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Not-so-Nuclear War



On February 4, 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense officially announced the first combat patrol mission of a nuclear-powered submarine carrying low-yield nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Some details were reported several days before that: the platform was USS Tennessee, which had went on combat patrol in the Atlantic in late 2019.

The low-yield combat payload in question represent the all-new W76-2 thermonuclear warhead for the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). It is a derivative of the standard “light” W76-1 warhead, with the original secondary stage removed. As a result, the original yield of 100 kt has been reduced to between 5 and 7 kt.

According to official explanations, up to and including those contained in the new nuclear doctrine [1], the United States intends to use the weapon to give additional stability and flexibility to its regional (not strategic!) nuclear deterrence. The idea is that the number of such missiles will be limited, because they are intended for fairly specific purposes.

The U.S. military had long sought permission for low-yield nuclear weapons from the White House, arguing that the president was only limited to high-yield weapons as a last resort and that “interim” response options would come handy in certain scenarios. These were eventually termed “tailored” nuclear scenarios in the new doctrine.

These statements become more specific when looked at through the prism of expert chatter, stories run by specialized publications and private statements. Such as: What if the Russians attack an Eastern European country and, quite inevitably, receive a devastating response from NATO, but then they cunningly use their tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) to raise the stakes? How would the free world respond to that?

Their requests are quite simple and clear. The only question here is, why use a strategic SLBM in a purely tactical mission?

Something is Lacking

The U.S. has two types of nuclear weapons in its arsenals that would perfectly fit the purpose in terms of their yield. There are AGM-86B (ALCM) long-range air-launched cruise missiles, the backbone of the strategic triad’s air component. These are tipped with W80-1 warheads with dialable yield from 5 to 150 kt. There are also B61-family tactical nuclear gravity bombs that come in four different variants, some of them with 300 t and 1.5 kt yield in TNT equivalent.

Why another low-yield warhead?

The problem is not in the warhead itself, but in the delivery method. Russia, and the USSR before it, have historically been inferior to NATO in terms of airpower. For this reason, Russia has always relied on air defence (and electronic warfare) and is perhaps still the best when it comes to building reliable multi-layered air defence. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to penetrate a single air-launched nuclear weapon through that detection and multiple engagements system. The ALCM has been around for a long time, it is a well-known missile. Its more advanced derivative, the AGM-129, was decommissioned because it proved to be inferior. The combat aircraft with B61 were similarly ill-suited for such a hostile environment [2]. Starting a nuclear mission and stupidly losing the delivery vehicle to a Pantsyr or an S-400 would have been a much harder blow than refraining from participation in the escalating conflict.

Single nuclear strikes (as opposed to the massive use of nuclear force) on the theatre become a challenge. Theoretically, at some point, the United States will have nuclear systems that would be up to the task due to their stealth capabilities (LRSO cruise missiles, F-35 combat aircraft plus B61-12 guided bombs) or short flight time combined with the ability to break through air or missile defence (land, sea or air-launched hypersonic boost-glide systems). However, the problem articulated by the United States has to be addressed right now.

This leads to a palliative solution that implies removing the secondary stage from the W76-1 and using the resulting mini-Trident as a guaranteed delivery vehicle. Strange as it may seem, high accuracy is not required here. Not only will the strike be directed against a “soft” target (tactical formations, emplaced positions, or above-ground structures), but it does not even have to hit that target since it is the very fact of the use of nuclear force that matters during the early stages of escalation and not the actual damage.

It may seem clear, but how real is this image of “deterring” Russia? Is it even possible to have such a conflict as the one described in the American strategic papers?

On Reading and Comprehension Skills

Descriptions of a possible conflict along the lines of “Russia suddenly invaded the Baltic states, pre-emptively used its TNW to confuse NATO and force the alliance into a retreat” do not even merit earnest critical consideration. It is quite sad that such ideas are widespread among western political scientists and security experts [3]. However, even an expert with the greatest bias against Russia is likely to acknowledge that no matter what one thinks of Russian dignitaries, no matter what malicious intents one ascribes to them, believing these people to be infantile or irrational is a crucial research fallacy. Over the last couple of decades, the Russian elites have demonstrated a reserved, mistrustful and utterly rational (to the point of cynicism) approach to foreign and domestic policies, an approach that is utterly incompatible with the reckless idea of “let’s occupy the Baltic states, detonate a bomb and threaten a total nuclear war, because we’re bound to lose any other way.”

But what is this idea based on? It is based on Russia’s actual nuclear strategy, the general understanding of which is almost completely the opposite to its intended meaning. Russia has constructed a defence plan against a stronger enemy on the basis of the concept of the limited use of nuclear weapons in special cases.

