In early stages of Russian attack on Ukraine, trends portend dark future for global security

It’s been a fortnight since Russia commenced military operations in Ukraine, but the big battles are yet to come. Our concern rightly has been on the wellbeing of our nationals and in getting Indian students out to safety and back home. It’s still early stages of the war, but the trends portend a dark future for global security.

The war is feeding a global conflict between Russia and the West, but with the potential to engulf others. Along with Belarus, Russia, with an annual defence budget of about $80 billion, is pitted against the United States, NATO, EU and the US allies in Asia — Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, with a combined military budget of well over a trillion USD.

While Russia is fighting with 20th century military weapons, headed by a spirited President and backed by a defiant population, Ukraine is fighting back with weapons that are pouring in from NATO states. The stage has been set for a major escalation.

Western sanctions have been immediate, comprehensive, and pulverizing, with more in reserve, in particular in the energy sector. These are non-military weapons of the 21st century, of disruptive potential perhaps more lethal than traditional weapons of war.

Russia’s three-decade long engagement with globalisation is crashing, its external links severed, its middle class decimated. Russia is being isolated and disconnected in the financial, trade, transport and technology fields. Its nationals abroad have been ostracised. This is quicker, deeper and more widespread than containment that was imposed on the Soviet Union during the Cold war.

If deterrence was the aim of previous sanctions, the latest ones are seeking the paralysis of Russia through strangulation. With the West rushing into unprecedented instruments of asymmetric conflict, the Russian backlash may also be asymmetric and unpredictable. This slide towards total conflict without restraint — a hybrid war weaponising various instruments of globalisation and geopolitics may engulf countries far and wide, well beyond the theatre of war in Ukraine. The nuclear-sabre has not been fully sheathed. With no accommodation on either side, there appear to be no brakes in sight.

Global interdependence is national vulnerability in equal measure. This is the small print of globalisation, deadly and ruthless, which many overlooked to read and now Russia is realising to its dismay and pain. Our national security community would do well to pay attention. Likewise, ownership is not control. That is the defining feature of globalisation. Bank accounts abroad almost across the entire global banking system are not immune to US jurisdiction and their owners have control over and access to them only at the pleasure of the US. Assets of individuals, quite apart from those of central banks, can be confiscated at the stroke of a pen. Our RBI, banking and business communities would do well to pay attention.

Private western companies, long operating in Russia, have been ordered by their governments to jettison and exit ongoing and even profitable commercial ventures. With one political diktat, commercial operations have been shut down. Companies are being asked to take losses on account of security reasons. When whole societies are asked to make sacrifices, a conflict transcends into a crusade.

America is back and centre in Europe. NATO has acquired a new life and purpose. Defence expenditures will rise, so will the costs of energy. This resurgence of US unipolar power in Europe will mean that decisions relating to military buildup and energy diversification will be largely US decisions, primarily in US interests. Whether this means a momentary flicker of US power before the passing of unipolarity or aflame that would snuff out emerging multipolarity in Europe and beyond, is a debate worthy of the best minds in our country.

A continued military stalemate in Ukraine will bog down Russia, the US and NATO in Central Europe, but will also open a black hole of power and influence over the Eurasian continent. The last time such a power-vacuum existed — in the 13th century — it was filled by the galloping hordes of Genghis Khan, sweeping across the steppes of Central Asia up to the gates of Vienna. What a tragedy it would then be if, in their headlong and escalating confrontation over Ukraine, the US through its misplaced geopolitical priorities and Russia, through its missteps of aggression, handover to China the keys to the vast Eurasian Continent?

The writer is former ambassador to Russia

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