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Is Nuclear Arms Control Still Alive?

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For almost eight years we have been witnessing a decline (or even absence) of Russian and U.S. efforts in the sphere of nuclear arms control, which can be seen at both the official and expert levels. The last achievement in this field was the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New Start Treaty) which was signed by Russia and the United States in 2010 and entered into force in February 2011. Since then, issues pertaining to further steps in nuclear disarmament have disappeared from the agenda of Russian-American relations.

In the past, such pauses were filled with active consultations and were used to rethink one’s own policy in this area and comprehensively assess the other party’s position. Preparatory work continued even in the period between the fall of 1983 (when the Soviet Union withdrew from all nuclear arms negotiations with the United States) and the spring of 1985 (when the negotiations were resumed), while informal contacts between the parties (primarily through scientific communities) became much stronger.

Over a period of fifty years, the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia achieved significant progress in curbing the nuclear arms race and gradually and steadily lowering the level of nuclear confrontation between the two major nuclear powers. In the Soviet Union/Russia, the greatest achievements in nuclear arms control were made during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev. Vladimir Putin played an important role in the ratification of the START II Treaty (2000) during his first term as president, as he convinced legislators of its effectiveness and usefulness for Russia’s security interests, and in the conclusion of the Russian-American Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (2002). Dmitry Medvedev earned a place for himself in the history of nuclear disarmament by signing the aforementioned 2010 Treaty. It was only during the brief rule of Yuri Andropov (from November 1982 to February 1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (from February 1984 to March 1985) that there was no tangible progress in nuclear arms control.

In the United States, all the eight presidents that preceded Donald Trump—from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama—had achievements in this field. It is still an open question whether Trump will want to break with this tradition. In any case, there are several arguments both in favor of and against such a possibility. It should be emphasized that not everything depends on the desire or unwillingness of the U.S. administration to conclude new agreements in this area. Russia’s position has an equal role to play, and this position does not inspire much optimism at the present time.

Politicians and experts name many reasons for the breach of Russia-U.S. relations in the field of nuclear arms control. One of them is believed to be the deterioration of Russia-West relations over the Ukraine crisis. But facts show that the problem arose much earlier. In March 2013 (that is, one year before the events in Ukraine), former chief of the presidential administration of Russia Sergei Ivanov openly said that Russia was not interested in further reductions in armaments and named the reason for that: the completion of the modernization of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces and its unwillingness to eliminate new strategic weapons that had only recently entered service.

Another argument, named by President Putin in February 2012, is the need to involve third nuclear powers in the nuclear disarmament process after the 2010 treaty. Further explanations provided by some other officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claimed that deeper reductions (outside the treaty’s framework) would make the strategic offensive weapons of Russia and the U.S. “comparable” with those of third nuclear powers.

Moscow puts the main blame for the failure to achieve new nuclear arms control agreements with the U.S. on the missile defense problem. This problem arose now and then in Soviet times and came to a head in 1983 when President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The SDI slowed down START I negotiations and nearly blocked the conclusion of this and other nuclear disarmament agreements. The United States’ withdrawal from the open-ended ABM Treaty in 2002 and its subsequent efforts to create and deploy missile defense in its own territory and territories of its allies, coupled with unsuccessful attempts to reach agreement with Russia on joint missile defense programs, exacerbated the situation still further.

Moscow also explains the lack of progress in strategic nuclear arms reductions by the possession of nuclear weapons by Washington’s NATO allies. Anatoly Antonov, who at that time was Russian deputy defense minister, said this factor “cannot be ignored.” Other factors that Moscow says should be “taken into account” include the “Global Strike” concept, the deployment of strategic precision-guided conventional weapons, plans to deploy weapons in outer space, the presence of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, and some other disproportions, many of which are mentioned in Russia’s present National Security Strategy, approved by Putin in late 2015.

Russia’s position on further steps towards nuclear disarmament resembles that of the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. It is based on the principle of “equal security,” which means that all factors determining the balance of power between the opposing sides should be taken into account. This explains why in negotiations with Washington on strategic nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union considered it justified to demand compensation for imbalances in other categories of arms.

Naturally, fifty years ago, the categories of weapons subject to “compensation” were different from those of today. They did not include conventional weapons of any kind. Moscow was concerned about nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S.’s NATO allies, and U.S. forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe. Now Russia has taken a broader approach, focusing more on non-nuclear armaments, which creates additional difficulties in the search for mutual understanding with the United States and which calls into question the possibility of concluding new agreements.