The logic of “de-escalating” a military conflict by raising the stakes in the form of limited (including demonstrative) use of nuclear weapons has been repeatedly expounded both in general terms and in military details. Asymmetric scenarios are no exception. In such cases, a country responds to a massive attack of conventional forces with a first (limited) nuclear strike. Since, following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the lengthy socioeconomic crisis of the 1990s, Russia had significantly fewer conventional weapons than NATO, it was a rational strategic deterrence plan that implied balancing out conventional weapons with nuclear forces [4].

This was duly reflected in strategic planning documents. The foundation for such planning was laid back in 1993, when Russia officially disengaged itself from the 1982 Soviet obligation not to deliver the first nuclear strike, even though this use of nuclear weapons still applied to a global war only [5]. Subsequently, Russia developed a full-fledged military doctrine in 2000 that allowed the use of nuclear weapons “in situations that were critical for the national security of the Russian Federation,” including “in response to a large-scale aggression using conventional weapons.”

In 2010, the new version of the military doctrine showed the direction of Russia’s military development. The wording became more specific: now nuclear weapons could only be used in a conflict that “threatened the very existence of the state.” The current 2014 doctrine retains this strict wording and additionally bolsters it by introducing the notion of “strategic non-nuclear deterrence” that had previously been absent.

Let us note that this latter step was taken at the peak of the military and political crisis between Russia and the West, in the second half of 2014. If Russia had indeed relied on the irrationally incommensurate nuclear deterrence of the West and, in accordance with the classical “madman theory,” had wished to convince the West of this, there would have been no obstacles in the way of Russia enshrining such deterrence officially. Instead, Russia demonstratively enacted a “doctrinal détente.”

They Offered War and Nobody Came

Taken together, these developments reflected Russia’s efforts to rebuild and modernize its armed forces setting a course for raising the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and for gradually filling up all those potential rungs on the escalation ladder that previously had to be “secured” using nuclear means with non-nuclear precision-guided weapons.

A number of motives driving this evolution can be identified. First, it is a flexible and comprehensive approach to deterrence that was not entirely typical for the USSR in the last years of its existence [6]. Second, there is a clear unwillingness to endow nuclear weapons with any significance greater than that inevitably required by the military strategic balance. Third, the logic of this development directly contradicts the very idea of “nuclear coercion” in regional conflicts with NATO. To coin a phrase, Russia has been gradually “clearing the mines” from a dangerous destabilizing situation that had emerged on the continent following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and significant curtailing of the potential of Russia’s armed forces. The temporary lowering of the threshold for using nuclear weapons reflected precisely the transitory nature of the current factors.

Thus, at the moment, we can presume that Russia cannot simply deliver a first nuclear strike when things start going wrong in a military conflict with a near-peer adversary. The circumstances have to be more severe than this, in which is clearly and presently suffering a large-scale military defeat that threatens a national disaster. Regardless of who started it.

Let us, however, go back to “mini-Tridents” and see what their place in this scenario is. Everything appears to be just the same, but there is one flaw that cannot be eliminated. Such weapons systems will hardly be an effective deterrent if Russia has been cornered so badly that it used nuclear weapons to de-escalate a catastrophically developing conflict with NATO (and it does not matter whether we are talking about the very fact of their existence, as the United States sometimes claims, or about the outcome of a retaliatory strike). The problem of an impending defeat has not been eliminated and, consequently, neither was the stimulus for the further use of nuclear weapons. In this case, the initiating state will simply move to the next rung of the escalation ladder, delivering a multiple strike on the battle ground or selecting a more valuable and sensitive target for a single strike (for instance, within the continental United States). Psychologically, this transition will be much easier (not to say more thoughtless) than the decision to deliver an initial strike.

The crucial thing is that this is precisely the scenario where the apparent military and technical advantages of the “mini-Trident” we mentioned above will lose their importance. Facing an imminent large-scale military defeat, Russia’s integrated air and missile defence system will have been largely “dismantled” through the intensive and successful use of NATO’s precision-guided weapons, and resistance to air and missile strikes will have taken on fragmented nature. In such circumstances, a “mini-Trident” is excessive as a delivery vehicle for a single strike. These tasks can be handled by usual means, such as cruise missiles or combat aircraft. Moreover, “mini-Tridents” will even be harmful in such a situation: an SLBM launched and detected by the early warning systems (which would be left intact in such a conflict), may be misconstrued by Russia given the acute stage of the crisis and thus prompt a launch-on-warning [7]. NATO most certainly does not need this, since it would actually be winning such a war “on points.”

