Everything Under Heaven is in Utter Chaos

How the Russia-Ukraine conflict is pushing the boundaries and creating a new world order

Brig. Dinesh MathurBrig. Dinesh Mathur (retd)

The international order that existed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War heralded the emergence of a unipolar world with the operation of the Western Alliance sustained largely by the US (and Canada) military power and its nuclear deterrent. The smaller constituent of this alliance, comprising 10 other members of the united European Union (EU) combined the military forces of the allies in common structure, NATO based at Brussels. It took four decades for the US to achieve its avowed vision of dismantling an existential threat from the Soviet Union. As the Cold War receded, the American consensus believed that the main work of democratic transformation in countries still under authoritarian rule had been achieved and a peaceful world order would now unfold.

The geopolitical order in Europe was fundamentally transformed with the removal of this threat. One hoped for ‘a safer and a better world with a strong, healthy US, Europe, Russia, China and Japan, each balancing the other and not playing one against the other. The hackneyed themes of balance of power and equilibrium were to be replaced by the spread of shared ideals with the end of confrontation of two adversaries, to usher in economic prosperity and peace. Logically, both NATO and Warsaw Pacts had served their purpose and were redundant now. Yet the US and the West found it expedient to continue with the NATO in its war against terror, later in Afghanistan. The expansion of NATO (28 countries now) up to the borders of Russia, within 600 miles of Moscow and 100 miles from St Petersburg could not have been for extending the political reach alone.

Most newly independent and developing countries especially countries who have recently become sovereign nations after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, aspiring for better quality of life did not fail to notice the open and tolerant societies, efficient consumer economy, superior health and education facilities, far better developed science, technology and infrastructure, even in the poorest of Western countries. They were the first to fall into this trap by joining EU and NATO, in their quest for the Western model of development.

At the Remembering the Holocaust Fighting Antisemitism forum in Jerusalem

Russia’s Grand Strategy as Perceived by US

The Russian grand strategy, as analysed by the Rand Corporation experts, is its ambition to restore its status as a superpower and to  achieve its strategic goals by focus on Non-Contact Warfare confined to the immediate vicinity of its borders. Notwithstanding these, the US perceives Russia as nothing more than a regional power with no economic clout to wage a war. The focus on Non-Contact Warfare, also called Hybrid Warfare, is the strategy of attacking an adversary while remaining just below the threshold of conventional war. The only way China and Russia can challenge the US military might is by the use of its hard and soft power in the ‘grey zone’. The possible spectrum could be, cyber-attacks on the adversary’s critical infrastructure, posing/ deploying threats to space assets, information operations to spark domestic violence and forcible acquisition of areas where there is ethnic commonality or disaffected population.

Of late, US is also aware that Russia has steadily and rapidly expanded its military capabilities with the intention of neutralising US capabilities of projecting power inside its spheres of influence. Its strategic interests still lie in its former Soviet Republics, the unhindered freedom of its Baltic Fleet, the North Sea Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, the North Pacific Fleet and the defence of the Arctic Circle. US feels that Russia has joined the Great Game for the control of Arctic Circle. Russia has already hoisted its flag at the North Pole and has deployed series of fortified positions all along the Arctic Circle. The area is patrolled by its nuclear attack and ballistic submarines. Since its intervention in Syria, in 2015, Russia has re-opened its naval base at Tartus for operations of its Kilo Class submarines. All these Russian moves need to be kept under surveillance.


Russian Perception of its National Interests

Russian Federation’s primary national interests hinge on ensuring its sovereignty and territorial integrity and security on its external borders. Russia is particularly sensitive to military conflicts within Russia Federation, demographic and economic expansion into Russia and isolation of Russia by military blocks in the vicinity of its borders. Other pillars on which its national interests rest are as follows:

