• 11 July, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

President Biden, Please Transit from the 20th to the 21st Century

Prof Madhav Das Nalapat Sun, 22 May 2022   |  Reading Time: 7 minutes

Known for his courtesy and integrity, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr spent his formative years in the US Senate during a period when relations between the Cold War 1.0 contending powers, the USSR and the US, were testy at best, and even close to a collision during some periods. After the 1939-45 World War between the Axis (Japan, Italy and Germany) and the Allies (the US, Britain and the Soviet Union) was over with the surrender of Germany, the death of President Franklin Roosevelt resulted in a snapback of US policy towards the USSR from wartime ally to peacetime foe.

Covert operations were launched during the final weeks of 1945 itself, such as the effort to create a separatist movement in Ukraine. Those recruited for this on the Ukrainian side were swiftly uncovered by Stalin’s NKVD and sent to their graves. Only in 1990, did Washington ramp up efforts at separating Ukraine from the rest of the Soviet Union, encouraging elements who wanted the province to break away from the rest of the USSR. This time around, Washington succeeded, and Ukraine was the first Soviet state to declare its independence from Moscow, thereby acting as the trigger for the breakup of the Soviet Union.

After several states, including in the Baltics and Central Asia, had followed Ukraine’s lead and broken ties with the Soviet Union now in its death throes, the residue was renamed the Russian Federation and came under the control of Boris Yeltsin, who was even more accommodating towards the trans-Atlantic alliance as the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev had been during his term in office. Yeltsin’s refusal to stand by Serbia when that country was bombed by NATO and forced to cede the Kosovo district to its own authority alarmed those who wished to see a Russia that punched its weight rather than surrendered to every command from the Atlantic alliance. They ensured that Vladimir V Putin, formerly of the KGB, became Prime Minister and very shortly thereafter President of the Russian Federation, replacing Yeltsin.

Until around 2006, Putin sought to establish close ties with the Atlantic alliance, finally moving away from what by then had been clear to him was a hopeless quest. In Europe, Germany, France and the UK wanted to keep Russia out of the EU or NATO, worried that its entry would end their dominant influence over the EU. In the case of the US, the worry was that a Russia rejuvenated by the synergy generated through close ties with the rest of Europe and with the US could end up as being a more significant player on the international stage as the US was. From that time onwards, President Putin understood the EU and NATO to be inherently biased towards the containment of Russia, which indeed had been the policy followed since 1992 by the Clinton administration.

The Putin Doctrine became clear in 2008, when the Russian armed forces seized control of those parts of Georgia that were Russian-speaking. In 2014, the forced resignation of Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovich as President of Ukraine and his replacement by a Ukrainian nationalist aka Russophobe resulted in the Crimea being retaken by Russia after it had been handed to Ukraine during the time when the Soviet Union was still a reality. It needs to be mentioned that for three decades Ukrainians rather than Russians were General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the most powerful office in the country. Earlier, Stalin was of course not a Russian but came from Georgia.

The Russian military was also used to ensure that the two major Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine were detached from the country and converted into protectorates of Moscow on the lines of what had taken place in Georgia six years before. From that time onwards, efforts by the US intensified so as to encourage regime change in the Kremlin, so that Putin would be replaced with a pliable President of the Russian Federation in the Yeltsin mold.

In 2019, Putin had expected the newly elected President of Ukraine Voldymyr Zelensky to be cognizant of the need to maintain close ties with Russia rather than a troubled relationship. Instead, Zelensky cast his lot with the Russophobes, and signed on to their plan of retaking the Crimea as well as the carved-out states of Lugansk and the Donbass. The calculation in Kiev was that President Putin would not go to war over this reconquest of Ukrainian territory, out of fear of retaliation from NATO. That assumption proved mistaken.

The reaction from Putin was to launch a war against Ukraine on 24 February 2022, a few days after having signed a Sino-Russian “limitless” friendship treaty with Xi Jinping. Given that it was China and not Russia that had become the principal threat to US primacy, the expectation in the Kremlin was most probably that NATO would confine itself to a few token gestures, especially in view of the fact that while Ukraine was of immense strategic significance to Russia, it was only of marginal importance to France and Germany, the key European voices within NATO.

Who would have believed that a descendant of Irish immigrants fleeing Ireland as a consequence of repression by the English would turn out to be an Anglophile who would put Nirad C Chaudhury to shame. Joe Biden reacted as though it were still the 20th century, and when the USSR was still around. The White House diverted attention away from Asia and the Indo-Pacific back to Europe, and launched what from the start was a war designed to annihilate both Vladimir Putin politically as well as the future of the Russian Federation. This campaign was conducted through a proxy, Ukraine, the leadership of which still seems unaware of the way they are being used as cannon fodder by NATO in its effort to weaken Russia and in the process, overthrow Putin.

