Macron’s Re-election, A Victory With Challenges

Published in the Hindu on April 27, 2022

Last Sunday, French voters gave President Emmanuel Macron his second term and Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief. Though Mr. Macron scored a convincing victory over far-right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen, his victory margin diminished compared to the 2017 run-off, from 66% to 58.5%, while Ms. Le Pen improved her score from 34% to 41.5%, reflecting the changing character of French politics. Nevertheless, given that only two popularly elected presidents have won second terms (Francois Mitterand in 1988 and Jacques Chirac in 2002), Mr. Macron has reason to feel chuffed. European Union leaders, facing twin challenges of the Russian war in Ukraine and a tepid recovery from COVID-19, have enthusiastically welcomed Mr. Macron’s victory given Ms Le Pen overt Euroscepticism.

A changing politics

France’s two-step voting process means that in the first round, voters express their real preferences; in the second round, with the field narrowed to two, they reject the one they dislike more.

At the beginning of the campaign in February, there were a dozen candidates but by end-March, most were fizzling out. The first round, held on April 10, showed the decimation of the two traditional parties that have ruled France since the 1960s, the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialists. Republican candidate Valerie Pecresse, had been part of Mr. Chirac’s team and also Higher Education minister with Mr. Nicholas Sarkozy, managed a 4.8% vote share while Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2016, got a mere 1.7%. From the days of Socialist presidents like Mitterand and Hollande, and Republican presidents like Sarkozy, Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, this was a rout.

These two parties have been losing ground, from a collective 56% of the vote in the first round in 2012, to 27% in 2017 when Mr. Macron emerged on the scene and captured the imagination of voters as a pro-Europe, business friendly, forward looking liberal. In 2017, this enabled him to redefine the Centrist vote, successfully poaching from both the Republican and Socialist bases.

Five years later, Mr. Macron had a record to defend and counter the image of being a pro-rich, aloof and elitist president. His response to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests lacked empathy. Ms. Le Pen capitalised on this by seeking to appear more human and approachable, a single mother and a cat lover.

A rough campaign

In the first round on April 10, Mr. Macron led with 27.8%, followed by Ms. Le Pen with 23.1% and left-wing populist Jean Luc Melenchon (France Unbowed) with a credible 21.9%. Extreme-right-wing journalist turned candidate Eric Zemmour whose presence helped Ms. Le Pen appear relatively moderate also got 7% vote. Other mainstream candidates Jean Lasalle, formerly MoDem (Democratic Movement) and Yannick Jadot (Greens) only managed 3.1% and 4.6% respectively. The fact that far-right and far-left parties accounted for 58% of the vote in the first round reflects the growing polarisation in domestic French politics. Centre-left voters switched from Ms. Hidalgo and Mr. Jadot (Greens) to Melenchon and centre-right from Ms. Pecresse to Mr. Macron.

The slow rightward drift in French politics has sharpened since the terrorist attacks in 2015 and the consequent debates on identity and laicite (French version of secularism) emerged as key themes in the early weeks till the Ukraine war and rising cost of living assumed priority.

Mr. Zemmour’s campaign exploited the ‘great replacement’ theory, (originally propounded by Renault Camus) – that non-white, non-Christian and non-French are gradually replacing white Christian French population. Mr. Zemmour grew his base by asking young French people if they were willing to live as a minority in the land of their ancestors. Ms. Le Pen, conscious of the need to retain her base lest they drifted to Zemmour, promised a ban on the hijab (headscarf) and a constitutional amendment that would distinguish between “native born French” and “others” for access to education, housing and other social benefits and restricting citizenship to only those who have “earned it and fully assimilated.”

Mr. Macron was late to join the campaign, thinking that he could ensure support by appearing presidential, involved with geopolitics of war in Ukraine. Since December when tensions began rising, he has had nearly two dozen telephone conversations with President Vladimir Putin, visited Moscow and Kyiv and had multiple exchanges with NATO and EU leaders. He filed his candidature on March 3, a day before the deadline and spent little time on the campaign trail before the first round. His poll ratings slipped from 30% in early March by five points leading to a strategy shift.