If we recognize that Russia’s concern over the effect of missile defense and precision-guided and other conventional weapons on the strategic balance is of a fundamental nature, a natural question arises: How to accommodate this concern if a political decision is made to continue the nuclear disarmament process? And should Russia agree to deeper reductions in nuclear weapons if its concern is ignored?

Needless to say, no agreement on strategic offensive arms can set unequal ceilings on the number of warheads and their strategic delivery vehicles remaining after reductions. That would be at variance with the very meaning of an international treaty, which should be based on the principle of equality of the parties and which should conform to its subject matter. Nevertheless, there are other ways to accommodate the aforementioned concerns. For example, in the second half of the 1980s, the Soviet Union was very concerned about the SDI program and American nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. This is why a package solution was proposed—simultaneous negotiations on three issues: medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe, strategic offensive arms, and defense and outer space. Moscow put forward a condition that the three planned agreements should be signed simultaneously. Washington did not object. However, the Soviet Union did not adhere to this position for long. At first, the term ‘nuclear delivery vehicles’ was used to designate only land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, while aviation was excluded from the negotiations. Later, Moscow removed this category of weapons from the initial package, after which, in December 1987, the parties signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which is of unlimited duration.

For a much longer time, almost until all provisions of the START I Treaty were agreed, the Soviet Union insisted on a linkage between strategic offensive and defensive weapons, which was reflected in official statements and the structure of the Soviet delegation to the talks. Moscow sent one delegation to the talks on these two types of weapons. Negotiations on defense and outer space were conducted by a separate group within the delegation. The United States was represented by two separate delegations. One worked on START I, and the other held consultations on defense and outer space. When it became clear that the defense and space negotiations would fail and that the START I Treaty was almost ready, the Soviet Union signed the treaty but made a unilateral statement on the need to observe the ABM Treaty as a condition for implementing START I.

This experience proves that one real way to accommodate concerns is to conclude separate agreements on the most pressing security problems, including missile defense, precision-guided long-range weapons, and space weapons. The authors of World 2035. Global Forecast, published by the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations in 2017, admit of this possibility but consider it the least likely of the proposed four scenarios for the development of the military-political situation in the world in the period until 2035.

Speaking of concrete ways to accommodate concerns, one should assess, at least approximately, the effect of missile defense, precision-guided weapons and space weapons on the Russian-U.S. strategic balance. First of all, let us note an interesting circumstance. When it comes to the effect of various factors on the strategic balance, Russian officials insisting that this effect should be taken into account somehow fail to mention air defense. If we follow this logic, then any weapons capable of combating strategic offensive weapons should be included in the overall balance of power, especially if they are intended to combat retaliatory systems. These weapons definitely include the aviation component of the strategic triad. Without going into further discussion, let us note that this omission of air defense issues seems to be due to some other considerations than a desire to strengthen strategic stability.

Of the remaining three categories of weapons, which, in the opinion of the Russian leadership, have an effect on the strategic balance, space weapons are the most interesting from the point of view of concluding a possible agreement. The fact is, there are no such weapons yet, as far as we know. Therefore, they have no effect on the strategic balance. It is worth recalling the Soviet Union’s struggle against the SDI program in the second half of the 1980s. Many experts said then that “space strike weapons” would be created in the foreseeable future. The most skeptical participants in discussions said that such systems would appear in 20 to 25 years at the earliest. 30 years have passed since then, but this type of weapons (space-based lasers, railguns and other exotic weapons) has not come into existence so far. There are no serious reasons, either, to suggest that space weapons will be in the strategic arsenal of the United States or other countries within the next two to three decades, even if new technologies make this possible. In this case, the following factors will come into play: cost, combat effectiveness of weapon systems, their vulnerability, and possible reaction from the domestic opposition, individual countries and the international community as a whole. These factors may not only slow down but prevent the militarization of space.

In addition, there are no commonly agreed definitions for such terms as ‘weapons’, which can be the subject of an agreement on space issues. Unfortunately, such an agreement can hardly be based on the draft international Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, submitted by China and Russia to the Conference on Disarmament in 2008 (and its updated version, submitted in 2014). The draft only proposed preventing the deployment of weapons in outer space and made no mention of prohibiting their development or testing in space. Nor did it mention weapons deployed on Earth but capable of destroying outer space objects.

Criticisms of this document can be continued, but the main problem is whether it is possible to reach a verifiable agreement on limiting or banning space weapons, whatever this term might mean, even if all parties show real interest in it. There are more doubts than optimism regarding this possibility. Answering this question requires more than just efforts by diplomats, the military and developers of space weapons. More experts should be involved in these efforts, including scientists from countries that may be parties to future agreements.

