Developments in Russia and Ukraine
Even as the war between Russia and Ukraine progresses without showing any substantive sign of resolution, Russia is set to suffer a new phase of backsliding on several fronts.
First, as per a new set of sanctions approved by the G7 countries capping the price at which Russian oil is sold in the international markets to $60 per barrel, exceeding which would deprive the importing countries of shipping and insurance services, will deal a further blow to the already battered Russian economy. Already Russia is chafing from the loss of the European market, with no new lucrative markets in sight. Back in 2021, Russia exported 155 billion cubic meters of natural gas to the EU. This accounted for as much as 61.7 percent of total Russian gas exports that year and 73.8 percent if one counts only pipeline gas exports, excluding liquified natural gas (LNG) supplies, realized in large part thanks to the vast pipeline network linking Russia with Europe, notably the Nord Stream One pipeline under the Baltic Sea, the Yamal pipeline via Belarus and Poland, the Brotherhood pipeline via Ukraine and the TurkStream pipeline under the Black Sea.
Second, Russia’s weapons stockpile continues to deplete and its relations with other countries continue to wane and enter complicated waters. This has been confirmed by both US as well as Estonian intelligence inputs, and is borne by the fact that Russia has now reached a stage where it is buying weapons from a pariah state like North Korea. Besides procuring from North Korea, Russia has also gravitated closer to Iran and has steadily bought weapons from the country. It has also cultivated ties and signed short-term trading arrangements with Taliban and Pakistan, and hopes to influence the region with China through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). None of these actions have endeared it to India, which considers CPEC to be illegal and illegitimate. These ties are not fruitful for Russia in the long-term. Even Russia’s closeness with Iran comes at a cost. As Russia encourages Iranian economic investment, Iran is using the opportunity as a pretext to expand into Russia’s Muslim-majority provinces of Middle Volga and North Caucasus, where Russia is now worried about Iran’s rising religious and cultural influence and possible radicalization. Even though they are Sunni-majority, Russia is unable to limit Iran’s ‘long game’ on its territory.
Third, instability within Russia is increasing at an alarming pace. Especially in border areas near Ukraine, the increase in crime rates is massive, as guns from the war make their way into the hands of local Russian criminals, returning soldiers and forcefully drafted personnel. The number of such crimes is up nearly 30 percent so far this year compared to the same period in 2021.
Fourth, Ukraine’s success on the battlefield is amplifying. Despite repeated Russian attempts to wage a war of attrition against Ukraine in seeking to bomb its critical infrastructure, Ukraine is facing no major losses. The combination of Western aid and Russian miscalculations and backfires on the battlefield has consistently been to Ukraine’s advantage. Its successes in Kharkiv and Kherson have given it reason to repeatedly rebuff attempts at a truce or a ceasefire as is being subtly pushed by Western countries, such as U.S., France and Germany. Having learnt its lessons from history, especially the failure of Minsk agreements, Ukraine is determined to see this war to the end. Their main objective is to reverse Russia’s aggressive ambitions so completely that the question of any threat to Ukrainian sovereignty would never arise again.
Protests in China
In an unexpected turn of events following Xi Jinping’s imperial decree according to himself the privilege of ruling for an extended term, China has witnessed massive protests across the country that have directly threatened the topmost leadership of Jinping. The protests were triggered by the fire that killed ten civilians in Urumqi at a building, which was under lockdown due to the country’s zero-Covid policy. Thereafter, the protests spread to more than 50 university campuses across the country, especially in metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai. The protestors have used blank placards to signal their dissent against Jinping.
From protesting the draconian and illogical zero-Covid policy, the protests soon became wide-ranging in their dissent, targeting the regime of Xi Jinping himself, angered by his recent dictatorial consolidation of power and demanding a more open system. These protests represent the biggest challenge to the Chinese communist state in more than three decades. The last such challenge was in the form of Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989, following which China embarked on a path towards a relatively open system.
The future of these protests is yet unclear. They have waned somewhat since their inception, as the Chinese government decided to heed the protestors and open up the Covid-induced restrictions, despite seeing a massive surge in the record number of infections. However, the intensity of the protests show that the fire of antagonism has been lit in people’s hearts and regardless of the pacifying actions of the government or the apparent subsiding of the protests, the collective angst will persist until Jinping himself steps down.
