine the elections and divide US society – in the effort to influence the 2020 US elections.
When asked in a TV interview whether President Putin would pay a price for this, President Biden said he would. He said he had told Putin in their telephone conversation that if all this is established, “be prepared”. He went on to say the secret of dealing with foreign leaders is to “know the other guy”. To the follow-on question – whether he thought Putin is a killer, he responded, “Mmhmm [sound indicating yes], I do”, adding, “the price he’s going to pay, you’ll see shortly”.
Russian reactions to these words ranged from strong disapproval to intemperate rage. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described Biden’s words as “unprecedented”, declaring that Russia would henceforth proceed from the assumption that the US President does not want to improve relations with Russia. The Russian embassy in Washington said that the “ill-considered statements of high-ranking US officials have put the already excessively confrontational relations under the threat of collapse". Political figures of various persuasions described it as maligning, not only Putin, but also Russia and its people. In a commentary titled, “Biden crosses a red line”, the Russian government daily, Rossiskaya Gazeta, wondered whether the offensive words were well-considered, or “a consequence of old age”, going on to more explicitly allege “irreversible dementia”. Other unprintable epithets were hurled at the US President in social and other media.
The Russian foreign ministry took the rare step of “recalling” the Russian Ambassador in the US for “consultations...to analyse what needs to be done in the context of relations with the United States”. Such a recall is rare in diplomatic practice, reserved only for situations of extreme bilateral tensions. The Russian MFA spokeswoman said Russian departments will discuss with the Ambassador how to prevent “an irreversible deterioration” in Russia-US relations, which the US has taken to a “blind alley” in recent years.
As expected, President Putin did not let this personal attack pass. Asked about it, he said his first response to his US counterpart would be to wish him good health. Though he added that this was not a tongue in cheek remark, it was an obvious reference to US media comments on recent physical and verbal missteps of the US President. Putin went on to philosophize that when people or nations evaluate others, they are really projecting their inner selves on to the other side. This, he said, was the psychological truth in children telling each other during an argument, “what you called me is what you yourself are”. This long-winded exposition was what the media snappily (and not entirely inaccurately) summarized as, “it takes one to know one”.
Putin did not stop with this. He went on to establish the “killer” credentials of the American nation, starting with the colonization of the continent by Europeans, “extermination” of local Indian tribes (“outright genocide”) and cruel slavery practices (“otherwise, where would the Black Lives Matter movement come from?”). Moving on to more modern history, Putin recalled that the US was the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons, when there was “absolutely no military need” for it, resulting in “extermination of civilians”.
At a later event, Putin publicly invited Biden to a live public debate on US-Russia relations, suggesting two possible dates in March for it. This extraordinary suggestion obviously did not find a positive response. Asked about it, President Biden reportedly responded, “I’m sure we’ll talk at some point”. The Russian MFA bemoaned the fact that one more opportunity had been missed to find a way out of the deadlock in relations, created by Washington.
To come back to the US intelligence assessment, it did not see, unlike in 2016, persistent Russian cyber-efforts to access the election infrastructure. However, it judged that President Putin had personally authorized the “influence narratives” pushed by “proxies linked to Russian intelligence”. So charged has the US-Russia atmosphere become that efforts to influence public opinion through publicly available media are considered punishable subversion. Also, those near the corridors of power in Russia would question the implicit conviction that not a blade of grass moves in Russia without the explicit approval of Putin.
But the most remarkable element in the intelligence assessment is the “high confidence” of the US intelligence community that China did not deploy interference or influence efforts in the runup to the US elections. The assessment is that, since China believes the bipartisan consensus against it in the US would influence any administration, it did not view either election outcome as being of sufficient advantage to risk being caught meddling. In other words, China showed the good sense of not deploying its sophisticated perception-management machinery, while Russia did not – despite the fact that the bipartisan consensus in the US against Russia is stronger than that against China.