  • Strengthening of military-political blocs and alliances, promote full integration of republics within Russian Federation as a counter to NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia perceives NATO’s strategic doctrine as hostile to its interests and could destabilise the region.
  • Monitor closely the growth of regional powers such as Germany and France with enhanced weapons technology and military equipment. They could replace Russia as arms suppliers’ and cause economic losses and render Russia’s equipment obsolete.
  • Take measures to prevent weakening of Russia’s political, economic, and military influence in the world and restore its erstwhile superpower status.
  • Oppose establishment of NATO military bases/ presence in Ukraine, five Central Asian and three Caucasus Republics which are in the immediate proximity of Russian borders.
  • Prevent outbreak/ escalation of conflicts in immediate vicinity of Russian Federation especially where ethnic Russian population is threatened.
  • Reject any future territorial claims on Russian territory after the recently concluded border settlement with China.
  • Prevent UN/ UN sponsored agencies, US and EU from meddling in affairs of member Russian Federation States.
  • Prevent proliferation of mass destruction weapons and their delivery vehicles within its boundaries.
  • Take measures against cyber warfare, control vulnerability to hacking and other forms of intrusions of all information, telecommunications data storage systems.


Crimea and Ukraine

If one understands the importance attached to these two territories by the Russian Federation, the reasons for their invasion would become clear. Crimea has always been a part of Imperial Russia since 1783 onwards and has been directly controlled by Russia from Moscow till 1954 when it was transferred to Ukraine for administrative reasons. After Soviet Union broke up in 1991, it should logically have reverted to Russia. Both Sevastopol and Crimea are now home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet like earlier.

Ukraine has been part of the Soviet Union since 1922. Ukraine is almost the size of Texas State, more than one and half times the size of Germany and bigger than France also. Russia and Ukraine between themselves accounted for 30 per cent of world’s wheat exports. Ukraine has abundant reserves of coal, iron ore, manganese, graphite, nickel, magnesium, and mercury. In addition to its own oil and gas reserves, Russian pipelines connecting the Siberian oil and gas fields with Europe, passing through Ukraine, are a major economic asset for Ukraine. Ideally, Russia would like to have all its former Soviet Union territory back into its fold, but the grim reality is that they are too late in their efforts. Not surprisingly, from times immemorial, the heart of Russia surprisingly beats outside its territorial limits.

Would the US accept the state of Alaska, (bought from Russia in 1867) to secede and join the Russian Federation or declare itself independent?

US Secretary Defence Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken flank Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Operations in a Nutshell

Prior to commencement of operations, the Russians jammed all Ukraine ground radars and rendered them ineffective. Distributed denial of service through cyber-attacks by Russian hackers against majority of Ukraine’s financial institutions, TV network, power houses, municipal/ public services network crippled and shut them down. Black Sea fleet commenced the blockade of Mariupol, Odessa and other ports. Chechnyan fighters and elements of Wagner Group inserted prior to commencement of operations were now actively directing air strikes against Ukraine pockets of resistance. Nuclear weapon readiness was transmitted over Russian TV channels in Poland, Baltic countries, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. Transmission on radio that President Zelensky had fled the country was doing the rounds.

By 0400 hours on 24 February 2022, advance by spearheads of integrated combined arms battle groups commenced from forward bases in Russia and Belarus. Generally, a battle group comprised one tank T 90 battalion, one infantry battalion in BMP 2, SP artillery 155mm battalion, with normal air support & complement of engineers, EW company and logistic support on tracks. Unhindered combat air operations by Russian Air Force destroyed radar stations, troop concentrations, entry points/ training areas along the border with Poland where NATO weapons and ammunition were received. One armoured column went straight for Chernobyl reactor and obtained the surrender of the technical staff. Two airfields were captured in the vicinity of Kiev and Kharkiv for landing special forces. Orders were issued to bypass Ukraine pockets of resistance and head for encirclement of major towns enroute to Kiev. Eighteen such spearheads from opposite Belarus to East Ukraine and south to Crimea were moved at staggered timings. Cruise missile strikes engaged the Parliament and government buildings causing severe fires.

