Remember the Warsaw Pact' The military alliance of the former Soviet Union and its six socialist partners in Europe which was dissolved 12 years ago' It is coming back — stealthily, in a new incarnation. And not yet, at any rate, in the form in which it existed when the Moscow-led East bloc collapsed. President George W. Bush and his “neo-conservative” advisers in the White House and the Pentagon have made it possible by their militarism, leading to the war on Iraq, to sow the seeds of Warsaw Pact-II. Doubters may turn round and ask for evidence.
Of course, there is no formal alliance of any kind led by Moscow as of now. But its seeds have not only been sown, there are signs that those seeds are growing. Readers familiar with the history of the doomed military alliance of seven Marxist nations, plus Albania until 1968, will remember that in 1955 too, the Warsaw Pact did not launch itself as a structured defence alliance. Upon formation, it was known merely as the “Treaty on Frien- dship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance”. Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which occupies a vast stretch of real estate in Brussels, the Warsaw Pact never had a similar organizational structure. Throughout its history, it functioned as part of the Soviet ministry of defence.
One of the most profound statements to be made by any world leader during the latest Iraq war came from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on April 3, as the conflict was entering its penultimate phase. Referring to the near-total opposition to the American aggression among Russians and its expression in the Russian parliament and on Moscow streets, Putin said: “I share their emotions in part, but I do realize that emotions are a poor adviser for taking decisions”.
In many quarters in New Delhi, it may appear tempting to put all Indian eggs in the US basket in the years ahead in the light of the unprecedented and unrivalled demonstration of American military might, but to do so would be to ignore the lessons of history. History is repeating itself after a century. Washington’s ideas on pre-emption, put into practice in Iraq, have made it imperative for every important country to redefine and expand its spheres of influence. Just as it was at the start of the last century, in the years that preceded World War I. China is doing just that. Witness its new role as a facilitator of meetings between the Americans and the North Koreans and the active interest it is taking on the India-Pakistan front.
France is doing it. So is that engine of Europe’s economic strength, Germany. Even tiny Singapore has found it necessary to speedily push through its Free Trade Agreement with the United States of America, which will be signed in Washington next week, when the prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, calls on Bush. Singapore, with its geographical and military limitations, sees the FTA as a way of anchoring American presence and interest in southeast Asia as a foil to both China and Japan. It is comforting to see that despite growing advocacy by many pundits of what amounts to complete subservience to the US in foreign policy, South Block and the prime minister’s office are doing some of what other major powers are trying to do. The visits of the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, to Iran and Afghanistan are straws in the wind.
But no country is redefining its options with the kind of finesse with which Putin is going about the job. Setting aside the morality of the US attack on Iraq and dispensing with emotions as a factor in foreign and security policy, he is using the new geopolitical map drawn by the Bush administration to Moscow’s maximum advantage, notwithstanding Russia’s depleted military might and its economic woes. In the aftermath of the US military conquest of Iraq, the world of diplomacy is seeing the kind of frenetic activity that has not been witnessed since World War II.
The frequent, almost fortnightly, conclaves of Putin, the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, are too well publicized and analysed in daily news to be a subject here. So are the meetings between the European Union and the Arab League and the expanded EU summit, including the former communist states of eastern Europe. There are a host of other meetings taking place, often without the publicity that Western summits receive. But these alternative summits have the potential to be historic in global equations in the post-Iraq-war context.
On Monday, heads of state from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia met in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe and decided to create a joint rapid deployment force of these six former Soviet republics. The RDF will have an air component as well, its first air-base will be opened in Kyrgyzstan as early as June. In addition, these six states will have a centralized military staff structure, the deadline for which has been set by Monday’s summit as January 1, next year.
The significance of these decisions is not to be missed. These six members of the Commonwealth of Independent States had signed a collective security treaty 11 years ago, but all through the years of Boris Yeltsin’s rule, and until now, the treaty was little more than a piece of paper. But Iraq changed all that. Putin, who opened the Dushanbe summit, said as much when he pointed out that “critical situations” had hitherto been handled bilaterally. The time had come for the six CIS states to deal with security issues within the framework of their joint treaty.
For the foreseeable future, Putin’s priority will clearly be to recreate the Soviet sphere of influence, starting with the borders of the former Soviet Union. Following the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11 and Washington’s decision to remove the taliban from power in Afghanistan, several central Asian states had moved closer to America. In doing so, they saw a way out of their own domestic threats of Islamic militancy and a broader opportunity for all-round benefits from cooperation with the US. But nearly a year and a half after such cooperation, most central Asian republics are increasingly disillusioned with the US. The situation is their capitals is a mirror image of South Block, where too, there was hope last year that with American help it may be possible to end the scourge of cross-border terrorism against India.
Among the member states of the CIS which had hoped for a new geopolitical order following the US-led war on terrorism, America has only two solid supporters today: Uzbekistan and Georgia. This explains why Putin believes that emotions should be of no consequence in taking decisions. He does not want anything to disturb the tenuous working equation he has built with Bush while the Kremlin pursues opportunities offered by Iraq to rebuild at least some of its lost influence within the CIS — and farther afield into eastern and central Europe.
Putin has strenuously worked towards making Russia the number-one source of oil imports into the US, building on a combination of American mistrust in supplies from the Gulf in the run-up to the war and factors such as the disruption in Venezuela’s oil industry. With the resources of Gazprom, the oil conglomerate which is a state within a state, Russia has been buying into ventures in eastern Europe, politically motivated economic decisions which have given the former Soviet “satellite” states a stake in good relations with Moscow, notwithstanding their decision to join NATO and the EU. Economies such as Hungary’s have become so dependent on Russian business that analysts in Moscow joke that if Nikita Khrushchev had done the same, a Soviet invasion of Budapest would not have been necessary.
In India, many of those in the strategic community have found it fashionable to run Russia down and posture that China can now be taken on, assuming that the “natural alliance” with the US is the only road to the future. They ought to reconsider those assessments in the light of the geopolitical earth-moving that the American attack on Iraq will entail in the coming years.
The Dushanbe summit must be seen in conjunction with other developments that are taking place with the clear objective of creating a “Greater Russia”. Steadily, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are moving towards a de facto confederation with Russia. A de jure link between the political and economic systems of Belarus and Russia already exists and has been tightened since Putin assumed office.
Also, foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization began their meeting in Almaty on Tuesday, paving the way for an SCO summit in late spring. The SCO groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. By next year, the expectation is that the SCO will have a formal structure similar to what the EU had when it was still the European Economic Community. Far from consolidating a uni-polar world, the American attack on Iraq may have sown the seeds of a new multi-polar global order.