Another interesting question concerns long-range precision-guided conventional weapons and their effect on the strategic balance. According to the majority of specialists, this type of weapons includes cruise missiles, non-nuclear ICBMs, and some weapon systems (for example, hypersonic gliders). As a rule, the degree of effect such weapons may have on the strategic balance is not assessed. Nevertheless, it is asserted that they can not only weaken but also undermine strategic stability. This is a doubtful statement.

If we view these systems from the point of view of strengthening the offensive capability, they are absolutely incommensurable with nuclear weapons in terms of power. Precision-guided weapons are absolutely unsuitable for preemptive strikes for many reasons. Speaking of non-nuclear ICBMs, their accuracy should by far exceed that of nuclear ICBMs. Otherwise, they won’t be able to destroy hard targets (such as missile silos or command centers). According to open source data, modern ICBMs have accuracy (circular error probable – CEP) of several dozen meters, at best. Destroying a hard target with a conventional warhead requires this accuracy of not more than several meters, which is impossible to achieve at the present technological level of these systems.

But this is not the main concern. If an aggressor decides to use precision-guided weapons (conventional ICBMs) in a surprise attack to destroy a significant part of the opponent’s nuclear arsenal, it will have to plan a massive attack. Such an attack cannot go unnoticed due to a missile warning system. There is no guarantee that the attacked party will not use nuclear warning systems when it receives information confirming the attack. So, it does not really matter to the victim of such aggression whether the approaching ICBMs carry nuclear or conventional warheads. The response will almost certainly be nuclear, with all the ensuing consequences.

Finally, one more important argument is that if Russia or the United States decides to deploy a great number of non-nuclear ICBMs, they will most likely have to do this at the expense of their own strategic nuclear weapons. If the 2010 treaty remains in effect (until 2021) and if it is extended (until 2026), all ICBMs will be counted under the treaty’s limits for strategic delivery vehicles (700 deployed delivery vehicles for each party). In order for non-nuclear ICBMs not to be counted under the treaty, one needs to create a new strategic delivery vehicle and prove that this weapon system is not covered by this treaty. This will be very hard to do, given the strained Russian-American relations. Unilateral actions will most likely lead to the collapse of this international agreement.

As regards cruise missiles as an element of precision-guided weapons, one important issue should be clarified above all. Under the New START Treaty of 2010, long-range (over 600 km) nuclear cruise missiles are not counted as strategic offensive arms. In other words, in the opinion of Russia and the United States, they are not strategic weapons. Each heavy bomber carrying nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missiles is counted as one delivery vehicle and one warhead, no matter how many missiles it may carry. Sea-launched cruise missiles are not covered by this treaty at all. It does not even mention the term ‘long-range nuclear cruise missile.’ Simply put, the parties do not think that these nuclear weapons can undermine the strategic balance; therefore, they see no reason to limit them in the START Treaty. In this case, however, it is completely unclear why long-range nuclear cruise missiles do not affect the strategic balance between the parties, as Moscow and Washington stated in the above-mentioned agreement, whereas similar conventional weapons should undermine strategic stability, especially since some studies show that conventional cruise missiles are not capable of destroying highly protected strategic offensive weapons.

It is believed in Russia that the most serious threat to strategic stability comes from missile defense. However, there is much more ambiguity in this issue than evidence confirmed by practice. First of all, many experts and politicians follow a strange logic when talking about missile defense issues, and their logic differs significantly from the normal perception of the security problem. For example, it is claimed that the U.S. missile defense system “threatens” Russia’s strategic potential. But such a threat can be translated into action only after Russia strikes with ballistic missiles. For as long as these missiles are not used, missile defense does not threaten them. Saying that missile defense poses a threat to someone’s nuclear potential is the same as saying that a hard hat worn by a construction worker is a threat to a brick that may fall on his head.

Opponents of missile defense argue that it will be used after the enemy delivers a first strike against its opponent’s strategic forces, thus greatly weakening the latter’s retaliatory strike. It is this retaliatory strike that will have to be intercepted by missile defense. This abstract and senseless reasoning underlies the logic of missile defense opponents who denounce any programs for creating and deploying missile defense. They view such efforts as an attempt to achieve military superiority and create conditions for victory in a nuclear war. In fact, the entire concept of strategic stability is based on the assessment of the consequences of a first strike and the aggressor’s ability to repulse a retaliatory strike.

Debates over the effect of missile defense on strategic stability have been going on for sixty years, so there is no need to cite here all arguments for and against, set forth in numerous publications. Let us only note that these debates were largely held in the U.S. In the Soviet Union and Russia, an overwhelming majority of experts shared the view that the development of missile defense systems undermines strategic stability, increasing the probability of a first strike in crisis situations and spurring a race in strategic arms in all areas. As a rule, the debates focused on the assessment of effectiveness of missile defense systems and time required for the deployment of new weapon systems.