Ukraine’s stiff resistance was not totally unexpected by the Russians. NATO and US training on javelin and stinger missiles and other weapons for the last seven years, had made a lot of difference. Within 72 hours the Russians were knocking at the gates of Lviv, Kiev and Kharkiv. Further south in the seaports of Odessa and Mariupol the Russian pressure was building up. One needs to understand that no attacker worth his salt would enter a heavily built-up area like Kiev, Lyiev, Mariupol, Kharkiv and other smaller cities with sizeable population and start clearing it. The price that would be paid would be enormous, be it civilian casualties, or those of attacker and the defender. Therefore the Russians have deliberately chosen to encircle Kiev and Kharkiv, inflict limited damage to infrastructure, deny any ingress/ egress and choke the city into surrender.

There have been reports of the Russian tank columns stretching over 40 miles spotted north of Kiev for over one week without any interference by Ukraine. Such lucrative targets being missed by missile attack helicopters or fighters in our context, may be suicidal. There have been many claims/ counter claims that the Russian advance was bogged down and blunted by the Ukrainians. If it indeed was blunted, where are the tank-to-tank battles, brigade sized attacks and the launch of a Ukraine counter offensive into Russian heartland? All that one hears of is the pockets of infantrymen using a few Javelin or Stinger missiles scoring a few hits. The truth is that key Ukrainian cities and military installations have been isolated from each other, its army has lost its cohesion and the territorial loss, particularly in the East and South, is striking.

With its Donbass area almost cleared, hold on Mariupol consolidated, all sea approaches from the Black Sea and Sea of Azov have been sealed. Russian hypersonic missile strike against the NATO Special Operation bases at Delvatyn, Yavoriv, Zhytomyr and Oyruch, in close proximity of Polish border, have been very effective. With these successes, the Russians have consolidated their hold and have dug in for a long haul. There is no way that the Ukrainians can win and reverse the Russian status, on their own. Russians have no intentions to capture and hold territory except in its areas of interest—East of River Dnieper and the complete southern seaboard from Donbass to Crimea.

Talks under aegis of Turkey between Russia and Ukraine have so far not yielded any results except the fact that Ukraine has retracted from its aim of joining the NATO.

Prime Minister Modi with other Quad leaders

Effects of West’s Sanctions

The West froze Russia’s USD300 billion out of USD640 gold and forex reserves while the major portion held in Chinese Yuan remained safe. The European Commission blocked seven of Russia’s banks from accessing the SWIFT inter banking system on March 2. Major US companies such as Shell, Pepsico and McDonalds either pulled out from Russia or suspended planned investments.

The sanctions notwithstanding, the energy sector is unaffected at least for a year by EU’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, to be paid in roubles. In the non-energy sector Russian economy has suffered only marginally because it is not wholly dependent on imports. If the Russians retaliate with counter sanctions by withholding exports of wheat, oil, gas, and key minerals to the West, the European and U.S. economies are bound to suffer. For sanctions to be fully effective, they must be iron clad and not provide alternate escape routes to the targeted nation.

China holds the key to sanctions on Russia. It has, already in position, the CIPS (Cross Border International Payment System) and digital financial services. Both offer escape routes to West’s economic sanctions. Being the world’s second largest economy, its Yuan is poised as the reserve currency to the dollar. With Saudi Arabia accepting Yuan as a replacement for petro dollars, the signs look ominous for the dollar. Being dependent on the US and the world for its key inputs such as semiconductors, China may not risk its political and economic position by facilitating large scale busting of Russia’s economic sanctions.


Mistaken Perceptions of West & US

In building a new world order, there have always been serious differences in perceptions between the Western and the non-Western worlds. What the US and West see as their greatest strengths are their vibrant democracy, strong defence and economic policies and free political and economic institutions. Buoyed by its efficient handling in bringing the Cold War to a close, the US mistakenly believed that Russia & China would fall in line and adopt the Western model to liberalise their economy, improve the rule of law and democratise politics. This has not happened.

The US has assumed the commonality of interests with the EU especially after 9/11 attack. It has little to offer to France, while its relationship with Germany provides both security and economic advantages to both. Economic interdependence between Russia and EU, also gave rise to its false sense of security, the embedded belief that a major war can never take place in Europe. Seeing the US considerably weakened after its ignominious exit from Afghanistan, Putin outwitted the West by going for Ukraine where the NATO’s mutual defence clause did not apply.