It is only in April that Mr. Macron realised that the “progressive liberal centrist” platform that had delivered victory in 2017 was no longer working. The field was dominated either by a utopian extremism of the Left or a nationalist extremism bordering on racism on the Right. Mr. Macron began to talk about building a ‘dam’ to preserve the Centre. To shift the debate from ‘identity’, he promised full employment in five years, tax cuts for households and small businesses and softened his stand on raising the retirement age from 62 years to 65, spreading it over a nine-year timeframe.

For the second round, the debate turned personal. Mr. Macron highlighted Ms. Le Pen’s ties with Mr. Putin, describing him as her ‘banker’, called her a ‘climate sceptic’, blamed her policy as ‘spelling the end of the EU’ and made the election a ‘referendum on secularism and Europe’. Ms. Le Pen blamed him for ignoring the rising cost of food and fuel and declining pensions, sought a ‘Europe of nations’ rather than an EU, called him ‘a climate hypocrite’, and the election a referendum on “Macron or France’.

The obstacles, from June

Having secured his second term, Mr. Macron urgently needs to douse the flames of polarisation. The 72% turnout on Sunday is the lowest in a presidential run-off since 1969. In addition, of the 34.5 million votes cast, the three million blanks or spoilt ballots reflect disenchantment with both candidates. Mr. Melenchon has declared that Macron’s presidency ‘is floating in a sea of abstentions and blank or null ballots’. Over a third of the voters didn’t vote for Mr. Macron and many left-leaning voters only did so because they hated the far-right Ms. Le Pen more.

National Assembly elections are due in June and if the Left take the Assembly, Melenchon could become prime minister; a prospect of co-habitation that ensures policy gridlock. In such a scenario, polarisation will only increase and Mr. Macron’s centrist experiment would be a short-lived reprieve from the rightward shift.

That is why at his victory speech at the foot of the Eiffel tower, Mr. Macron struck a conciliatory note, thanking those who helped defeat Ms. Le Pen and “promising to be a president for all.”

Relief in Europe, India

Such was the concern in Europe about the election that in an unprecedented move, Portugese and Spanish Prime Ministers Antonio Costa and Pedro Sanchez and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz co-authored an op-ed in Le Monde on April 21, urging French voters to reject Ms. Le Pen. The congratulatory messages pouring in from western capitals reflect relief as a Le Pen victory would have severely damaged western unity, at a critical moment in Europe.

India too has reason to be happy with Mr. Macron’s victory. India and France have enjoyed a solid strategic partnership, established in 1998 that has expanded to cover cooperation in defence, nuclear and space sectors, climate issues and renewables, cyber security and counter-terrorism. French presence in the Indo-Pacific has prodded the EU too to shift towards an Indo-Pacific strategy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be traveling to Germany and Denmark on a bilateral visit in the first week of May. It provides a welcome opportunity to spend a day in Paris to congratulate Mr. Macron and impart new momentum to the relationship.

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NPT’s Midlife Crisis

Published by the Valdai Discussion Club on April 8, 2022

(https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/npt-s-midlife-crisis/)

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had entered into force on March 5, 1970 and saw its fifty-year anniversary in 2020.  The 10th Review Conference (RevCon) was originally scheduled to take place in April-May 2020. However, COVID-19 intervened and after repeated postponements, it is now scheduled for August 1-26, 2022.

Today, the NPT is often described as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. It enjoys near-global adherence and all countries except four (India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined, and North Korea withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT. The original text of the NPT gave it a lifespan of 25 years and the 1995 RevCon extended it into perpetuity. Despite such an impressive record, there is a sense of disquiet that clouds the forthcoming RevCon and raises uncomfortable doubts about its future. The question is: will the NPT overcome its midlife crisis, or will it become a victim of its own success?

