The NATO summit in Newport, Wales on September 4 and 5 highlighted the hardened position the grouping has taken against Russia and firm measures planned against the Islamic State. As the rift between the West and Russia widens and West Asia burns, the implications of NATO’s imminent drawdown from Afghanistan are of immediate concern to India. NATO gave no indication of a rethink on its exit schedule from Afghanistan which faces political turmoil. The uncertainty is a matter of concern to India given the recent threats issued by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman-al-Zawahiri.
Q. What were the most significant takeaways from the NATO summit?
Ambassador Neelam Deo: It became clear that NATO regards its conflict with Russia, over Ukraine, as the most significant challenge to the post-Cold War order, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989. The second most important issue of concern is the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in West Asia in the violent manifestation of the Islamic State.
The most significant from the Indian perspective is that there was no indication that NATO is reviewing, if not revising, its exit schedule from Afghanistan – which is splitting along ethnic lines. The uncertainty regarding the presidential elections in Afghanistan is of major concern to India, particularly in light of the threats recently issued to spread jihad across India by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Q. How does NATO plan to confront the Islamic State (IS)?
ND: At the Wales summit, Obama sought to build a coalition to tackle IS and in his policy address on September 10, he called for its mobilisation. Ten West Asian countries including Saudi Arabia have signed on. The air strikes on IS positions in Iraq are to be extended to Syria and will temporarily halt the advance of the group. But, the biggest threat perceived by NATO countries is the potential violence that fighters returning from Iraq and Syria could unleash on their own countries. Hundreds of Americans, British and French fighters are part of the estimated 1,000 to 3,000 IS jihadists from NATO members. This is also a concern for India, 100 of whose citizens are believed to have joined the IS and pose the same risk to India.
Q. How does the Ukraine crisis factor into NATO’s agenda?
ND: Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO has reinvented itself repeatedly. The violence accompanying the break-up of Yugoslavia during the late 1980s and early ‘90s became the basis for its “out-of-area” operations.
Since then, NATO has formed partnerships like the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and the Mediterranean Dialogue with non-member countries. NATO’s new purpose is in confronting Moscow despite some progress made in the Partnership for Peace with Russia, and Ukraine and Russia both being members of the EAPC.
In Wales, NATO announced its post-Afghanistan mandate to be the maintenance of the post-Cold War order with a new doctrine — the 4,000 troops-strong rapid response force to be stationed, provocatively close to the border of Russia. In addition, it has called on its 28 members to begin increasing their defence budgets. At present, only the U.S., UK, Estonia and Greece spend 2% or more of their GDP on defence. NATO’s belligerence and fresh sanctions came despite Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and anti-Kiev rebel groups agreeing on a ceasefire that although fragile, still holds.
Q. What are the implications of the Ukraine crisis for Russia and the West?
ND: The standoff has quite different implications for the U.S. and the European members of NATO. The existential undertones in the American rhetoric on the sanctity of the post-Cold War order in Europe betray the anxieties of a power that feels in relative decline, but is keen to maintain its leadership.
The European members are divided on an East-West axis. The concerns of the eastern and newer members such as Poland flow understandably out of their unhappy experiences within the Soviet Union, and the much longer troubled history with Russia. Although they are dependent on Russian gas and oil, their immediate fears transcend their energy concerns. The concerns of West Europeans, on the other hand, are related to their energy dependence on Russian gas and the market it offers to their automobile and consumer goods industry. This is evident in the earlier, more reticent, positions that Germany, Italy and France took on sanctions against Russia.
Western sanctions have pushed Moscow closer to Beijing, especially in the energy sector. Moreover, Russia has instituted retaliatory sanctions, but they have little bite in the much larger American and European economies. As the standoff grows more acrimonious, it takes on the characteristics of another Cold War. Now Ukraine is the battlefield for the sort of proxy wars that were fought between the West and the Soviet Union in Africa and Asia during that period.
For India, this new Cold War poses major dilemmas. The U.S. and Russia are both India’s strategic partners and two largest sources of defence imports. India’s energy security may also be imperiled, despite the U.S. considering the export of shale gas to India and Russia beginning to discuss building a $40 billion gas pipeline to India. At the same time, India cannot afford to jeopardise its economic relations with NATO countries or Russia, considering they are India’s largest markets.
Ambassador Neelam Deo is Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Realtions.
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