Russian occupation of Crimea is a catalyst that will impact the drift of international relations and security in the 21st Century. The unfolding scenario is most likely to eclipse 9/11 and the international military operations that followed. Whereas 9/11 gave a time jump for  the pursuance of US policies in the world, Crimea is a historic event that rolls back the events in the context of conventional strategic balance. In the post-cold war era, it is the first time that a country rather than non-state actors have challenged provocative US designs.

Some analysts feel that the eastward expansion of NATO into the underbelly of Russia was always a violation of the understanding that existed between Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR and George Bush Sr. of the US. However, it made it possible for the US and Islamic militants sponsored from the Middle East and Pakistan to repeatedly tickle the Russian underbelly deep inside Eurasia and irk China. The APEC arc coordinated with the consolidation of the Southern Front was a full spectrum strategy of dominance.

This backfired in Crimea. The latest spring in Ukraine led by fascists and dons was too much to absorb silently and the approach of the anti-Russian camp precipitated the event with suicidal daring. Russia, like a sidewinder hidden in the sands, was looking for the right moment to strike. According to Michael Hirsh, “The US and Russia have both crossed a Rubicon in the Ukraine crisis, and Washington must now confront the likelihood that if the standoff continues, it will dramatically alter relations on a much larger map than Eastern Europe, inviting Russian recalcitrance in crisis zones as far afield as East Asia, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.” A new Cold War has possibly begun. This sums up the paradigm of what I call ‘the devil’s triangle.’

Seizing the moment, President Putin of Russia has checkmated the international incursions of a unipolar world. The US has retaliated with the most severe post-Cold War sanctions and the EU will follow. If events continue to shape up the way they are, other areas of the world locked in strategic flux will also heat up and expand the two way contest for power projection. The Middle East and AFPAK are most likely to be sucked into this conflict. This will create a very hot triangle where great powers will contest dominance with horrid intensity. Historically, all three zones that combine to create the triangle have always been subject to conflict, exchange of hands, pliant regimes and bloodshed.

For the past 1,500 years, Crimea has exchanged hands between Bulgars, Greeks, Scythians, Romans, Goths, Huns, Khazars, Kievan Rus’, the Byzantines, Rome, Kipchaks, the Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, USSR, Germany, Ukraine, and now perhaps, the Russian Federation. Dominating the Black sea, Crimea is a melting pot of diverse cultures, conflicting schools of political thought, Eastern, Christian and Ottoman influences. Stability has remained temporary through outside interference. Crimea cannot exist in a vacuum.

Throughout ancient and recent history, the Middle East has been a centre of world affairs in strategic, economic, political, cultural, and religious dimensions. It has also remained susceptible to invasions and occupations. Even during the rule of Muslim Caliphates, the area had split into various caliphates reflecting a political exploitation of religion. The Arab-Persian rivalry is historic. American strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan introduced the term Middle East at the time when British and Russian Empires were eyeing Central Asia (in what was called the Great Game). He theorised that, besides the Suez Canal, it was important to control the Persian Gulf to prevent the Russians advancing to India. For the past century, the British and Americans have controlled this region through pliant despotic regimes and Israel.

It is in the context of this strategic calculus, that Pakistan is proximate to the Middle East and not South Asia. Pakistan played its role in the Cold War and Soviet invasions of Afghanistan. With Mackinder and Mahan theories regaining currency, Pakistan will be expected to play the role it is assigned once again. Given Pakistan’s political culture, economic woes and linkages with the Pentagon, a refusal seems unlikely.

But there are smaller super powers with petrodollars and kingdoms that need Pakistan too. These minions, in order to hedge their interests within the Persian-Arab rivalry, will operate within the dotted lines and pursue their petty interests within the larger context. Consequently, Pakistan could once again become the focus of international rivalry and cross currents and the spill over of a Sunni-Shia conflict.

Arab countries under the influence of Saudi Arabia and with informal ties with Israel seem to realise that luring Pakistan into their strategic framework could resolve multiple problems and distance the US from its growing entente with Iran. Two events make their argument stronger. First, the rising Russian and Iranian influence in Syria and secondly, the Russian handling of the Crimea situation.

Modelled on the Cold War pattern, Saudi Arabia and its allies are working overtime to create a credible framework they plan to present when President Obama visits Riyadh this month. This plan will be a quid pro quo for a sustainable US sponsored Palestinian peace accord with Israel that would make eastern Jerusalem the new capital of Palestine. Saudi Arabia calculates that a pro Saudi regime in Egypt, friendly Israel-Palestine and stationing of Pakistani forces in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and adjoined areas would boost internal security and deter Iran. In addition, the plan to bring down Asaad’s Regime in Syria could be intensified. Pakistan’s experience of employing non state actors; albeit export of politically franchised terrorism to Syria and other trouble spots will be crucial to this framework.

If achieved, Saudi Arabia would be in a position to clip the Qatari wings and checkmate the growing Iranian (Shia) influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other areas of Middle East. At the same time, the plan will appease US ears having suffered the Crimea indignity. In addition, it would draw away Pakistan from neighbouring Iran and extend Saudi interests in Afghanistan and beyond to Muslim regions in Russia (Muslim Tartars, Chechens etc.).  

Pakistan’s political and military establishments have never learnt the art of state craft to build a nation state. Yet, Pakistani establishment has displayed remarkable cunning to exploit its space in great power rivalry and survive. It is this adaptable learning curve and the instincts to survive therein that shall decide the role Pakistan plays in the devil’s triangle. If it does, it will be an action replay of the follies of the past. The legacy of Bakshoo, the errand boy of dirty work is most likely to survive in the name of pragmatisms and political opportunism.

The writer is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a political economist and a television anchorperson.