Nepal Politics, Past, Present, and Future

Published in the Hindu on December 29, 2022

The general elections in Nepal held in November passed off peacefully but prospects for a stable government remain elusive. Neither of the two electoral coalitions managed to secure a clear majority. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ who had broken up with United Marxist- Leninist (UML) in 2020 and joined the Nepali Congress (NC)-led coalition, once again switched to the UML. On Christmas day, he was appointed Prime Minister for the third time. To demonstrate his majority within 30 days, Prachanda will have to satisfy the demands of UML and six other political parties with widely diverging agendas.

With 89 seats in a House of 275, NC had emerged as the largest party. It had an opportunity to form both the federal and six of the seven provincial governments with its coalition partners but missed the bus, thanks to the NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba’s ego (he is 76 and after five stints, remains convinced of his destiny to be PM six times) and poor advice. Yet, thirty days is a long time in Nepal’s politics and Prachanda may again realise too late that he had been manipulated by UML leader K P Oli.

A messy transition

Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to a republic began in 2008. In fifteen years, Nepal has had three NC Prime Ministers (G. P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Mr. Deuba twice), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachanda twice and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime Ministers (Madhav Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal and Mr. Oli twice), and a Chief Justice as caretaker PM in 2013. In such a fluid environment, political horse trading has been rampant.

Following the adoption of the new constitution in 2015, elections were held in 2017. Then too, Prachanda was in a coalition government with the NC but a month before the elections, switched to form an electoral alliance with the UML. He soon realised that he was relegated to being the junior partner with 53 seats compared to UML’s 121. Mr. Oli assumed the post of PM in 2018 and despite promising Prachanda, never ceded control of the merged Nepal Communist Party.

Mr. Oli’s authoritarian traits soon antagonised some of his senior colleagues, Madhav Nepal, Jhala Nath Khanal, and Bhim Rawal who made common cause with Prachanda. However, Mr. Oli had a clear run till early 2020 because under the constitution, a no-confidence-motion cannot be entertained for the first two years. By summer of 2020, intra-party rumblings came to the fore, creating a showdown by the end of the year. Fortunately for Prachanda, a Supreme Court judgement in early 2021, annulled the merger of Maoists with the UML, enabling Prachanda to claim his party back.

As Mr. Oli realised that he was losing his majority, he tried to retrieve the situation by recommending dissolution of the House. President Bidya Devi Bhandari has been Mr. Oli’s close comrade since she entered active politics after the untimely demise of her husband Madan Bhandari, a charismatic UML leader, in a car accident in 1993. Mr. Oli had taken on the role of her political mentor and in 2018, backed her elevation to the presidency. She reciprocated the favour by ignoring constitutional propriety and approving dubious ordinances that were repeatedly struck down by the Supreme Court.

Maoists under Prachanda and the dissident group of the UML led by Madhav Nepal eventually jumped ship and backed the NC Sher Bahadur Deuba’s appointment as PM in July last year. The three coalition partners had fought the elections as an alliance but Mr. Oli succeeded in splitting the alliance by weaning away Prachanda, who by his own admission, admits to being easily tempted.

Election results of 2022

The 2008 elections saw the emergence of two new political actors, Maoists who had come overground after waging a decade long insurgency and Madhesis who spearheaded the call for federalism. Over the years, they have lost their ideological moorings and have aligned with whichever group forms the government. From being the single largest party in 2008 with nearly 40% seats in the first Constituent Assembly, Maoists are today reduced to 11%; the Madhesis have come down from 15% to 10%.

The 2022 elections have seen new political actors emerge. Rashtriya Swantantra Party (RSP), a creation of Rabi Lamichhane, a popular TV talk show host, became the platform for the millennial Nepalis, especially the diaspora. They were disenchanted with the self-serving leaders of the NC, the UML and the Maoist parties. However, the RSP MPs are a diverse group who campaigned on their individual platforms and with their own resources.

Similar disenchantment with the Madhesi parties led to the emergence of the Janmat party, led by C K Raut, a former supporter of Madhesi secessionism, and Nagarik Unmukti Party set up by a Tharu leader Resham Chaudhury who is behind bars but his wife Ranjeeta Shrestha campaigned successfully in his name. RSP, Janmat and NUP managed to win 20, 6 and 3 seats respectively.

This fragmentation of votes has led to a lot of ‘floaters’ who can switch allegiances, just as Prachanda has done. Upendra Yadav (Janata Samajbadi Party) was in talks with the NC when it appeared that it would form the government but shifted back to the UML-Maoist group. The pro-monarchy pro-Hindutva Rashtriya Prajatantra Party supporting the secular Communist alliance reflects the opportunism in Nepali politics!

