Developments in Russia and Ukraine
Even as the Russia-Ukraine war chugs along steadily, with no major changes in the existing status quo, developments within Russia display its progressive weakening. A recent indicator of these developments is Putin’s struggle to maintain control over Russian provinces, such as North Caucasus and Dagestan and ensure ethnic harmony. In addition, the newly formed Siberian Battalion of the Ukrainian armed forces consist distinctively of Russians who have deserted Putin’s Russia. As Muslim numbers in Russia increase, in Dagestan, hundreds of people in the region carried Palestinian flags and anti-Israeli posters while occupying the Makhachkala airport. They eventually forced their way onto the airfield in an attempt to block any Jews from Israel being relocated there. The protest was suppressed by Russia. However, this was not the only instance. Many anti-Jewish movements have been taking place across North Caucasus and Dagestan, with Jews even being refused housing and being forced to flee.
These instances reflect Moscow’s slipping control over the situation in Muslim-dominated provinces and lack of inter-ethnic harmony, with many ethnic Russians being unhappy about the fact that Putin has encouraged local warlords like Ramzan Kadyrov.
From the perspective of military position, a series of unsuccessful offensives in the Kupyansk and Avdiivka directions have caused major problems for Russian forces, which is losing military equipment as well as facing manpower losses. It is estimated that the rate of domestic production for critical arms and munitions is well below the rate necessary to adequately replenish growing deficits, leading to repeated attempts by the regime to reorganize the Russian Armed Forces. This has, in recent times, also included efforts to induct prisoners and migrant workers into the armed forces.
From a diplomatic perspective, Russia, after the meeting between Putin and Kim Jong Un, is increasingly veering into North Korean corner. This was displayed through the visit of Russian foreign minister to Pyongyang and intelligence reports that North Korea sent one million artillery rounds to Russia in exchange for consultations on military-technical matters. Despite Russian denials that North Korea has been shipping arms to Russia, US satellite evidence revealed a sharp increase in railway traffic along the Russian-North Korean border in recent months.
Developments in Science and Technology
The world of technology has been witnessing steady developments. The ouster and subsequent reinstatement of Sam Altman as the CEO of OpenAI – the company which has developed ChatGPT – created waves in the corporate and technology world. The company has been working on developing artificial general intelligence systems and supposedly creating AI applications for the benefit of humanity at large. A key system on the radar of the company is Project Q*, which is widely described as being a potential threat to humanity. Project Q* has the following features:
· Advanced logical reasoning and understanding of abstract concepts, which is a tremendous leap as no AI model so far is capable of it. This could also lead to unpredictable behaviour or decisions that humans may not be able to foresee or understand beforehand.
• Deep learning and programmed rules, which may make the model more powerful and versatile than any other current AI model. Essentially, this could lead to an AI model that not only learns from data but also applies reasoning like humans, which makes it difficult to control or predict.
• It is seen as a step closer to achieving Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). AGI is an AI that possesses the ability to understand, learn, and apply this knowledge across different domains, just like human intelligence. AGI could likely surpass human capabilities in many areas, and this may lead to issues of control, safety, and ethics.
• It will be able to generate new ideas and solve problems even before they happen. The downside of this could be that it could enable AI to make decisions or actions that are beyond human comprehension.
Besides these civilian applications, it is also notable that the AI arms race is rapidly increasing. In recent developments, the US aims to scale up the role of AI in military deployment. Through a project known as the Replicator, the Pentagon is intent on fielding multiple thousands of relatively inexpensive, expendable AI-enabled autonomous vehicles by 2026 to keep pace with China.
The rapidly expanding deployment of AI in all fields continues to expose the limitations of human control.
The war between Israel and Hamas has intensified currently, with intense Israeli bombings in southern Gaza, combined with stoppage of electricity, leading to more than 11000 Palestinian casualties. In the process, Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital was also targeted. Israeli video evidence confirmed that Hamas had built something akin to an entire underground city and habitations through the tunnels beneath the hospital. These were used to store the resources and military ammunition of Hamas. The discovery confirms the widely known reality that Hamas, by inhabiting crowded areas, tends to use women and children as shields against potential Israeli attacks. This strategy has not even brought it disfavor with the Gaza civilians due to its popularity.
However, subsequently in the midst of the war and amid international pressures, including by the United Nations, on Israel to avoid civilian casualties and declare a ceasefire or a humanitarian pause, temporary pause was brokered through Qatar and United States through a hostage-exchange agreement. The agreement resulted in Israel releasing nearly three or four times the number of Hamas prisoners in exchange for Hamas releasing a few couple of Israeli hostages. This agreement through various extensions continued for a few days, after which the war has once again resumed unabated.
