The Challenge of a Multi-Polar Nuclear Age


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

To be published in the IPCS Web Journal in the authors column The Strategist.

Of Parity, Assured Destruction & Mistrust

For the last 77 years, since the USA first detonated nuclear weapons and annihilated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an eerie ambivalence has prevailed concerning their use. On the one hand some scholars and practitioners are convinced of the myth of usable nuclear weapons; while on the other, governments are devising policies for use . In the meanwhile, Russia toys with the idea of escalating to nuclear warfare in order to de-escalate on-going conflict; while China designs a strategy to provide greater flexibility in the use of nuclear forces.

Significantly, the first nuclear attacks also defined the basis of nuclear stability. Relationship between bellicose nuclear armed states was marked by three characteristics: quest for parity in arsenals, certitude of mutual destruction and a bizarre level of mistrust that drove states to adopt grotesque stratagems. Just how abominable nuclear war plans could be was pointed out by Noam Chomsky (the renowned pacifist). US nuclear posture, he said, called “for the delivery of 3200 nuclear weapons to 1060 targets in Russia, China, and allied countries,” all together impervious to the fact that nuclear weapons destroyed political purpose. General Butler, a former Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command put it succinctly when he renounced the current nuclear programs and systems as a death warrant for humanity.

 Flawed New START

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was signed 08 April, 2010, by the US and Russia. The instrument was a continuum of a bipartisan process to reduce nuclear arsenals. The two parties agreed in 2021, to extend the Treaty by five years. The key provision of the agreement limits nuclear warheads, delivery vectors and launchers and institutes a system of verification.

The Accord is, however, amiss both conceptually and in its substance. Conceptually it is neither inclusive of all nuclear armed states nor does it identify “mistrust” as a key factor that stokes scepticism. While in substance it fails to recognise that all nuclear weapons, including tactical, are weapons in the same category; for when used they have the potential to escalate to mass destruction. In addition it pays no heed to the fact that warheads held in reserve can very quickly be deployed. But where the treaty is fatally flawed is its inability to institute measures that diminish intent “to-use” by demanding all nuclear armed nations to abjure “First Use” of nuclear weapons as an essential doctrinal-point that allays perils of nuclear devastation.

Nuclear Weapons an Umbrella for Conventional War

Just how consequential this last consideration can be has been demonstrated In the course of the Ukraine conflict. Russia has obliquely threatened use of nuclear weapons to provide an umbrella for its war. This has turned the Cold-War idea of deterrence on its head as Moscow uses the deterrence value of its nuclear arsenal not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. The Kremlin introduced an explicit nuclear dimension through its various declarations. On 18 February 2022, Russia conducted manoeuvres of its nuclear forces prior incursion into Ukraine. The event left little doubt that choice of timing was linked to the impending crisis. On 24 February, Moscow warned NATO in a declaration that there would be unprecedented consequences should a third state attempt to “obstruct” Russia’s designs. The Russian president went further on 27 February, announcing that Russia’s nuclear forces had been placed on “special alert”. Such public announcement regarding nuclear forces was last proclaimed by the United States during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later noted, cryptically, that a third world war would be “nuclear”.

The Bluff of Extended Deterrence

In this milieu, the very idea of “extended nuclear deterrence” takes an outlandish turn. The logic of guarantee against a nuclear attack on a third nation implies that the guarantor launch a retaliatory nuclear strike and accept the consequences irrespective of circumstance, extent of convergence of interests or degree of mutuality. This, as recent events in Ukraine has exposed, is not rational.

Extended nuclear deterrence demands both guarantor and beneficiary accept the same conditions of nuclear use, magnitude of response, norms for escalation and share the same strategic interests. Since none of these propositions are indubitable, the substance of extended nuclear deterrence is ultimately dependent on the guarantor accepting catastrophic consequences on behalf of a third party. Nations under this canopy might want to re-consider the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence in the contemporary strategic circumstance. Reliance on the nuclear deterrent capabilities of a major power is much more an “act of clutching at a straw” than a reflection of reality. This is the dilemma of extended nuclear deterrence.