Now let’s see how the United States can repulse Russia’s “retaliatory strike” after its own “large-scale nuclear attack,” if such plans really exist. First of all, let’s take a look at the geography of U.S. missile defense systems. If the main task of the U.S. were to defend against a Russian retaliatory strike, it would deploy its missile defense system primarily along its borders and deep in its heartland. A thin defense of the country would require at least 10 to 12 deployment areas with several dozen interceptor missiles in each. As far as is known, nothing like this is happening. Such a program does not exist, and such proposals have never been submitted. By the end of 2017, 44 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) are to be deployed in U.S. territory (40 in Alaska and 4 in California). By 2025, the number of GBIs is planned to be increased to 56.

It should be recalled here that the most important provision of the 1972 ABM Treaty (from which the U.S. withdrew in 2002) was the limitation of interceptor missiles capable of shooting down incoming ICBM warheads. Each party was permitted to have up to 200 ABM systems in two ABM deployment areas. The Protocol of 1974 to the Treaty limited the number of ABM systems to 100 at each ABM site. In other words, the U.S. has not yet exceeded the limit set by the ABM Treaty and will not do so in the foreseeable future, which means that strategic stability, as understood by missile defense opponents, is not undermined.

Russia is greatly concerned over the proposed missile defense system for Europe and keeps an eye on programs for deploying similar systems in the Middle East and some Asian countries. But all these systems are not strategic in terms of location and performance. Of course, some modifications of the U.S. Standard interceptor missiles, THAAD and some other systems have a certain potential to combat strategic ballistic missiles. But they are not intended to perform such tasks and can shoot down ICBM warheads only accidentally. It is also important that the above BMD systems have never been tested against strategic missiles (warheads); so they cannot be relied on for intercepting retaliatory strikes with strategic ballistic missiles.

In addition, these systems pose no threat to Russia’s strategic potential due to the geography of their deployment. This will be clear if we move from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional vision of this geography. Simply put, we should be looking not at the flat map of the world, but at the globe. Then many things will look differently. For example, we will see that the shortest way from Russia to America is not via Amsterdam or Paris, but across the North Pole.

To my view, there are no serious military-strategic obstacles to further dialogue between Russia and the United States on more reductions in strategic offensive arms. The effect of precision-guided and space weapons on the strategic balance between the parties is clearly exaggerated. In the foreseeable future, their effect will continue to be minimal, if at all.

U.S. missile defense programs are limited in terms of their impact on Russia’s ability to deliver a crushing retaliatory strike, even if weakened by a U.S. first strategic strike. The latter, too, is a very dubious strategic concept, which, nevertheless, underlies many discussions about ways to strengthen security and so-called strategic stability. No sane leader of a country would rely on an unreliable missile defense system, which has failed many tests and which can be bypassed by changing the direction of attack.

As for political obstacles to new negotiations, they have piled up both in Russian-American and Russia-West relations. They are difficult to overcome, and this will most certainly take much time and effort. There is a view that negotiations on deeper reductions in strategic offensive arms are possible only after relations between the two countries more or less improve or, at least, show a clear tendency towards improvement.

But this problem can be approached from a different perspective by setting the goal of concluding a new agreement on deeper reductions in strategic offensive arms and limiting the number of strategic warheads to 1,000 for each party. If concluded, the new agreement could serve as a positive example of cooperation and give a chance to reach mutual understanding in other areas. This will be facilitated by the beginning of broad consultations on the whole range of security problems, including those that evoke Russia’s concern.

In July 2018 in Helsinki Putin and Trump agreed to pay special attention to the problem of extension of a New START Treaty for the following 5 years (until the year of 2016), as well as to preserving the INF Treaty which became a subject of serious criticism during the last 3-4 years. It is obviously a positive step into a right direction. But it is not enough. Both states have quite a big potential for further reductions of their nuclear arsenals – strategic and tactical as well even without the participation of the third nuclear states in this process. This possible participation needs serious investigation and special attention of all the interested parties.

Chief Research Fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Moscow, Russia). In 1989-1991 was a member of Soviet negotiating team at START-1 negotiations (Defense and Space Talks).

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What makes India’s participation in the Quad intrinsically unique?

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From left, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wave hands ahead of the Quad leaders’ meeting in Tokyo, May 24. Credit: The Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

In this essay, I try to shed light on the geopolitical imperatives that make India’s involvement in the Quad intrinsically unique and distinct from the other members.

