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Russia’s confrontation with NATO by Securing Eastern Flank

Paper No. 6189                                   Dated 31-Oct-2016

 By Dr Subhash Kapila

Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the US-led NATO Alliance on its Western Flank could not have been strategically possible but for an understanding that its Eastern Flank in Asia Pacific would be secured by China as part of the Russia-China nexus.

Such a strategic understanding between Russia and China has serious implications for Indian security in that it severely restricts Russia’s strategic utility to Indian national security interests in the China-India military confrontation context.

Reverting back to the main theme under discussion, obviously, Russia could not have adopted the strategically unwise course of having to fight simultaneously on both its Western and Eastern flanks but for the confidence that the Russia-China strategic nexus would come into play to ensure that China secures the Eastern Flank of Russia on the Pacific littoral. Of course, any outbreak of armed conflict between NATO and Russia on their perceived threat perceptions and strategic distrust in the Baltics and the Balkans is an unlikely proposition, but even the military brinkmanship that attends geopolitical jostling does take into account the military securing of a nation’s flanks.

That the United States and some NATO countries have sent military reinforcements into Eastern Europe suggests that the Russia-NATO military confrontation is heading towards massing of military forces in Eastern Europe reminiscent of the NATO-Warsaw Pact military confrontation in Central Europe.

However, unlike the earlier Cold War where the Former Soviet Union’s massive military power ensured that both the flanks were firmly secured against a possible opening of a second flank in the USSR’s Far East, the situation in 2016 is vastly different where Russia is militarily not in position to ensure that both its Western Flank resting on Europe and its Eastern Flank on the Pacific are firmly secure.

In this context, the China Factor comes into play in a big way in Russian strategic calculations. While the commonly held view in strategic circles is that the Russia-China strategic nexus is motivated by the United States’ emergence as the unipolar power and Russia’s economic dependence on China, it cannot be ruled out that Russian security establishment would have taken into account that the China-nexus would ensure that Russia’s Eastern Flank wold be existentially secure in the hands of China as a quasi-strategic ally of Russia.

But the big question that surfaces significantly in the context of Russia-China equations is whether China on its professed ascendant trajectory to a Superpower status and equivalence with the United States would be a willing partner of Russia in an enterprise where Russian President Putin is in his ongoing geopolitical jostling with the United States is vying for regaining Russia’s former glory of a US-Russia bipolar world. Surely, China cannot abdicate its aspirational ambitions on the altar of sustaining the Russia-China strategic nexus?

In my past assessments on the viability of the Russia-China strategic nexus holding-out substantively in the event of an armed conflict involving either Russia or China against the United States however limited, it was maintained that China would never stand by Russia against the United States. Likewise, it was also highlighted that Russia would not endanger its Western Flank just to bail out China. On the face of it that still seems to be the likely outcome, notwithstanding their joint naval exercises in the Western Pacific.

However, with both Russia and China perceptively under growing strategic hemming-in by the United States and its allies, possibilities do exist and it would also be logical for Russia and China to arrive at the bare minimum some existential securing by China of Russia’s Eastern Flank.

Should the above possibility be not existent then it would be unwise for Russia to enter into a military confrontation with the United States and NATO on its Western Flank.

In the military tensions that are getting built-up currently on Russia’s Western Flanks, Russia stands to lose the support of the major European nations with whom Russia had cultivated good political and economic capital to its advantage. It adds up to yet another complicating factor against Russia as it jostles with the United States and NATO in East Europe.

Russia’s long list of strategic initiatives which seems flawed and logically incomprehensible include its reactive cosying upto China, its retreating from a geopolitical reach-out to Japan, its permissiveness in letting China encroach on its Central Asian turf and its latest tilt towards Pakistan after decades of courting India -----all perceptively seem to have taken under pressure from China. So much so that today Russia appears to be more of a Chinese satellite rather than the other way around.

Concluding, it is too early as to how and which way the developing military tensions between Russia and the United States and NATO are likely to pan out. But in terms of global stability and Asia Pacific stability in particular, the region in which China and major part of Russia are geographically located, both are likely to get affected seriously.India, cannot afford to remain an impassive spectator and should initiate contingency planning to craft its responses.

 

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