Prospects of Nuclear Stability – A Revisit

              Many factors that deterred military conflict during the Cold War and after have weakened. The growing parity of arsenal, absence of moderating pressures and power imbalances between states have exposed the underlying stresses within the global system and increased the probability of conflict.

   Russia’s case is symptomatic of the current anarchic state of affairs. Having lost its economic, technological, and political heft of the Soviet era; it retains great power aspirations, demands exceptionalism and clings to nuclear superpower status. Its nuclear arsenal is a key component of leverage, for it endows immunity from military pressure and the leeway to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Nuclear deterrence today can only work in conjunction with agreements, limitations and transparency. Without which, it brings antagonistic powers to the brink of nuclear war in a crisis. In the present fragile condition of deterrent relationships the prospects of nuclear stability amongst the nine nuclear armed nations will remain forlorn.

The Challenge

Cold-War nuclear paradigms can no further be tweaked to provide an illusion of stability to the nine nuclear armed states. Priority should be given to identifying methods to dispel ‘mistrust’, while advancing the idea that globally, nuclear surety is neither served by ‘parity’ in arsenals nor ‘assurance’ of total devastation. The former has brought into play a multi-polar encore of an arms race, while the latter is a return to barbaric times when extinction was propagated as a solution.

  Global affairs of-the-day is a paradox. Economics and interdependence are the engines of power and yet there is reluctance to step back from military situations such as what we see in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons cannot be reduced to a gamblers game of “dare”. But to remove it from arsenals is neither practicable nor are nations ready to wean themselves from an instrument of power that nurtured them. The answer lies in transparency shadowed by withdrawal from this calamitous obsession through a general adoption of a policy of ‘No-First-Use’ of nuclear weapons. This is a first step towards disarmament.

Power Paradigms & the Vexed Path to Peace in Ukraine


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal on theauthors site “The Strategistavailable at

The multipolar distribution of power which marks contemporary geopolitics has spawned   security imbalances on account of economic inequities, geography, demographics, the military and nature of government. It has incited jostling for control and power-ascendancy, which in Ukraine has distorted into conflict. 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 in Europe and the Cold War. It did not by any means provide the same rude comfort in the other continents. 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 multipolar powers of the day.

The early 20th century multi-polar power distribution was different. The context was a world of imperial powers, colonies and a debased system that served the interests of the prevailing hegemon. The primary actors were from Europe, the USA and Japan. In contrast, the contemporary world is notable by an array of interdependent actors critical in domains that go beyond the military.

There is a view that believes bi-polarity assured a modicum of security, guaranteed by the two superpowers. Wars fought between 1945-89 and onwards, however, rubbish such an analysis. Given intensity and casualties; occurrences of war tell a different story. Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, 236 wars were fought; while 147 were battled from 1990 to 2020. These statistics hardly suggest that the Cold War set into motion a pacific period in geo-politics. Clearly, peace is not entirely a function of power distribution.

The path to peace, another school of thought holds, is through economic cooperation. This assumes that each state big or small plays a role in the global economic system. In theory, such a circumstance makes upholding security and sovereignty of the state a collective responsibility. Unfortunately, competition for security and the absence of acceptable rules for partnership makes economic cooperation abstruse. The barrage of economic sanctions that the West have levied on Russia for the military onslaught on Ukraine, Russia’s counter injunctions and their impact tell exactly how complex economic relations can be.

When the state is weak, economic activity can be threatened by more powerful states that seek strategic advantage and internally, by self-seeking elements. So peace cannot just be a function of cooperative economics. The case of South Sudan, suggests that weakness of a nation is doggedly enduring and does not invite peace.

An examination of the three power paradigm considered thus far, presents a rather perplexing perspective of the larger consequences of dispersion or concentration of power. There is no convincing argument as to which of the systems is conducive for a more stable world. With the caveat that any prescription must account for the nature of power and its distribution.

A core principle of international stability after World War II is that nations have a right to self-determination, and borders are inviolable. Yet, Russia, transgressed this belief, when in, 2014 it annexed parts of Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula and in February 2022, invaded Ukraine on grounds of ethnic conformity and strategic security demanding creation of a defensive bulwark against an eastward advancing NATO.

