The Looming Winter of Discontent

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar (to be published)

Impact and Veracity of Social Media

       The widespread popularity of social media, despite its loud and frequent boorish content, has made the study of events that form historical processes more a disarrayed function of the common than, hitherto, an orderly and elitist function. With around 63.4 million tweets in cyber space relating to the Russo-Ukraine conflict inside a fortnight of the commencement of operations, reality is tossed around and mangled as never before to present itself in the garb of emerging history. Meanwhile, people quite blithely debate whether a nuclear holocaust is an option; whether the NATO should impose a no-fly zone (forget the consequences); or if the alleged counter offensives are kosher; and indeed the imminence of a palace coup in the Kremlin  through the revolt by the oligarchs or even the return of Alexei Navalny.

       A viewpoint built on contrived interpretations of happenings serves only to manipulate human understanding in a manner that gives life to wishful projections. All this has left discernments of the conflict in Ukraine confounded in a mire of half-truths, myths and propaganda.

Where Lies the Truth?

       In this ambience of facts being irrelevant to a distorted narrative, Orwell’s suggestion that the truth  “is not merely determined by the accuracy of verbal veracity; it is the sense of the importance of the event that is its truth; a combination of actual fact and factual relevance ultimately impel an outcome which is the inviolable truth…” Arguably, this is the most important sense in which the truth exists and also the only way of deciphering the goings on in the war in Ukraine.

       President Zelenskyy addressing his nation stated that “The pace of providing aid to Ukraine by partners should correspond to the pace of our movement.” To a military mind, this may suggest that western arms and war material is either not keeping pace with losses or that Ukraine is running low on reserves. And what of the Ukrainian counter offensive? It appears to be vacated space that is being reclaimed; not on account of having exacted a military rout but more owing to Russian operational inability to consolidate a territorial over-reach.

Not the Era for War

       At the recent meeting of the 77th session of the UNGA, deliberations were dominated by the situation in Ukraine. President Macron went to some length as he quoted Prime Minister Modi’s dialogue with President Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit exhorting him that “Today’s era is not an era of war…” There can be several interpretations of the discourse; but the one that underscored sense and criticality to Macron, the EU and indeed the world was the impact that Russian controlled energy cut-offs will have on the people and economies of the EU.

Russia’s Menacing Energy Bludgeon

       Russia supplied the EU with 40% of its natural gas last year. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, was the leading importer. As the main supplier of gas for many European countries, Moscow controls energy to propel industries, keep alive essential services and for domestic heating. The resource has become a lever that governs relations and, indeed, tensions. Europe’s dependency on Russian gas was no accident. It began as a measure to wean itself away from the OPEC and then became a part of a larger project spearheaded by Germany to deliberately tie the two together in bonds of reliance. The probable understanding was that increased dependency on Russia would open their vast markets to bi-lateral trade and mutual dependency would bring to an end an historical adversarial relationship. But the war in Ukraine exposed the failings of this strategy as Russia’s dominance over energy supplies far outweighed any sense of mutuality. On the contrary it has put immense pressure on European leaders without in any way reducing Russian oil revenues, as demands mount.

       The Kremlin has already cut off gas to six countries and fettered supply to six more in response to NATO’s sanctions. While energy policies of EU states have recognised that it is overly dependent on Russia, it offers no definitive answers of how to reduce that dependency. After all, Russia earned over $430 billion in revenue from oil and gas exports to the EU in the last one year and this figure far exceeds the estimated costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In balance is the menacing hardship of an extreme winter for Europe without Russian gas to brave it. Add to this Russia’s control over a third of global wheat supplies that has laid bare the food insecurity of the world. Clearly economics has trumped strategy.

       In the meantime, in a referendum ordered in the occupied Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine, the people there have apparently voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Russian Federation. The annexation has made clear that Moscow’s war aims was the territories that comprised the Donbas region, Kherson and the Zaporizhizhia Oblasts (if it weren’t discernable all along).  A reported partial Russian mobilisation has been called, perhaps to generate the necessary “boots-on-ground” that will secure the fresh appropriations.