The W76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead:

-is officially aimed against the non-existent scenario of Russia using nuclear weapons in an act of provocation in the unrealistic event of a Russia—NATO conflict;

-is unable to deter Russia’s first use of nuclear weapons in an actual crisis situation as prescribed by its nuclear doctrine;

-harbours an additional destabilizing potential.

What is the point of this warhead then?

“I Don’t Know Who Needed it or What They Needed it For”

Note that in our story, the outlandish strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” has become intertwined with the notion of escalation control, or the idea that a conflict (including a nuclear conflict) can be proactively managed by keeping it low-intensity. This is not surprising at all because the two concepts are the same thing. Consequently, we have to go much further back in time, to the turn of the 1950s–1960s in the United States, to find the roots of this phenomenon. The single, yet crucial remark here is that escalation control is a scholastic and convoluted theory, an exercise for minds with a propensity for abstract thinking. Meanwhile, “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, as it is described today, is, in terms of both political motivation and means of implementation, a highly oversimplified form of the concept.

The United States is a pioneer in terms of introducing plans for limited use of nuclear weapons in practice. If we recall the entire history of the its “counterforce”— the 1974 Schlesinger Doctrine, Carter’s 1980 PD–59 plan and other contrivances of the heights of the Cold War, we will find it very hard to pretend that “mini-Tridents” appeared as an emergency response to Russia’s particularly malicious nuclear doctrine of the last few years. Back in 1962, Robert McNamara said that the United States could look for a way to stop a war on favourable terms, using its own forces as a bargaining chip, threatening further attacks. He further noted that, in any case, the highly secured large reserves of fire power could convince the enemy to abstain from attacking U.S cities and could stop the war [8].

We should not view these things as tales of a long gone bipolar past. A current 2019 American paper on planning nuclear operations states that, “Employment of nuclear weapons can radically alter or accelerate the course of a campaign. A nuclear weapon could be brought into the campaign as a result of perceived failure in a conventional campaign, potential loss of control or regime, or to escalate the conflict to sue for peace on more-favorable terms [9].”

It is sometimes hard not to think that the current nuclear strategy of the United States is subject to a kind of “projective” logic, something that should be familiar to practicing psychologists and means projecting one’s own aspirations and associations onto another person. In this ironic sense, mini-Tridents are very convenient as a nuclear weapons for “limited-scale” operations long since embraced by the U.S. military doctrine. Whether or not they are holding Russia back from an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, or if Russia is somehow self-deterring, is beyond the point. What is important is the very fact that such a potential exists, as arms control experts put it, capabilities are always more important than intentions.

One feature of Trident II SLBM is its depressed trajectory, which makes it possible to use the missile where very short flight time and a relatively low apogee are needed. Thus, at a striking distance of 1900 km, the missile will reach the target in six to seven minutes, never going higher than 150 km, and it will cover a distance of 3000 km in nine to ten minutes with a maximum height of 185 km [10]. Taking into account the changes in precision, it is generally accepted that these SLBM possess significant counter-force capabilities, which puts them beyond the classical role of “city killers” in retaliation strikes that is usually assigned to sea-launched missiles.

This means that the choice of the delivery vehicle was not accidental, although it was influenced by the desire to save time and money. The platform is indeed resilient against air and missile defence, allows for very short flight time and is convenient for discriminate nuclear strikes with low “collateral damage.” Besides, with this payload, it does not pose any counterforce threat for the strategic nuclear force of a potential enemy (the same accuracy with 15–20 times less yield) and planning officers could therefore erroneously perceive it as a relatively “stabilizing” kind of weapon. It is not such a weapon, due to a reduced nuclear use threshold and functional ambiguity of delivery vehicle.

Yet, the danger of low-yield nuclear warheads being deployed is not so much in the lowering of the nuclear threshold as such. First of all, it is about the continuation of a much more encompassing dual process, which erodes two categories: the clear differences between nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons on the one hand, and between strategic and tactical weapons on the other. Mini-Tridents bear the prints of both, especially if you recall how much effort was spent only 10–15 years ago to equip them with non-nuclear precision-guided warheads (nothing came of it, but lightening, or in this case, the shell, most certainly did strike the same place twice).

The result of the changes taking place in the respective nuclear doctrines of the United States and Russia can hardly be considered positive. The United States (if freed from the burden of having to explain its actions) directly raised the question of “usable” nuclear weapons, that is, a battlefield capability, and not an instrument of strategic deterrence. Thus, the image of conflicts of the future implies a limited use of nuclear weapons, including, possibly, against non-nuclear states—the United States has already tried to include such provisions in its 2018 nuclear doctrine. Subjectivity is also important here. Donald Trump is a man of exceptional sincerity and consistency. Look at his campaign promises and compare them with actions in the White House. But even during the election campaign, Trump noted that he does not understand the meaning of weapons that cannot be used.

