Foreign Policy Watch: India-Russia

What Russia really wants

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : NATO

Mains level : Paper 2- Disruption in Central Asia and role of Russia

Context

Vladimir Putin, who annexed Crimea in 2014 has now mobilised some 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border.

How insecurity and history plays role in Russia’s actions

  • Russia, the world’s largest country by land mass, lacks natural borders except the Arctic Ocean in the north and the Pacific in the far east.
  • Its vast land borders stretch from northern Europe to Central and north east Asia.
  • The country’s heartland that runs from St. Petersburg through Moscow to the Volga region lies on plains and is vulnerable to attacks.
  • In the last two centuries, Russia saw two devastating invasions from the west — the 1812 attack by Napoleonic France and the 1941 attack by Nazi Germany. 
  • After the Second World War, Russia re-established its control over the rim land in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which it hoped would protect its heartland.
  • But the disintegration of the Soviet Union threw its security calculations into disarray, deepening its historical insecurity.

NATO’s expansion after disintegration of the Soviet Union

  • When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia lost over three million square kilometres of sovereign territory.
  •  In the last months of the Soviet Union, the West promised that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not “expand an inch to the east”.
  • The United States and the United Kingdom repeated the pledge after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • But despite the promises, NATO continued expansion.
  • In March 1999, in the first enlargement since the end of the Cold War, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (all were members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact) joined NATO.
  • Five years later, seven more countries — including the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which share borders with Russia — were taken into the alliance.
  • Russia felt threatened but was not able to respond.
  • But in 2008, when the U.S. promised membership to Georgia and Ukraine in the Bucharest summit, Russia, which was coming out of the post-Soviet retreat, responded forcefully.

How Russia see NATO expansion as threat to its dominance on Black Sea

  • Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, all Black Sea basin countries, are NATO members.
  • Ukraine and Georgia are the other countries that share the Black Sea coast, besides Russia.
  • Russia was already feeling squeezed on the Black Sea front, its gateway to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • If Ukraine and Georgia also join NATO, Russia fears that its dominance over the Black Sea would come to an end.
  • So, in 2008, Mr. Putin sent troops to Georgia over the separatist conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
  • In 2014, when the Kremlin-friendly regime of Ukraine was toppled by pro-western protesters, he moved to annex the Crimean peninsula, expanding Russia’s Black Sea coast, thereby protecting its fleet based in Sevastopol in Crimea.

Restoring the rim land

  • In recent years, Mr. Putin has tried to turn every crisis in the former Soviet region into a geopolitical opportunity.
  • South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the self-proclaimed republics that broke away from Georgia, are controlled by Russia-backed forces.
  •  In 2020, when protests erupted in Belarus after a controversial presidential election, Mr. Putin sent assistance to the country to restore order.
  • In the same year, Russia sent thousands of “peacekeepers” to end the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • Earlier this year, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, with Mr. Putin’s backing, manufactured a migrant crisis on the Polish border of the European Union.
  • This month, when violent unrest broke out in Kazakhstan, the largest and wealthiest country in Central Asia, its leader turned to Russia for help.

How do geopolitical circumstances favour Russia?

  • The U.S.’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the Central Asian republics deeper in the Russian embrace.
  • Europe is very much dependent on Russian gas, which limits its response.
  • For years, the West, the winner of the Cold War, discounted Mr. Putin.
  • Having failed to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, NATO is unlikely to pick a war with Russia over Ukraine.

Conclusion

By destabilising Georgia and Ukraine and re-establishing Russia’s hold in Belarus, Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow has effectively stalled NATO’s further expansion into its backyard.

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