External Factors and Peace Prospects

       Distinguishing myths from the reality of disparities in Russo-Ukrainian war waging potential and the flagging nature of aid coming in from the NATO are keys to understanding the direction of this conflict. There is little doubt that Moscow has suffered military reverses, yet their hold on substantial swathes of land in the East and South to the extent of near 20% of the Ukrainian land area is firm and is in the process of being consolidated.  On a daily basis, Ukraine confirms the pivotal dependence upon external factors. Fundamental to the war and, ironically, the weakest link is the US and NATO material backing. Both, surprisingly, bristling at the start of the conflict; are perhaps becoming aware that sanctions are not going to make the Kremlin sue for peace. The answer is not more sanctions as much as the political will to see through privations, a harsh winter and the current economic downturn; we note, NATO’s strategic patience has worn thin.

       Given the correlation that is emerging, hazards of escalation and NATO’s wilting resolve to stay-the-course; one is unlikely to see the appearance of an olive branch till the worst of winter is past and that too on Kremlin’s terms.

Counterforce: a Threat to Nuclear Deterrence Stability

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at the following link:  http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5829 )

Early atomic bombs were crude city-annihilators. Their ability to bring enormous and horrific destruction to the civilian domain was demonstrated by the USA on 06 August 1945 when the Japanese city of Hiroshima was devastated; and if that were not enough, a second atomic weapon was detonated over the city of Nagasaki three days later. The two caused 214,000 primary fatalities to a combined population of 613,000 and an unknowable number of secondary and tertiary casualties.

Targeting Concepts

The use of nuclear weapons is governed by two basic targeting concepts: “Counterforce” and “Countervalue”. The former emphasizes strikes on military forces both nuclear and conventional, their infrastructure and logistics; while the latter focuses on economic targets and population centres. A Countervalue doctrine is limited in complexity and demands relatively simpler capabilities. During the Cold-War It led to a rather macabre belief that “assurance of mass destruction” would bring about a balance-of-terror which in turn guaranteed stability. It led to an amassing of arsenals whose aggregate yield could destroy the world many times over. The Counterforce doctrine, on the other hand, suggests that nuclear war could be limited and nuclear forces could be used to disarm the adversary of nuclear weapons; almost as if, the side adopting a Counterforce doctrine controls retaliation by the victim.

Both targeting concepts lose sight of a cardinal principle of international relations; that war has political purpose. Destruction of purpose debases the application of force to a savage all-obliterating clash. Ironically, we note today how nuclear armed states are, adopting postures that increase prospects of the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflicts.

Bernard Brodie, in 1946, provided an intellectual framework for avoiding nuclear war. In his seminal work The Absolute Weapon (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1946, P76) he suggested: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose”.  Brodie recognised that the possibility of ‘total destruction’ inherent in the use of nuclear weapons had made victory unachievable, at the same time it’s political value lay in the threat it posed to manipulate an adversary’s mind.

Evolution of Nuclear Weapons & Political Purpose

In examining the evolution of the nuclear deterrence theory, we note there is an allegorical tendency to correlate the nature of war with the changing characteristics of the nuclear weapon. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, has an enduring nature that is defined by four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension as characterised by military genius, pervasiveness of uncertainty and the contest of opposing resolve. All of these exist within an historical, social and political context. While the dynamics that govern characteristics of nuclear weapons, is in the main, influenced by human ability to harness technology. Regardless, it is apparent that if either political purpose is lost or the human dimension is removed; then war itself is deprived of meaning.

 Given man’s facility to exploit technology, nuclear weapons have evolved in three distinct phases: first, from a weapon of use to an instrument that assured a balance of terror. Second, the threat of mutually guaranteed destruction developed into a contrivance for bargaining and devising compromises. Third, it comes full circle to a bizarre situation that today attempts to again justify nuclear war fighting. Such a progression of the weapon has lost sight of the political and human impact of use.