The prime ministers of India, Japan, Australia and the President of the United States met in Tokyo, for the second in-person Quad summit on 24 May 2022, coming three months after the foreign ministers of these countries met in Melbourne, for the fourth time in three years. In addition to two virtual summits in the month of March in 2021 and 2022, the leaders also met in-person in September, last year, in Washington DC. In the last two years, the Quad has gathered rapid momentum with regular multi-level interactions, and the scope of co-operation has widened.

While the Quad is not a formal collective security alliance, Japan and Australia are two of the ‘major non-NATO allies’ of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, meaning, the three countries are already allies, with or without the Quad, which brings us to the question of India’s participation. Indian involvement brings about an existential purpose to the four-nation grouping as it reflects the growing geopolitical heft of the Indian Ocean region and India as an emerging Asian power in the strategic thinking of the three countries, particularly of the United States, the de-facto leader of the grouping.

Growing strategic insecurity emanating from the perceived disruptive rise of China in the last two decades, especially after 2012, has been a factor that brought these four countries together, ever since the grouping was revitalized in 2017 after a gap of ten years since the idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ was put forward by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. China and Russia are the only two countries in the world that outrightly rejects the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ and favours the usage of the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ instead, as they consider it as a US-led strategy to counter China.

The Russia factor

While India is a democracy, just like its three Quad partners, it also happens to be the only member of the grouping that has neither openly criticised nor imposed sanctions on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine. Moreover, no other Quad member is as overwhelmingly dependent on Russian arms supply as India is, even though measures to diversify India’s imports are actively underway. Currently, up to 70 per cent of India’s military hardware is estimated to be of Russian origin.

The post-Cold War years saw India reaching out to Southeast Asia, a region that lies at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, and also to the United States. However, the fading aura of ASEAN-led regional institutional mechanisms, which India has been involving since 1992, in balancing mounting Chinese power can also be stated as one of the key factors that led to the rise of the alternative plurilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific like the Quad and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States security partnership) in the last few years.

Even after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the successor state of Russian Federation continued to be a close strategic partner and major defence supplier of India. Just last year, in 2021, India and Russia observed the golden jubilee of the signing of a landmark friendship treaty between the two countries during the Soviet-era. Russian President Vladimir Putin was welcomed in New Delhi in December 2021 for the annual India-Russia summit, and two months later, Russian forces breached the Ukrainian borders, pushing global political stability into the brink.

Varying geostrategic imperatives

Unlike the predominantly maritime geostrategic imperatives of other Quad members, India’s geography is connected with the Eurasian continental landmass, of which Russia has the commanding position, as much as it is connected to the Indo-Pacific oceanic continuum. In fact, the biggest and most pertinent of India’s security challenges arise from its land borders. While Japan is an archipelagic country located entirely in the northern Pacific, Australia lies in between the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the south, and the United States is sandwiched between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to its east and west respectively.

Moreover, India happens to be the only Quad member that shares a land border with China. The 3,488-km-long undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region is often regarded as the world’s longest disputed border. Apart from these differences, India also happen to be a participant in Russia and China led groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa grouping), which constrains India’s options in a full-fledged involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quad or any other. New Delhi views its involvement in the aforementioned groupings as an indicator of reformed multilateralism, which has been traditionally seen as West-dominated, and wishes to chart its own place in the emerging multipolar world order.

India’s opportunities as the scope of co-operation in the Quad widens

Even after four summit-level meetings, four ministerials and numerous issue-specific working groups set in action, the Quad has not yet openly acknowledged the elephant in the room, i.e., China, or its higher purpose of balance of power, which essentially ought to give a security dimension to the grouping. But it is yet to see progress. Accommodating and reconciling India’s varying interests with the grouping’s larger collective agenda is a big challenge too. Items in the Quad’s agenda since the very first virtual summit in March 2021 include a partnership to manufacture and distribute vaccines to needy countries of the Indo-Pacific region drawing on each other’s strengths, critical and emerging technologies, climate resilience, cyber security, space, fostering people-to-people ties through educational opportunities, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and so on.

The launch of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) at the recently-concluded Tokyo summit could enable information-sharing across the existing regional fusion centres. It can also bolster India’s involvement in an agenda item that is closely related to security – maritime data sharing. Being the regional leader in the Indian Ocean, India’s naval surveillance capabilities, including the Gurugram-based Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), can be better utilised to achieve the grouping’s collective objectives, aimed at identifying illegal activities in the region’s seas.

Another key initiative launched on the sidelines of the Tokyo summit is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which adds a key economic pillar to Washington’s engagement in the region, especially in the backdrop of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which India also opposes due to concerns on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, India’s pharmaceutical industry can play a major role in the vaccine initiative announced last year, which is yet to materialise fully.

