Developments in Russia and Ukraine
In recent weeks, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has lost momentum. This was reflected in the Russian announcement of an “operational pause” in Donbas after the hard battles for Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. This pause was an implicit admission that a regrouping of battalions, which have not been rotated in four months of fighting, is necessary before the further push into Ukraine. It clearly reflects an inability to sustain offensive operations on Russia’s part regardless of the bravado they may display to the world. These failures on the battlefield continue alongside the continuous mobilization of unprecedented funds packages being received by Ukraine from the United States.
While unprecedented indeed, the assistance thus far has helped Ukraine merely conduct defensive operations. NATO, both collectively and at the member-country level, has thus far ruled out delivery of combat aircraft to Ukraine, a no-fly zone over Ukraine or an Allied naval presence in the Black Sea. Nor is Ukraine allowed to hit military targets in Russia’s territory, even as the Russian military strikes Ukraine with long-range artillery, missiles and tactical aircraft from Russian territory. NATO Allies had already withdrawn their military instructors from Ukraine and their naval presence from the Black Sea in the run-up to Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Some of the most influential NATO Allies – like Germany and France – seem to contemplate an inconclusive war that would end in a compromise settlement, entailing some Ukrainian territorial sacrifices to Russia. Meanwhile, the United States remains by far the largest donor of military assistance to Ukraine. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the NATO summit in Madrid and during it, President Joe Biden has suggested merely avoiding a Ukrainian defeat, rather than helping Ukraine win. Britain is allied with central and eastern European countries in its world-view and considers it possible for Ukraine if properly armed, to turn the tide this year and drive Russian troops from Ukraine within a limited period.
Thus, behind the larger unity of the western world, these calculations are simply serving to prolong a war that could easily have been won by Ukraine. In a war that is also becoming unwinnable for Russia, the latter appears to be adopting a new strategy, which has been conveyed by the United States intelligence. This hinges on Russia’s plans to attempt the annexation of additional Ukrainian territories, which the White House anticipates that Russia will attempt to stage, possibly as early as September, through pseudo-referendums leading to the annexation of Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine. These would likely include Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Russia would, in that case, be expected to follow the model of the 2014 Crimean “referendum,” when Russia wrested Crimea away from Ukraine.
This strategy needs to be undermined by the western world by consolidating even more behind Ukraine. Winning the war would be especially easy considering the fact that Russia faces massive internal problems and discords of its own. These are discussed below:
First, there is a rise of anti-Russian activism in Russia’s North Caucasus region on the part of ethnic minorities, amongst whom there was, from the beginning, very little support for the war in Ukraine. In this regard, arrests of ethnic minorities continue, as does the repression of “minority nationalism”, reminiscent of the Stalinist era. North Caucasian activists are increasingly realizing that Russia’s purported policies of de-Ukrainization in Ukraine were previously applied to other ethnic groups closer to home. This rising awakening is making them re-evaluate their choices.
Second, Russia’s problems are mounting further as it struggles to exercise control over bordering territories of small neighbours like Ukraine and Belarus through various means, in the absence of funds. This was brought out by Putin in his video message to the Forum of Russian and Belarusian Regions, which took place in Grodno on June 30 and July 1 and attracted representatives from 47 Russian regions, including 11 governors. In the message, Putin highlighted that the meeting of regional leaders from Russia and Belarus would increase “inter-regional cooperation so as to deepen the integration processes of the Union State” between the two countries. The meeting saw the conclusion of more than 60 new accords between businesses and governments in Russian regions and their counterparts in Belarus. The outcome in Grodno suggests that, in Belarus, where there has not been any use of Russian force, the strategy of using regions to advance Moscow’s agenda may be working in contrast to Ukraine.
Putin, in this regard, sought to revive the Soviet-era ‘patronage system’, wherein regions within the Russian Federation have played a key role in promoting Kremlin policies in neighbouring countries. In Soviet times, Russia regularly employed regions and republics along the USSR’s Western border as agents to integrate Soviet bloc countries; similarly, it used better-off regions within the country to promote growth in less well-off areas. Now, Putin has assigned Russian regions in general and those bordering Ukraine and Belarus, in particular, an equally important role in providing assistance to parts of both countries.
However, this is unlikely to work in the present times. For, on the one hand, unlike Soviet leaders, Putin is using this strategy to shift the burden of his foreign policy away from Moscow and to wholly hide the true costs of his expansionist plans from the Russian people. And on the other, Russian regions in many cases are resisting pressure from the centre and doing little or nothing to carry out Moscow’s plans. Thus, what worked more or less smoothly in Soviet times may not work as Putin intends now. If Moscow cannot convince the regions to do its bidding, it will likely be compelled to increase repression at home and finance more of the reconstruction of Ukraine from the centre’s budget and reserves, thereby simultaneously angering people in the regions and highlighting just how expensive Putin’s war continues to be for Russians.
