Developments in Russia and Ukraine
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has reached a significant point of escalation over the past month. The threat of nuclear weapons usage is back and both sides have upped the ante against each other. While Russia undertook some leadership-level changes, appointing its brutal new General to oversee the war efforts and raining down heavy rounds of missiles on Ukrainian cities, still Ukraine has not shied away from the offensive. Indeed, the advancement of Ukraine at the ground level is commendable. It is close to re-taking the territories illegally invaded by Russia. In Kherson, due to the Ukrainian advances, Russia was forced to retreat and evacuate. For Ukraine, there is no dearth of a constant supply of weapons and aid from the West.
Russia – out of desperation – and indiscriminate use of weapons is rapidly exhausting its weapons stockpile. Even the existing air-borne weapons systems, such as those carried by drones, are not controlled properly, sometimes causing damage within Russian occupied territory. These spectacles betray Russia’s inept and outdated war machinery.
Economically also, Russia’s strategy to make Europe suffer in the winter due to the gas crisis is failing to yield results. According to estimates, Europe has sufficient reserve of natural gas to get through the winter and has adopted various methods such as rationing and price-caps to ensure utilization of gas and keep prices under control.
Russia’s internal situation has been no better than its external one. The opposition to this indiscriminate war, within Russia, has reached its highest levels since the war began. Even a common person now realizes that Putin, in his mindless quest towards self-gratification, is least concerned about Russia. A case in point is the mobilization plan announced by Putin in late September to early October. This was a spectacular failure, especially in provinces where the Russian government expected to garner easy support from the people. The plan sparked protests in more than 50 cities and fire bombings of official buildings in more than 20. Outside the two capitals (Moscow and St. Petersburg) and in Dagestan, the largest protests were held and more than 2300 arrests were made, so much so that the protests were labelled as ‘Dagestan Maidan.’
Psychologically, Ukraine has already won the war. Indeed, in a psychological forward offensive, Ukraine is now successfully enlisting non-Russians within Russia to ally with itself. Indeed, various non-Russians have now made their way to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces, and the Ukrainian government has now recognized the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as under temporary Russian occupation.
Further, in a psychological show of strength, Ukraine’s President Zelensky rebuffed Putin’s suggestions to return to the negotiating table. Instead, Zelensky said that “Negotiations and agreements are obviously impossible with this Russian president. Honesty and justice are unknown to him. We will be ready for dialogue with Russia afterward, with another Russian president. Only a stronger Ukraine expelling the occupiers from Ukrainian territories will bring peace. This is our way.” The statements make it clear that for Ukraine there is very little to lose and everything to gain from here. Indeed, the war objective of Ukraine now is to permanently decimate Russia to such an extent that never again will it or any other nation attempt to challenge Ukraine’s or any smaller nation’s sovereignty.
Indeed, so sure is Ukraine of eventual victory – sooner rather than later – that it has already started preparing for a postwar settlement. Reportedly, the terms of such a settlement include the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the creation of international mechanisms for investigating and prosecuting Russian war crimes in Ukraine as well as seeking compensation for war damages from Russia. Zelensky himself publicized an international appeal for instituting a special tribunal to draw up indictments against those who planned Russia’s war of aggression and ordered its launch, issue arrest warrants against those responsible for it and bring them to trial. Ukraine has already empanelled such a tribunal.
The nation’s spirit has consolidated to an even greater extent than before and people – from the youngest to the oldest – are reportedly prepared to fight to the death. Common Ukrainians are ready to abandon their families and sacrifice their lives for the nation – the identification with the national spirit has become complete.
Such is the level of psychological strength that even Russia’s missile attacks are failing to have an impact. The infrastructure that is being destroyed by them is rapidly being rebuilt by the citizens, even as the latter asks the Ukrainian government to focus all their energies on beating back the invaders. The nationalism that is unfolding psychologically is so unprecedented that it has not been seen before even in any of the major wars that have been fought in the history of the world. It is as if the very godhead of nationalism has manifested upon the earth in the form of Ukraine.
China’s 20th Party Congress
The recently concluded 20th Party Congress in China has witnessed Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power for an unprecedented third term, in what marks a complete dismemberment of China’s ‘collective leadership’ model that has been in place since after Mao’s death and has helped to maintain some democracy in an otherwise authoritarian dictatorship. Under the collective leadership model, the premier, who is also the Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary has to retire after every five year terms and make way for new leadership. This ensured that no single person would be able to consolidate power. The system ensured China’s transition from a one-person dictatorship under Mao to a party-state authoritarian model where the CPC collectively ruled over the Chinese state, with some internal democracy being maintained within the CPC.
It was under this collective leadership model that Xi assumed power in 2012. However, he began to systematically dismantle the system – first innocuously and then more explicitly, he undertook an internal cleansing and external restructuring. Internally, he weeded out the ‘corrupt’ princelings in the political and military ranks (who were also incidentally Xi’s perceived opponents) and externally he undertook a revision of China’s aims and position in the world, transitioning from the aim of ‘lying low and biding time’ to coming out in the open with the aim of domination. In 2013, in pursuit of these aims he launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) accelerated the technology transition in all domains. China also became more confrontationist vis-à-vis India, Japan, Australia and Taiwan, and subsequently, the United States.