India’s ties with the US shapes its involvement in the Quad and vice versa

India’s deepening ties with the United States is also playing a significant role in shaping India’s participation in the Quad and in expanding the currently identified generic agendas of co-operation to a more security-oriented one, for which the recent signs are positive. While the previous Trump Administration subtly welcomed India again to the Quad, in 2017, the Biden administration cemented on the ties and has been largely following a policy of continuity towards India. The decision on whether to impose sanctions on India under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act), owing to the purchase of Russian weapons, is put on hold, and is unlikely to be imposed as the ties between the two countries continue to remain robust, despite the Russia factor, both bilaterally and under the Quad framework.

In 2018, the United States renamed its oldest and largest military command, the Pacific Command, to the ‘Indo-Pacific Command’, in a largely symbolic move acknowledging India’s growing importance in US strategic thinking and calculations for Asia. In the same year, the annual India-US ‘2+2’ ministerial dialogue was also inaugurated. Two years before that, in 2016, India was made a Major Defence Partner of the United States, followed by the inking of a series of foundational pacts for military inter-operability, the last one being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), signed in 2020.

At the same time, while one Quad member Japan hosts the largest number of US military bases in the world, coming further under the US alliance protection and the nuclear umbrella, the other Quad member Australia is part of other US-led groupings in the region such as the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network, ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and the United States) treaty and the recent AUKUS grouping. However, India has never been part of any security alliance right from its independence and has followed the path of ‘non-alignment’ (during the Cold War years), which later metamorphosed into ‘multi-alignment’.

India’s simultaneous involvement in a diverse set of groupings with varying purposes, goals, and participants, and being close to both Russia and the US at the same time is indeed sheer diplomatic skill. However, the fact that being a vibrant democracy and a key maritime power in the Indian Ocean region brings India closer to the Quad’s shared values and interests. The Quad today reflects the need for balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, where-in a power transition is underway with the rise of China. The Quad is largely reflective of a Western-led response to this power transition, while Indian interests are aligned both in being part of the Western-led response, i.e., Quad, IPEF and IPMDA, and also in acting as a key independent pillar in the changing regional and global order.

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Is Fatigue Causing Twists and Turns in Russia Ukraine War?

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Image source: war.ukraine.ua

As Russia Ukraine war completes three months, both sides are witnessing spectacular twists and turns, showing that reality is biting both sides. Few would have predicted a month ago that President Putin would be willing to swallow the bitter pill of Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO, which effectively amounts to NATO’s eastward expansion, adding over a thousand kilometres of direct land border between Russia and NATO, and respond only with a weak warning to react to increased weapon deployment in these two countries.

Likewise, the rhetoric of Ukraine winning the war overhyped by US led NATO through exhaustive information and perception war, seems to be fading with surrender of over 2000 Azov fighters in Mariupol, cutting off of Ukraine from Sea of Azov, besides losing a large chunk of land in Donbass Region. President Zelensky acknowledgement of diplomacy being only answer, highlighting concerns for people and soldiers is not too late, if those interested in prolonging this war let him act on it.  

Parties to the Conflict

The war is sparing no-one in the world from inflationary pressures, having doubled the figures of global food insecure population, due to acute food shortage, triggering the blame game by both sides to seek concessions. While Russia can be accused of launching pre-emptive ground offensive on Ukraine, NATO can also be accused for creating conditions threatening Russia by continued eastward expansion and proxy war. While the kinetic, contact, hybrid war is on between Russia and Ukraine, the US led NATO is fighting a non-kinetic, non-contact, undeclared war in economic, information, diplomatic and political domains, against Russia; hence de-facto parties to the war.

Russian Stakes and Compulsions                

After three months of war, while Russia can draw solace by sizeable territorial gains and linking Donbas with Crimea after capture of Mariupol, but at a very heavy cost of men and material, besides an unprecedented economic stress due to crippling sanctions by the West. It has made President Putin revisit his stance on Finland and Sweden, as it is cost prohibitive for Russia to open another front with NATO on Finland borders. It therefore makes better sense for him to achieve the desired end state in ongoing conflict with Ukraine by liberating Donbass Region, landlocking Ukraine and deal with Finland later. Russia realizes its limitations in economic, diplomatic, information and political warfare domain; hence more territorial gains on ground to landlock Ukraine by extending land bridge between Crimea, Odesa to Transnistria and liberating Donbass is the best option for it, to gain better negotiating position, to have the sanctions lifted.

