India-Pakistan: The Ukraine War through three lenses
In general, the four ways to look at strategic matters are through the perspectives: realist, liberal and the radical right and left. The first two are where conventional strategy can be located, while latter two are not so much strategic as political perspectives. In India, the first – realist - is the popular one in the strategic and attentive communities. The second – liberal – is adopted by the alternative strategic community.
The radical right is aligned with the fist, though realists are shy of admitting it. As a result, realist logic cloaks radical right wing stratgising, legitimizing it and helping with its propagation. Whereas the realist perspective was always the dominant strain in strategic culture, the radical right having taken over political culture, its perspective has thus permeated and interwoven with realist dominance of strategic culture. However, since this permeation of strategic culture is a work-in-progress, the alignment is latent for now. Realists don’t take the logic of radical right-inspired realism to its logical conclusion, since the hangover that theirs’ is a secular act remains intact. The radical right in India being Hindutva-inspired is less apologetic, riding on the coat tails of realism, keeping its radical intent veiled while profiting from popular realist ballast. The liberal and radical left strains are rendered dormant by the paradigm-dominance of the two perspectives in a quasi-covert alliance: realist and radical right.
If India is taken as a ‘normal’ State, then the four lenses are justifiable. Whereas the realist and liberal perspectives as hitherto would contest the intellectual high-ground, the others would be marginal. Increasingly, that India is a ‘normal’ state is an untenable assumption. India is an ideological State and therefore its strategy has to be informed, not by the usual yardsticks of national security, but the factors applicable for an ideology-inspired State, the foremost of which is regime perpetuation for sustenance of the ideology. Self-perpetuation imperatives supersede national security factors. In India, consolidation of Hindutva is the core concern.
Any examination of Indian strategic matters must be informed accordingly. Mainstream strategic writings dither from taking this onboard and are remiss on this account. Consequently, here the gap is sought to be filled. The paper takes a view of the implications of the Ukraine War for India using three lenses, taking the conventional approach in the first two parts dealing respectively with the realist and liberal approaches and, in the third part, modulating the findings under the ideological lights of the regime. The radical left perspective is not applied, though it bubbles away below the surface waiting to overturn things once Hindutva upturns India.
Part I: The realist lens
Evidently, the Indian army has taken note of lessons from the ongoing Ukraine-Russia War. Its commanders have observed that war is not quite passé, as the national security adviser had seemed to suggest last year in a lecture to those following in his policeman footsteps. Ajit Doval’s suggestion was that hybrid and grey zone war had displaced war as an instrument of national policy. Also, with the war in Ukraine entering its fourth month, the fond notion that war, when it occurs, will be short and swift, and, therefore, sweet, appears to have been decisively dispelled.
Realisation that wars happen would lead to them preparing with renewed vigour. That war, if it comes to it, might not end quickly, can see them arm to the teeth, not only through the well-worn import route but through the new-found Atmanirbharta one too. In short, the Ukraine War has given national security and its military instrument, a shot in the arm. Missing from the lessons learnt is that the lessons are applicable for war in which one of the two contestants is not a nuclear power. Since both our neighbours are nuclear powers, lessons have to be circumscribed accordingly.
This the military has been doing for the past 20 years. The Army’s Cold Start doctrine was cognizant of nuclear thresholds. The realist case was that Pakistan was deterred by the promise of disproportionate nuclear retaliation, allowing for quick, shallow-thrust retribution in case of Pakistani subconventional provocations. The doctrine – nuclear and conventional - having be put together, it’s taken some 20 years to operationalise. The integrated battle groups (IBG) are being put in place.
The China threat having loomed large lately, some Pakistan-specific formations have been shifted as part of a rebalancing. Any deficit is being tidied over by a ceasefire in place with Pakistan on the Line of Control (LC), taking advantage of Pakistan’s preoccupation with its other front, Afghanistan. Alongside, optimising military power application through reorganization into joint theatre commands is contemplated. The military reform, drawing on the two recent wars - Azerbaijan-Armenia and Russo-Ukraine - also envisages a technological turn, compensating loss in numbers. Since Kashmir is in the midst of political resolution efforts of sorts – laden with an admixture of Hindutva – a turn to grey zone war to keep Pakistan sensitized to its underside is underway. Kashmir serves as a grey zone war theatre for both sides.