Accepting political reality

Since this is the age of virtual reality, in the Nuclear Metaverse, the mood among the believers is sanguine. Global nuclear stockpiles are at an all-time low. The two global nuclear superpowers, the USA and USSR that had accumulated over 65,000 nuclear weapons between them have reduced their arsenals to below 15,000 and the operational numbers are lower still. The NPT has been successful in preventing proliferation and only four countries have gone nuclear since it came into effect. The treaty enjoys widespread adherence. Most significantly, nuclear weapons have never been used since 1945, creating a de-facto if not a de-jure, nuclear taboo.

But in the real world driven by politics, the reality looks different. The reason is that the NPT is the product of a global political order that existed in the 1960s and that bipolar world is now history. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 had brought home the risks of global nuclear annihilation to the leaders of both the USA and the USSR.

At the bilateral level, it created a process of bilateral nuclear arms control, beginning with the Hot Line and leading to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and treaties like the SALT I and II, START I, INF, ABM etc. However, this structure is under strain. In 2002, USA unilaterally walked out of the ABM Treaty and in 2019, the INF Treaty collapsed. The old model of bilateral arms control was based on ‘nuclear parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’ and no longer holds in an age of multi-polarity marked by asymmetry.

The Cuban Missile Crisis also generated a convergence of interests between the two rival hegemons that nuclear proliferation should be strongly curbed. This helped kickstart the negotiations for the NPT. To make it attractive, it was initially conceived as a three-legged stool – non-proliferation (countries without nuclear weapons would have to forswear their right to acquire them and accept full scope safeguards); disarmament (obliging the five countries with nuclear weapons – USA, USSR, UK, France and China, to negotiate in good faith to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals though no time-frame was prescribed); and third, to ensure that non-nuclear weapon states would enjoy full access to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.  

Evaluating the NPT

On closer examination, it would appear that it is only on the non-proliferation front that the NPT was successful. In fact, during the first fifteen years of the NPT, the US and Soviet arsenals increased from below 40000 to nearly 70000, making it clear that a nuclear arms race was on. The subsequent reductions in the arsenals were driven by the political dynamics and not NPT-related compulsions, because no disarmament negotiations have ever taken place in the NPT framework.

Further, recently declassified papers reveal that there were over a dozen instances where the US and USSR came close to initiating a nuclear exchange, many of which were based on system errors or misperceptions about the intentions of the adversary. Today, with rising tensions and nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange remains high.

Even the nuclear taboo is under strain, because the major nuclear powers are pursuing research into developing more usable low-yield nuclear weapons. Ballistic missile defence, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, and growing offensive cyber capabilities that can interfere with command-and-control systems blur the dividing line between nuclear and conventional weapons and create incentives for early use.

Nuclear technology is a 75-year-old technology and while export controls have helped in curbing proliferation, new developments in computing and simulations, dual use systems, space and cyber capabilities increase risks of nuclear entanglement in ways that could not have been foreseen in the 1960s.

The NPT has therefore reached the limits of its success as far as the proliferation objective is concerned. However, its packaging as a balanced three-legged stool has been exposed to reveal a rather wobbly one-legged stool because it de-legitimised proliferation but not nuclear weapons. It recognised five nuclear-weapon states because they had tested a nuclear device before January 1, 1967, the cut-off date under the NPT who converted their special responsibility into an exclusive privilege to retain their nuclear arsenals permanently. 

Rediscovering political relevance

The clearest reflection of the growing political frustration among other countries was reflected in the in the humanitarian initiative spearheaded by a coalition of non-governmental organisations and civil society to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The negotiations were concluded in 2017 and in January 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force. Today, 86 countries are signatories, and of these, 60 have ratified their participation. All of these are non-nuclear weapon states, party to the NPT in good standing. The TPNW outlaws the development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, stationing, deployment, use, threat of use, transfer, or receipt of nuclear weapons. According to them, since nuclear weapons were the only weapon of mass destruction not subject to a comprehensive ban, despite their catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences, the TPNW plugs a significant gap in international law. Expectedly, all countries that possess nuclear weapons (and their allies) have refused to have anything to do with the TPNW, reflecting the growing political divisions.

