If a week is a long time in politics and diplomacy, a month is eternity. Yet this writer cannot resist surveying some aspects of the year that is ending even if a month remains before it passes into history. Generally this is a time when there is an all-around slow down as winter deepens in the northern hemisphere. It is also a time for holidays in many countries. So, unless unforeseen dramatic developments occur—and admittedly they sometimes do as they did when Indian Airlines flight 814 was highjacked on its way to Delhi from Kathmandu on Christmas eve 1999 gripping the country for a suspense and agony filled week – the on-going trends of the year 2022 should continue till the new year comes in at the stroke of midnight on December 31.
The dominant event which shaped this year was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian leadership may have had justified grievances against the US and the major European states for breaking assurances that were given at the end of the Cold War by them to the erstwhile Soviet Union. Under these assurances NATO was not to expand eastwards to the periphery of Russia but it did. Besides, Russia had always insisted that the West would adopt a hands-off approach towards Ukraine even if it wanted to distance itself from its eastern neighbour. The Western powers overlooked Russian demands and almost embraced Ukraine. They cited the principle that sovereign states make their own choices. While sovereignty is the bedrock of international relations its implementation has always to be navigated through the competing interests of the great powers. Hence, here too Russia felt deeply aggrieved.
In any event the Russian invasion of Ukraine was unjustified. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Russia has a special responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It is true that since the founding of the United Nations in 1945 the United States and other P5 members have acted irresponsibly in pursuit of their national interests. Those actions too were unjustified. However, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 no action of a P5 member has damaged global security in the way the Russian action in Ukraine has.
In view of the enormous differential in the military power between Russia and Ukraine it had initially appeared that Russia would quickly succeed in bringing Kiev to its knees and bring about regime change, thereby fulfilling the objectives of its invasion. As that did not happen the US and its allies got an opportunity to arm Ukraine well to meet the Russian challenge. At the same time the US took care that Ukraine could not attack internationally recognised Russian territory. After some months Russian aims became confined to focussing exclusively on the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. By late summer a balance seemed to have been reached but in September Ukrainian forces began operations to recapture territory from these parts too. They met with some success.
The Russian reaction was to amalgamate these territories with the rest of Russia. While the Russian move has not gained international recognition and is unlikely to do so it has made the resolution of the Ukrainian situation far more difficult. As it is the Russian invasion has impacted European security and led to the further expansion of NATO. It has also made global energy and food-grains security more difficult. All this has added to the woes of a world seeking to recover from the covid pandemic. In India’s neighbourhood it led to severe economic crises in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In the former it caused a change in government too. However, the implications of the continuing war in Ukraine has not led to the softening of positions of either Russia or Ukraine though there are some faint signs of the US now wanting to find a way out but without allowing any substantial gain for Russia. All in all it will not be easy to find a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
Another principal theme in 2022 was the continuing competition and growing adversarial relationship between the US and China. President Biden met President Xi Jinping on the margins of the G20 meeting in November in Bali. The latter came to the summit after the 20th party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party which gave him a third term in office. He is now the supreme leader and wields unquestioned power almost akin to what Chairman Mao did in his time. Biden and Xi sought to assure the world that they would not allow their competition to spill over into conflict. However, the course of hostility is now set and has become irreversible for all intents and purposes. Surprisingly, and recently, Xi has been facing concerted protests from the Chinese people who have reached the end of the tether because of the severe implementation of the zero-Covid policy. Xi will not hesitate to use major force, if required, to quell the protests.
In our region protests in Iran have been continuing since September. They were sparked off by the death of a young women while in the custody of the religious police. She was picked up for wearing an inappropriate hijab. Other disaffected groups have joined in the protests but, despite the build up to the protests being given in the Western world, it is unlikely, as yet, that the protests have gathered sufficient momentum to pose a great challenge to the clerical Iranian system.
In India, the government’s focus on the external front, would be committed from now on and in 2023 on achieving success as the G20 President.