The Counterforce Strategic Narrative

For a nation, a strategic narrative is a lodestone to avoid a return to a trauma of the past around which the narrative was built and accepted. Its essence is often reflected in simple but pithy mantras such as “War on Terror”, “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “Counterforce doctrine”. The narrative that governs policies of nuclear armed states has, largely, been stimulated by that which emerged in the USA and been systematised in the wake of the first nuclear attacks, through the Cold-War and in its aftermath of a multi-polar world.  

In today’s strategic milieu, the lines between nuclear arsenals and conventional weapons have dangerously become intertwined as new offensive technologies such as precision hypersonic glide vehicles are introduced that pose a potent threat to the security of nuclear weapons and the stability of a deterrent relationship. The narrative in turn urges a “nuclear counterforce” strategy which determines policy and fashions a first-strike strategic posture.  And so we note with some alarm, that a nuclear weapon state when confronted by another may decide to use precision nuclear or conventional counterforce in a first strike to annul the possibility of being a victim of a nuclear attack. In this context the “reported” Russian policy Escalate to De-escalate and the US deployment of low yield nuclear weapons is confounding as it presumes total domination of the escalation ladder. 

The blurring of conventional and nuclear deterrence is apparent by the increasing integration of conventional and nuclear warfighting doctrines.  The US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review stresses the possibility of nuclear weapon use in response to non-nuclear attacks is a case in point. The long held view that nuclear weapons are exceptional has been set aside and in its place a dramatic escalation to nuclear warfighting is advocated. That, such use could provoke an unpredictable set of nuclear responses has been, eerily, blanked-out. Concepts that promote ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons are not new, for tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) were deployed with decentralised release authority during the Cold War. Recognising the catastrophic hazards of pre-delegation,  Presidential Nuclear Initiatives  attempted to remove all TNWs from the battlefield.

Conclusion

Counterforce strategies intrinsically translate to heightened nuclear risks as it prompts a ‘first strike’. It is also a flawed premise that response to nuclear escalation can ever be predictable and controlled. To the contrary, foreclosure of the option to use nuclear weapons first would not only enhance the stability of deterrence and reduce the role played by nuclear weapons in security policy; but also provide greater political legitimacy. Therefore, to adopt a ‘No-First-Use’ nuclear-policy provides sagacity to a troubled world in its deference for greater security and, indeed, for survival.

The Maritime Domain – An Abiding Stage for Cooperation and Conflict

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(To be published in Salute magazine)

.“What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which it caused in Sparta”.

                                                (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War)                                               

The first truth is: the outcome of modern wars have hinged on economic fallouts. The second is: conditions have been greatly influenced by rudimentary universal education. Leadership have split the vast majority of populations into two categories: those that believe in unrestricted economic activity and an opposing camp enticed by authoritarian rulers to view the former in venal light creating a centrally controlled camp.

So, we note, the extinction of the “Cold War” was a temporary hiatus that after three decades has morphed the communist bloc to an autocratic and nationalistic faction comprising China and Russia that seek revision of world order and its hitherto inequities, at least that is what the bloc will have the rest of the world believe. This refrain that Beijing and Moscow profess brings it in direct conflict with the believers of unrestricted economic activity. At the same time the vision of unrestricted global economic activity has proven so fragile and subject to the many nuances of geopolitics that resource deficient nations are left out.

Geopolitics a New Slant

 The term ‘geopolitics’ has often been employed in reference to a nation’s interest and stratagems adopted to secure them. This meaning is subjective; it does not account for the full significance of the term, and even bears a negative connotation. During the Second World War, Japan’s expansionist policies were justified using the ‘geopolitical’ argument. In the 21st century, geopolitics aims at explaining how geography can impact politics and how states try to mitigate these effects. Geography, in other words, contributes to defining the boundaries of what is possible to achieve in international relations along with economic and security advantages that may be leveraged. China In its South China Sea policy has shown just how ‘creatively’ this can be achieved.  