If the NPT has to retain political relevance, it has to adapt to the changed political realities of the 21st century and acknowledge the advances made in nuclear science and technology. Merely repeating the tired cliches of the past is clearly not enough. A new political convergence of interests has to be built if the NPT has to successfully overcome its midlife crisis.

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Repairing The Complex India-Nepal Relationship

Published in the Hindu on April 7, 2021

Nepal Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, paid a long-awaited visit to India last week (April 1-3). Sworn in July 2021, this was his first bilateral visit, in keeping with tradition. The outcome might appear modest but what is significant is that both sides effectively managed to steer clear of divisive issues. At 75, Mr. Deuba is a political veteran and first became prime minister in 1995. In his fifth stint, he is no stranger to the complex relationship between the two countries.

Positive outcomes

Among the highlights was the operationalisation of the 35 km cross-border rail link from Jayanagar (Bihar) to Kurtha. Two further phases will extend it to Bijalpura and Bardibas. The Rs. 787 crore project had been ready for over a year but operationalisation was held up because of necessary administrative requirements in Nepal to set up a company that could recruit staff. The Konkan Railways Corporation will provide the necessary technical support, initially.

The second project that was inaugurated was the 90 km long 132 kV double circuit transmission line connecting Tila (Solukhumbu) to Mirchaiya (Siraha) close to the Indian border. Constructed with an Exim Bank concessional loan of Rs 200 crores, there are a dozen hydro-electric projects planned in the Solu corridor for which the Nepal Electricity Authority has concluded PPAs of 325 MW.

In addition, agreements providing technical cooperation in the railway sector, Nepal’s induction into the International Solar Alliance, and between Indian Oil and Nepal Oil on ensuring regular supplies of petroleum products were also signed.

The Mahakali Treaty, signed in 1996 during Mr. Deuba’s first visit as Prime Minister, covers Sarada and Tanakpur barrages as well as the 6700 MW (approximately) Pancheshwar Multipurpose project. Both sides have agreed to push for an early finalisation of the DPR. An ambitious $7 billion project, it needs political will to move it forward. The Joint Vision Statement on Power Sector Cooperation recognises the opportunities for joint development of power generation projects, together with cross border transmission linkages and coordination between the national grids; it can provide the momentum.

China’s growing role

On February 27, Mr. Deuba pushed through the ratification of the agreement with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), despite reservations of his coalition partners, the Maoists and the UML (Unified-Socialist). The agreement provides a grant of $500 million for building 318 kms of high voltage transmission lines along with sub-stations and maintenance of 300 kms of the East-West highway. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu had actively sought to sabotage the agreement by planting stories that it was part of the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China. The agreement had been signed in 2017, during Mr. Deuba’s fourth stint as prime minister and was awaiting ratification. Together with the Pancheshwar project, it provides a welcome synergy.

During the Monarchy, China maintained a link with the Palace and its concerns were primarily related to keeping tabs on the Tibetan refugee community. With the abolition of the monarchy, China has shifted attention to the political parties as also to institutions like the Army and Armed Police Force and considers Nepal an important element in its growing South Asian footprint.

In recent years, India’s relations with Nepal have had both ‘highs’ and ‘lows’. Prime Minister Modi has often spoken of the “neighbourhood first” policy. He started with a highly successful visit in August 2014 but then saw the relationship take a nosedive in 2015, with India first getting blamed for interfering in the constitution drafting process and then for an “unofficial blockade” that generated widespread resentment against India. It reinforced the notion that Nepali nationalism and anti-Indianism were two sides of the same coin that Mr. Deuba’s predecessor, Mr. K P Sharma Oli, exploited successfully.

In 2016, Mr. Oli visited Beijing to negotiate an Agreement on Transit and Transportation. Three years later, a Protocol was concluded with China providing access to four sea-ports and three land ports. The first ever visit of the Chinese Defence Minister took place in March 2017, followed by joint military exercises a month later. A military grant of $32 million was also announced.