Had Zelensky the knowledge of strategic realities to appreciate that Ukraine would be the loser in any causation of tension and conflict with Russia, he could most probably have worked out an agreement whereby the territorial status quo (with minor adjustments)  that prevailed until February 24, 2022 was formalised. While making sense in a purely Ukrainian perspective, such a move would have caused dismay in NATO, which saw in a war between Ukraine and Russia a means of weakening the latter so that it ceased to pose a significant kinetic or other challenge to the Atlantic alliance.

In all this, the reality of the Russian Federation being a nuclear weapons superpower seems to have been dismissed as irrelevant, so deep rooted has been the conviction that such weapons would never be used by Russia unless there was a land invasion of that country by NATO. Given that there were no such plans, why Ukraine displaced the Indo-Pacific as the area of concern for the White House remains obscure. Unless the hypothesis be accepted that Biden is in the Clinton mold, so that the US is seen as a part of Europe separated by the Atlantic Ocean from the rest of the continent. Whether it be Biden himself, or key associates such as National Secretary Advisor Jake Sullivan or Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, they are as Europeanist as the Clintons and Biden.

Among the key influencers of the policy of diverting attention away from the Indo-Pacific and China to Russia and Ukraine was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who correctly saw a war in which NATO was involved as being the ideal diversion from talk of the wine and cheese parties at 10 Downing Street during the 2020 lockdown. Forgotten is that lapse by Johnson in the dust and damage of the war in Ukraine. Given Biden’s inherent focus on Europe, it would not have taken long for Boris Johnson to convince Joe Biden to go full tilt in directly waging a financial and asymmetric war on the Russian Federation and a kinetic war through Ukraine.

Given the dislocation caused by the serial sanctions on Russia, the collateral damage in the form of economic and social costs of a prolonged conflict must have been obvious. Carried along by the enthusiasm of Biden and Johnson for a confrontation with Russia, German Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron must have joined the duo in calculating that the war would be over in six weeks at the most, with the Russian army in retreat and the Russian economy in a state of meltdown. Unfortunately for the rest of the world (barring Russia), such a calculation has been shown to be spectacularly inaccurate.

Unlike the Serbians, Saddam, Ghaddafi and the Taliban, all of whom folded in months, Russia under Putin shows no sign of slackening pace even as the fourth month of the war approaches. Perhaps the nuclear and other weapons in Putin’s armoury explain this, downplayed and disregarded although these may have been by the strategic wizards who have landed the world in this soup.

Given the public anger that the impact of sanctions on Russia will cause to citizens of Germany, France, the UK and others once winter arrives, it is likely that a war that ought never to have been fought in the first place (and which could have been avoided had Ukraine clarified that it would not join NATO, and that alliance made explicit from the start that Ukraine would not be admitted), and which has frayed ties between Washington and several potential partner countries located in the Indo-Pacific. The manner in which President Biden has sought to advance the European project of inserting NATO into the Indo-Pacific as the security provider has cast doubts on his sincerity in confronting the China threat, even in Taiwan. The weak US response to efforts at locating a base in the Solomon Islands has done nothing to quell such doubts.

Should Biden continue even in the Tokyo Quad meet in the missionary zeal shown by him of making partners in Asia regard the Ukraine war as anything other than what it is, a European conflict, he would be making the same error as George W Bush did when he prematurely switched attention away from Afghanistan to Iraq, thereby entering the path that ended on August 15, 2021 with the US surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban. This time around, the eventual victor of such a misstep by Biden could be China in its ongoing quest to dominate the South China Sea.

The Quad meeting at Tokyo will show whether President Biden can adjust his strategic sights from a fixation on 20th century concepts and realities to a 21st century framework. The Quad needs to be reset with four principles rather than just four members. These are full membership only to (1) powers located in the Indo-Pacific (2) those clear on the need to prevent a hegemonic power from dominating the Info-Pacific (3) countries that are functional democracies and (4) which have or are in the process of developing close people-to-people contact with each other. The Quad could then be expanded to include Indonesia and the Philippines as full members and Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Oman as associate members. Countries in other parts of the world such as Europe could be invited to join some of the deliberations as Special Invitees.

Such a reset is needed, and President Biden and Prime Minister Modi need to work together to ensure such an outcome, together with Prime Ministers Albanese and Kishida. The world will be watching the Tokyo meeting of the Quad to check whether President Biden can overcome his fixation on European issues, where the Indo-Pacific is concerned.


Professor Madhav Das Nalapat is Director, Department of Geopolitics & International Relations at Manipal University, India.


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