Developments in Russia and Ukraine
The Russia-Ukraine war has witnessed yet another decisive turn against Russia, and this time the developments personally implicated Putin, in the form of the military revolt and near-coup situation by the private military company, Wagner Group. It was already well-known that since the beginning of Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine, the former has been increasingly facing multiple internal challenges. Many of the Russian provinces and racial ethnic minorities have been restive. Old separatist passions have sporadically found expression, there is increasing insecurity among the provinces, and sabotage and underground revolutionary activities against the Russian state have been on a rise. There has also been a marked decline in Russia’s role in the world, as it has lost influence in its traditional areas of dominance like Central Asia and Eastern Europe and has become increasingly beholden to China and to pariahs like Iran and North Korea, for sustaining itself. Overall, there has been a prevalent atmosphere of loss of confidence in the ability of the Russian state to provide the necessary security to keep the country together.
But that the fault-lines within the Russian polity were much deeper than even these developments indicated is something that was difficult to fathom. This is what has been brought out by the implications of the Wagner revolt directly challenging Putin.
Facts of the Revolt:
The Wagner group is a Private Military Contractor (PMC) which was formed in 2014 in Russia, with Putin’s blessings to facilitate the invasion of Crimea. It is led by Putin’s then close confidante, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner gained enormous power since its inception. The paramilitary group played the role of effectively supplementing Russian security lacuna and projected and expanded Russian power abroad. Its operations were especially critical to sustaining Russian power-brokering role in civil war in Syria to prop up the Assad regime and in sustaining Russian power across natural resource-rich African regions.
However, differences between the Wagner group and Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) have been growing, especially with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prigozhin claims that Russian MoD increasingly wanted to clip its wings, reduce the resources available to it and there were also differences of strategy and ideas. Further, Prigozhin has made several corruption allegations against the Russian MoD. He has also accused Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu and powerful Russian General Gerasimov of deliberately misleading Putin and misinforming him about launching an attack on Ukraine in February 2022. During the course of the war also, Prigozhin made consistent allegations on the designs of Russian MoD targeting the Wagner fighters and costing many of them their lives.
It was with this long-brewing background that Wagner launched a full-scale revolt against the Russian state on June 23rd, styling it as a March for Justice. The revolt was launched on the basis of Wagner’s allegation that its military camps were attacked by a rocket missile launch ordered by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Initially, the revolt saw massive success. Wagner managed to capture Southern Military District’s headquarters in Rostov and reached as far as Voronezh—only 200 kilometers from Moscow, making it almost certain that the siege over Moscow would be complete. Reports of downing of seven Russian military aircraft in the conflict as well as casualty of 15 Russian military personnel showed the serious challenge posed by the revolt. On their way, the Wagner mercenaries received a rousing welcome from the public. Despite the fact that the revolt soon led to announcement of repressive countermeasures by Putin, there were rumors of Putin preparing to flee.
However, before the revolt could spread any further it was soon aborted due to the intervention of Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, who brokered a hasty deal between Kremlin and Wagner. Under the terms of this deal, Wagner would abort its march and turnaround, Prigozhin will be safely allowed to leave Russia and offered a refuge in Belarus, and none of the Wagner fighters would be put on trial by Russia and they would all be absorbed under the Russian military forces.
This deal managed to contain the Wagner uprising overnight. But it has come at a great cost to Putin personally.
The Wagner revolt may have been merely a short-lived weekend episode, but it has decisively exposed the weaknesses in Putin’s security architecture. The rumors of Putin’s attempts to flee or hide further underscore how delicate the domestic security situation is in Russia. The revolt has several implications which will resonate in the times to come:
First, the revolt has shown the increasingly and solid anti-Putin nature of Russian public opinion. Videos of Russian public welcoming the Wagner fighters and taking pictures with them shows the repression and fear under which Russians are currently living. Their welcome of Wagner fighters showed that the Russians viewed them as liberators and would welcome any opportunity to dispose Putin.
Second, this opens the way for future mutinies or uprisings against Putin. While sabotage activities in Russia may have been disorganized and underground till now, after this daring attempt at revolt, the door has decisively opened for future revolts by any other military formation. Indeed, Putin’s possible successors are often discussed within Russian circles and there are many strongmen within the Russian establishment who would display a desire to challenge Putin.
Third, the revolt has seriously upended Russia’s position in the world. It was already beholden to China, while China saw temporary advantage in using Moscow for its own economic gains. However, after this revolt, the Chinese are likely rapidly realizing that weakness and domestic insecurity in Russia is beyond Putin’s control and Russian cannot offer any advantageous partnership. Similarly, India is also looking for ways to divest itself from the Russian baggage and the Wagner revolt will further accelerate that process. Already, Indian military establishment is vocally criticizing the depleting quality of Russian military hardware exported to India. Same goes for other Asian, African and Latin American countries that may have been banking on Russia. The Wager revolt would have come as an eye-opener for them.
Fourth, the distance between Wagner group and the Russian state – brokered by a deal to retract the revolt – portends further manpower crisis for Russia in the war against Ukraine. Wagner group was instrumental in capturing certain key Ukrainian regions for Russia, such as Soledar in February this year and Bakhmut in May this year. It is now no longer clear to what extent the mercenaries of Wagner group will be involved in the war, and without the support of these mercenaries Russia will certainly face a serious manpower shortage. Already, since the past few months, Russia has been facing manpower crisis forcing it to go for various rounds of mobilization.