Given all the severe restrictions we emphasized above, Russia continues to think of itself as of a besieged fortress that is about to fall. This leads, among other things, to the desire to make its nuclear doctrine as opaque as possible, implementing a strategy of “deterrence through uncertainty,” the traditional refuge of the weakest side (take China, for example, which has been adhering to this approach for 50 years). Another national habit, namely making non-strategic strike systems dual-capable (which is both cheap and convenient, and, again, in certain scenarios increases the constraining uncertainty) creates further problems in this area.

Both attitudes do the same job, albeit from different sides and in different ways. They both blur the “red lines” of the first use of nuclear weapons. In the case of the United States, this line descends lower to the area of “clashes,” due to the development of delivery vehicles and the appearance of the illusion that such an employment can be controlled, is limited and implies supposedly low “collateral damage.” It feels like a nuclear strike, but not really. In the case of Russia, the intentional management of nuclear uncertainty lays down destabilizing factors for possible military and political crises, complicating their course and simplifying the transition (including erroneous) from the non-nuclear section of the escalation ladder to the nuclear one.

This might sound like a paradox, but both superpowers are escalating the strategic nuclear risks by solving situational problems caused by the lack of political trust. One problem deals with the imaginary lack of low-intensity deterrence against Russia’s aggressive behaviour, while the other continues to safeguard the risks of a no-less-imaginary NATO intrusion amid the continuing weakening of conventional forces.

All the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy are met.

[1] Nuclear Posture Review 2018. Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018, pp. 54–55.

[2] Davis P. K. et al. Exploring the Role Nuclear Weapons Could Play in Deterring Russian Threats to the Baltic States. Santa-Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019, pp. 52–53.

[3] See, for instance: Kroenig M. A Strategy for Deterring Russian Nuclear De-Escalation Strikes. Washington, DC: Atlantic Council, 2018; Luik J., Jermalavičius T. A Plausible Scenario of Nuclear War in Europe, and How to Deter It: A Perspective from Estonia. // Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 2017. Vol. 73. No 4, pp. 233–239; Schneider M. B. Escalate to De-Escalate. // Proceedings. 2017. Vol. 143/2/1,368 (Feb. 2017), pp. 26–29.

[4] Note that this is essentially “mirroring” the situations of the 1960s–1970s, when NATO relied on America’s forward-based nuclear weapons in Europe to balance out NATO and Warsaw Pact’s conventional weapons.

[5] Principal provisions of Russia’s Military Doctrine. Presidential Executive Order 1833 of November 2, 1993.

[6] Studies by several western experts based on contacts with members of the Soviet military and political leadership indicate that, despite having done the relevant theoretical work, the USSR only planned on the concentrated use of nuclear weapons (both on the battle ground and against the enemy’s strategic targets behind the front lines). See, for instance: Hines J. G., Mishulovich E., Shull J. F. Soviet Strategic Intentions 1965–1985. Vol. I: An Analytical Comparison of U.S–Soviet Assessments During the Cold War; Vol. II: Soviet Post-Cold War Testimonial Evidence. McLean, VA: BDM Corporation, 1995.

[7] It is not very likely, but still probable, and this is precisely the strategic “black swan” that leads to the situation collapsing without any chance of recovery. Concerning the real influence highly unlikely events with a highly significant effect have on nuclear deterrence, see: Yarynich V. E. C3: Nuclear Command, Control, Cooperation. Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2003.

[8] McNamara R. S. Speech before the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation, 17 Feb. 1962. Cited after: Ball D. Deja vu: The Return to Counterforce in the Nixon Administration. Santa-Monica, CA: California Seminar on Arms Control and Foreign Policy, 1974.

[9] Joint Publication 3–72, Nuclear Operations, 11 Jun. 2019, pp. V–3.

[10] Gronlund L., Wright D. Depressed Trajectory SLBMs: А Technical Evaluation and Arms Control Possibilities. // Science and Global Security. 1992. Vol. 3. No. 1. pp. 100–160.