Third, Moscow’s incoherent strategy regarding its regions is also reflected in its stilting recruitment efforts. Faced with mounting combat losses in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to expand the size of Russian forces there, Moscow is now turning to the regions and republics to procure more volunteers for the Russian army and to form regionally based battalions similar to what Ramzan Kadyrov has done in Chechnya. However, the recruitment effort outside Moscow and other major cities has not attracted volunteers, forcing Moscow to offer ever more generous pay packages and to extend the age range of those who can sign up. Furthermore, the new push for regions and republics to form their own military units, while popular in some quarters, is sparking concerns that such units could allow some federal subjects to become more independent in their actions as Chechnya has, or even lead to the transformation of a foreign war into a civil one.
Fourth, the great toll taken by the Russian economy due to the war is now being sought to be addressed by Putin through the introduction of even more disastrous economic policies. Russia is hoping to cope with the impending crisis by replacing vestiges of its market economy with command-style administrative regulations and a planned economy through economic mobilization and centralization. In this regard, a proposal was approved, in early July, by both the chambers of the Russian Duma and the Federation Council, and now awaits the signature by Putin. If introduced, it will spell the death knell of businesses in Russia and re-allocate economic resources towards areas (such as the military) prioritized by the government.
The Presidential and Vice-Presidential Elections
The second woman after Pratibha Patil and the first tribal person to become the head of the Indian state, Droupadi Murmu was sworn in as the President of India on 25 July 2022. She is also the youngest President so far. She won the election defeating Yashwant Sinha, the candidate of the opposition, by a margin of 296,626 votes. Her victory holds great civilizational significance for the country. It sends out a message of integrating the tribal people into the mainstream Indian society and is in line with the Hindutva movement’s goal to politically empower the poor and deprived vanvasi community that has always been a target of evangelical conversions.
The results of the Vice-Presidential election also saw BJP nominee – and former West Bengal Governor – Jagdeep Dhankhar being elected as the Vice-President, beating Opposition candidate Margaret Alva. He secured 528 votes out of the 710 valid votes, while Ms Alva scored 182 votes. Mr Dhankhar, hailing from the Jat community of Rajasthan and belonging to the farming community, has had a staunch track record of keeping a check on the Mamata government in West Bengal. Mamata’s TMC abstained from voting in this election, alleging that the Opposition candidate was chosen without consulting them. Regional parties like Janta Dal (United), YSRCP, BSP, AIADMK and Shiv Sena supported the BJP candidate.
Supreme Court Order on PMLA
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling, on July 27th, validating the government’s amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002, comes in the wake of a series of crackdowns by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on corrupt politicians and businessmen. In the most recent times, these include prominent Opposition faces from regional parties, like Partha Chatterjee from TMC in West Bengal and politicians from Maharashtra.
Money laundering has been a global concern since the mid-1980s, with laundered proceeds going into financing terrorism. India’s PMLA was enacted in response to a series of global declarations on this issue, in 2002 and came into force in 2005. The Union government argued that PMLA provisions as well as subsequent amendments were valid and necessary to fulfil the country’s obligations to combat the menace of money-laundering. In its verdict, the Supreme Court agreed with the government’s contention. The offence under this law is mainly the laundering of money made through a crime. Money-laundering has been treated akin to terrorism and, therefore, considered a stringent offence.
A major issue raised by the anti-PMLA petitioners arose from an explanation added in 2019 to clarify the scope of the definition of money-laundering under Section 3. The petitioners said the original wording meant that only the projection of tainted money as untainted, and its integration into the economy would constitute the offence. The ED, they argued, was registering money-laundering cases solely on the basis of the original crimes without any proof that their proceeds were laundered. As a result, even transactions that date back years before the PMLA came into force were being probed for laundering.
The court rejected the challenge, holding that the explanation does not expand the scope of the original definition, and it is only clarificatory. The ruling also validates the powers of the ED. The ED works on the basis of an internal manual. It registers an ‘Enforcement Case Information Report’ (ECIR), the equivalent of an FIR in ordinary cases. The manual is not a public document, and the ED does not share the ECIR with the accused. Therefore, why and how a money-laundering probe is initiated is unknown. When a summons is issued to a person, he is unaware of the reason, but must, nevertheless, attend and answer all questions and submit the documents asked for. Unlike in other criminal cases, there is no judicial oversight of the process, and the accused are forced to seek bail after arrest without knowing the exact nature of the charges against them. The tough conditions on getting bail were also upheld by the Court.
The SC ruling, in dismissing nearly 200 petitions challenging the PMLA, has ushered in an era of the rise of powers of the executive. Such powers can always be politicized, but one of the main issues is that the law relates strictly to money laundering and proceedings can be initiated only if there has actually been a case of money laundering. Interestingly, the politicians in trouble with ED in recent times have been publicly known to be corrupt and gang masters of scams. The law may go a long way in keeping corrupt politicians in check.