India is enthused by surgical strikes, irrespective of their nullity in strategic value. They promise surgical strikes differently now. An IBG in its Yol Corps is perhaps waiting for launch. That Pakistan has the wherewithal for taking on IBGs implies more will have to follow in the initial footsteps by both, making for self-reinforcing escalation potentially nudging nuclear thresholds of both. While Pakistan has advertised a lowered threshold as part of its ‘full spectrum deterrence’, India’s increasing skin-in-the-game if on a downward cycle, can also unhinge its’ No First Use pledge (NFU). Realist strategic analysts are sanguine this deters, allowing for conventionally administered punishment.
Realists take care not to go into political-strategic analysis that should logically lead nuclear-use thinking. This self-censorship owes to political-strategic analysis consciously distancing from including Hindutva verities, eliding attention from the most critical transformation within India. Harshly said, strategic analysts are complicit, or, to give them benefit of the doubt, are uncomprehending of strategic cultural artifacts of Hindutva.
Part II: The liberal lens
Wars happen and preparing helps deter is a truism. Therefore, conundrums that arise need managing. Arguably, arming in anticipation of a war results in a security dilemma, which provokes are response in the adversary. Its response then serves to inform the threat perception, reinforcing the case for militarization and militarism. In a nuclearised context, it is well-taken that nuclear weapons are for deterrence rather than for war fighting. However, another conundrum is that leveraging nuclear weapons for deterrence increases likelihood of war outbreak, liable to go nuclear by nuclear doctrinal precepts. The doctrinal tussle over whether a war can go nuclear is between India’s retaliatory promise making it unthinkable and Pakistan’s nonchalant threat of embedding nuclear weapons into its conventional response. The outcome can only be decided at the crunch.
India’s arming through the eighties resulted - in part - in Pakistan’s strategy to undercut the growing conventional asymmetry by launch of and sustaining a proxy war against India. Alongside, for insurance, it also took care to covertly go nuclear. Realising by decade-end that its conventional deterrent had diluted, India changed doctrinal tack conventionally and went overtly nuclear. A decade on, Pakistan sought to checkmate Indian conventional doctrinal movement by a turn to tactical nuclear weapons. For its part, India reiterated - for the sake of nuclear deterrence credibility - that for it nuclear first use by Pakistan is a one-step escalation to its assured destruction. Pakistan’s nuclear buildup, particularly of its missiles and nuclear warhead numbers, tacitly warned that this would be mutual. Since neither state has taken the subsequent doctrinal steps that should logically follow, it is at this juncture of doctrinal inter-activity that the next war will be fought.
Logically, if a war is poised to go nuclear, then it should not be countenanced in first place. That has patently not happened. The LC ceasefire has not been taken forward, wherein it is upgraded from an agreement between the two militaries to one between the two States. The political resolution envisaged for Jammu and Kashmir, beginning with deflating it from statehood, is going rapidly in a reverse direction. Pepped up by security indices, India misses the ground is shifting beneath its feet. Consequently, the security situation shall remain instead one in which war, even if not inevitable, is not off the table. Even if not as rationally arrived at choice of one of the two sides, war can be thrust on the two by as commonplace an event as a terror attack.
The inference from the seeming inevitability of war needs to be taken further to ending a security situation where war remains an option. Instead, the strategic choice has been in favour of conduct of hybrid or grey zone war. This creates the security conditions for outbreak of war which justifies the preparedness for it – allowing, in turn, for conduct of grey zone war.
On the second lesson from the Ukraine War – on war duration – the inference is that since war is not ruled out, it needs prosecution. Since over three score IBGs are reportedly envisaged, there is either denial that the war could go nuclear or an acceptance that a nuclear war can be fought. Lately, the nuclear threat appears eclipsed somewhat. Pakistan does not need to reach for the nuclear weapons to redress any conventional asymmetry as earlier. This makes the nuclear dimension of a war recede, though making for a long-duration war.
Ukraine’s holding out creditably, if not with the distinction western commentators give it, shows that Pakistan could do as well. Just as Ukraine was thrown a lifeline, Chinese largesse for Pakistan could keep it afloat. Pakistan has enough irregular war potential to replicate for India the long war the Americans got into in Afghanistan. If Zelensky could whistle up a foreign legion, it would be an easier proposition for Pakistan to attract the floating would-be jihadists dispersed by the end of the Islamic State in Levant. A longer war gives India more time to prevail, but with time would be less surety of doing so. Indian inability to prevail will keep Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sheathed, while increasing India’s utility for these, NFU notwithstanding.