The Maritime Domain

 Thucydides, in the 4th century Bce, chronicled the events of the Peloponnesian War (431-404Bce). The War was fought between two leading Greek city states; Athens and Sparta and their allies. The conflict bears so many similarities to wars waged through the ages, that, to this day it offers lessons. The Athenian alliance included most of the littorals of the Aegean Sea, while Sparta was at the head of an alliance of continental powers. Athens had the stronger navy and Sparta, the stronger army. It was Athenian aggressive moves to establish empire and control the Mediterranean Sea that caused fear in Sparta and provoked war. The years of fighting were largely battles of attrition that depleted manpower and financial resources of both sides. Eventually, the Spartans destroyed the Athenian fleet, leading to capitulation of an exhausted Athens. Two significant lessons emerge:

  • Wars of attrition between balanced alliances do not yield spectacular victories, rather, exhaustion and a blurring of lines between victors and vanquished.
  • Wars of choice stimulated by overconfidence dangerously leave much to chance.

Towards the end of the 19th century it was thinkers like Mahan and Julian Corbett who set ablaze the maritime spirit of the new century. In The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Mahan analysed the use of British naval forces in conflicts to demonstrate that nations that had exercised control of important parts of the maritime domain, had dominated history. More specifically, it was the effect of sea power upon the course of history and the prosperity of nations that had allowed Britain to achieve global pre-eminence. Mahan’s significance was twofold: The first in the realm of grand strategy he asserted integration of maritime and naval activities with politics and economics. The second was command and decision making in war from a position of naval superiority. Since the sea was both a logistical highway and an avenue of approach, Mahan emphasized that command of the Sea gave enormous power and could only be attained by a dominant fleet with established bases and colonies. Sea power was about commercial use of the domain in peace and its control in war; about profits and power projection. Mahan’s theory remained persuasive till the first half of the twentieth century.

Corbett, on the other hand, believed naval influence on the maritime domain to be a part of national policy which had sway over the non-military elements of state power. He saw the fleet not merely an instrument of destruction but as an accompaniment to assuring the “act of passage on the sea.” It was from this critical tenet that concepts of Sea Denial, Sea Control and Power Projection evolved. Perhaps his abiding legacy to contemporary maritime thought was the idea that “freedom of the seas was an irreducible factor” for the sea was not territory for conquest; nor the oceans defensible. What it constituted was a substantial determinant in the growth of a nation and prosecution of war (Corbett Julian, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Longmans, 1911).

The Economic Motif: Strategic Competitiveness   

National wealth and economic prosperity are to some extent inherited but, in the main, created by the innovativeness of people. In this milieu the role played by the individual nation in international relations has become more rather than less critical. Therefore, strategic competitiveness has become one of the central preoccupations of government. Yet for all the writing on the topic, there is still no theory nor is there an accepted definition of the term in global affairs.

 The phrase “Strategic Competitiveness” first made its appearance in the 2018 National Defence Strategy of the USA . The document identified the revisionist states of China and Russia as strategic competitors. China for using “predatory economics” to intimidate lesser endowed nations while militarizing and persisting with its illegal claims in the South China Sea. It saw Russia as an autocratic nationalistic state that eschewed the economic, diplomatic, and security aspirations of its erstwhile bloc

It is amply clear that strategic competitiveness develops when the existing status-quo is challenged, or indeed when a state or an alliance contests the emerging challenge. The tools of the contest are the combined “comprehensive national power” of the two parties embracing political, economic, diplomatic, military and technological prowess.

 Multi-Polarity and the Prospects of Stability

The multipolar distribution of power which marks contemporary geopolitics has spawned security imbalances on account of economic inequities, interdependences, geography, demographics, the military and nature of government. It has incited jostling for control and power-ascendancy. The twentieth century mass violence of the two World Wars was caused by these very imbalances. It gave way, in 1945, to relative ‘stability’ distinguished by bi-polar tensions and the Cold War.