These assessments are in line with the pervasive narrative, across political, official, military and intelligence circles in the US, that China pursues its national interests single-mindedly and its actions are based on a rational risk-reward analysis – whereas Putin’s Russia is an irrational and irresponsible actor, violating international law and disrupting the world order, even at the cost of its own reputation and national interests. There is often a predisposition to see acts of commission and omission of Russia and China through this prism.
In the same TV interview in which he promised Putin would pay a price, Biden invoked the image of simultaneously walking and chewing gum, to say that the US would also cooperate with Russia, wherever it is in its national interest to do so (the renewal of new START being an example). Putin also, after philosophizing on Biden’s appellation and having delivered his history lesson, responded to this by declaring that Russia will also work with the US, but on its terms. Rossiskaya Gazeta noted that, given the charged bilateral atmosphere, there may be a tacit bilateral understanding that such dialogue as takes place remains little-advertised, so as not to attract political controversy.
“Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” – but in Moscow, Doha, Istanbul & New York
For over three years now, Afghanistan has been a prime example of pragmatic US-Russia cooperation amidst their high-voltage confrontational rhetoric. A day after Biden’s “killer” interview, US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation (SRAR), Zalmay Khalilzad, participated in a Moscow meeting of what the Russians call the “extended troika” on Afghanistan of the US, Russia and China, with Pakistan as the extension. When asked about the incongruity of American participation in the light of Biden’s remarks, the State Department spokesman drew attention to past meetings with Russia “in support of the Afghanistan peace process” and said Russia has “an important stake in a secure and stable Afghanistan”.
The immediate backdrop to the Moscow conference was the new diplomatic initiatives launched by the Biden administration, including suggestions for a transitional government, a UN-sponsored conference of regional stakeholders and Turkey-hosted negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. According to the joint statement issued after the conference, it focused on an intra-Afghan process for a negotiated settlement and permanent, comprehensive ceasefire. It was attended by representatives of the Afghan government, its High Council for National Reconciliation, prominent Afghan political figures (including former President Karzai, former Vice-Presidents Khalili and Dostum, and warlord-turned-politician Hekmatyar), Taliban representatives and those of Qatar and Turkey, “as guests of honour”.
The statement by the four countries called, inter alia, for reduction in violence, for the Taliban not to pursue its spring offensive, intra-Afghan negotiations for a peace agreement and for an “independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic and self-sufficient Afghanistan, free of terrorism and an illicit drug industry”, in which the rights of all Afghans are protected. The statement walked back on one element of the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020, by declaring that the four countries do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.
The real impact of this conference can only be judged from subsequent developments. But from Russia’s perspective, the conference and its attendance showcased the success of its efforts to be recognized, alongside the US, as a significant player in the Afghan political process. In 2016-17, the two countries were trading allegations about their activities in Afghanistan. The US accused Russia of sabotaging ISAF’s activities by funding and arming the Taliban. In turn, Russia accused the US and NATO of smuggling in “foreign fighters” (ISIS and others) from Syria and Iraq to foment instability in Afghanistan-Central Asia border areas. Russia criticized President Trump’s Afghanistan policy statement of August 2017 for an inconsistent approach to the Taliban and for ignoring the drug menace and the expanding ISIS presence in the country. A Russian Deputy Foreign Minister admonished the US Ambassador in Moscow that Pakistan should not be “selectively” targeted, and policies on the Afghan settlement should accommodate the interests of all states in the region.
This concern for Pakistan’s interests reflected a growing warmth in their bilateral engagement, which included Pakistani facilitation of Russia’s outreach to the Taliban. Russia also assiduously developed access across the Afghan political spectrum, using the Afghan expatriate community in Russia, drawing on old contacts with the Northern Alliance and making new friends like former President Karzai, when he fell out with the US towards the end of his Presidency.
The “Moscow format” of talks on Afghanistan started relatively modestly in November 2018 (shortly after the appointment of the US SRAR), with a delegation of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, assorted political figures and representatives of the Qatar-based Taliban leadership. The US Embassy in Moscow sent a representative. Though there was no substantive outcome, Moscow could claim the diplomatic achievement of bringing the Taliban and nominees of the Afghan government together at one table. It also enabled Russia to claim legitimacy for its interactions with the Taliban.
