People walk past a banner of Egypt’s army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
The deep fear of the rise of al Qaida and President Vladimir Putin’s assertive Russia bothers the West more than may be apparent. Recently, Angela Merkel is supposed to have warned Putin that he was out of touch with reality. As the story unfolds, it is worth wondering as to who may be actually out of touch with reality.
That the European Union countries are bothered by the resurgence of Wahhabism amongst its young generation of Muslim citizens, whose parents and grandparents emigrated from former colonies or came in as ‘Gastarbeiters’ after World War II, is not a secret. The rise of the rightist political parties in France, the Netherlands and the Neo-Nazi party in Greece, are the expressions of the growing levels of European anxiety and fear. That Turkey is finding it difficult and is increasingly disappointed by the glacial state of its negotiations to join the EU are because of the apprehensions of the Europeans regarding the challenges they face with their own younger Muslim citizens.
The United States of America, which is somewhat removed, geographically, from the social churning in the EU countries, has got more entangled with Europe following 9/11, its disastrous adventure in Iraq and the stalemate in Afghanistan. The foundations of Western alliances are basically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Group of 8 and concerns about the rise of al Qaida.
The break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991 was seen as the ultimate victory for the West over communism and the birth of a ‘New Europe’ as its trophy. That the Soviet Union was forced to unhappily disassemble its vast territories is not surprising. However, what was surprising was the naïve view that all the travails of the Cold War geopolitics had been consigned for good to the dark days of the 20th century. The ‘Georgia episode’ of 2008 was not an isolated event, and is being reaffirmed by the unfolding drama in Ukraine. That domino can be a two-handed game is beginning to seem real. Not being satisfied with the break-up of the former Soviet Union into several independent nations, the West wanted to put a ‘cordon sanitaire’ by a firmer embrace with Russia’s near-abroad neighbours. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were the early entrants into Nato.
The ultimate goal is to gradually surround and isolate Russia sufficiently to reduce its influence in Europe to a manageable level. What Nato and the EU may not have contended with are the power of the natural resources of Russia and an emerging generation of oligarchs and sophisticated entrepreneurs, who were slowly replacing the vodka soaked Cossack caricature of the old Soviet Union. They had also not bargained to have to deal with Putin, who represented the raw nerve and the dark face of Russia’s ambitions.
The failed Arab Spring and the presence of a significant number of Russian-speaking nationals across the newly independent Eastern European nations pose unanticipated challenges for an expanding new European identity.
The plan to gradually encircle Russia and constrict its manoeuvrability by the newly independent countries becoming aligned to the EU seemed to be so obvious and attractive that the West does not seem to have anticipated some of the consequences.
Crimea has now, as anticipated, overwhelmingly voted, in a referendum held on Sunday March 16, 2014, to become a part of Russia. It would be naïve to expect that extreme sanctions by the West will cow down Putin, or that there are short- and medium-term alternatives to Europe’s dependence on Russia for import of its energy needs and other existing trade deals.
How the Ukraine drama will unfold and eventually end is hard to predict, as neither Russia nor the West may bargain for a protracted period of Cold War II. The West has lit too many bush fires around the world, under the vague sobriquet of upholding the will of the people and human rights, which are now becoming forest fires.
Recently, after many years, the EU re-established official channels with Iran while the nuclear deal with that country is still work in progress. The senior EU minister, who was visiting Iran, is reported to have urged the Iranian prime minister to improve human rights in that country. In principle, this is a worthy cause but, considering the fact that very few nations enjoy being lectured to by the West, this human rights discourse by the EU in Iran at this juncture can, at best, be described as being extremely naïve. Recently, the oil-rich part of Libya that is controlled by heavily armed rebel forces which ended the Muammar Gaddafi regime are trying to export crude with the help of tankers under the North Korean flag. The elected government in Tripoli has failed to stop them, following which the prime minister was sacked. The Syrian talks, brokered by Russia, seem to have stalled, while the Assad regime remains well entrenched. Egypt is returning to its old ways with a new army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, replacing old Hosni Mubarak as its new leader. The diverse factions in the Middle East are watching the developments in Ukraine with deep interest to assess the resolve and abilities of the West.
From a macro perspective, the West’s drive to spread human rights and democracy has now two possible fronts, namely, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. How this drama unfolds remains as uncertain as when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War was declared to be over.
In this latest Great Game, there is a side act which is worth noting. While India has officially supported the Russian actions in Crimea, China has called for peace and tolerance amongst neighbours. China is watching the developments in Europe with concern but with mature public utterances, as the second largest economy and rising world power is expected to. It would, however, be naïve to take China’s utterances at face value; while it watches how the West deals with Russia and its neighbours, it must be weighing its options for its interests in the South China Sea. China has recently reaffirmed that it will never compromise the sanctity of its borders (as defined by it), which has been received with deafening silence in the West.
All of this raises the question whether Russia has been emboldened by the incoherence and lack of resolve in the Western Alliance? If Crimea ultimately becomes a part of Russia (and it is not at all clear what the West can do about it), will it unfold other chapters of Cold War II? Is the plan to encircle and constrict Russia unravelling? Or does Russia have a plan to draw a line in the sand?
The balance of power and interests of nationhood can, at times, be subjugated by force in the garb of righteousness. But there seem to be new limits to the spheres of influence and sustainable morality which both Russia and the West need to revisit.
I have just read a book entitled The Blood Telegram, describing the brutalities perpetrated by West Pakistan, which led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The dramatis personae were the US president, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, General Yahya Khan and the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The account is a timely reminder that a genocide of Bengalis in East Pakistan, which was ignored by the US during 1970-71 is, thankfully, no longer possible in this day and age.