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.


NPT’s Midlife Crisis

Published by the Valdai Discussion Club on April 8, 2022


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.


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.


Putin’s Moves Are Hardly ‘Chess Thumping’

Published in the Hindu on February 26, 2022

Diplomacy has retreated as the smouldering Ukraine crisis took a decisive turn this week.  On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched “special military operations” with the objective of “demilitarising Ukraine” but not “occupying” it. Just days prior to this, Russia had upped the ante by recognising the sovereignty of Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, two of Ukraine’s eastern-most provinces and deploying Russian peace-keeping forces in these territories. A meeting between United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stands cancelled and the prospects of a summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Mr. Putin evaporated into thin air.

The Russian actions have been strongly condemned and sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Japan. After 1945, this is the second time that national boundaries are being redrawn by force; the first was the 1999 NATO air strikes on Serbian forces that led to the creation of Kosovo. Russian and Chinese protests about NATO undertaking “out of area operations” without UN Security Council approval carried little weight.

A crisis in the making

In the post-Cold War world that promised a rule-based liberal international order, clearly the message from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars still held – “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

In 2022, Russia has fired the first shot but NATO is not blameless either. The Ukrainian crisis has been in the making for over a decade. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in end-1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was meeting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in February 1990 to help ease the way for German unification. He assured Gorbachev that NATO understood the “need for assurances to the countries in the East”, adding that even with Germany a part of NATO, “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction one inch to the east”.

By end-1991, USSR had broken up into 15 countries; Gorbachev faded into history and a change in the White House was under way. Rather than look for a new European security framework, the newly independent Baltic and central European states sought security in a U.S.-led NATO. The old caution that the cost of expansion goes up as it reaches closer to the Russian border was discarded and NATO adopted an ‘open door’ policy.

Beginning in 1999, NATO has added 14 new members in stages. At the NATO summit in 2008, at U.S. President George Bush’s urging, an in-principle opening for Ukraine and Georgia was announced though France and Germany, conscious of Russian concerns, successfully opposed defining a time frame. It was a bad compromise and the damage was done.

Later that year, Russia intervened in Georgia on the grounds of protecting the Russian minorities and took over the northern provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, following the Euromaidan protests against the pro-Russian President Yanukovich, Putin annexed Crimea. For Russia, Crimea is vital as the peninsula hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet providing it access to the Mediterranean and its bases at Latakia and Tartus in Syria. At the same time, pro-Russia separatists, assisted by Russian mercenaries, created autonomous regions in the Donbas region.

Despite no timeline for membership, Ukraine was made a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner in 2020. 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.

Clearly, Mr. Putin’s grievances – beginning with NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and colour revolutions to engineer regime changes, U.S.’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 coupled with missile defence deployments in Poland and Romania that Russia perceived as offensive, were accumulating.

Faltering Euro-diplomacy

France and Germany initiated talks between Ukraine and Russia under the Normandy format leading to the Minsk agreements, in 2014 and 2015. The first was for a ceasefire between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists and the second was between Ukraine, Russia, the two separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Supportive declarations by France and Germany were intended to address Russian security concerns. Ukraine undertook to introduce certain constitutional amendments to provide a degree of autonomy to the two provinces and Russia was to assist in withdrawal of all foreign forces. However, neither side implemented and positions have only hardened since.

In the intense diplomacy during the last six weeks, particularly the back-to-back visits by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Schulz to Moscow and Kiev, there was talk of reviving the Normandy format. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not in a mood to oblige with over 150000 Russian troops poised on his border and Mr. Putin was looking for his own face saver. Mr. Macron has a difficult re-election coming up in April and Chancellor Schulz had already been criticised for being soft on Russia because of energy dependency.

Mr. Biden faces a critical mid-term election in November that could see the Senate shift to Republican control and had already faced considerable flak for the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. His aim was to ensure trans-Atlantic unity in NATO. Russian threatening moves made NATO members, especially the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and the central Europeans like Poland and Romania, especially nervous. Finally, NATO remained united but unable to provide an off-ramps solution.

Putin’s chess gambit

With a military force of 200000 and an equal number of reserves, prudence dictates that Mr. Putin would not want to take over Ukraine. However, the separatist groups that currently control only part of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk would want to extend their territory beyond the current Line of Contact dividing the separatists and the Ukrainian forces.

Along the Black Sea coast, Russia could seek to extend a coastal corridor to the Crimean Peninsula. This would cement its hold on the Sea of Azov, giving it control over Mariupol and Berdyansk and restrict Ukraine to Odessa in the west.

Ideally, President Putin would have liked to bring about a regime change in Kiev but that seems unlikely now. Domestic troubles in Belarus have made President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, dependent on Russian support. Both countries announced that the 35000 Russian soldiers, in Belarus for joint exercises that concluded on February 20, would stay on for ‘training cooperation and inspections’. Russian military presence in Belarus puts pressure on the 65-mile long Suwalki corridor that constitutes the boundary between Lithuania and Poland and more importantly, separates Belarus from Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea that hosts its Baltic fleet.

