The Looming Winter of Discontent


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar (Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at )

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


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at the following link: )

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.


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 Challenge of a Multi-Polar Nuclear Age


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The article has been published in the IPCS Web Journal in the authors column The Strategist and is available at

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.