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.

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The Nuclear Taboo is Key to Preventing Collapse of the Nuclear Order

(APLN, July 7, 2022)

The nuclear scenario today appears confusing. On one hand, the nuclear taboo has held, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a near universal treaty, and nuclear weapon stockpiles are a fourth of what they were at the height of the Cold War, and yet, on the other hand, there is a perception that nuclear risks are higher than before.

At such moments, it may be useful to return to the basic principles, the realisations that helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order more than seven decades ago.

The first realisation from the successful Trinity test conducted by the US on 16 July 1945, was the immense destructive capacity of the new weapon. Witnessing the mushroom cloud, Robert Oppenheimer – one of the bomb’s inventors – pondered a line from the Bhagvad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of the worlds”. One month later, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings reinforced the gravity of those words.

The second realisation was the worry that other countries too could now go down this path. In 1946, this led to the Baruch Plan (authored by Bernard Baruch) that envisaged transferring control to an international body so that there would not be any national arsenals. However, there were internal differences within the United States and Soviet Union did not trust it.

Once the USSR exploded its nuclear bomb in 1949, the Baruch Plan died a natural death. Even as the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on their nuclear arms race, they found convergence in the notion that nuclear materials and knowhow must be restricted. Non-proliferation became a shared objective leading to the NPT in 1968.  

The third realisation was the imperative to manage nuclear risks. It was driven home in 1962 when both US and Soviet leaders realised how close they had come to a nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It led to establishing fail safe communications, hotlines and nuclear risk reduction measures together with arms control.

Reconciling these three realisations helped lay the foundations of the nuclear order, shaped by the political dynamics of the Cold War. In a bipolar world, there was one nuclear dyad, the US-Soviet dyad, and deterrence was a two-player game. Strategic stability was reduced to nuclear stability and nuclear arms control was the answer. It kept the allies in check and reassured the third-world countries that the two nuclear superpowers were ‘responsible’.

Arms control and the nuclear taboo

Nuclear arms control revolved around the notions of ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’ because US and Soviet arsenals were based on similar triads. The ABM Treaty (1972) limited missile defences thereby guaranteeing mutual vulnerability. Meanwhile, strategic planners and negotiators worked on numerical limits for strategic launchers and warheads leading to Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I and II, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I and II and New START in 2010. Together with unilateral initiatives undertaken after the break-up of the Soviet Union, these arms control measures helped draw down the US and Russian arsenals by over eighty percent, from nearly 65,000 in early 1980s to less than 12,000 today. The other seven nuclear-armed countries between them possess another 1,300 warheads.

Non-proliferation grew as a norm as the NPT got extended indefinitely and unconditionally in 1995. It has come to enjoy near universal adherence with only four countries outside it – India, Israel and Pakistan (that never signed) and North Korea (that withdrew). It has therefore reached the limits of its success since all four are nuclear-armed states.

Most important, the nuclear taboo has not been breached, despite some close shaves.

Today, this nuclear order, consisting of the ‘taboo’, arms control and non-proliferation is under strain. The ‘taboo’ is only normative, arms control is fraying and the NPT, a victim of its success.

Fundamentally, the political order has changed. Deterrence is no longer a two-player game; there are multiple nuclear dyads (United States-Russia, United States-China, India-China, India-Pakistan, United States-North Korea) and these are linked together in loose chains. Instead of parity, it is an age of asymmetry, both in terms of doctrines and arsenals.

Without ‘parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’, arms control needs to be redefined. Meanwhile, there is growing mistrust that prevents meaningful dialogue among major powers to define new areas of convergence.

The NPT delegitimised proliferation but not nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons research and development has continued and most nuclear powers are modernising and expanding their arsenals. Today, nuclear science and technology is a mature eighty-year-old technology. Terms like ‘threshold states’, ‘lead times’ and ‘break out’ did not exist when the NPT was negotiated. The political challenges inherent in the NPT surface every five years at the Review Conferences, especially since 1995.

Finally, technology doesn’t stand still. Developments in missile defence, cyber and space, dual use systems like hypersonics and conventional precision global strike capabilities have blurred the firebreak between conventional and nuclear weapons. This has created nuclear entanglement and in the absence of transparency and guard rails, raises the risks of use: advertent, inadvertent, accidental or on account of misjudgement. With the emergence of global terrorism, new threats have emerged highlighting the importance of nuclear security.

The collapsing nuclear order

The conflict in Ukraine has sharpened the growing nuclear risks. Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in repeated nuclear rhetoric, placing the Russian arsenal on ‘special alert’, and later warning of ‘unpredictable consequences’.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bemoaned the fact that had Ukraine not signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, voluntarily relinquishing the nuclear weapons on its territory, Russia would not have invaded. Such statements have raised the salience of nuclear weapons. For countries that feel threatened by militarily more powerful adversaries, it is the ultimate security guarantor.

At the same time, it also means that a state possessing a nuclear deterrent can commit aggression against a smaller non-nuclear country. While NATO members have provided billions of dollars’ worth of military supplies, NATO has been deterred from either putting boots on the ground or imposing a ‘no-fly-zone’ that might bring it into direct conflict with a nuclear Russia.

The nuclear order was based on arms control, non-proliferation and a taboo. Today, the old nuclear arms control model is almost dead and a fresh convergence appears remote. Non-proliferation is under strain given the new found attractiveness of nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapon states are actively considering nuclear powered submarines that will further strain the NPT debates. The ‘taboo’, only normative to begin with, is being eroded by growing nuclear rhetoric, presently by Russia and in recent years, by US, North Korean, Indian and Pakistani leaders.

Yet, the old realisations still hold. Nuclear weapons remain an existential threat for humanity. In an ideal world, arms control should be revived, non-proliferation buttressed and the ‘taboo’ reinforced, preferably with a legal instrument. But we don’t live in an ideal world and have to make choices. Reviving arms control has to await a modus vivendi among the major powers.

And between ‘non-proliferation’ and the ‘taboo’, I firmly believe that preserving the ‘taboo’ against use of nuclear weapons is critical, more so than ‘non-proliferation’. The world has lived with first two, then five and now nine states possessing nuclear weapons. The NPT and the world can possibly live with another one or two more. But if nuclear weapons are used, for the first time after 1945, and the nuclear taboo is breached, neither the NPT nor the non-proliferation regime will survive. A breach of the ‘taboo’ will bring about a collapse of the entire nuclear order.

Today, the only way forward for reconciling the NPT and the Ban Treaty, for reducing nuclear risks is to reinforce the nuclear taboo. It has lasted since 1945.  We need to ensure that it lasts through the 21st century so that we are able to collectively negotiate a more lasting solution to the challenges of the new nuclear age.

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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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