Then followed an initiative for an “intra-Afghan” conference in Moscow in February 2019, hosted ostensibly by the Afghan diaspora in Russia, bringing together senior Afghan politicians and Taliban representatives. The conference spelt out an ambitious vision for Afghanistan: respect for the principles of Islam … a powerful centralised government with all ethnicities represented … protecting national sovereignty, promoting social justice … keeping Afghanistan neutral in all regional and international conflicts … protection of social, economic, political and educational rights of Afghan women in line with Islamic principles .. freedom of speech in line with Islamic principles, etc. Again, this was sufficient progress for Zamir Kabulov, the Russian President’s Special Envoy and the chief architect of Russia’s Afghanistan initiatives, to claim that the seeds of an Afghan-owned peace agreement had been sown.
Thereafter, Russia-US consultations on Afghanistan became regular, often including China and, eventually, Pakistan as well. The recent Moscow conference noted that this was the seventh meeting of the troika, starting with March 2019. The close Russia-US coordination was revealed when Russia (shaking off the pretence of non-governmental sponsorship) planned the next edition of the “intra-Afghan” dialogue in Doha in April 2019. Afghan government representatives were invited “in their personal capacities”. When a disagreement arose between the Taliban and the Afghan government about the size and composition of the latter’s nominees, US Secretary of State Pompeo personally intervened with the Afghan President in an effort to resolve the issue. The Russian and American Envoys continued their cooperation, and Russia welcomed the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020.
The US State Department spokesman said recently that the US would only endorse a solution for Afghanistan that was “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” at its core. Troika statements and pronouncements of its leaders are littered with terms like “inclusive”, “Afghan-led”, “Afghan-owned” and Afghan-controlled”. Many also include proforma expressions of support for the Afghan government in combating terrorism. But there is increasingly stronger emphasis on the Taliban’s perspectives. An April 2019 US-Russia-China joint statement noted approvingly the Afghan Taliban’s “commitment to fight ISIS and cut ties with Al-Qaeda, ETIM, and other international terrorist groups and to ensure that areas under their control will not be used to threaten any other country” – a virtual certificate of faith in the Taliban’s declaration of intent. When the “intra-Afghan” dialogue of April 2019 fell through, the Russian government put the blame squarely on “the current leaders of Afghanistan” for selecting an inappropriate delegation not acceptable to “the main opponents, the Taliban” and for thus trying to dictate the terms of the intra-Afghan dialogue! In his afore-mentioned intervention, Secretary Pompeo urged President Ghani (and not the Taliban) to make concessions on the list of participants. From media reports of Secretary Blinken’s recent letter to President Ghani, it appears to be a prescription for action, rather than a discussion paper.
As of now, therefore, the Afghan political process is actually US-led (with Russia in tow), Pakistan-controlled and Afghanistan-exclusive (except for a few political elites, not even including its US-installed – with Russian acquiescence – government). It is perhaps an inevitable consequence of trying to disguise a withdrawal plan as a political settlement.
Russia and China define democracy, human rights and the international order
Barely days after the high-profile virtual summit of the Quad and the high drama of the US-China sui generis “2+2” in Alaska, the Foreign Ministers of Russia and China convened in the southern Chinese city of Guilin, to reiterate the vibrancy, strength and determination of the bilateral partnership.
A joint statement was issued on “Certain Issues of Global Governance in Modern Conditions”. It addressed the quibbles of Russia and China with current Western attitudes towards them, as expressed in Alaska and other recent statements. It made the familiar point that, while human rights are universal, indivisible and interrelated, countries should preserve and protect them “in accordance with national characteristics”. The Ministers agreed that there is no single model for democracy: sovereign countries have the legitimate right to determine their own path of development. Familiar also was the emphasis on universally recognized norms and principles of international law, though its corollary – the unacceptability of “rules-based orders” defined by groups of countries – was not in the document, though both Foreign Ministers mentioned it in their statements. The Quad joint statement talks about a rules-based order, but with the qualifying phrase “rooted in international law”. The Russians and Chinese had no reason to recognize this nuance, but Indian analysts and the media also missed it.