Ukrainian Stakes and Compulsions             

President Zelensky appears to recognise that neither he nor the western propaganda-based information war, which has made him a hero and outright winner, can be sustained in the long run, having lost more territory than size of some European countries, left with devastated towns, over four million refugees, heavy casualties, and the surrender of his overhyped Azov Regiments. While additional aid and weaponry with $40 billion cheque from US and $16.4 billion from EU can boost his combat power, but regaining lost ground from Russians is going to be extremely difficult, as they will use built up areas for defending their gains, as Ukraine did. Prolonging war doesn’t guarantee peace for Ukraine, but it may result in greater territorial loss, unending proxy war, and a long-term Russian threat.

NATO’s Stakes and Compulsions            

NATO seems to be emboldened by soft Russian response to the bid of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, with a confidence that Russia has been adequately weakened to challenge eastward expansion of NATO; hence, it is keen to add these two countries with strong militaries, to secure its northern flank and have a better collective security posture in the long run. It also makes sense in context of Sino-Russian footprints in Arctic region and North Atlantic Ocean. Towards that aim, it is ready to sacrifice some of its energy and economic interests for the time being.

It is too early to predict how long this show of unified strength will continue, because the war is certainly not making Europe peaceful, with millions of refugees and non-state actors activated and a longer border with belligerent Russia, which will reorganize itself, learning from its miscalculations. While NATO may be able to handle the objections of Turkey and Croatia with few concessions/addressing security concerns, but the disagreement regarding long term energy security may not be easy to handle, once the rhetoric of united NATO starts fading with economic fatigue and energy deficit.

Is USA the Beneficiary?

In short term USA can rejoice some immediate gains. It has been able to get control of NATO, weaken Russia, create market for its arms dealers, energy companies and infrastructure contractors. It has been able to block strategic Nord Stream1 and 2, and encourage EU to find alternate energy sources, thereby reducing Russian influence drastically.

It has, however, incurred certain long-term losses, the most serious of which is driving Russia into a stronger China-Russia Axis than ever before, which is beyond its individual capabilities to handle. True, this battle has revitalised NATO, but it has also strengthened the Russia-China-Iran nexus, or anti-West alliance. Sanctions have fueled calls for an alternative financial system to avoid financial paralysis caused by a monopolized dollarized financial system, which could harm the US in the long run.

The US’s global exhibition of backing proxy war by enabling Ukraine/Zelensky to fight to the bitter end in order to achieve its geopolitical aim of weakening Russia, with no American losses has tarnished the US’s reputation as an ally/partner. Indeed, more than $56 billion in funding for a proxy war in Ukraine, which is more than double the amount spent in Afghanistan’s 20-year war, reveals misplaced priorities, unless US is counting on making much more money from increased weapon sales by prolonging the war.

It has put Taiwan, Japan and South Korea on notice facing similar threat from aggressive China, to which US has been extremely shy of sanctioning it, despite later breaching territorial integrity of many democracies in South China Sea, violating Taiwanese air space at will, and incremental encroachment in Himalayas. The world, struggling with financial, food and energy crisis, doesn’t want any extension of war, on any pretext.

The visit of President Biden to Indo-Pacific is significant to restore declining confidence of allies and partners in Indo-Pacific, without which, taking on China challenge is difficult. Many in this region accuse Biden administration of reactivating Cold War 1.0 with Russia, diluting Cold War 2.0 with China, which is a bigger global challenge with better economic muscles. The proposed launch of Indo Pacific Economic Forum is to lure more regional countries to gain lost ground in economic engagement vis a vis China.

Way Ahead

In a situation where NATO continues to persuade Zelensky to fight, giving hopes to recapture entire territory of Ukraine, and the Russians continue incremental efforts to achieve an end state of landlocked Ukraine and independent Donbass, the war will continue. Neither the sanctions have deterred Russia, nor blocking gas flow by Russia will deter NATO. As long as Ukraine is ready to be used as a tool in big power contestation and NATO continues to add fuel to the fire, the chances of talks or any mediation seems to be a remote possibility. In Russia Ukraine war, there will be no winners, but a new set of security and economic challenges will impact entire world.

Having tested US responses in Ukraine, the growing Chinese aggressiveness in Indo-Pacific is a wakeup call to US to avoid losing influence in the region, especially after losing considerable strategic space in the Middle East and Af-Pak regions. Chinese footprints in the Solomon Islands surprised US and Australia. Regular violation of ADIZ of Taiwan, belligerent North Korea threatening South Korea and Japan, reassertion of Chinese and Russian claims against Japan indicate that US resolve is under greater threat in the Indo-Pacific, where it has obligation to defend Japan and South Korea and strategic necessity to save Taiwan. It is also not easy to find another Zelensky/Ukraine in Asia, willing to act as proxy of NATO. It is for this reason President Joe Biden needs partners in Indo-Pacific, strengthen/expand Quad, and put up viable alternative economic, infrastructure, technological and supply chain in Indo-Pacific with allies and partners. The UK Foreign Minister’s call for Global NATO seems far fetched at this point of time, but indicates desperation for global support to face the reality of threat from growing Chinese Russian alliance. 