Ph.D. in Technical Science, fellow at the Centre for International Security, IMEMO, Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert


The Greek-Turkish Standoff: A New Source of Instability in the Eastern Mediterranean



Since 2011, Eastern Mediterranean affairs have mainly been marked by instability due to the civil wars in Libya and Syria. Recently, a new source of tensions further perplexes the situation—the Greek-Turkish standoff. Currently, Athens and Ankara disagree over sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Specifically, they both claim rights in maritime zones which have not yet been delimited. The nature of the problem is not new, dating back to November 1973. What is new is the breadth of maritime zones the two sides disagree upon. The attention has shifted towards the Eastern Mediterranean in the last ten years, while it had only focused on the Aegean Sea before energy discoveries were made in the Levantine Basin in 2009.

Greek-Turkish relations were relatively calm from 1999 until 2016. In 2002, Athens and Ankara launched the so-called “exploratory talks,” a format to exchange views on thorny issues informally. The 60th round of bilateral exploratory talks took place in March 2016 and was the last until now. After 2016, cooperation between Greece and Turkey continued—for example, on the management of the refugee crisis—but the latter employed a different foreign policy approach. Seeing the EU door almost closed and having to deal with the post-coup domestic priorities, President Tayyip Erdogan sought to strengthen his country’s regional role. He placed more emphasis on national security issues and was not hesitant to forge closer ties with Russia and China. He has lacked predictability in international affairs.

Eastern Mediterranean waters could not but come to Turkey’s interest when hydrocarbons were discovered in the Basin. Cyprus followed Israel in proceeding to explore and exploit some reservoirs, such as the Aphrodite field, in close collaboration with some international energy companies. Like any other sovereign country in the world with resources, it had the right to develop them. The Republic of Cyprus had already entered the EU in 2004, but the island remained divided after the Turkish military invasion of 1974. From the very beginning, Turkey disagreed with the practices of the Cypriot government and acted to protect, in its view, the Turkish Cypriot community. Such actions became bolder in 2018. Turkish vessels began researching and drilling in Cypriot waters, although the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus is grounded on international law. The reaction of both the EU and the U.S. was very mild. As a result, Turkish ships uninterruptedly continue their operations as of today. Having been disappointed with the EU’s stance, on September 21, 2020, Cyprus decided not to sign the list of European sanctions against Belarus unless Brussels moves to impose sanctions on Turkey over its violation of Cypriot sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

August 2020 saw Turkey expand the same policy in regard to Cypriot waters, particularly maritime zones south of the island of Kastellorizo. The Turkish government sent the “Oruc Reis” ship to conduct research in disputed waters, according to the terminology of the American administration. It was accompanied by frigates causing Greece’s similar reaction. The research lasted for more than four weeks. On September 21, Ankara did not renew the relevant NAVTEX fueling speculation about its motivations. While maintenance reasons are officially presented as the main reason for the return of “Orus Reis” to the Antalya port, the decision is generally seen as a sign to diffuse tensions in view of the EU-Turkey summit of September 24–25, where the possibility of sanctions is likely to de discussed. Nonetheless, Turkey has declared the vessel could soon continue its mission.

The crisis is far from over. External mediators, namely Germany and the U.S., call for dialogue. Other partners such as Russia, China, France and the UK also advocate for a diplomatic solution. In principle, dialogue remains the only way forward. However, Greece and Turkey have completely different agendas. Turkey opts for negotiations without preconditions on a variety of themes. Experience from history—when the Aegean Sea was the epicentre of attention—shows Ankara is aware that international law would hardly favour its position, should talks only be concentrated on the delimitation of the continental shelf. The Turkish government endeavours to boost its argumentation by publicly talking about the geographic position of Kastellorizo, yet steadily combines other demands along with the proposed arrangement of maritime zones. Greece suspiciously sees this tactic.

Another reason for pessimism is that Turkey complements its position about future dialogue with Greece with some proposals on the island of Cyprus. Specifically, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has talked about the establishment of an equitable revenue sharing mechanism and other schemes with the participation of all parties, including the Turkish Cypriots. Whether the two themes, Greek-Turkish relations and the rights of Turkish Cypriot and perhaps a revival of talks on the Cyprus Question are to be linked, will be seen. As a matter of principle, Athens and Nicosia do not accept the participation of the Turkish Cypriot administration in any negotiations or meetings. And they both see the Cyprus Question as an international and European problem. Having said that, Greece and Cyprus raise provocative Turkish actions in the Eastern Mediterranean at the EU level, whereas Turkey prefers direct negotiations on outstanding issues. Despite this alignment, Athens does not negotiate on behalf of Nicosia.