China has overtaken India as the largest source of FDI and in 2019, President Xi Jinping visited Kathmandu. Annual development assistance was hiked to $120 million. Today, China is also engaged with airport expansion projects at Pokhara and Lumbini. Rather than compete with China, India needs to up its own game.

The growing Chinese presence means that India cannot afford to let issues linger but reach out actively to find resolution.

Managing differences

Over the years, a number of differences have emerged between the two countries that need attention. The political narrative has changed in both countries and these issues can no longer be brushed under the carpet or subsumed by invoking a ‘special relationship’ based on ties of a shared culture, language and religion. Part of the success of Mr. Deuba’s visit was that none of the differences were allowed to dominate the visit. Yet, to build upon the positive mood, it is necessary these issues be discussed, behind closed doors and at Track 2 and Track 1.5 channels.

As one of the oldest bonds, the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship was originally sought by the Nepali authorities in 1949 to continue the special links they had with British India. It provides for an open border and right to work for Nepali nationals in India.  However, it is today viewed as a sign of an unequal relationship, and an Indian imposition. The idea of revising and updating it has found mention in Joint Statements since the mid-1990s. It has been discussed sporadically, but in a desultory manner, by the Foreign Secretaries beginning in 1997 and even at the ministerial level at the 2014 Joint Commission.  

In 2016, an eight-member Eminent Persons Group was set up to discuss it. The report is available with both governments but a perception has been created in Kathmandu that it be formally presented to the two governments. As long as it is clearly understood that this only a report by well-intentioned experts in their individual capacity and not binding on governments, it should be possible for the two Foreign Ministers to acknowledge it publicly. It could even be made public to kickstart Track 2 conversations.

Demonetisation is another irritant. In November 2016, India withdrew Rs 15.44 trillion of high value (Rs. 1000 and Rs. 500) currency notes. Today, over Rs 15.3 trillion has been returned in the form of fresh currency. Yet, many Nepali nationals who were legally entitled to hold Rs 25000 of Indian currency (given that Nepali rupee is pegged to the Indian rupee) were left high and dry. The Nepal Rashtra Bank, which is the central bank, holds Rs. 7 crores and estimates of public holdings are Rs. 500 crores. After more than five years, it should certainly be possible to resolve this to mutual satisfaction.

On the boundaries

In 2019, Mr. Oli, facing domestic opposition within his party, needed a distraction and found one in the Kalapani boundary issue. These boundaries had been fixed in 1816 by the British, and India inherited the areas over which the British had exercised territorial control in 1947. While 98% of the India-Nepal boundary was demarcated, two areas, Susta and Kalapani had remained pending. In November 2019, India had issued new maps following the division of the State of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Though the new Indian map did not affect the India-Nepal boundary in any material way, Mr. Oli expanded the Kalapani area dispute. By whipping up nationalist sentiment, he got a new map of Nepal endorsed by the legislature through a constitutional amendment. While it did not alter the situation on the ground, it soured relations with India and added a new and emotive irritant.

The need today is to avoid rhetoric on territorial nationalism and lay the groundwork for a quiet dialogue where both sides display sensitivity as they explore what is feasible. India needs to be a sensitive and generous partner for the “neighbourhood first” policy to take root.  

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‘Bharat Natyam’ in Indian Diplomacy

Published in the Hindu on March 16. 2022

The late Jyotindra Nath Dixit (Mani Dixit to his many friends and admirers) took over as Foreign Secretary on December 1, 1991. He retired 26 months later, on January 31, 1994 – 58 years was then the retirement age.

Republics and Moscow

Those were times of change. On December 25, 1991, Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the flag of USSR was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin and the following day, USSR was formally dissolved. In its place, 15 republics emerged. India accepted the challenge and set about opening new embassies to build new relationships with these countries in Central Asia, South Caucasus and Central Europe while maintaining its traditional ties with Moscow.