Prachanda may think that he has a secure two-year term but with barely 32 seats (UML has 78), it is clear that Mr. Oli will call the shots. He will ensure his own candidate as the president once Smt Bhandari’s term ends in March 2023. In the provinces, Maoists will be lucky to get one chief ministership.

India’s role

It is at times of political instability that Nepali politicians start looking for the convenient scapegoat of ‘foreign interference’. India was conspicuously missing during the election campaign and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to congratulate Mr. Prachanda on his appointment. Post-2018, China had played a major role in bringing about a UML-Maoist alliance but failed to keep it intact. Senior Maoist leader Barshaman Pun was in China was medical treatment recently and reportedly played a role in the new UML-Maoist rapprochement.

In recent years, India has retrieved lost ground in Nepal by focusing on project implementation. Since 2022, the Jayanagar-Bardibas railway started with India providing technical support. In 2019, the long awaited Motihari-Amlekhgunj oil pipeline was inaugurated. Power generation in Nepal has picked up. The agreement to export 364 MW signed in June has yielded export earnings of $60 million in 2022. According to Nepal Electricity Authority, the figure could quadruple in 2023 with the 900 MW Arun 3 becoming operational.

Yet there are some issues that need to be resolved. Foremost is the demonetised Indian currency issue, pending since 2016. Talks between the two central banks need a political nudge. The second is the recruitment for the Gurkha regiments, held up since the launch of the Agnipath scheme. As PM Modi declared during his last visit, the relationship needs “equality, mutual trust, respect and benefit” to sustain it, irrespective of who resides in Baluwatar.

*****

The Old But Relevant Script of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published in the Hindu on October 28, 2022

“Tell me how it ends”, is the common refrain of generals and leaders when in the middle of a war. The Ukraine war is no exception. Neither President Volodymir Zelensky or his Western partners, nor his Russian adversary, President Vladimir Putin, can predict how the war will end.

Earlier assumptions have been upended – Russia’s short ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify and de-militarise’ Ukraine is already a nine-month-war, and likely to extend into 2023; trans-Atlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) unity under U.S. leadership despite visible internal differences hasn’t collapsed; President Zelensky’s emergence as a wartime leader is surprising; and, poor Russian military planning and performance, a shock. For the present, Russia is too strong to lose and Ukraine, despite NATO support, too weak to win; so, the war grinds on with no ceasefire in sight.

Yet, there is one outcome that must be prevented – a breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and a global conscience has sustained the nuclear taboo for over 75 years. None of the three principals in Ukraine would want the taboo breached. However, escalation creates its own dynamic.

Lessons from Cuba

It is time to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis that brought the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon in October 1962, as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. On October 16, 1962, U.S. President John F Kennedy was informed that the U.S.S.R. was preparing to deploy medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. After deliberating with his core group of advisers, President Kennedy rejected the idea of an invasion or a nuclear strike against Moscow, and on October 22, declared a naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba. Simultaneously, he authorised his brother Robert Kennedy to open a back-channel with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. 

The crisis defused on October 28; based on assurances conveyed through the back-channel, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev announced that Soviet nuclear missiles and aircraft would be withdrawn in view of U.S. assurances to respect Cuba’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What was kept a secret by both leaders was the fact that reciprocally, the U.S. also agreed to withdraw the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Yet, there were plenty of unforeseen events. On October 27, a U.S. surveillance flight strayed over Cuban airspace and was targeted by Soviet air defence forces who were deployed. Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down, the only casualty. This happened despite Kennedy having counselled desisting from provocative surveillance and Khrushchev not having authorised the engagement. Both sides kept the news under wraps till the crisis defused when Major Anderson’s sacrifice was recognised and honoured.

A day earlier, a Soviet nuclear armed submarine B-59 found itself trapped by U.S. depth charges, off Cuban waters. The U.S. was unaware that the submarine was nuclear armed and Captain Valentin Savitsky did not know that a quarantine was in operation. He decided to go down fighting but his decision to launch a nuclear bomb was vetoed by Captain Vassily Arkhipov. The Soviets followed a two-person-authorisation-rule and unknown to Kennedy and Khrushchev, a potential Armageddon was averted.

