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Only India has relatively good relations with NATO states, Russia, Ukraine. Ask for ceasefire

Threat of nuclear weapon use might seem like a low probability, but it cannot be taken lightly.

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Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has opened up historic political cleavages that would, in all likelihood, have major implications for global peace. Having experienced two World Wars, the pathways that this war can take should be a major cause of concern for humanity. Yet, the United Nations Security Council finds itself powerless to stop Russia from using military force to resolve its disputes with Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Ironically, in 1994, Russia and the West expended a lot of diplomatic horsepower to conclude the Budapest Memorandum that facilitated Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons based on security assurances.

Article Four of the memorandum reads – “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to assist Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.”

Earlier in 2014, Russia had already nullified its security assurances when it annexed Crimea through politico-military machinations that had set in motion the frictions that are now playing out as an invasion and have triggered a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. Like most wars, it is the civilian population that will have to bear the brunt of military power.

Talks between Ukraine and Russia have resulted in an agreement that has so far failed at the implementation stage and was conceived to establish humanitarian corridors for evacuation of civilians and supply of food products, and a possible temporary ceasefire. Tactically, the thinning out of civilian population from besieged urban settings provides Russia with the advantage of applying greater firepower with reduced collateral damage to civilian lives. Ukrainian resistance could be disadvantaged and thus become vulnerable to the use of massive doses of firepower, a technique that Russia has tried out, especially in Chechnya. But it is one that can fail in Ukraine considering the territorial size, population size and possibility of spirited Ukrainian resistance that is boosted by supply of arms like small ammunitions and weapons, anti-tank and shoulder-fired air defence systems from West European countries including Germany that has also doubled its defence budget, marking a major shift in its policy posture.

NATO has heightened its military preparations and moved troops into some member states bordering Ukraine. This creates the ambience of uncertainty and perceived danger. It enlarges the space for inadvertent military incidents that could spiral out of control and even bring nuclear weapons into the strategic dynamics through higher alert levels that could even play a role in eventual use of nuclear weapons. This might seem a low probability, but it cannot be taken lightly.

Also read: Modi seeks to ‘mediate’ between Putin and Zelenskyy, urges ‘direct conversation’ to end war

A nuclear risk

Russia rhetorically wielded its nuclear weapons early in the conflict and explicitly used them as a shield to keep NATO’s military interference at bay. It did so, on 27 February 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin cited aggressive statements by top officials in NATO’s leading countries and ordered a ‘Special Combat Duty Regime’ for its deterrence forces that are tasked to deter aggression and defeat an aggressor by using various types of weapons, including nuclear ones. Fortunately, thus far, the statement was not followed up by noticeable physical action and has not resulted in any nuclear weapons deployment action-reaction scenario. However, Ukraine’s nuclear reactors might pose a major risk.

Ukraine has four active nuclear power plants, which contain 15 separate reactors and generate approximately 50 per cent of the country’s electricity. Around 3 March, Russian forces took control of Zaporizhzhia, which is the largest nuclear plant in Europe and generated nearly 25 per cent of Ukraine’s power. Fighting broke out in the vicinity and a training shed and a laboratory caught fire, which were subsequently extinguished. The plant has now been declared safe and continues to be operated by Ukrainians though staffing problems caused by war could endanger safety. Therefore, the problem of a nuclear accident endures as long as the fighting does.

If a reactor is forced to shut down, it requires power from the electricity grid to help cool it. Though backup power systems exist, the power grid is an important defence. So, if Russia attacks Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure and a nuclear reactor has to be shut down at the same time, there is a risk of meltdown and attendant radiation that can affect other countries in Europe, including Russia. The UNSC has already met and discussed the issue and, like most of its earlier confabulations, has been unable to take any effective collective action even as the refugee crisis is snowballing into a possible major humanitarian disaster.

Also read: More honesty, less grandstanding can prevent Ukraine war from ballooning into a world war

India has a cause

India’s stance in the crisis has continued to be one of neutrality, viewing the Russia-Ukraine war as part of a historical contestation between European powers. It should have called Russia’s action an invasion. But during the conversation between Putin and Narendra Modi on 25 February and later with Volodymyr Zelenskyy on 26 February, Modi did call for an end to violence. On 3 March, despite attempts to link the Ukraine war to the Quad, Modi reiterated India’s stand that Quad must remain focused on the Indo-Pacific region.

India is now an elected member of the UNSC, and the question is how can it contribute to improving the war situation in Ukraine. India should table a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Ceasefire is an important milestone on the long path to peace. Being an elected member, tabling the resolution for India does not pose any procedural restrictions. Politically, Russia could veto the proposal unless it believes that the invasion is not going according to plan and the long-term political, military and economic consequences are not worth the stakes. There is a possibility of China supporting the ceasefire. If Russia uses its veto, the geopolitics of global emotions could turn against it and play a part in Kremlin’s calculations.

Even if India’s resolution is vetoed at the UNSC, it must continue to call for a ceasefire. For, among the powers at the UNSC, it is only India that has relatively good relations with NATO countries, Russia and Ukraine. So, the opportunity for using India’s considerable diplomatic heft exists as long as it is seized. Even if it fails, at least we can tell ourselves in the future, that it was a cause in the service of global peace. Can there be a greater cause?

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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