February 2, 2023

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Updated At: Sep 27, 2022 05:50 AM (IST)
Opportunism: The ongoing war has given the American arms industry a new market. Reuters
Maroof Raza
Strategic Affairs Analyst

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin is an old master of the strategy of “escalating to de-escalate”. It means that by threatening a nuclear retaliation, he plans to continue fighting a long war of attrition to serve his strategic agenda. These could be: First, prolong the conflict to wear down the Ukrainian resistance, as he steadily absorbs the border regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol and Kherson, with a referendum followed by annexations. These territories give Russia the land buffer against a NATO-EU-led expansion towards Russia’s borders. Secondly, it shows the impotency of the US and NATO, whatever the sanctions.
In fact, the rise in Russia’s industrial output in recent months has foxed western analysts. Thirdly, as long as this conflict continues, Russia can continue to sell its massive gas reserves — on which there are no sanctions yet, for EU’s sake — and make tidy profits over it. Finally, the US in particular also is in no hurry to end the conflict for its own strategic reasons.
And it is for these reasons, the conflict in Ukraine isn’t likely to end soon, even as the expectations rose that Russia would sue for peace after the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive and its success around Kharkiv.
Few, if at all, had explained why the Russians allowed their forces to be pushed back or did they pull back as part of a bigger battle plan of Moscow? One cannot rule out that the Russians had pulled back to regroup their forces for another fight elsewhere on another day. It is for this reason that President Putin has ordered the largest ever post-war mobilisation of three lakh reservists. From the early days of Russia’s offensives in Ukraine, its approach smacked of hubris, an excessive confidence in their ability to steamroll over Ukraine. However, Ukraine’s defences were strengthened by its ability to quickly mobilise its population and its reservists, that more than matched the numbers of Russian troops on its land, and additional US and NATO troops — over 1,00,000 — deployed in various forms in Ukraine and on Russia’s borders with the NATO.
But it is the reported deployment of an estimated 100 nuclear gravity bombs in NATO bases that Russia has had eyes on, and, hence, the threat of using nuclear arsenal by Putin, when he renews his offensive next month before Europe’s harsh winter sets in.
Here, it is important to understand the essentials of the nuclear strategy. First, the history of nuclear threats is based on non-use of nuclear weapons. And the only occasion nuclear weapons were used, as was the case in August 1945, was done with the devastating effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. It led to Japan’s surrender and checked Soviet plans to capture Japan in World War-II. Moscow hasn’t forgotten that. Secondly, the use of nuclear weapons is not the first option of a nuclear-weapon state. It’s in fact their last option, when their survival — as a nation-state — is at stake. And even then, as massive nuclear bombings would lead to a simultaneous counter-force response from the other side, the fear of mutually assured destruction is enough to withhold even a deranged dictator from using his nukes.
But finally, there is still the possibility that ‘tactical nukes’ — small bombs to be used in battles — could be used to prevent major reverses in battles. Here the warnings by the US may not stop the Russians, because the Americans hadn’t in the past enforced their threats if their ‘red line’ was crossed, as was done with the use of chemical weapons in Syria during Obama’s days.
So, Russia isn’t likely to buckle down that easily. For one, a super power of the size of Russia with the scale of resources it has — being the largest producer of oil and gas — outside the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, can last out much longer than the US expects.
Remember, the US was stuck in Afghanistan for two decades and is still raring to go. The immediate impact of the US-led sanctions was mitigated by the Russian Central Bank with capital control measures and hikes in interest rates. It is estimated that the Russian state controls more than 60 per cent of the large businesses that influence the GDP and 25 per cent of its MSMEs. This imbalance does restrict growth, but it also insulates the economy in a crisis. And as the Russians have faced financial challenges in the past — this is their fifth since 1991 — they could tide over this one for longer than the West assumes.
Most importantly, President Putin still holds the keys to the “gas supplies” to Europe and gives them the taste of a freezing winter, regardless of the claims of the EU that they’ll be prepared for a gas supply crunch by early December. In reality, the Europeans are buying gas from wherever they can, even China, as China doesn’t come under the sanctions initiated by the US. So, Beijing buys Russian gas and is selling it with a tidy profit in containers to the Europeans, since the Chinese economy has currently slowed down, and China has surplus of gas for now. By knowledgeable accounts, Russia has made over $175 billion with the sales of oil and gas since the sanctions were announced.
Finally, what is less talked about is why the US wants to let the conflict in Ukraine continue. For one, its aim is to deplete Russia’s military capabilities, and thus decrease the threat to Europe, since the leadership of Europe has given the US a new purpose in geopolitics after its humiliation in Afghanistan.
The other is that the conflict in Ukraine (being fought by proxy) unites the Americans and spares them the return of body bags, as they witnessed in the past two decades of wars in Asia. And finally, it gives the US’s arms industry a new market — in Ukraine and Europe — to arm and test their new weapon systems, with sales and lend-lease debt agreements.
In short, the US has turned the Cold War strategy on its head: earlier, the purpose was to exhaust the Soviet Union economically with an arms race; and now, it is to exhaust the Russians by getting them to pour their man-machine mix into the quagmire that is Ukraine.
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