The most shocking revelation emerged decades later when the U.S. learnt that unbeknownst to them, over 150 warheads for FKR-1 Meteor missile, short range FROG missile, and gravity bombs were already present in in Cuba. These were intended for defence in case U.S. launched a repeat of the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s opposition, Premier Khrushchev insisted on withdrawing these too, conscious that these could provide the spark for a future escalation.

The key lesson learnt was that the two nuclear superpowers should steer clear of any direct confrontation even as their rivalry played out in other regions, thereby keeping it below the nuclear threshold. Deterrence theorists called it ‘the stability-instability-paradox’. With their assured-second-strike-capability guaranteeing mutually-assured-destruction, both U.S. and U.S.S.R were obliged to limit the instability to proxy wars. Nuclear war games over decades remained unable to address the challenge of keeping a nuclear war limited once a nuclear weapon was introduced in battle.

Russia’s nuclear signalling

The Ukraine war is testing the old lessons of nuclear deterrence.  Russia sees itself at war, not with non-nuclear Ukraine, but with a nuclear armed NATO. President Putin has therefore engaged in repeated nuclear signalling – from being personally present in mid-February at large scale exercises involving ‘strategic forces’ to placing nuclear forces on ‘special combat alert’ on February 27.

He raised the stakes again on September 21 when he ordered a ‘partial mobilisation’, announced referendums in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, accused the West of engaging in nuclear blackmail and warned that Russia has ‘more modern weapons’ and ‘will certainly make use of all weapon systems available; this is not a bluff’. He cited U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as a precedent.

In recent days, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has spoken to his counterparts in a number of countries including defence Minister Rajnath Singh that Ukraine may be preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’. India’s response was that any use of such weapons would be against “the basic tenets of humanity”.

However, Russian nuclear use makes little operational sense. In 1945, Japan was on the verge of surrender and only the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons. Use of a tactical nuclear weapon will only strengthen Ukrainian national resolve; NATO response is unlikely to be nuclear but will be sharp. International political backlash would be significant and Mr. Putin may find himself increasingly isolated. Many countries in East and Central Asia may will reconsider nuclear weapons as a security necessity.

Role for global diplomacy

During the next few weeks, the fighting in Ukraine will intensify, before winter sets in and the weather freezes military operations till spring. This raises the risks for escalation and miscalculations. Right now, the goal of a ceasefire seems too distant, though eminently desirable. The United Nations appears paralysed given the involvement of permanent members of the Security Council. Therefore, it is for other global leaders who have access and influence, to convince President Putin that nuclear escalation would be a disastrous move.

Indonesia is the G-20 chair and President Joko Widodo will be hosting the summit meeting next month. India is the incoming chair; Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending the summit. Both Indonesia and India have refrained from condemning Russia, keeping communication channels open. In a bilateral meeting with President Putin in Samarkand last month, PM Modi emphasised that “now is not the era of war”. In the run-up to the G-20 summit, President Widodo and PM Modi are well placed to take a diplomatic initiative to persuade President Putin to step away from the nuclear rhetoric. This means emphasising the deterrent role of nuclear weapons and not expanding it; to reiterating Russia’s official declaratory position that restricts nuclear use for “an existential threat”.

Such a statement would help reduce growing fears of escalation and may also provide a channel for communication and open the door for a dialogue that can lead to a ceasefire. The lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis remain valid 60 years later.

*****

The NPT is Beginning to Look Shaky

Published in The Hindu on September 3, 2022

The Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded last week in New York. Marking 52 years of a treaty that every speaker described as the ‘cornerstone of the global nuclear order’ – it was originally planned for its 50th year for 2020, but the conference was delayed due to COVID-19 – it should have been a celebratory occasion, yet, the mood was sombre. And after four weeks of debate and discussion, the delegates failed to agree on a final document.

NPT’s success and weakness

To manage the disappointment, some staunch believers claimed that the success should not be defined in terms of a consensus outcome! It is true that since 1970, when the NPT entered into force, only four of the 10 review conferences (in 1975, 1985, 2000 and 2010) have concluded with a consensus document, the review years were 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2022. Ironically, even the critical 1995 Review Conference that decided to extend the NPT into perpetuity, broke down weeks later over the review process.

However, there was one key difference in 2022. In the past, the divergences were over Iran, Israel, the Middle East or between the nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. The three depositary states (the United States, the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R./Russia) were always on the same page. The difference in 2022 was that it pitched Russia against the West; it was the inability to find language to address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March, that ultimately led to the failure.