Somewhat surprisingly, the joint statement did not include bilateral views on other major international developments. It could be that the countries wanted to keep the focus on the broader issues highlighted at the Alaska and Quad meetings. Both Ministers made media statements and both countries issued separate press releases with different content and emphasis. The Indian media has erroneously described the statement issued by the Chinese as a joint press release.
Lavrov predictably confirmed that Russian and Chinese views on international developments are similar, that they reject “zero-sum political games”, illegal unilateral sanctions and the new trend towards creating “closed alliances”, similar to the politico-military structures of the Cold War. He said they discussed “preparations” for a summit of the UN Security Council permanent members, which President Putin has recently been pushing at every opportunity, and which he said has received the support of President Xi Jinping. This, however, does not figure in the Chinese press release.
The Chinese press release mentions agreement of both sides that the Iran JCPOA should be revived. In this context, they also apparently agreed on the need for a “regional security dialogue platform” to address security concerns of countries in the region. Again, this has been widely misreported in the Indian media as a suggestion for the Indo-Pacific (or Asia-Pacific) region. In fact, both Russia and China are of the firm opinion that the East Asia Summit and other ASEAN-centric institutions are the appropriate forums for all discussions on cooperation and security in the region and they do not want other mechanisms – as they say consistently, in response to the Quad.
Global arms transfers: US rising, Russia falling
The latest (March 2021) factsheet of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on Trends in International Arms Transfers provides some interesting statistics of Russia’s arms exports and India’s imports.
According to the factsheet, India’s arms imports in 2016-20 were 33 per cent lower than in 2011–15. Imports from Russia fell 53 per cent during this five-year period, compared to 2011-15. Russia’s share in India’s arms imports was 49 per cent, down from 70 per cent in 2011-15. In the period 2015-19, it was 56 per cent. The factsheet notes that the reduction in overall Indian arms imports may have been mainly due to its “complex procurement processes”, but the attempt to diversify its network of arms suppliers also contributed. At the same time, it points out that India placed new orders for a variety of Russian arms in 2019–20 and their deliveries may increase the figures of Russian arms exports over the next five years.
SIPRIs analysis is that India’s ambitious indigenization will be “significantly delayed” and, therefore, given India’s plans for acquiring combat aircraft, air defence systems, ships and submarines, its arms imports will increase over the coming five years. The prognosis is, therefore, that India will continue to be a happy hunting ground for legions of global arms manufacturers, traders and agents, many of whom had descended on Bangalore for the Aero India show in February, undeterred by the minor distraction, named Covid-19.
Though the US has been at the forefront of efforts to wean India away from Russian weapons, it has not immediately benefited directly from the fall in India’s imports from Russia. India’s imports from the US fell 46 per cent in 2016-20 over the earlier five-year period, making it the fourth largest supplier to India. France and Israel were the second and third largest suppliers to India in 2016–20, with 18 and 13 per cent share respectively. Rafale aircraft from France and assorted missile systems from Israel could be largely responsible for this.
From an overall perspective, SIPRIs statistics show that US arms exports have been rising steadily, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of global arms exports. The volume of global arms transfers in 2016-20 was 0.5 per cent lower than in 2011-15, but US arms exports grew 15 per cent. The US share in global arms exports was 37 per cent in 2016-20, up from 32 per cent in 2011-15 and from 36 per cent in 2015-19. The world’s second largest arms exporter, Russia, has seen its arms exports falling, in percentage and absolute terms. In 2016-20, US exports of major arms exceeded those of Russia by a whopping 85 per cent. In 2015-19, the figure was 76 per cent. It would appear, therefore, that the US is making progress in its objective (clearly articulated in a State Department briefing to Congress a couple of years ago) of weaning countries away from Russian arms purchases and drawing them towards the US – by a combination of attraction, persuasion and coercion (CAATSA).