Demise of the Cold War in 1991 ushered in two decades of an unrestrained militaristic unipolar world order before a return to a complex agglomeration of powers of the day. The challenge to global order today is exemplified in the Putin Doctrine. Driven by a vision of renewal; Moscow considers the use of force as appropriate when its security is threatened. Its primary purpose is the rejection of a western conceived global order and global acceptance of Russian exceptionalism.

Looming Contestant: China

An historical analogy may be in order to fully understand the looming conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the uneasy democracies of the world, particularly so in India. In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of militarism, overbearing diplomacy, nationalism and brinkmanship to achieve policy goals, despite the risk of war. Demanding a review of international order that would confer on it a dominant political position, in keeping with its self-perceived economic and military prevalence, Germany saw little issue in conflict being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event, it was the response to ambitious revisionism and disregard of norms that led to war. An observer of contemporary geopolitics will not fail to note the similarity in circumstance, of China’s economic growth and vulnerabilities in the maritime domain, “military muscularity” pivotal to its geopolitical vision, ambitions, nationalism and its realpolitik instincts. However, the Belt and Road Initiative, which was the economic centre-piece intended to deliver billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to some countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, has now turned into a massive debt trap. The critical assumption of China’s leadership is that their new era of rejuvenation will progress per script unopposed. This assumption is flawed for as Michael Howard pointed (Lessons of History pg39) “force is the midwife of historical processes.” A clash is brewing, unintended as it may be. 

 Contestant Groupings

On cue, in response to China’s aggressive manoeuvres; the formation of a trilateral alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) and the continuing Strategic Security Dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US (Quad) have made it amply clear that “countering China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific” is number one priority, and the two will do whatever it takes to succeed.  Ironically, Beijing’s recent White Paper titled “National Defence in a New Era” outlined its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, Yellow Sea, Taiwan and Ladakh and warned regional powers of its willingness to use force and use it first if its ambitions are threatened.

The more palpable part of the ‘AUKUS’ is the transfer of 8 Nuclear-powered submarines (SSN). The SSNs will not be available to Australia for the next decade and a half, however they provides the basis for denial operations in these waters and gives access to a host of futuristic capabilities. AUKUS’s mission is complemented by the Quad presenting a new security architecture that combines both military and economic prowess amongst nations that share a vision of a free and rule-based Indo-Pacific. The resolve to strategic confrontation against revisionism is thus emphasised. Such a visible demonstration of collective power is, perhaps, the only way to dampen Beijing’s aggressive expansionism.

That these initiatives have made China “edgy” is clear from their declarations that “China will certainly punish Australia with no mercy”. Fearing forced unification, Taiwan is tightening its ties to the U.S.; Japan, is engaged in its largest military build-up since the Cold War; India is readying strike forces along China’s borders, developing strategies to occlude vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and has engaged partnerships that threaten China’s vulnerabilities; Australia is opening up its northern coast to U.S. forces. France, Germany, and the UK are sending warships into the Indo-Pacific to assert their rights. Clearly,  Nations have become less enthused by China’s market and more worried about its disturbing intent.  

 Conclusion

We had earlier touched on a pre-First World War analogy. However, one may surmise that given the nuclear overhang, the rise of China with its burden of a ‘century-of-humiliation’ will demand a firm strategy tempered by pragmatism rather than principles of the past. But the other reality is the fear of war, to authoritarian regimes that co-exists with belligerence and exalted nationalistic feelings that, while advancing concern of survival of dispensation, also boost profitable involvement in the incessant preparedness for war. Herein lies the striking resemblance with pre-First World War Germany. And herein also lies the chink that provides the opportunity to collar China through unified action where it is most vulnerable – in the maritime domain. This would not only threaten its dream of rejuvenation but also of regime survival.