So, where are we? NATO “deconfliction” talks are continuing and Germany is pushing both Greece and Turkey to engage themselves in new exploratory talks. The most delicate part of the task is not to talk about the need for dialogue but to make dialogue a success before a new military crisis occurs. Russia has also offered to mediate if asked, as the problem is an area of concern for the American administration and NATO first. From a Greek perspective, good ties between Russia and Turkey are a thorn in Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s initiative to mediate. Of course, this can also be a blessing in disguise. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis decided to publicize his interest in holding a telephone conversation with President Vladimir Putin at the end of July, while important meetings between Greek and Russian officials took place in recent days. Foreign Ministers Dendias and Lavrov regularly talk to each other. Greece strives to achieve balance between its clear foreign policy choices and the difficult but possible rewarming of ties with Russia, acknowledging the rising role of the latter in the South.

From our partner RIAC

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Why the “Coronavirus Ceasefire” Never Happened




Six months ago, when COVID-19 had just moved beyond the borders of China and embarked upon its triumphant march across Europe and North America, politicians and foreign affairs experts started discussing what will happen after the virus is vanquished. The debate that ensued balanced the fears and concerns of pessimists with the hopes and expectations of optimists, with the latter believing that the pandemic and the global recession that followed would inevitably force humankind to put its differences aside and finally unite in the face of common challenges.

Six months later, we can say without any doubt that, unfortunately, the optimists were wrong. The pandemic did not bring about the changes in world politics they had been hoping for, even with the ensuing recession making things worse. And we are unlikely to see any such changes in the near future. Sadly, COVID-19 did not turn out to be a cure-all for regional conflicts, arms races, the geopolitical competition and the countless ailments of humankind today.

These persisting ailments are more than evident in relations between Russia and the West. No positive steps have been made in the past six months in any of the areas where the positions of the two sides differ significantly, be it the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the unrest in Syria, the political instability in Venezuela or the war in Libya. The fate of the New START and the nuclear nonproliferation regime remains unclear. Moscow continues to be the target of new economic and political sanctions. Russia and the West are locked in an intense information war. There are no signs of a “coronavirus ceasefire,” let alone a full-fledged peace agreement, on the horizon.

Of course, Moscow has placed the blame for the lack of progress squarely on the shoulders of its western partners. While this may indeed be true in many respects, we must admit that the Kremlin has hardly been overflowing with ideas and proposals over the past six months. Even if Moscow did want to reverse the current negative trends in global politics, it has not taken any steps on its own to do so. Nor has it proposed any large-scale international projects, or even tried to temper its usual foreign policy rhetoric and propaganda.

On the contrary, the various troubles that have befallen Russia in the “coronavirus era” – from the public unrest in Belarus to the unfortunate poisoning of Alexei Navalny – are explained away as the malicious intrigues of Russia’s geopolitical opponents. For all intents and purposes, the Kremlin is in the same position now, in September 2020, that it was in back in March. The chances of another “reset” or at least a “timeout” in relations have disappeared completely, if they ever existed in the first place.

So, why did the “coronavirus ceasefire” never happen? Without absolving the West of its share of responsibility, let us try to outline the obstacles that Russia has put in the way of progress.

First, in an environment of unprecedented shocks and cataclysms, there is always the hope that your opponent will eventually suffer more as a result than you will. Many in Russia see the 2020 crisis as the final damning indictment of the West and even an inglorious end to the market economy and political liberalism in general.

The recent statement by Aide to the President of the Russian Federation Maxim Oreshkin that Russia is poised to become one of the top five economies in the world this year is particularly noteworthy. Not because the country is experiencing rapid economic growth, but because the German economy is set to fall further than the Russian economy. If you are certain that time is on your side and that you will emerge from the crisis in better shape than your opponents, then the incentives to work towards some kind of agreement hic et nunc are, of course, reduced.

Second, the current Russian leadership is convinced that any unilateral steps on its part, any shifts in Moscow’s foreign policy, will be perceived in the West as a sign of weakness. And this will open the door for increased pressure on Moscow. Not that this logic is entirely unfounded, as history has shown. But it is precisely this logic that prevents Russian leaders from admitting their past foreign policy mistakes and miscalculations, no matter how obvious they may have been. This, in turn, makes it extremely difficult to change the current foreign policy and develop alternative routes for the future. In fact, what we are seeing is a game to preserve the status quo, in the hope that history will ultimately be on Moscow’s side, rather than that of its opponents (see the first point).

Third, six and a half years after the crisis in Ukraine broke out, we are essentially left with a frozen conflict. Turning the large and unwieldy state machine around, rewiring the somewhat heavy-handed state propaganda machine, and changing the policies that determine the everyday actions of the army of “deep state” officials is tantamount to changing the trajectory of a supertanker carrying a load of hundreds of thousands of tonnes. It is perhaps even more difficult, however, to change the opinion that has taken shape in Russian society in recent years about the modern world and Russia’s place in it. Just because the Russian people are tired of foreign politics, this does not mean that they will enthusiastically support an updated version of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” of the second half of the 1980s or the ideological principles of Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Kozyrev’s foreign policy of the early 1990s.