Had Ukraine remained a nuclear state, Russia would have laid off. And, if war did nevertheless did get underway, nuclear weapons could well have figured in the conflict by now. Nuclear weapons have been bandied by Russia already to stay any adventurism on part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Besides, scenarios were conjured up in which Russia could credibly be seen to reaching for battlefield nukes, such as for instance to open up Azovstal steelworks at Mariupol in case it proved a hard nut to crack conventionally. Such thinking can be informed by the logic that led to the first use of nuclear weapons: to save Americans lives from invasion of Japan. The ongoing conflict has had the overall ill-effect of loosening the nuclear taboo. A nuclear state may well use nuclear weapons rather than lose a conflict, No First Use (NFU) protestations notwithstanding.
War termination strategy acquires immediacy. This is the most understudied part of conflict to begin with. The Ukraine War has shown it to be the most significant. There have been multiple junctures at which either of the two sides could have reached for the switching off the war by now, but neither has been able to. The ‘ripe moments’ have occurred, even if only about now is a ‘hurting stalemate’ building up. Both are aware that war is but the creating of conditions for negotiations over the war’s causes. Political will has been missing in grasping the nettle. Zelensky has been bought by promises of Western support in the rebuilding, predicated on his weakening Russia to a degree. Putin, for his part, is taking by force what he was unable to do with the preceding period of grey zone war since 2014. That it would be a rather moth-eaten Donbas does not lessen the satisfaction of playing war lord.
India would likewise be faced with similar war continuation temptations, adding to war termination challenges. On this score, its record from war making has been mixed. In 1947, it drew up at the ethno-linguistic line between Kashmir and Punjab, hoping with UN assistance to have the border settled along it. In 1965, it stopped short of forcing a defeat on Pakistan, persuaded that a draw might see a satiated Pakistan give up on Kashmir. (There are stories that mistaken fears of artillery ammunition running short prompted the ceasefire (liberally disseminated by a knowledgeable bureaucrat at the Army’s cost leading to his being considered persona non grata for some years back then.)) It tired to sweeten the deal at Tashkent by giving back territorial gains, but also firming in the ceasefire line thereby. In 1971, India did well not to carry the war into West Pakistan, once the East had surrendered, again hoping that a chastised Pakistan would be more amenable to recognize the changed strategic reality. In the event, India overplayed its hand with the Pokhran tests and conventional upgrades to its mechanized forces. Pakistan, with the fortuitous help from America, bounced back, launching proxy war under nuclear cover. At Kargil, India did not venture beyond retaking its side of the LC. Thus, besides keeping wars short in duration and short of going for the clincher, India has also been forthcoming in being accommodative on both the battlefield and on the negotiation table. Whether next time round, such a promising precedence would help is uncertain, prompting a consideration of domestic politics.
Part III: The radical right lens
India is now New India. India’s Hindutva-inspired regime is out to settle old scores, mostly with Muslim ghosts of the past (other than of Nehru). In Kashmir, it’s rolled back all possibilities of negotiated political settlement. Its ideological support base is being fed with visions of Akhand Bharat, visualized as a South Asian map that includes Pakistan. To materialize Bharat, a Hindu Rashtra, it rides on the populism of Hindu Hriday Samrat, Narendra Modi, a leader reputedly strong-on-defence. Myth-making of India’s showing in the surgical strikes by land and air and a tactical-level unarmed skirmish in Ladakh sustain the image. A national security adviser - hyped as Chanakya reincarnate – reinforces it. With this self-image, it would be rather difficult for India to match up to its past strategic modesty, faced as it would be - like Putin - with inflated self-worth.
Even so, India is unlikely to shoot its way out of a war it is losing, since the image is mostly hype – best known to those that have invested much in building up it up and charged with such decisions. A brief digression to buttress the point that India’s self-image flatters to please is from the China front.
Some 50000 Indian soldiers are reputedly in eyeball confrontation. Apparently, equivalent levels of Chinese troops are held out as justification for Indian buildup to like levels. If true, the good part is that such numbers are reassuring for both sides, implying that they can indulge in a war without any immediate threat of it going nuclear. Being fought in mountains that ‘eat troops’, it is one that can also go on for long. The area rather remote, it would not threaten either NFU pledge, nuclear weapons only coming into the frame in case of an improbable operational level breakthrough in other theatres, such as at India’s Chicken’s Neck.
