Danger of rapid escalation of Ukraine war: India must speak out

The ‘unforeseen’ would become a frightening reality, recalling what the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had whispered piteously: "The living will envy the dead", writes Cmde C. Uday Bhaskar (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Danger of rapid escalation of Ukraine war (Photo: Youtube)

Alarm bells rang globally when it was reported that Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant had been attacked in the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine. A worst-case scenario in relation to nuclear energy was being played out – a military attack on a nuclear facility that could result in a catastrophic radioactive fallout and long-term contamination.  Memories of the Chernobyl catastrophe (1986) were resurrected. 

However, it is reassuring to note that the fire which broke out at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in south-eastern Ukraine on Friday (March 4) during a Russian army attack has since been extinguished. The power plant is now under Russian control and it has been confirmed that the reactor and related units are now operating normally and the radiation levels are normal. 

This attack on a nuclear facility during hostilities – whether accidental or deliberate -- is a cause for very serious concern. An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was convened.  India joined other nations in regretting this development and reiterated the need to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear power reactors and urged an immediate cessation of violence.   

Nuclear flashpoint 
Russia has accused Ukrainian saboteurs of this deplorable act. The identity of the perpetrators of this action will in all likelihood be shrouded in the ‘fog of war’. Given the way this war is proceeding, a brief review of the nuclear factor and the dangers embedded in some of the scenarios that may unfold is instructive. 

The nuclear dimension has been inexorably linked to Ukraine since its genesis as an independent nation-state after the end of the Cold War in December 1991. At the time, Ukraine (a former Soviet republic) had become the world’s third largest nuclear weapon power after the US and Russia.  Two other former Soviet republics, Belarus and Kazakhstan, also had nuclear weapons in their newly formed countries. 

However, with a judicious mix of incentives and subtle arm-twisting, the former Soviet republics with nuclear weapon capability were persuaded to renounce this capability – and become non-nuclear weapon states. In return they were assured that their security and territorial integrity would be guaranteed by the US, Russia and UK – as detailed in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. 

Clearly, the sanctity of such an import-laden agreement has been violated and the Ukraine experience will have a long term bearing on how non-nuclear weapon states perceive the capability – and their inherent vulnerability. 

Putin’s threat 

The resort to nuclear weapons was hinted at very early in the current war that began with the Russian invasion of February 24.  Even as the global community was coming to grips with this unprovoked act of aggression by Moscow,   Russian President Vladimir Putin in a televised address warned of unforeseen consequences if NATO in any way threatened the conduct of the ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine. 

President Putin reminded his interlocutors that Russia "is today one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the world.  No one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to defeat and dire consequences for any potential aggressor".   

This warning was repeated by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who, in an interview to the Russian media (March 2), cautioned the world that if a third world war were to occur, it would involve nuclear weapons and be destructive. 

It merits recall that during the Cold War decades (1945–91) , the two superpowers who progressively enhanced their WMD (weapons of mass destruction)  arsenals that included nuclear weapons and missiles, were very careful to ensure that their two militaries did not engage in combat directly. Yes, wars were prosecuted between them – but through proxies. This became a tenet after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 when the US and the former USSR were ‘eyeball to eyeball’; to the credit of the two Presidents (John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev), an apocalypse was averted. 

Cold War era 

Paradoxically, during the latter part of the Cold War, it was the US and its allies who found it necessary to retain the right to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union in the event of a conventional military attack against West Germany by Moscow – but mercifully this WMD tripwire was never crossed. 

One school of thought maintains that if the current level of hostilities in Ukraine escalates and Russia is on the back foot, President Putin may take recourse to tactical nuclear weapons. This would be catastrophic for many reasons. The first consequence would be strategic in an enormously consequential manner: the global nuclear taboo that has been very carefully maintained since Hiroshima (August 1945) would be broken. Europe would be dealing with a tragedy that will be 'Hiroshima plus' and an apocalyptic escalatory cycle could be set in motion. 

The 'unforeseen' would become a frightening reality, recalling what the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had whispered piteously: "The living will envy the dead". Will this make the use of the nuclear weapon by other states kosher? 

In the early years of the nuclear age, it was posited that the leadership of a nuclear weapon state had to convey or signal a certain degree of 'resolve' to use the nuke – if core national security interests were threatened - and this was to be couched in the garb of calibrated irrationality. Thus, coded nuclear signalling became central to the practice of deterrence and occasional statements were part of the WMD edifice.   

Dangers ahead 

However, the original ‘core’ mission of the nuclear weapon to deter a similar capability of an adversary by suasion and signalling has been muddied in recent decades. The use of nuclear weapons for tactical compulsions and an invalid formulation that low yield weapons could be used in extreme exigencies has been gaining some opaque traction. Both the US and Russia have been modernizing their WMD arsenals to retain such options. 

The war in Ukraine will soon enter its third week (March 10) and the possibility of rapid escalation either by design or error cannot be ruled out with confidence. The nuclear taboo is looking wobbly and the attack on the Zaporizhzhia power plant is illustrative. Prudence and perspicacity are called for in arriving at a modus vivendi. India, which has long championed nuclear restraint, should consider making a persuasive statement to ensure that the post Nagasaki nuclear taboo is not broken. 

(The author is an Indian Navy veteran and a strategic analyst. Views are personal)

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