Fourth, the balance of power between the agencies involved in the development and practical implementation of Russia’s foreign policy has changed significantly in recent years. The role of the security forces has been growing in all its aspects since at least the beginning of 2014. Conversely, the role of diplomats, as well as that of the technocrats in the economic structures of the Russian government, has been dwindling with each passing year. It is the security forces that are the main “stakeholders” in Donbass, Syria, Libya and even Belarus today. It would be fair to say that they have had a controlling interest in Russia’s foreign policy. The oft-quoted words of Emperor Alexander III that Russia has only two allies, its army and its navy, perfectly reflect the shift that has taken place in the balance of powers between these agencies. We should add that this shift was largely welcomed and even supported by a significant part of Russian society (see the third point). Of course, the siloviki are, due to the specifics of their work, less inclined to compromise, concessions and basic human empathy than diplomats, economists and technocrats.

All these factors preventing the conceptual renewal of Russia’s foreign policy can equally be applied to its geopolitical opponents. Politicians in the West are also hoping that time is on their side, that Moscow will emerge from the crisis weaker and more vulnerable, and thus more malleable than it was before. They also believe that any unilateral steps, any demonstration of flexibility in relations with the Kremlin, will be met with an even tougher and more aggressive policy. Negative ideas about Russia have also taken root in the minds of people in the West, and foreign policy is being “militarized” there just as much as it is in Russia.

Thus, neither the coronavirus nor the economic recession will automatically lead to a détente, let alone a reset in relations between Russia and the West. We are, in fact, moving in the opposite direction, once again running the risk of an uncontrolled confrontation. However, this unfortunate situation is no reason to give up on the possibility of signing new agreements, even if COVID-19 will no longer be in our corner moving forward.

From our partner RIAC

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India’s strategies short of war against a hostile China



Since India’s independence several peace and border cooperation agreements were signed between the India and China. Prominent among them was the Panchsheel Agreement signed in 1954. A majority of the agreements were signed between 1993 and 2013. Recently genuine efforts were made by PM Narendra Modi by engaging Xi Jinping at the Wuhan and Chennai summits. But China is nowhere near to settling the border dispute despite various agreements and talks at the military and civilian levels.

After the 1962 war peace was largely maintained on the Indo China border. During the Mao and Deng era consensus building was the norm in the communist party. XiJinping appointed himself as chairman of the communist party for life. Today power is centralized with XiJinping and his cabal. Through Doklam and Galwan incidents Xi Jinpinghas disowned the peaceful principles laid down by his predecessors. China’s strategy is to keep India engaged in South Asia as it doesn’t want India to emerge as a super power. After solving a crisis on the border China will create another crisis. Beijing has declining interest in the niceties of diplomacy. Under Xi Jinping China has become more hostile.

China has been infringing on India’s sovereignty through salami tactics by changing the status quo and attempting to own the border territory. At Galwan on Xi Jinping’s birthday the PLA demonstrated hooliganism by assaulting Indian border positions. China violated the 1996 and 2005 bilateral agreements which states that both armies should not carry weapons within 1.24 miles on either side of the border. India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar mentioned that the standoff situation with China in Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh is “surely the most serious situation after 1962.”China is constructing infrastructure, increasing forces and deploying weapon systems on the border.

Options for India

India led by PM Narendra Modi has implemented a realist foreign policy and a muscular military policy.India ended the age of strategic restraint by launching special operations and air strikes in Pakistan. Since the Galwan incident India has increased the military, diplomatic and economic deterrence against China. India is constructing military infrastructure and deploying weapon systems like SU 30 MKI and T 90 tanks in Ladakh. India banned a total of 224 Chinese apps, barred Chinese companies from government contracts and is on the verge of banning Huawei. Other measures include excluding Chinese companies from private Indian telecommunications networks. Chinese mobile manufacturers can be banned from selling goods in India.

India should offer a grand strategy to China. India has a plethora of options short of war. Future talks should involve an integrated strategy to solve all the bilateral issues and not just an isolated resolution of a localized border incident. All instruments of military and economic power and coercive diplomacy should be on the table.