However, the projection of the China threat, intrinsic in the numbers China supposedly has up there, is questionable. China is unfazed by India’s troops’ buildup. India has not projected any offensive intent behind this buildup. Even Operation Snow Leopard was merely an occupation of features on own side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). India tamely vacated these without a quid pro quo. India’s generals are talking of ‘strategic patience’, phrasing better heard from diplomats or national security officials rather than frontline generals.
When China, advantaged by its infrastructure, can bring up troops at will – as it demonstrated in April 2020 – there is little necessity to keep them ahead in response to India’s LCisation of the LAC. It has never claimed Ladakh, so does not need the capability in place. It has already got control up to its claim line, with India giving up buffer zones along it. Since it does not have offensive intent China does not need the troop numbers attributed to it. Besides, commentators have it that it intends to fight differently, and not be troop intensity reliant. Finally, to ward of the threat of Indian offensive, it does not need an equivalent number of troops, but just about a third the number of Indians if faces. In short, it is unlikely to have more than some 20000 troops, which is not quite the 50000 that the Indians say they do, requiring of India to keep such numbers up there.
It follows therefore that India’s inflation of the China threat, from the numbers China reportedly has on hand, is a ploy to justify India maintaining such numbers there instead. Such numbers shows India as facing-down a China threat; thereby building-up the Modi regime’s image as strong-on-defence. Commendable though the logistics of the moblisation are, it’s an alibi for Indian solo shadow boxing in Ladakh.
The implication for the Pakistan front is that New India cannot be diverted from the bedding-in of Hindutva to make India, Bharat. Consequently, whereas fences won’t be mended with Pakistan – the external-Other - these may be kept maintained. The relative equivalence of mechanized reserves between the two sides broadcasts that India has no offensive intent. The other significant factor that suggests a deliberate dilution of Indian threat signaling is in the hobbling of the army with the Tour of Duty terms of service for other ranks. There has also been a downward trend in India’s defence budget pre-Covid. Besides, India has not thought it befitting to put in place a Chief of Defence Staff, foregoing the attendant force multiplication the appointment carries. These indicate a tacit appeasement of Pakistan - and China. It is strategy for buying India time for not only finishing what it started in Kashmir, but also get Hindutva going without getting derailed.
This dilutes its deterrent intended to cover proxy war. If all this makes Pakistan venturesome, India can get back at Pakistan with grey zone war of its own, and its tactic, surgical strikes. If this eventuates in a war, relative parity will keep out the nuclear factor, allowing for the war to be used by the Indian regime for its internal political purposes of Hindutva consolidation. In other words, a war thrust on India is not unwelcome and nor will it be used to twist the knife. A long duration, low intensity war is not without its benefits for India. If Pakistan loses, it helps with Akhand Bharat and if Pakistan does not lose, it helps Hindutva in India.
What a dash of Hindutva to strategy does
A realist blind spot has been the eliding of domestic politics from strategic analyses. As seen here, when domestic politics is factored in, strategic analysis in the realist mode is shown up as vacant. In summary, India wishes to avoid war for domestic political reasons: the consolidation of Hindutva is the regime’s primary aim. To manage the external strategic environment, against Pakistan, it has instruments such as grey zone war, for deterrence. Should a war be forced on it, it has revitalized its conventional resources, even on the China front. However, its conventional deterrence has diluted on the Pakistan front due to the rebalancing underway. As a result, it would not be able to prevail. The good part of this is in marginalizing the utility of nuclear weapons for Pakistan. Nuclear weapons stashed away, a conventional long-duration war comes forth. Whereas when Indian deterrence of proxy war was based on a shortened conventional fuse, it was strategically reticent. Now, India’s willingness to chance war – through its grey zone turn - owes to war, even if of longer duration, being less likely to go nuclear.
The Ukraine War appears to have been a double whammy: not only has it buffeted the nuclear taboo but also brought war back into the reckoning. On the face of it, the two possibilities – war and a nuclear one at that - stand enhanced in South Asia. However, insight from domestic politics needs adding. Doing so gives rise to the propositions: grey zone war acts as a buffer to war; long-duration war buffers nuclear weapons’ use; and, with a shaky NFU to begin with, India is not disadvantaged by nuclear eddies. Such strategizing perhaps secures New India for Hindutva to deliver Hindu Rashtra.