The challenge to the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the Putin Doctrine . Driven by a vision of reversal of the fallout of collapse of the Soviet Union; Russia 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 acceptance of Russian exceptionalism.

Digging deeper, it is discernible that the “contemporary multi-polar power” exemplar has in many ways set into motion the events leading to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

 The crisis is a test case of whether democratic institutions will stick-by their principles. While autocratic dispensations, view the rapidly changing events with an eye on how resolutely the West upholds its security structures. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is under the scanner. Beijing, in particular, will be roused as it formulates plans to invade Taiwan, consolidate claims in the South China Sea and stirs its aggressive design in Ladakh.  At stake is international order and its systems of superintendence. That being as it may, potential aggressors must be deterred by an idea; that of abhorrence of geographic subjugation. The tragedy of the times is that grand principles neither usher peace nor do they challenge realpolitik.

The road to peace perhaps begins with an acceptance of realities and then attempts a harmonious amalgam of principles. The idea that peace is kindred to democracy is a vision in international relations that some may, rule out as Quixotic. Events in Ukraine advance the thought that democracies are as susceptible to war hysteria as authoritarian states. While each side spins its own self-indulgent narrative that justifies conflict, what suffers is the very idea of global interdependence.

There is, therefore, a need for profound institutional reconstitution. Current systems, in the main, respond to a past driven by self-interests and balance of power. However, global concerns and realities such as the pandemic and indeed the impact of conflicts on world-wide economic networks make individual survival and prosperity a collective function. The necessity is therefore for universal policies that inspire stability and have regional expression that makes security of the smallest a shared responsibility. These are not prescriptions but principles that must guide action.

The UN is seen as even more toothless today than it was during the pandemic. It is hopelessly impotent when a major power is involved, therefore not only must its security architecture be remodelled to expand permanent membership of the Security Council, but the intervention of a peace keeping force or a negotiating body must be mandatory at first indication of armed conflict.

During the Cold-War, nuclear deterrence is credited for preventing conflict between the super-powers. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine casts a harsh light on how the idea has been turned on its head. Most obvious is that Moscow is using nuclear deterrence not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. NATO’s nuclear weapons deter Russia from engaging in a wider European conflict but leaves Ukraine in a hopeless war (See Map 1).

So why does NATO provide weapons without committing heavy arms, air defence or troops in defence of Ukraine? Is it to prolong the conflict and make Ukraine a testing ground for doctrines and hardware? After all, NATO is aware that to engage Russia in direct conflict will signal the start of World War III, so why not take bolder steps to encourage negotiations? 

For the present peace is a far cry, it would appear the EU and NATO is determined to fight to the last Ukrainian.

Map 1. Progress of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Deciphering China’s Grand Strategy


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS web journal in the authors column “The Strategist” may be accessed at

Xi’s Declarations

China’s strategic priorities constitute “comprehensive national security,” with regime-security being key and economic-security being the foundation and means to its Grand Strategy. The People’s Daily Online, reviewed Xi’s important declarations made while addressing the Central National Security Committee (CNSC) and the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCCP). Xi’s declarations included the following:

  • Uphold  Party’s Absolute Leadership over national security (17 Apr 2018, CNSC).
  • Improve strategic ability(17 April 2018, CNSC}.
  • Adhere to the organic unity of people’s security, political security, and national interest (18 Oct 2017, CCCP).
  • Play the first move well, play the active battle well, and be prepared to deal with any form of conflict, risk or challenge(18 Jan 2016, CCCP).
  • Take people’s security as the purpose and political security as the foundation, and embark on a national security path (15 Apr 2014, CNSC).

While some of the flavour may have been lost in translation the essence emerges only if we consider political survival of the CCP as key to national and economic security. Implying that the bulk of the population are mere vassals of the state. After-all, less than 6.7% of the population of China are members of the CCP.

What Do These Declarations Mean?

 “Absolute leadership” is a reminder to the world of the CCP’s internal stakes. If any saw in Beijing the possibility of egalitarianism, it must come as a rude awakening. It also brings into focus the reason why “galloping-growth” is an imperative for regime survival.