International Conferences: G-20 Summit in Bali and COP27 Climate Conference
The G-20 summit in Bali was significant for many reasons, the foremost being the baton of leadership being passed onto India. The summit was also crucial for occurring at a time of Russia-Ukraine war. It did not see the active participation of Russia, and issued an important joint statement which, among other imperatives, emphasized that this is not an ‘era of war’, borrowing from India’s PM Modi’s words to Russia’s President Putin. With India now in charge of the G20 for one year, a new dynamism has been infused into the conference. This is the first time that three developing countries viz. Indonesia, India and Brazil, are hosting the conference successively.
The G-20 conference in Indonesia also saw first formal exchanges among leaders of China and U.S., rekindling hopes for some pacification of relations and the resumption of climate cooperation. For India, the assumption of G-20 Presidency raises a host of challenges. Its priorities include:
First, seeking to build consensus among countries in an increasingly polarized world. The impact of continuing Russia-Ukraine war will persist in a deleterious fashion and India will attempt to initiate a rapprochement. India has also sought to emphasize how high energy prices and economic instability from the war has adversely impacted developing countries.
Second, India will likely seek to use its leadership position to advance its aims of counter-terrorism cooperation to achieve some substantive outcomes. The recent conferences chaired by India on this issue were significant.
Third, most importantly, India will seek to use the G-20 platform for advancing stalled climate action. In recent times, India has become among the biggest advocates of clean energy and sustainable transitions. However, no international outcome in this regard has been achieved at the formal climate conferences, which remain deadlocked. India may try to position G-20 as a grouping for advancing a new agenda for climate action and justice.
The stalled nature of climate action was particularly visible during the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) climate negotiations which concluded recently in Egypt. Despite being hailed as an ‘implementation COP’, it could not achieve any tangible outcome, except the formalization of a ‘Loss and Damage Fund’. The latter was hailed as a ‘victory’ by poor and vulnerable countries. But even this is illusory, for, it is not clear how this fund would be mobilized or what purpose it can achieve. More importantly, the COP served to underscore the fact that countries, despite increased climate action, will not be able to meet the targets that could sufficiently forestall the breaching the critical climate threshold of 1.5C, crossing which would result in irreversible climate disasters and irreparable ecosystem changes.
Iran’s Protests and Geopolitical Fallout in the Neighbourhood
Iran’s protests are continuing steadily. The regime has come under increasing pressure from the protestors. Notably, the protests have been successful in mobilizing people from the extreme conservative areas of Iran as well. They further announced large-scale mass protests between December 5th and 7th, in response to which the Iranian state dangled the unverified candy of abolishing the country’s morality police. Even such attempts were rebuffed by the protestors as being ‘fake’ in nature.
The protests are unique, as they are continuing strongly even without any proper organization or leadership, and, are directly demanding nothing short of downfall of the regime. Such mobilization has not been seen in any previous Iranian mass movements, except perhaps the 1979 Revolution.
In the context of these protests, Iran’s relations with Azerbaijan have also deteriorated over a range of issues. Despite sharing a Shia majority demography with Iran, Azerbaijan has been in confrontation with Iran over the treatment of minorities and the repressive policies in the neighbouring country. It has sought to brandish itself as a secular, progressive state, as opposed to Iran’s Islamic theocracy. Azeris also constitute a significant proportion of Iran’s population – nearly one-third – south of Aras river. They are increasingly becoming discontented with Iran.
Further, Azerbaijan is also rapidly gaining influence in Middle-east politics, seeking to create its own independent sphere of influence. It seeks to upend Russia, China as well as Iran. Its recent hosting of head of Tatarstan (part of Russia) prove that. It has also declared that ‘the Turkic world consists not only of independent Turkic states. Its geographic borders are much broader’ – that is, it includes places such as Tatarstan, currently within Russia’s borders, and Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang), currently within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. It is also arm-twisting Turkey to settle scores with Iran. It has successfully executed rapprochement between its two major allies viz. Turkey and Israel. It also became the first Shia Muslim country to, most recently, open an embassy in Israel, much to the outrage of Iran, which has threatened to attack Azerbaijan over this. Indeed, Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the Second Nagorno Karabakh war as well as its success in the intensive confrontation with Armenia in 2022 was pivotally due to arms supply from Israel – the latter supplies 70% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports, while Azerbaijan supplies nearly 60% of Israel’s oil needs. All these changing conditions have increased the threat for Russia and Iran in Eurasia.