President Putin may claim victory in the near term but in the long term, he has overreached himself. NATO has been rejuvenated, the trans-Atlantic unity strengthened and Russia’s economic ties with Europe have been adversely impacted. Given Russia’s considerable foreign exchange reserves of nearly $640 billion, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU may not hurt immediately but eventually will begin to bite, both the oligarchs and the common people. Worse, Russia will become more dependent on China, for political support as well as a market for its energy exports. This will eventually weaken its hand in central Asia.

Russians have been the greatest chess players and President Putin knows that a move on the chess board will close certain options while opening up others. The challenge is to constrain the adversary’s options while increasing one’s own options and space for manoeuvre. His actions this week may yield tactical gains but hardly pass the test for strategic victory.


Putin is Forcing a Third Reordering of Europe

Published in Hindustan Times on February 9, 2022

2022 has begun on an ominous note with apprehensions of a war breaking out in the heart of Europe. The immediate provocation is the presence of at least 100,000 Russian soldiers engaged in ostensible winter exercises on the border of Ukraine and another 35,000 in Belarus. January witnessed frenetic diplomacy between the leaders of Russia, the United States (US), France, the United Kingdom (UK); meetings of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), European Union (EU) and the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); and yet, tensions run high.

What is at stake is not only Ukraine but also the redrawing of Europe’s security map. The first reordering in the 20th century was in 1945, the result of an enormously destructive World War II. The United Nations was created. Respecting territorial boundaries of sovereign states and non-interference in internal affairs became the bedrock for preventing wars in Europe.

However, it was a bipolar world with two hegemons, the US and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Europe was divided. The Soviet Union-led military alliance (Warsaw Pact) dominated Eastern Bloc while West Europe came under NATO and US’ extended nuclear umbrella. Germany was bifurcated into an FRG (West) and GDR (East) with NATO-Warsaw Pact dividing line passing through the heart of Berlin.

The second reordering of Europe was peaceful and triggered by the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by the unification of Germany, East European and Baltic states coming out the Soviet shadow and finally, the break-up of USSR into Russia and 14 other independent countries in end-1991. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved. However, in Putin’s Russia, there is growing resentment that the second reordering exploited a weakened Russia. Convinced that the Western objective is to keep Russia down, President Putin is attempting a third reordering of Europe and Ukraine is the catalyst that has triggered the crisis. At its heart lies the question: Has the West reneged on its promise not to expand NATO?

In 1989, NATO consisted of 16 countries. After the Berlin Wall came down, US Secretary of State James Baker met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990, urging him to let East Germany go. Gorbachev declared that an eastward expansion of NATO was unacceptable. Baker suggested that in return for letting East Germany go, NATO’s military jurisdiction would not be expanded eastwards, an assurance reiterated by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl the following day.

Months later, on September 12, 1990, the two Germanys and the four occupying powers of Berlin – France, the UK, the USA and the USSR signed the 2+4 agreement that no foreign forces or nuclear weapons would be stationed in Berlin or East Germany. This agreement cleared the way for German unification on October 3 and Germany has adhered to it.

During following months, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in East Europe, and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the Baltics raised independent flags one after another. By December-1991, even Ukraine and Belarus had exited the Soviet embrace.

Russia became the successor state under President Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev faded into history. Unable to forget the heavy yoke of the USSR, the newly independent states now wanted the West to guarantee their sovereignty against future Russian interventions.

During early 1990s, US remained conscious of the Baker-Gorbachev understanding. President Bill Clinton famously stated that the US would not draw a new line in Europe. He initiated a Partnership for Peace programme for all former Warsaw Pact countries. Even Russia joined and in 1997, a NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.

Two years later, flush with victory in the Balkans with NATO now undertaking “out of area operations”, Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic were admitted to NATO, followed by seven more erstwhile Soviet bloc members in 2004 during George Bush years and two each during Obama and Trump periods, taking NATO membership to 30. The cautionary principle that had guided President Bush and his Secretary of State Baker that “the cost of expansion goes up as NATO moves closer to Russia” was forgotten in the intoxicating hubris of the US’ unipolar moment.  

The first warning signs came over a decade ago. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, President Putin raised the issue of security guarantees from the US and NATO. However, the 2008 NATO Summit Declaration opened the doors for Georgia and Ukraine. Months later, citing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s actions in South Ossetia as a grave provocation, Russia intervened and took over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In 2013, protests against the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich led to the Russian annexation of Crimean Peninsula in 2014; here, Sevastopol hosts the Russian Black Sea naval fleet, providing it access to the Mediterranean Sea and Russian bases at Latakia and Tartus in Syria.

The fact is that Ukraine is not just any other East European nation; it has been part of Russia for over 600 years and last July, Mr. Putin authored an article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, drawing very clear red lines.

Neither the US nor Russia wants a conflict. Europe is struggling for economic recovery. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing domestic challenges, French President Emmanuel Macron has a difficult re-election in April and German Chancellor Olaf Schulz is yet to make his presence felt.  The frenetic diplomacy is proof that all key players are seeking a way out.

Putin has succeeded in focussing Western attention and laid down a set of demands for security guarantees from both the US and NATO. But he has also rejuvenated NATO. A reordering of the European security map is underway; the diplomatic challenge is to achieve it without a destructive war.