 “Strategic ability” of a nation is predicated on its people and their talent to generate wealth. People, for large nations, are also the most powerful consumers. When productive-age population shrinks, so do revenues. That has already happened to China since their “one child policy” of 1979. Adding to that Beijing’s policy of predatory economic statecraft and territorial ambitions, have hardly gone down well with the world community. No longer are nations enthused by China’s markets as they worry more about its disturbing intent.

 Examining the linkage between “unity of people’s security” with political security, and national interest; there is a contradiction that no action by the CCP can reconcile. The bond between people and politics is at best a tenuous one, for 6.7% of the population to claim first right of existence is only conceivable in a tyranny. George Orwell put it succinctly, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. “ This is a reminder of the possibility of the state imploding.

“To play the first move well, play the active battle well and prepare to deal with any conflict” are curious exhortations to make to the people. In the game of chess, the best first move is one that seeks the centre of the board in order to control the maximum number of squares. In geo-politics this not only suggests a ready preparedness for conflict, but also advises timing and the skill to “rout the enemy before they form” (Sun Tzu, Art of War). The conquest of Tibet, offensive in Korea, First and Second Taiwan crises, Sino-Indian War of 1962, Sino-Soviet conflict, annexation of the Paracel Islands, China’s disregard of international law and its legally discredited expansionist claims in the South China Sea exemplify just what the “first move” means and what it entails for an adversary.

Grand Strategy Unravelled

Grand strategy refers to a plan of actions by which a nation achieves its major long-term objectives. To understand Beijing’s Grand Strategy, reliance has been placed on a combination of leadership declarations, policies, economic activities and the military means it has embraced.

Since inception in 1949, China’s strategic focus has shifted from revolution-survival-recovery to an emphasis on rejuvenation. Both internal and external factors have shaped this vision. Internally the “century of humiliation” has driven strategies of regime survival and rejuvenation. Externally, tensions with leading democracies of the world over its revisionist and expansionist policies have characterized the on-going rivalry.

Protecting Chinese ‘core interests’ of sovereignty of CCP-led political system and securing its “bloated” territorial integrity have been the source of its legitimacy. China has resolutely resisted any perceived challenges to these interests by aggressively garnering power whether in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet; while threatening control of Taiwan, Ladakh, the South and East China Seas.

Safeguarding China’s overseas interests has increasingly become a part of China’s strategy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi noting there are 30,000 global Chinese businesses and over 100 million Chinese who travel abroad annually, enlarged China’s security ambit providing assurance that ‘China’s armed forces will fulfil their international responsibilities; as  articulated in their 2019 Chinese defence white paper .

Xi’s ‘rejuvenation dream’ includes economic vibrancy, political initiatives, scientific innovation, cultural richness and military versatility; all critical components of the Grand Strategy. Meanwhile, China’s defence budget for 2019 was estimated at $175.4 billion (second to the US) enabling modernization, doctrinal changes and organizational reforms; all towards forging a first rate military.

The enigma of ‘the China-approach’ is that having greatly benefitted from international systems, China has deliberately undermined the very same system by not fully supporting its governing elements; whether WTO, UN, IMF or the World Bank.  

Dangers of Acquiescing

Over the past several years, the resolve to counter dynamics that threaten the status-quo has run into perilous shoals; weakening the idea of an equitable global-order. The world’s sole superpower blundered into strategic gaffes in managing the international environment; whether it was the anarchic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inability to effectively restrain Russia’s Ukraine policy or the financial meltdown of 2008. Worldwide leadership ambivalence has hit credibility of the international order.

The Counter Play

The interests of India and leading democracies of the world converge on many aspects in the Indo-Pacific. At its core lies maritime security. India’s Act East Policy, in addition to economic, cultural and commercial goals, includes strategic interests. The quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD), the Australia-UK-US alliance and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific aim at maintaining prosperity, security, and order in the Indo-Pacific. Though not stated, countering China’s belligerence in the region figures prominently.

The ‘counter-play’ in chess is an offensive move intended to reverse the opponent’s advantage in another part of the board. The Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits provide the space for strategic “counter play”; through these waters over 70% of China’s energy flow and 60% of trade ply. It is China’s “growth-jugular” and it is here that the world’s democracies must develop strategies that potentially signal the ability to stymie Xi’s dream of “rejuvenation.”