The NPT was negotiated during the 1960s to reconcile three competing objectives – controlling the further spread of nuclear weapons beyond the P-5 countries (the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the U.K, France and China) that had already tested; committing to negotiating reductions of nuclear arsenals leading to their elimination; and sharing benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. The first was strongly supported by the nuclear-haves; the latter two were demands made by the nuclear have-nots.

Over the years, the non-proliferation objective has been achieved in large measure. Despite apprehensions that by 1980s, there would be close to 25 nuclear powers, in the last 50 years, only four more countries have gone on to test and develop nuclear arsenals – India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan (South Africa developed nuclear weapons but the apartheid regime destroyed them and joined NPT in 1991 before relinquishing power to majority rule). After the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, non-proliferation remained a shared priority for the major powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency, set up originally to promote international co-operation became better known as the non-proliferation watchdog.

Progress on the other two aspects took a back seat; no meaningful discussions or negotiations on nuclear disarmament have ever taken place in the NPT framework. In fact, in the early 1980s, there was a growth in nuclear arsenals. Arms control talks between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R./Russia did take place and the two countries did succeed in bringing down their collective arsenals from a high of nearly 65000 in the early 1980s to less than 12000 warheads. But this process too has ground to a halt.

The first signal was the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 on the grounds that it unduly constrained its missile defence activities. Limits imposed by the ABM Treaty had been a critical element in creating mutual vulnerability as a means of underwriting deterrence stability. It was unipolar world with the U.S. as the dominant power. Russia gradually responded by embarking on its nuclear modernisation.

In 2019, the U.S. notified Russia of its decision to quit the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that had obliged both countries to get rid of all ground launched missiles with a range of 500-5500 kms. The U.S. blamed Russia for cheating on its obligations and pointed out that China’s missile developments created new security threats that needed to be addressed. U.S. was now facing two strategic rivals.

The only surviving arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S. is the New START Treaty that imposes a ceiling on operational strategic nuclear weapons of 700 launchers and 1550 warheads each. It expires in 2026 and there are no signs of any follow-on discussions.

Attempts by the Donald Trump administration to invite China to join in the arms control process were rejected. Given growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, any prospects for such talks have only receded.

All that the five nuclear-weapon-states party to the NPT could manage at the Conference was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but clearly sounded hollow in the face of growing strategic rivalry between China, Russia and the U.S, rising nuclear rhetoric and modernisation plans for nuclear arsenals being pursued.

Nuclear modernisation

While the Joe Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is awaited, the U.S.’s 30-year nuclear modernisation programme, intended to provide ‘credible deterrence against regional aggression’ is already underway. This has been used to justify developing and deploying more usable low-yield nuclear weapons.

Russia (and China too) is developing hypersonic delivery systems that evade missile defences as well as larger missiles that do not need to travel over the Arctic. Also on the cards are nuclear torpedoes and new cruise missiles. Last year, satellite imagery over China revealed at least three new missile storage sites being developed. Analysts suggest that China may be on track to expand its arsenal from current levels of approx. 350 warheads to over a thousand by 2030. Such a dramatic expansion raises questions about whether this marks a shift in Chinese nuclear doctrine that has relied on a credible minimum deterrent and a no-first-use policy for the last six decades.

 Developments in space and cyber domains are blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons lead to nuclear entanglement and render command and control systems vulnerable. This, in turn, compresses decision making time and creates incentives for early use, raising nuclear risk.

At the Conference, France, the U.K. and the U.S. wanted to draw a distinction between “irresponsible” nuclear threats of an offensive nature and “responsible” nuclear threats for defensive purposes but Russia (and China) stymied Western efforts. When the nuclear have-nots suggested a universal condemnation of all threats of nuclear use, all five nuclear-haves joined together to resist such moves. This reflects an emerging divide.

Other treaties, their state

Frustrated by the absence of progress on nuclear disarmament, the nuclear have-nots successfully negotiated a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, also called Ban Treaty) in 2017 that entered into force in January 2021. All 86 signatories are nuclear have-nots and parties to the NPT. The TPNW creates a new legal instrument and at their meeting in June in Vienna, the TPNW states committed to pushing for ‘stigmatising and de-legitimising’ nuclear weapons, condemning all nuclear threats and ‘building a robust global peremptory norm against them’. Expectedly, the nuclear-haves and their allies ignored the Vienna meeting but will find it increasingly difficult to overlook this political reality as more and more NPT colleagues call their bluff.  

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 but has yet to formally enter into force because two major powers, U.S. and China, have yet to ratify it. While it is true that they do observe a moratorium on nuclear testing, but the modernisation plans could soon run up against the CTBT.

