A wedge was driven between Turkey, which endorsed the strikes, and its Russian and Iranian partners in the Syrian political process.
As U.S. missiles rained down on Syria, the spectre of Cold War rivals, U.S and Syria’s only ally, Russia, squaring off once again, seemed an all too real possibility. Unlike the Cold War era when there were established mechanisms for talks, none exist now. Is the world becoming a more dangerous place?
The recent US, French and British missile strikes in Syria, purportedly in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, arouse many concerns The United Nations Secretary General declared that the action was not authorised by the UN Security Council and hence violated international law. Secondly, it was based on “evidence”, whose authenticity has subsequently raised considerable doubt. Thirdly, it damaged prospects for an early Syrian political settlement. Finally, it heightened Russia-US acrimony, further muddying already murky geopolitical waters.
The strikes were a sequel to Russia-West mutual recriminations over the poisoning of former Russian spy (and British intelligence agent), Sergei Skripal, who has lived in England since his release from a Russian prison in 2010. Shortly after he and his daughter were found unconscious in a park, British authorities declared that they were poisoned by a “military-grade nerve-agent” developed in Russia, which was therefore responsible for the crime. The US and European Union accepted this assessment, and many countries followed UK in expelling Russian diplomats from their capitals: UK expelled 23 and the US as many as 60.
Russia denied involvement in the Skripal poisoning and alleged that chemical weapon use by Syria was faked, offering its own evidence, which did not find traction in the West.
Putting aside the allegations and counter-allegations, it is difficult to find a credible motive for Russia to have either poisoned Skripal or to have let the Syrians use chemical weapons. Why should it wait for eight years after releasing a double-agent to eliminate him, and why choose a method which obviously incriminates it? In Syria, Russia was intimately involved in the Syrian forces’ campaign to “liberate” the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, which was making good progress. The UN Special Envoy for Syria had acknowledged that 90 per cent of this operation had been completed. At this stage, it would be senseless to launch a chemical weapons attack, which was certain to attract widespread international opprobrium.
On the other hand, these developments helped UK Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump in their domestic politics and furthered external US objectives. They diverted attention from a looming impasse in UK’s Brexit negotiations. The public demonstration of the UK-US “special relationship” was also useful for UK’s Prime Minister. President Trump deflected focus from uncomfortable developments in the probe on his personal business dealings. He demonstrated to critics in Congress and the media that he is not “soft” on Russia. Externally, transatlantic solidarity was strengthened and, thereby, US leverage in its various confrontations with Russia. The collective European attitude towards Russia was stiffened, just when some European countries were edging towards “normalising” relations with it. A wedge was driven between Turkey, which endorsed the strikes, and its Russian and Iranian partners in the Syrian political process. Strong calls resurfaced in the US for rigorous implementation of the 2017 sanctions legislation, CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which authorises sanctions against foreign companies engaging with Russian entities, particularly in defence and energy.
Beyond “punishing” Russia for its contraventions of international law, CAATSA is designed to further US strategic and commercial interests. It “encourages” US allies and partners that have significant energy and/or defence cooperation with Russia to turn to the US instead.
Germany’s proposed undersea gas pipeline from Russia attracts CAATSA. Meanwhile, the US supports plans of other European countries to import US LNG to partially replace Russian gas supplies to Europe. CAATSA can also be applied against US’ NATO ally Turkey and West Asian partner Saudi Arabia, so that they can be nudged back to full dependence for their defence supplies on the US and other Western partners. Egypt, India, Vietnam and Indonesia face similar pressure.
CAATSA vests the power to impose sanctions with the US government, which may decide on whom to impose them and when. This is a powerful arm-twisting tool, which can be used to extract political and economic concessions from countries. The irony is that CAATSA cannot be applied to China, which has the most extensive defence and energy cooperation with Russia, which is today USA’s most formidable strategic rival and which has the most skewed trade relations with the US. The extent of US-China economic interdependence would prevent the US from applying CAATSA to China. Therefore, even while going for Russia’s jugular, the US has eased pressure on China. President Trump has tweeted appreciation of recent Chinese promises to lower trade barriers and to enforce intellectual property rights.
On another front, the Russia-China strategic partnership is developing in worrying directions. The acrimony with the West has increased Russia’s dependence on China’s political and economic support. Their defence and energy cooperation has surged. Russia now supplies sophisticated weapons platforms to China, including the S-400 air defence system, which India is also seeking to acquire. China’s investment in Russia’s hydrocarbons industry extends from Siberia to offshore Arctic fields. This Russia-China axis could threaten India’s political and security interests.
The Russia-US proxy war has resulted in Russia now hobnobbing with many jihadi elements that had humiliated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. It may also be one motivation for Russia’s urge for an enhanced partnership with Pakistan, evidenced also by recent public Russian statements appreciating Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism.
These are difficult challenges for Indian diplomacy. Faced with the CAATSA threat, US pressure on trade imbalance and potential pressure on our exchange rate policies, India has to concede ground in some areas to protect its interests in others.
We need to convince the Trump Administration that a strategic partnership cannot be sustained by blackmailing or weakening one partner. Over two-thirds of the weapons systems with our Armed Forces is of Russian origin; we cannot shift overnight to alternative weapons systems without degrading our defence preparedness. For all the diversification of India’s defence acquisitions in recent years, we have not received from others the levels of technology transfers that Russia has been providing. Our US partners have to recognise and redress this problem.
We also need to prevent a degradation of our strategic partnership with Russia by ensuring that we respect the vital interests of each other.
(The author is a former diplomat, now Convenor of the National Security Advisory)