In January 1992, India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, announcing the opening of embassies and exchanging ambassadors for the first time, opening the door to a relationship that has blossomed into one of India’s most significant strategic partnerships in the last three decades.

Path to the nuclear deal

On January 31, 1992, Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao participated in the first ever meeting of the UN Security Council at summit level (India was a member in 1991-92), presided by British Prime Minister John Major. On the side-lines, Mr. Rao had a bilateral meeting with U.S. President George H. W. Bush where the two leaders decided that in the changing world, India and the U.S. needed to have frank exchanges on issues that had divided them during the Cold War; the issue identified was ‘nuclear proliferation and disarmament’; the first meeting took place during Mr. Dixit’s visit to Washington two months later, sowing the seeds of the dialogue that continued through ups and downs, leading to the path-breaking India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on January 28, 1992, Prime Minister Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy began to take shape as India and ASEAN embarked on a sectoral-dialogue partnership. By end-1995, this had matured into a full-dialogue partnership and in 1996, India joined the security dialogue platform – ASEAN Regional Forum. Since 2002, the relationship has strengthened further with the annual India-ASEAN summit.

On China and Taiwan

Following intense negotiations, during Mr. Rao’s visit to China in September 1993, the two sides initiated the first of the many confidence-building-measures, notably the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. It laid the foundation of the relationship for two decades.

Simultaneously, India and Taiwan negotiated to open Economic and Cultural Centres; Taiwan opened its office first in Mumbai in 1992 before shifting to Delhi while Indian established the India-Taipei Association office in 1995.

The above gives an idea of how India was responding to the changes taking place around us and in the wider world. As a junior colleague who had the privilege of working closely with Mr. Dixit during these years, I often heard him engage patiently with foreign diplomats and respond to questions from inquisitive journalists seeking to make sense of the about-turns in Indian foreign policy.

Relaxing as he puffed on his pipe, in a private aside to his friends, he would tell us, “In Indian diplomacy, sometimes, you need to do a bit of Bharat Natyam”. The point was simple – you may appear in different forms to others but after you have first secured your interests.

UN vote dynamics

In recent weeks, the debates and discussions in Indian media and TV talk-shows about India’s stand on the Ukraine conflict and India’s votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly are an appropriate moment to reflect on the Dixit principle.

Evidently, the Indian government has chosen to ‘abstain’, based on an assessment of its core interests. However, there is a cardinal principle associated with Security Council votes on issues in such charged times. A ‘for’ or ‘against’ vote is intended to convey a blunt message of ‘support’ or ‘opposition’. It is a black or white choice, and once exercised, the messaging is clear.

On the other hand, ‘abstention’ takes us into a grey zone because it is the middle path. It can either be seen as fence-sitting (which is a sign of helplessness) or create space for diplomatic manoeuvre (which is a successful outcome). In the Ukraine instance – the West should feel satisfied that India ‘abstained’ because they perhaps expected us to oppose their draft proposals given our traditional ties with Russia while Russia should also feel satisfied at our ‘abstention’ because they perhaps expected us to give in to Western persuasion.

The second outcome is a positive one but to appear in different forms at the same time, we need to revive the kind of Bharat Natyam that Mr. Dixit used so effectively to navigate those turbulent times, even as he helped set the course for Indian foreign policy three decades ago.

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As Prospects of Arms Control Wane, The Rise of Nuclear Risks

Published in Hindustan Times on March 9, 2022

New uncertainties surround the outcome of war in Ukraine. Will President Vladimir Putin further tighten military pressure or accept assurances about Ukrainian neutrality? Will he settle for a corridor to the Crimean Peninsula or insist that Kiev falls?   

Whichever way the conflict ends, one outcome is clear – nuclear weapons are here to stay and any prospects for nuclear arms control and nuclear disarmament have receded further.  

In 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent sovereign republics, Russia became the successor state to the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). A key challenge was that in addition to Russia, three republics hosted Soviet nuclear weapons on their territory, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Ukraine had the largest nuclear infrastructure with missile factories and naval shipyards, with nearly 5000 warheads on its territory.

