Crimea Tilts Power Equations
The consequences of Vlamidir Putin’s ‘land-grab’ are likely to reverberate for some time. Not even traditional friends and anti-Western compatriots like New Delhi and Beijing are entirely comfortable with Putin’s initiative.
India’s default option – to side with neither side in the dispute – might be understandable because on the one hand India does not want unilateral referendums to become an international norm considering its own position in Kashmir but on the other hand New Delhi’s natural political instinct is not to side with the West against anybody, especially a traditional friend like Russia.
But New Delhi also needs to include in the calculus the importance of its relationship with Washington as well as consider who is better equipped to help India deal with its long-term security concerns rather than let emotion guide policy.
Russian actions are clearly short-sighted. While it might have good reasons to be peeved at the developments in Kiev, where the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee, Putin’s actions will only further scare its smaller neighbours deeper into the Western embrace.
Ukraine had been debating, on and off, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but Ukrainians had been lukewarm to the idea – until now. Other neighbours, all the way from the Baltic through Central Europe to Central Asia, will now worry about how to manage Russia.
Moscow can complain all it wants about the eastern expansion of NATO but its own actions are a key driver of this expansion.
Russian actions have also demonstrated the hollowness of American power – or more accurately, Washington’s willingness to use its power.
How President Obama deals with this crisis will be watched closely, especially in Asia. Asian states such as Japan, Vietnam and others will worry about what American pusillanimity would mean for them because, like Ukraine, they face a giant next to them and they look to the US to help right that imbalance.
If Obama is seen as undependable, China’s smaller neighbours could decide that they will be better off making a deal with Beijing or, alternatively, pursuing riskier options such as building nuclear weapons which would reduce their dependence on foreign protectors.
The problem is not Obama’s reaction to the Crimean case – where American options are limited – but what appears to be a driving desire to avoid confrontations even at the cost of abandoning allies.
The excesses of the Bush administration have now been replaced by the fecklessness of the Obama administration. From the Iran nuclear issue to Syria to the Asian ‘pivot’, the Obama administration has shown that it lacks much conviction about its own global role.
Obama came to power convinced that it was American aggressiveness under the previous administration that was the source of most of the problems Washington faced around the world. While some American actions under the Bush administration were definitely unhelpful, the expectation that America stepping back from its global role would end its tensions with other major powers was asinine.
The key to the tension between Washington and other powers particularly Russia and China is at least partly the consequence of internal dynamics within Russia and China such as the hyper-nationalism that seems to be driving their policy as well as their perception of the changing power balance between themselves and the US. So it should come as little surprise that relation between Washington on the one hand and Moscow and Beijing on the other have actually deteriorated under Obama.
The consequence of this deterioration is not so much about the threat of direct confrontation, which is highly unlikely, but about what it does to the global order. Much of that order is based on a broad consensus between these great powers, whether it is the international trading system or the global security architecture.
The impact of the tensions between these key players can already be seen in the flagging state of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, with Russia and China essentially defending Iran and North Korea from international pressures. Continued tensions could threaten these fragile regimes even more, with the Iran nuclear talks becoming a casualty.
A hundred years ago, in 1914, great power politics had become such a tinderbox that all it took was one assassination to set off the First World War. While we are nowhere near those levels of tensions today, we should be concerned that the great power consensus that defined the post-Cold War world appears to be disintegrating.