In perspective, the latest developments in this war underscore not just the fragile nature of peace, but also the fact that any peaceful foundation can only be built upon strength and not weakness, with the role of international institutions continuing to be limited and narrow.
India’s Khalistan Problem
A recent report in Britain-based international media company, Financial Times, has exposed how the United States government foiled a conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, leader of Khalistani outfit Sikhs for Justice, on American soil and issued a warning to India’s government over concerns it was involved in the plot. According to the details, an Indian named Nikhil Gupta, at the behest of a senior Indian intelligence officer, was involved in plotting the assassination of Pannun. The plot was discovered as US security officers acted in a disguise to mislead Gupta and got involved in the plot.
The unsealed indictment mentions five persons, although it names only one. They are:
• CC-1: An Indian intelligence officer who resides in India and directed the plot from there. He formerly served in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
• Nick Gupta: A 52-year-old Indian national, who was hired by CC-1 to orchestrate the plot in the US. Gupta is allegedly involved in international weapons and narcotics trafficking. He was also based in India.
• CS: Contacted by Gupta for assistance in contracting a hitman for the job in New York City. Was actually a confidential source working with US law enforcement.
• UC: The purported hitman, introduced to Gupta by CS. He was actually an undercover US law enforcement officer.
• The Victim: While the indictment does not mention Pannun’s name, it provides details which leave little doubt. The Victim is described as “an attorney and political activist”, “a US citizen residing in New York”, “a vocal critic of the Indian government …[who]leads a US-based organisation that advocates for the secession of Punjab” and says that the Indian government has “banned the Victim and his separatist organisation.”
The protest by US against India was issued after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a high-profile state visit to Washington in June 2023. Further, the US federal prosecutors have filed a sealed indictment against at least one alleged perpetrator of the plot in a New York district court, although the indictment does not name the Indian officer involved.
Interestingly, the alleged plot against Pannun comes after Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist based in Canada, was gunned down in June 2023 this year. However, the Indian response to the US has been far more cooperative – with India declaring that it will investigate the matter – than with Canada. India has argued that while US has provided credible evidence for the plot, Canada has failed to do so.
While the indictment and the allegations of the plot have definitely strained India-US ties, yet both countries are cooperating closely to resolve the impasse, even as the indictment will take its own course. At the same time, from the Indian perspective, it is also heartening to note that India intelligence is proactively dealing with enemies abroad which seek to create disturbance within India. Pannun is not merely an activist and an attorney but has used the cover of his foundation to actively advocate secession of Punjab from India, influence the Sikhs and issue threats of bombings and terrorism against India in an unabashed manner. Under such circumstances, it becomes the national duty of India to deal with such threats in a manner most suited to the circumstances, given that most of these Sikh separatists possess citizenships of Canada and US.
A temporary trade truce was witnessed between China and US in the middle of November, with a direct meeting between the US President Joe Biden and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The meeting lasted four hours. Although it did not resolve any substantive issues between the countries, both the leaders struck a broadly conciliatory tone afterward. A potential area of cooperation that emerged between the countries was related to the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). There was no breakthrough on the Taiwan issue, and geopolitical conflicts such as Russia-Ukraine war and Israel-Hamas war were also discussed. The most significant breakthrough of the meeting was the decision to renew high-level political and military communications between the two sides.
The meeting is significant as it exposes the limitations of Chinese choices domestically and internationally. After the dressing down Xi received from the elders in Communist Party of China, the country has confronted relentless economic and military pressure from US and economic slowdown at home, combined with rising unpopularity of Xi and his high-handed methods. Additionally, China can also perhaps see the Indo-Pacific slipping out, as the Biden Administration has made major geopolitical gains in Asia over the last three years. These include stronger bilateral alliances with Japan, Korea, and Australia, the creation of a trilateral strategic framework with Tokyo and Seoul, a revitalised alliance with the Philippines, and new strategic partnerships with India and Vietnam.
All this has forced Xi to seek reconciliation and declare at San Francisco that the world is “big enough for both China and the US.” In the meeting, Xi sought to reassure Biden that China has no intention to surpass or replace the US as the dominant power in the world. In return, he wants the US to stop containing China.
However, besides the restoration of military communications and the infusion of confidence-building measures, the meeting did not see any other major outcome, and despite Chinese request, the US trade restrictions on China continue to be in place for now.