In the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi cemented his ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ in the Party constitution, earning a place next to legendary icons like Mao and Deng, and also cemented the idea of President for Life. The 20th Party Congress has been a natural follow-up to these developments. Attended by nearly 2300 delegates, the Congress cemented Xi’s presidentship for a third term and also undertook a complete restructuring of the exclusive Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), filling it up with Xi’s most loyal foot soldiers. Xi’s prominent opponents, like Li Keqiang, were retired, while Xi’s loyalist Li Qiang was made the new Prime Minister. Towards the end of the Congress, the spectacle of Xi’s old predecessor, Hu Jintao, being forcefully escorted out under Xi’s watch from the Congress was a stark reinforcement of the new reality that was taking over China. This happened despite the fact that Xi was Hu’s Vice-President for five years.
However, the sailing has not been smooth for Xi. The fact that he had to resort to such unceremonious optics to reinforce his position betrays personal insecurity stemming from desire for personal glorification and power. For, in recent months, Xi’s authority has indeed been challenged – not so much by the party and military rank-and-file, but by the common Chinese people. The greatest opposition from the people has stemmed from Xi’s ‘zero-Covid policy’ – an irrational policy that assumes to achieve zero Covid cases. The forceful quarantines, separation of families, deaths and economic downturn that have occurred due to this policy far outweigh the temporary misery unleashed by the Covid-19 virus.
Xi’s dismantling of China’s economic system has been yet another novel innovation of his own, wherein he sought to implement the policy of “common prosperity” – which includes undermining the private sector and imposing some form of communism, to reduce inequality. The crackdown has been severe. Again, the idea behind the noble aim of ‘common prosperity’ stems from Xi’s own insecurity. The CPC, under Xi, is of the opinion that they don’t want to repeat the mistake of weakening their ideology (in this case, Communism) which the former USSR committed. That is why ‘common prosperity’ has become yet another gospel which has been incorporated into the Party Constitution.
In addition to these policies, Xi has also undertaken failed ventures pushing China into a confrontation with West and Asia, coming closer to Pakistan and Russia and dismantling the Chinese economic system in a quest for personal power and isolation of China from the West.
Xi’s distrustful perception towards the world was reflected in the report submitted to the 20th Party Congress, where two key phrases – which have been present in every Congress report for more than the last two decades – were conspicuously omitted. First, the phrase that China was in a “period of important strategic opportunity” implying China’s positive relations with the world was missing. Second, the phrase that “peace and development remain the themes of the era” was even older and has been omitted, implying that China is now gearing up for confrontation with other countries. Indeed, Xi, in his speech, warned of “dangerous storms” on the horizon.
The entire overhaul undertaken by Xi has not been received kindly by the Chinese people. The huge anti-Xi poster on a bridge in the run-up to the Congress became iconic and spurred many more anonymous protests by the Chinese abroad as well as in China, especially among the youth.
Congress Party’s Attempts at Revival
India’s Congress party has yet again attempted to revive itself – this time by ostentatiously conducting elections for the post of the Party President and by undertaking an ongoing months-long ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Both are unremarkable events that even the media hype is unable to make interesting.
The Congress elections went along predictable lines. More than 9000 delegates from Congress Pradesh Committees voted in the elections, with the favourite Gandhi family loyalist, Mallikarjun Kharge, winning the elections by around 8000-plus votes, while his opponent Shashi Tharoor put up a good performance securing around 1100 votes – an opponent’s best performance in the internal election history of Congress party till date. The results indicate that there is some opposition to the Gandhi family within the party ranks. The unceremonious Rajasthan drama between Gehlot and Pilot before the elections underscored how the high command authority is being challenged.
Not even the ostentatious ‘yatra’ undertaken by Rahul Gandhi can, turn the tide, as things now stand. Congress is out in most of the states, while in others it is on very shaky ground, surviving solely due to the personality of the regional leaders/Chief Ministers. The ‘yatra’ was undertaken precisely for the purpose of reinforcing the image of the Congress party among its cadre and re-energizing the latter. This doesn’t seem to be happening. While many have seen signs of success in this yatra, the reality appears to be that it is simply old goods presented in new packaging. Instead of reinforcing the image of the Congress party, it is serving the purpose of reinforcing the image of Mr. Gandhi and his ailing mother. Thus, even if the yatra is ‘successful’ it will only bring the party back to the same circle, being run by high command. The recent statements of Mr. Kharge extolling Rahul Gandhi further prove the point.
Thus, beyond the superficial packaging, nothing new appears to have been conveyed by the recent fleeting changes in the Congress party.
Brazil’s Presidential Elections
Presidential elections in Brazil have, after two rounds of close competition, yielded results bringing the former President from the leftist Workers Party (PT), Lula da Silva, to power. He won 50.9% of the vote, defeating the incumbent right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro who got 49.1% of the vote. The results reflect a deeply divided nation and Mr. Silva’s work is cut out for him. Among the main failings of Bolsonaro were the disastrous handling of the COVID-19 virus, economic mismanagement, internal revolts and, most importantly, anti-environment policies aimed at completely commercializing and destroying the Amazon rainforest – one of the vital lungs of the planet.
Lula’s stint in power (2003-10), in contrast, lifted 25 million Brazilians out of poverty, focused on growth and welfare and had balanced governance. He is also a votary of sustainable development and vows to protect the Amazon. His earlier phase in power was aided by benign global conditions, especially the commodity boom that made things easier for him. While regional political conditions are still palatable for him (with Leftist governments across the continent), he will now inherit a divided Brazil and much tougher global conditions, with Chinese and global economic slow-down and tougher political conditions. He will also face resistance from a hostile Congress where Conservatives remain powerful.
His stand on the Ukraine-Russia war is not yet clear. While Bolsonaro adopted a “neutral” position in the war, Lula may be no different. In an interview in May 2022, he had blamed Zelensky for being as much responsible for the war as Putin.