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Defense

U.S.’ Unperturbed Response to Indian BrahMos Launch in Pakistan: Aberration or New Normal?

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As India’s nuclear-capable BrahMos cruise missile crashed into the territory of its nuclear-armed and ever-hostile adversary on the evening of March 9th almost pushing the two countries to the brink of catastrophic tit-for-tat exchange, the usually vociferous strategic experts and arms control enthusiasts in the USA maintained a cautionary conspicuous silence. Even it took the US State Department Spokesperson 06 days to issue a formal statement on the precarious issue and that too after being asked by a journalist during the daily press briefing. If one thinks for the USA – the self-proclaimed champion of nuclear safety and security – such a belated response to such a potentially hazardous “accident” constituted an anomaly, having a look at what the USA’s State Department’s spokesperson finally stated would be handy, which in essence uncritically endorsed the ambiguous and self-contradictory Indian viewpoint on the issue while refusing to make any further comments.

One does not need to wonder what would have been the reaction in the West had something of this character landed in India from Pakistan. Hell would have readily broken loose and the relevant academic, policy-advocacy, and policy-making circles in the West would have been up in the arms predicting a nuclear holocaust owing to irresponsible handling of sensitive weapon systems by Pakistan and making calls to fulfill their long-held desire of ‘securing’ Pakistan’s strategic arsenal. But given it was a breach on part of India, the belated and unperturbed response despite the profound precariousness associated with the fiasco makes complete sense. Anomaly! Not really, because the apparent aberration is all set to be the new normal: only those nuclear safety and security breaches would concern the Western (specifically the US) strategic community happening apropos countries considered on the other side of the geostrategic equation and India – given its geostrategic utility vis-à-vis China – is positioned on the same side as with the Western world so even the strategic blunders like the recent one would be conveniently brushed under the carpet. Reason: any criticism of Indian BrahMos blunder or even expression of concern about the safety and security of India’s cutting-edge weapons systems would have infuriated overly touchy souls in New Delhi, which Washington has been trying so desperately to woo. 

Though the convergence of geopolitical interests forms the most consequential and undoubtedly the umbrella reason for the USA’s unperturbed response to India’s BrahMos launch into Pakistan, it is not only the only one. Currently, the Indian diaspora constitutes one of the most powerful lobbies in the USA domestic political and electoral landscape augmented by their deep ingress into academia, policy advocacy, and policy-making spheres, where they primarily act as the arm of Indian foreign policy and security establishments essentially safeguarding and qualifying all rights and wrongs by New Delhi and by default working to discredit its prime adversary Pakistan using a wide range of means and mediums. The relegation of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute from a self-determination demand of nearly 20 million people once backed by the USA at international forums to a mere Pakistan-sponsored insurgency in complete concurrence with the Indian standpoint and conspicuous apologetic attitude of the USA government and intelligentsia over India’s now almost undisputed plunge into the abyss of fascism under Modi are the most vivid case studies of the lobby’s influence in the USA, though backed by the umbrella of convergence of geostrategic interests.

Though the USA and Pakistan being long-time allies have their own baggage of alleged betrayals, sanctions, and double-games, the steep decline in the goodwill for Islamabad during the past few decades is attributable to years-old concerted efforts by the Indian lobby and the muted reaction to India’s BrahMos launch in Pakistan even by the strategic and focusing on South Asia intelligentsia within the USA was another manifestation of the reality that the lobby has gained considerable check over the academic and policy discourse in the USA.

Ironically, the trend of overlooking India’s shenanigans at home and aboard and potentially catastrophic breaches of safety and security of destructive weapons systems is all set to be the new normal as the aforementioned factors of geopolitical convergence and the lobby’s role in influencing academic and policy discourse responsible for the setting the trends are only likely to be reinforced in the coming years and decades. However, there is a big question mark whether unwaveringly covering up New Delhi’s abysmal domestic and regional track records undermines the USA’s international legitimacy as the principal sponsor of “rules-based international order”? An unequivocal yes! But it appears policymakers in Washington are willing to let their legitimacy tarnish in barter for India’s utility vis-à-vis China – a characteristic case of power politics triumphing idealistic charades.       

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