Though the US has not failed to notice the rise of Russia especially after their role in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014), it has been slow to act. US is very conscious of the developing Russo-German entente and has now forced the closure of oil pipeline Nord Stream 2 by Germany. Ukraine has been provided military assistance for almost eight years both by NATO and the US and was virtually assured of NATO membership. A chain of bio-labs also came up during Obama’s tenure. Putin did make some demands to the US in December last year, relating to missile deployment in Poland & Rumania and the neutral status for Ukraine, instead of NATO membership. Both demands were ignored and the US deployed Patriot missiles in Poland against all objections.


Putin and Xi at BRICS 2019

Emergence of New World Order

The first casualty of the Ukraine war has been truth. The social media has painted President Zelensky as a great patriotic leader deserving a Nobel Peace Prize, and President Putin as a ‘butcher’ or a veritable ‘monster’ responsible for war crimes in Ukraine. US also dismissed reports of assisting Ukraine to set up bio labs as ‘trash’, though available evidence confirmed earlier reports.

Despite media reports of Ukraine winning the war, it is very clear that Ukraine Army has ceased to exist as a cohesive force. It is beyond doubt that Russia has succeeded in its military aim of neutralizing Ukraine’s military infrastructure and weapons. It has consolidated, regained control and relocated some forces to safe areas awaiting outcome of peace talks.

The second casualty of the Ukraine war has been global stability. US has succeeded in unifying Europe Union and pro-West countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The UN GA & Security Council voting is an indication of the new emerging world order. Both Russia and China have professed ‘limitless friendship’ and one is kept guessing what that means. It is pertinent to note that over 150 countries have voted in favour of the West and the remaining few like China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Pakistan and North Korea either voted against or abstained. A new power centre is clearly emerging which is East centric, opposed to the West and commencing a New Cold War. As the new dynamic emerges the non-West camp would find new entrants.

Territorial settlement offered by Putin would, in all probability, be accepted by Zelensky. A partition along the Dnieper River into East & West Ukraine is likely. Areas east and south along the coast holds a majority of ethnic Russian and Russian speaking population. West Ukraine would be a land locked neutral state acting as a buffer between Poland and Russia and not pose a threat to Russia any more. Russia’s unhindered access to Black Sea would be restored. Russia will continue to occupy complete East Ukraine till the new Parliament is convened at Kharkiv. The republics of Donetz, Luhansk and Crimea would function as republics directly under Moscow.

The sanctions on Russia will serve to speed up the diversification of international reserves, increase the use of currencies other than the dollar in trade and consequently undermine the status of the US dollar as the global reserve currency. China’s overt support to Russia in busting US sanctions would call for sanctions against them as well. This would render global organizations like UN, WTO and OPEC ineffective. High world oil and gas prices would benefit Russia immensely but discounted Russian oil and gas payable in roubles or euros by EU would be a blow to the sanctions.

The biggest beneficiary in the Ukraine war has been the arms industry. Their weapons have been battle tested and proved. Many EU countries have decided to increase their budgetary allotment for defence based on the new security threat. With Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Finland wanting to join NATO, it would be another windfall similar to the 15 new East European entrants being equipped with fresh NATO weapons earlier. More new weapon systems should now emerge especially anti cruise missiles, anti-drones and protection against precision guided munitions. The efficacy of Javelin and Strella anti-tank weapons and Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone should wake up our tank warfare experts to take cogent measures to maintain the invincibility of the tank on the battlefield.

India appears to have catapulted into the international arena recently. Our principled stand in abstaining in voting against Russia is based on our compulsions and has been appreciated by the West and the US. In addition, the Chinese too appreciated our stand of strategic autonomy. The success of Operation Ganga makes India the only country that was able to evacuate almost 20,000 citizens from war torn Ukraine. Two very unannounced significant visitors came to New Delhi. First, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang YI could not have visited merely to express his appreciation. It is quite possible that there are bigger things on our horizon such as the RIC/ BRICS coming to the forefront and the Sino Indian border dispute being resolved or frozen. Second, the Japanese PM’s visit brought in investments of USD 42 billion over five years to boost bilateral trade. Security/ trade advisers and foreign ministers of many countries are making a bee line for New Delhi.



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