Fifth, the revolt demonstrates an utter lack of strength, organization and professionalism in the Russian military, as it was unable to stop the rapid, unopposed advance of Wagner forces. Indeed, there is widespread belief that Prigozhin has support in certain quarters of Russian military and intelligence establishments which enabled him to carry forward his mutiny.
The Wagner revolt has provided a renewed psychological boost to Ukraine in this war. The revolt – and the support it received from the Russian public – has completely delegitimized Putin’s authority. That this has come in parallel with the ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensive deals a greater blow to Russia. The counter-offensive was already successful in both its dimensions viz. military and psychological. It has combined big attacks and raids with small, low-cost attacks, thereby boxing Russia into a corner. Psychologically, a series of low-cost operations by Ukrainian forces have visibly upset Putin. Militarily, big drone attacks on Russian Navy as well as Ukrainian offensive in the regions of Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk, show how Ukraine is taking the war home to Russia, leaving the latter to defend itself.
Developments in Science and Technology
Increasing developments in the field of technology and science have become a regular pattern, especially in the field of technology where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing all our systems. In recent times, the deployment of AI in wars is becoming particularly visible. The Russia-Ukraine war and Ukraine’s effective use of AI exemplifies this. War trends indicate that Ukraine’s deployment of automated drones to launch attacks on Russian Navy over the past few months has now led to an alarming situation for Russia, where, as many Russian experts fear, this may pronounce a complete decimation of Russian Navy.
The larger question this raises is about the significance of these AI-powered warfare technologies for national defence. It portends a situation where damaging and lethal attacks can be launched hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from their targets, in ways that will not involve direct losses by the side carrying them out, thereby increasing the temptation to employ such means in wars as a common feature. Even if this is used for striking conventional targets, rapid escalation always remains a possibility.
These automated technologies show how the nature of warfare and national defense has rapidly changed. Countries are already debating restructuring of their military institutions in the light of such changes brought about by AI. They are now realizing that investments in conventional weapons-systems alone may be insufficient.
Besides these automated drones which are nonetheless launched by human commands, there are, on the horizon, weapons-systems that may not be launched by humans at all but commanded by machines or robots. If these were to take shape, the future of humanity as a whole would be at a far greater risk than even the prospect of nuclear weapons.
Modi’s US Visit
The landmark first state visit of PM Modi to the US is proving to be, symbolically, a historical watershed event. It is only the third state visit hosted by the current US administration. It comes at a critical time in international politics as well as at a significant moment in India-US relations, when both the countries are developing closer ties.
These relations are premised not only on geopolitical realities, but also on the strength of the Indian diaspora present in the US, which, in the words of a US official, makes these relations ones based on the warmth of family and friendship.
Upon his arrival, PM Modi was welcomed by a 21-gun salute. He, along with President Biden, addressed a gathering of officials and thousands of influential Indian-American diaspora members at the White House. His address to the joint session of the US Congress was greeted by a standing ovation and chanting of his name.
In terms of substantive gains, the visit saw both sides clinching a series of important deals, such as those related to defence cooperation, critical and emerging technologies, health, environment, visas and space, including a deal which could pave the way for an unprecedented transfer of jet engine technology. Defence cooperation is increasingly beginning to form the mainstay of bilateral ties between India and US. With the Russia-Ukraine war and changing Russian-Chinese-Pakistani alignments, the US and Indian attempts are to wean India away from dependency on Russian military imports altogether.
The present visit saw the promise of transfer of technology in several areas, most significantly in the production of fighter jet engines for the Indian Air Force and the promise of building up on the newly launched initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET). These, along with other agreements, are likely to lead to a massive jump in India’s aerospace and military capabilities. Besides these, agreements were also signed between the two countries and individual companies on increasing investments, removal of tariffs and promoting renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Apart from the number of concrete agreements signed, the visit also holds symbolic and political importance for India-US relations. It highlights and reaffirms India’s growing role as an important partner of the US in the Indo-Pacific, especially in checking Chinese aggression and ambitions.
The NCP Split
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra has ended up in a surprise split, with Ajit Pawar, along with a nine key NCP MLAs and heavyweights – such as Chhagan Bhujbal, Praful Patel, and other erstwhile loyalists of Sharad Pawar – having joined BJP-Shiv Sena led Eknath Shinde government. Ajit Pawar also claimed to have the support of the majority of NCP MLAs. In a show of strength a few days after the split, he was able to prove the same at a party meeting, and his faction also laid claim to be the legislature party as well as to the party symbol. Having joined the NDA government in Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar became the second Deputy Chief Minister.
The implications of this split for Maharashtra politics would be manifold:
First, NCP was already on the decline. Its base is mainly concentrated in western rural Maharashtra. However, with rising urbanizing tendencies, NCP has not been able to keep up. It has been so used to being in the government that it has ceased to be an effective Opposition. With the fall of the Thackrey-led MVA government due to Eknath Shinde’s defection, power-hungry and corrupt NCP MLAs became even more restive.
Second, Sharad Pawar – the charismatic party leader – appears to have been exposed. In April this year, the NCP lost its national party status. Thereafter, Sharad Pawar stepped down from party leadership only to return later. All this put the leader in disrepute.
Third, this has diminished the electoral prospects of the Opposition in the election next year. Maharashtra is a critical state with 48 Lok Sabha seats, and the NCP split has come as a big dampener for the Opposition.
Fourth, developments in Maharashtra portend the diminishing role of regional parties in general. In this instance, succession battle in NCP ultimately led to its split, as Sharad Pawar’s predictable bias towards his daughter in the party reorganization was bound to provoke Ajit Pawar. Most regional parties are dynastic in nature, and similar fate has befallen many of them and may do so in future as well.