Putin's India visit strengthens ties

The end of the cold war made non-alignment redundant. But a new cold war is creating room for India to reinvent it.

Who knows, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have added non-alignment to his bow in the conduct of foreign affairs. He stood firm by the side of President Vladimir Putin at a time when Washington has all but given notice that it seeks regime change in Moscow.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tweeted as much. “We have a strategic partnership that is incomparable in content.” Having said this after his talks with Putin, what turn of phrase will Modi employ during President Barack Obama’s visit on January 26? “Even if India’s options have increased, Russia remains our most important defence partner.”

Deals in oil exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, defence and diamond could exceed $100 billion. Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam have all measured up to Modi’s emphasis on economic diplomacy. Will the US too? The end of the cold war had rendered non-alignment redundant. But a new and imminent cold war is creating room for India to reinvent it.

Among the earliest to warn the US against targeting Moscow was the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. His advise was to keep a steady focus on “radical Islam”. In fact, in this enterprise the West needed Russian cooperation. The incentive for Russia to join this coalition were its own anxieties about Islamic radicalism in the Caucasus, Blair said.

Last month, the Jewish-Saudi lobby in Washington was worried that the November 24 deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran might actually be met. Secretary of State John Kerry was advised to stay his hand in Vienna. A technically feasible agreement was thus politically postponed.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who had captured the world’s imagination after his impressive debut at the UN General Assembly in September, has today lashed out against “Muslim treachery”. There was also a hint of a western conspiracy to damage Russian and Iranian economies by bringing down oil prices.

It is strange that Washington and Riyadh should be jointly interested in keeping the price of oil below $70 because plummeting price of US shale oil would hold back investments in this new sector. Indeed, shale production is expensive business and many new investors may simply shut shop.

Does the Saudi move have multiple targets? Shia Iran and Bashar al Assad’s backer, Russia, both make sense as plausible targets. But are they also up to something else? Would they like to delay US independence of West Asian oil by retarding the shale industry in, say, Texas?

Iran’s earlier moves in the West Asian chessboard were guided by extreme caution because the nuclear deal was in the balance. Freed of that consideration for the time being, Iran is taking a more robust interest in dealing with the ISIS threat to Iraq.

In June, Obama explained his delayed response to the IS in a strange way: IS pressure on Baghdad was essential to ease Nouri al-Maliki out of the Prime Ministership. Was IS a force at his command? Even after the change of guard in Baghdad, differences persisted with the US approach. Complaint from Najaf was that the US was not holding IS back from its advance towards Baghdad. The IS men had moved into Iraqi villages on motor cycles. After planting their flag, they had moved
on, inviting air attacks on targets the US had no idea about. These, it turns out, were IS targets.

Ground intelligence
In early stages of their Afghan operations in 2001-02, US had been likewise lured to attack bogus targets, sometimes becoming unintentional parties in local, tribal conflicts.

US military has been arguing that Iraqi Shia militias should not attack IS positions before the US air force is in possession of ground intelligence. But Baghdad believes Militia operations against the Islamic State have created a sense of security in the Shia south.

The IS is, by most accounts, a double edged sword. It has Salafi and Baath mutated-to-Sunni forces focused on the Shia enemy. Its even more virile Muslim Brotherhood forces are a nightmare to the Saudis at the other end of the spectrum. If they are thwarted in their purposes in Iraq, they could well turn their attention elsewhere and appeal to theBrother’s extensive support base inside Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

This is complicated. To add to the West’s headaches, Putin has shut down the South Stream pipeline to Europe and has struck a bold new deal with Turkey. Modi is in the midst of foreign affairs at a time when the world is in the grip of dizzying change.

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