Developments in Russia and Ukraine
As the intensifying war between Russia and Ukraine continues unabated, the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine has increased, with Russia supposedly making gains in Bakhmut and Soledar. This has proceeded parallel to Ukraine’s demands for new weapons from the Western alliance, reflecting Ukraine’s changed battlefield requirements. German pacifism and reluctance initially saw Germany refusing to supply Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine or supplying them only if the United States supplies similar fighter tanks to Ukraine. However, the final German agreement has made these advanced tanks – among the best in the world – accessible to Ukraine, along with the US-manufactured Abrams tanks. Yet another politicization of the issue happened over US’s refusal to supply F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, fearing that it would lead to direct escalation of the confrontation between Russia and NATO.
In lieu of this refusal, however, the US has decided to approve another massive weapons package for Ukraine, which includes new longer-range weapons that can strike deep behind the front lines. The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) will allow Ukraine to hit targets at twice the distance reachable by the rockets it now fires from the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). This will put all of Russia’s supply lines in the eastern part within reach, as well as part of Russian-occupied Crimea, forcing Russia to move its supplies even farther from the front lines and making its soldiers more vulnerable, thereby greatly complicating plans for any new offensive by Moscow.
By supplying more and more advanced weapons to Ukraine, the West has pursued an incremental approach to the conflict, which has resulted in the gradual weakening of Russian capabilities and has suited the Western alliance well. Combined with the deteriorating internal situation in Russia, the roots of such weakening go much deeper.
In a significant pointer of the internal divide within Russia, recent trends reveal a significant decline in the proportion of people identifying as ethnically Russian, with many of those who had identified as Russian in the past no longer doing so. The country’s population identifying as ethnic Russian fell from 78 percent in the 2010 census to 72 percent in the current one. The decline is especially striking because it has taken place in the wake of Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, which should have brought more ‘ethnic Russians’ within the borders claimed by Russia, and because of Moscow’s increasing propensity to count as Russians those who declare a different national identity. The phenomenon reflects a weakening attachment to the Russian ethnic identity that has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of citizens who have declared no nationality at all: 11 million now as compared to 5.6 million in 2010 – or one in every nine residents.
To make matters worse for Russia, Ukraine has adopted the offensive strategy of giving increased attention not only to the non-Russian republics and regions within the current borders of the Russian Federation but also to parts of the country that have had significant ethnic Ukrainian population, known in Ukrainian parlance as “wedges.” In Soviet times, any public discussion of the Ukrainian wedges was prohibited. But with the re-emergence of a Ukrainian state, it became an increasingly important issue, with demands for Ukraine to support the wedges. In recent times, the wedge in Kuban, situated between Ukraine and the non-Russian republics of the North Caucasus, is now seeking to re-unite with Ukraine.
This again reflects the developing alienation of Russians from Russia, which has significantly increased in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is a natural process which no amount of forced suppression can curtail.
Pakistan in Doldrums and the Worsening Af-Pak Equation
Pakistan is presently facing, perhaps, the worst economic crisis since it was created in 1947. Ravaged by floods last year, hounded by extreme food and fuel inflation, currency devaluation, loss in foreign exchange reserves and extreme political mismanagement, Pakistan is at a point where the people cannot even afford basic livelihood necessities. This has been its progressively deteriorating condition for the last three years.
Despite having taken 14 loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) thus far, Pakistan has not been able to repay even a single one. This time, however, the IMF is not willing to provide the sought-after USD 1.2 billion bail-out so easily, unless Pakistan agrees to fulfil its strict conditionalities. Making matters worse, even Pakistan’s all-weather ally and ‘iron brother’, China, and fellow Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE are not willing to bail out Pakistan. Having further been on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over the last few years has made the country an international pariah and led to the decline of investor confidence in its prospects.
For many years, the country has systematically channelized the funds provided to it by the United States post-9/11 for the war against terrorism to, paradoxically, strengthening the various South Asian terrorist proxies of the Pakistani state to be utilized in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The former door was firmly closed after the abolition of Article 370 by India in 2019, but the latter continued to provide hope to Pakistan. The country has systematically cultivated the Taliban in Afghanistan, leading to the final ouster of the US and the Afghan government and the takeover by Taliban in 2021.
Surprisingly, instead of empowering Pakistan, the presence of a fellow terrorist state has made it more vulnerable than ever before. The Af-Pak region is at its most restive, the TTP terrorist organization in Pakistan is at its boldest and the relations between Taliban and Pakistan are akin to relations between enemies. This is borne out by the increased frequency of terror attacks on Pakistani soil, often carried out by break-away or unofficial Taliban factions.
Thus, the situation in Pakistan is presently a poisonous mix of economic and political instability that is unlikely to recede anytime soon.