Semipalatinsk, the nuclear weapon testing site was in Kazakhstan. While the launch codes rested with the Russian leadership, there was significant nuclear expertise available among the local population.

The prospects of three new states claiming ownership of readymade nuclear arsenals and stockpiles of sizeable quantities of fissile material was a nightmare scenario for the both President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), concluded in the late 1960s, had originally been given a lifespan of 25 years and in 1995, a decision was due regarding its future.

The rub was that the NPT only recognised countries that had done a nuclear test before January 1, 1967 as nuclear weapon states, a definition that covered five countries – the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, China and Russia as the successor to the USSR) – that conveniently happened to be the permanent members of the UN Security Council, wielding veto power. Neither were these five willing to allow new countries in; nor did Russia and China like the idea of new nuclear neighbours.

A massive political and diplomatic effort was mounted, led by the US, with Russia and the Europeans adding their efforts, to get the three to voluntarily renounce nuclear ambitions, return the weapons to Russia and accede to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) audited the nuclear sites and facilities, closing down some and bringing others under permanent inspections, thereby certifying to their denuclearisation. While Belarus and Kazakhstan fell into line, in Ukraine the issue provoked an internal debate as it also produced the SS-24, a 3- stage solid fuel MIRVed ICBM with 10 warheads and a range of 10000 kms.

The combination of saam, daam, danda, bhed (by whatever means possible) eventually worked. At a conference in Budapest in December 1994, three identical Memorandum on Security Assurances were signed relating to the accession of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to the NPT and the three depositary states of the NPT, the US, the UK and Russia, provided security assurances in return. Similar assurances were also provided separately by France and China. These included respecting the independence and sovereignty, refraining from interference or any threat to use force and seeking UN Security Council action in case any of the three countries were subjected to any aggression.

In May 1995, the NPT was extended indefinitely and unconditionally.

In 2014, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the question of Russian violation of the Budapest Memorandum came up. Russia claimed that what had taken place in Crimea was a “revolution”; a referendum in Crimea had declared independence and voted to join Russia. Russia was not obliged to force people to stay in Ukraine against their will and further accused the US of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs by instigating the Euromaidan protests that led to the fall of the government. US legal experts pointed out that since it was a Memorandum and not a treaty, the obligations were declaratory in character.

Hardly surprising then that addressing the Munich Security Conference last month, Zelensky bemoaned the fact that Ukraine had given up its nuclear weapons in returns for security assurances that never materialised and wondered aloud if Ukraine should withdraw from the Budapest Memorandum.

Warning the NATO to stay out of the Ukraine conflict, Putin warned of “never encountered consequences” and days later, on February 27, announced that “the deterrence forces had been put into a special mode of combat service”. His spokesman explained that this was a reaction to deter any possible confrontation between NATO and Russian troops. Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling has been condemned in Europe and US called it “unacceptable escalation”.

Putin is hardly the first to engage in such theatrics. In 2017, US President Donald Trump warned North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and North Korea responded by calling Trump “a dotard” threatening to hit Guam “enveloping it in fire”. Later, Trump described Kim Jong-un as “the rocket man on a suicide mission for himself and his regime” while North Korea “vowed to tame the mentally deranged US dotard with Fire”.

Interestingly, on February 27, former Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe voiced the idea of Japan hosting US nuclear weapons, something that has been taboo in view of Japan’s three “Nos”: No development, No possession, and No introduction of nuclear weapons on its territory. The reason was a possible conflict of China over Taiwan. Though PM Fumio Kishida dismissed the idea, China reacted strongly blaming Japanese militarism and slamming such notions.

Growing nuclear rhetoric, together with new nuclear doctrines defining new roles for nuclear weapons are being explored by the major nuclear powers; however, other technologically capable countries are observing and will draw their own conclusions.

With receding prospects for arms control, nuclear risks in the 21st century are inexorably rising.

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