Nobody wants a breakdown of the NPT but sustaining it requires facing up to today’s political realities. The rivalries in a multipolar nuclear world create new challenges, different from what the world faced in a bipolar era of the 1960s when the NPT was concluded. Without addressing the new challenges, the NPT will weaken and with it, the taboo against nuclear weapons that has held since 1945.

*****

NPT RevCon Ends in Failure

Global Memo Contribution for Council of Councils (CFR) published on 30 August, 2022

To mitigate the disappointment of failing to adopt a consensus final document, some die-hard believers were quick to claim that success need not be defined in terms of a Final Document. However, the hard reality is that growing differences among the major powers (the United States, Russia and China) and between the five nuclear-weapons states and the non-nuclear states, are making the strains within the NPT increasingly visible.

The final straw was inability to find language that could address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March. However, even had this obstacle been overcome, other warning signs were numerous, and fifty-two years after entering into force, the compromises inherent in the fabric of the NPT need to be revisited. The NPT was originally packaged as a balance of non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear science and energy, and, over the years, only the non-proliferation element has become stronger.

Political leadership was absent at the RevCon. All the nuclear-weapons states could manage was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but sounded hollow in the face of rising nuclear rhetoric and the continued pursuit by major powers of modernisation plans for their nuclear arsenals.

The U.S.-Russia bilateral arms control process is just holding, but the New START Treaty expires in 2026 and prospects for follow-on negotiations are bleak. China has studiously refrained from engaging in any arms control talks with the United States, and that was before tensions between the two reached a new high given the recent Taiwan Straits crisis.

An uncomfortable political reality among the four nuclear-weapons-states outside the NPT – India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan – is also palpable. How to work with these countries to achieve the NPT’s nuclear disarmament obligations remains a thorny issue.

When the NPT was negotiated in the 1960s, nuclear science and technology was still in its infancy. Today, neither the science not the associated technology is as remote or esoteric. New developments in space and cyber technologies, missile defences, development of hypersonic delivery systems and conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) capabilities are generating new complexities and blurring the dividing line between nuclear and conventional use on a battlefield. None of these issues was adequately addressed at the RevCon.

Unless the NPT states face these realities and generate the political will needed, the frailties of the NPT will take their inevitable toll.

*****

Ending the Ukraine War in an Imperfect World

Published in the Hindu on July 8, 2022

The war in Ukraine has been underway for over four months. What began as a European conflict has had global repercussions. Of course, Ukraine and its people have borne the maximum brunt. More than five million Ukrainians have left the country and over eight million are internally displaced. Rising casualties and large-scale destruction have set back the country by decades. Recent estimates for rebuilding the destroyed cities and infrastructure are as high as $750 billion.

During 2020-21, most economies that could afford to, provided generous financial support to its citizens in the form of direct payments and subsidised food to tide over the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chains suffered disruptions, aggravated by politics. Economic recovery has generated demand creating inflationary pressures. Today, inflation rates are rising across the world and in the largest economies have reached levels not seen since the early 1980s. As these countries tighten money supply, fears of recession loom large. The war in Ukraine has aggravated the situation for the poorer countries by creating food and fertiliser shortages. The sharp surge in energy prices threatens the prospects of economic recovery. Prospects of collective global action to deal with these challenges appear remote, given growing tensions among major powers.  

And so, the war grinds on, with no end in sight.

The inevitable conflict

It is a fact that Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 in gross violation of the United Nations Charter and international law; it is equally true that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is not an innocent bystander. In 2022, Russia is the guilty one but NATO’s folly was to forget that the cost of its expansion goes up as it gets closer to the Russian border. Its strategic error was in concluding that Russia was in terminal decline and adopting an ‘open door’ policy.

By 2005, 11 former East European and Baltic states had joined NATO. Addressing the Munich Security Conference in 2007, President Vladimir Putin described NATO’s decision of moving eastwards and deploying forces closer to Russian borders, “a serious provocation”. The warning was ignored. At the NATO summit in early 2008, the U.S. pushed for opening membership for Ukraine and Georgia. France and Germany, sensitive to Russian concerns, successfully blocked a time-frame for implementation. As a compromise, it was the worst of both worlds. It convinced Russia of NATO’s hostility and dangled prospects for Georgia and Ukraine that NATO couldn’t fulfil.  

Later that year, Russia intervened in Georgia on the grounds of protecting the Russian minorities, taking over the neighbouring provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, following the Euromaidan protests in Kiev against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russia separatists, assisted by Russian mercenaries, created autonomous regions in eastern Ukraine. The fuse, lit in 2008, was now smouldering.  