Foreign Policy

China expects other nations to follow bilateral agreements and international treaties while it conveniently violates them. India should abrogate the Panscheel agreement given China’s intransigence and hostility. China claims 35,000 square miles of territory in India’s northeast, including the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China occupies 15,000 square miles of India’s territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau in the Himalayas. India’s primary objective is to take back territories like Aksai Chin. While the secondary issue is the resolution of the border issue and China’s support to Pakistan. India can leverage the contemporary geopolitical climate to settle all issues. India can target China’s soft underbelly characterized by issues like Taiwan, Xinjiang and the economy. China raises the Kashmir issue at international organizations. As a countervailing measure India can raise Xinjiang at international organizations and conferences.

China has been militarily and diplomatically supporting Pakistan against India. Pakistan is a rentier and a broken state that sponsors terrorism. India can establish bilateral relations with Taiwan thus superseding China’s reunification sensitivities. China has territorial disputes with 18 countries including Taiwan and Japan. India can hedge against China by establishing strategic partnerships with US, Australia, Japanand Vietnam.

Military policy

An overwhelming military is a deterrence for China’s belligerent foreign and military policy. The 1990Gulf War demonstrated the capabilities of high technology weapon systems. As compared to China’s rudimentary weapons systems India has inducted 4th and 5th generation weapons like the SU 30 MKI, AH 64 Apache and T 90 tanks. The deterrence capacity of fighter aircrafts is reduced as they cannot target China’s coastlines due to their restricted range. Full deterrence can be achieved by ICBMs and nuclear powered submarines. With these weapons India can target centers of gravity like Shanghai and Shenzhen.

China is not a signatory to arms limitations treaties like Start I and Start II. China continues to expand its nuclear weapons stockpile and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) like DF 21 and DF-26B which are banned by the INF Treaty. India is a law abiding stable democracy in an unstable region with two hostile nations on its flanks. US and Russia can relax the arms control mechanism considering India’s’ impeccable record on peace and non proliferation. This will allow India to buy Russian weapon systems like Zircon and Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, Topol and Bulava ICBMs and Yasen and Borey class SSBN submarines. While US can sell SSBN submarines and C4ISR gathering platforms like RC 135 and RQ 4 Global Hawk.

China remains a security threat for Asia. As China foments instability the APAC region from South Asia to South China Sea remains volatile. The Quad can be expanded to include Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia and multinational naval exercises can conducted in the South China Sea.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. China fought small wars with India, Vietnam and Soviet Union. Vietnam defeated the PLA at Lang Son in 1979 with advanced weapon systems and guerilla warfare. India can increase militarily cooperation with Vietnam. China attacked the Soviet Union on the Ussuri river leading to heavy PLA casualties. Historically relations between Russia and India have been close. As a result of the Indo Soviet Friendship Treaty China did not support Pakistan during the 1971 war. India can enhance its military and diplomatic ties with Russia to the next level.

Strategic partnership with US

Its time for a partnership between the world’s largest and the world’s biggest democracies. India and the US have a common objective to preserve peace, maintain stability and enhance security in Asia. India’s reiteration at leaders’ level and international forums that both countries see each other as allies for stability in the APAC region is not enough. India has to go beyond the clichés of the need for closer ties.

Due to the China threat the US is shifting its military from Europe and Middle East to the APAC region.US and India can establish an Asian equivalent of NATO as China’s destructive policy frameworks and threatening postures remain a strategic threat. India should enhance and deepen cooperation with the US intelligence community in the fields of MASINT, SIGINT, GEOINT, TECHINT and CYBINT. Both countries can form an alliance of democracies. If China militarily or economically targets one of the member country then the alliance can retaliate under a framework similar to Article 5 of NATO. Thus power will be distributed in the APAC region instead of being concentrated with China. A scorpion strategy will ensure that China does not harass its neighbors. The strategy involves a military pincer movement by India from the west and US from the East against a hostile China. India can conduct joint military exercises with the US in Ladakh. China cannot challenge Japan and Taiwan due to the US security agreements with these countries.


The world has entered the age of instability and uncertainty. The 21st century is characterized by hybrid warfare through military and coercive diplomacy. South Asia is not a friendly neighborhood where peaceful overtures lead to harmonious relations. China is a threat to India even in the context of a friendly relationship. Diplomatic niceties have no place in India’s relations with China. India can impose costs on China which can be more than the benefits offered by normalizing relations. The application of measures short of war without engaging the PLA will reap benefits. India can fulfill its national security requirements and global responsibilities through a grand strategy.

A policy of engagement and deterrence is crucial against an antagonistic China. While India attempts to develop cooperative ties with China it will need to continue to enhance and implement its military and coercive diplomatic strategies. China does not represent a direct military threat to India but at the same time one cannot deny that challenges remain.

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