Post-2014, NATO continued to strengthen its relationship with Ukraine by providing it training and equipment, formalising it in 2020 by making Ukraine a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner. British and U.S. warships’ presence in the Black Sea began to increase. In 2019, U.K. entered into a cooperation agreement with Ukraine to develop two new naval ports, Ochakiv on the Black Sea and Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, a move that Russia saw as potentially threatening. The die was cast.

Liberalism trumps realism

Neither side wanted war. NATO members insist that Ukraine would not be joining NATO but remains unable to walk back from its 2008 statement. This would be seen as ‘appeasement’. In diplomacy, appeasement had long been accepted as an honourable route to ensuring peace, practiced by the British since the mid-nineteenth century in its dealings with European powers and especially the U.S. as it sought to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Neville Chamberlain too used appeasement to negotiate “peace in our times” in 1938 but Winston Churchill employed it to pillory him and the term never regained respectability thereafter.

An equivalent term surfaced – sensitivity for each other’s core interests -practised during the Cold War to prevent the U.S. and USSR from getting into conflict. With the end of the Cold War, this became history. The liberal school, having vanquished the Marxist school of thought, was now convinced of the righteousness of its cause. If only the rest of the world could be made to see reason, democracy would flourish, free markets ensure prosperity and a Western led rule-based order prevail. The triumph of liberalism led the neo-con believers towards interventionism (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Colour Revolutions, Syria); others, attracted by the prospects of Chinese and Russian markets, deluded themselves that economic growth would lead to political openings.

The realist school of thought cautioned against military interventions backed by a one-size-fits-all democratic prescription and the risks of excessive economic dependence on China but these voices were dismissed. Many U.S. scholars and strategic thinkers cautioned against NATO enlargement, warning that Russia may be weak but it would be reckless to ignore its security interests; they were charged with ‘appeasement’. Liberalism was upholding ‘moral values’; amoral realism was easy to reject as immoral.

French President Emmanuel Macron talked in February of the Finlandisation model as an option for Ukraine. Austrian neutrality imposed by US, USSR, UK and France in 1955, enshrined in its constitution was mentioned. But these solutions had found acceptance in a war weary Europe when politics was frozen by the Cold War. Finland had accepted limited sovereignty and just two presidents guided it – Urho Kekkonen (1956-82) and Mauno Koivisto (1982-94) and both also served as prime-ministers before assuming the presidency. In 2022, such stability is impossible with power politics in flux, rivalries sharpening and populism on the upswing.

In early March, in an interview to Russian media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that Ukraine was not pressing for NATO membership but wanted neutrality to be guaranteed; he even talked of autonomy for Donbas as a compromise and a period of ten years for talks on Crimea. But that interview was soon forgotten.

How wars end

Wars often develop their own momentum and the Ukraine war is no exception. Russia possibly anticipated a short, sharp conflict, a collapse of the Kiev regime (perhaps similar to what happened in Kabul last August), and lack of NATO cohesion. It has had to readjust its aims as it has settled down to a long and brutal war. The G-7, European Union (EU) and NATO have displayed unusual cohesion and Ukrainians have shown exemplary grit and motivation. Russia is in a bind. Even its limited war aims of controlling Donbas and the Black Sea coast have been a slog. Finland and Sweden joining NATO will squeeze it further in the Baltic Sea. Ukraine’s ability to fight depends on how long western funds and military hardware keep flowing.

In a moral world, there is a right and wrong and Russia should be held to account. But in the real world, other factors come into play. A blame game or establishing the root cause will not help end the crisis. Eventually, talks will need to take place, between Ukraine and Russia and with NATO and U.S. playing an outsize role behind the scenes. This means acknowledging Russia’s security interests in its neighbourhood.

The problem is that the war is now being cast in binaries – a battle between freedom and tyranny, between democracy and autocracy, a choice between rule-based order and brute force. This makes compromise difficult. And Russia cannot be defeated unless NATO wants to engage in a full-scale war.

The longer the war continues, the greater the suffering for the Ukrainians. The more territory Ukraine loses, the weaker will be its bargaining position at the table. And the longer the war continues, the greater the risk of an inadvertent escalation. History tells us that when faced with choices, major powers have a propensity to double down. The nuclear taboo has held since 1945; sane voices need to ensure that it is not breached. The sooner the war ceases, the better for Ukrainians, Russians and the world. It is an imperfect world but we don’t have another.

*****