I was a young graduate student in England when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted and brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. It was almost exactly 60 years ago in October 1962 that deadly fear gripped the world. The Soviet Union had surreptitiously stored nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the US mainland, and the young, inexperienced US president, John Kennedy, faced a horrific situation. He confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with incontrovertible evidence of missiles in Cuba, ordered a naval blockade of the island and demanded their removal. For nearly 13 days, the two nuclear superpowers faced each other, eyeball to eyeball, while the world held its collective breath. Finally, a face-saving formula was found, the missiles were removed from Cuba, a catastrophe averted, and the world drew a sigh of relief. The experience was so frightening that for six decades, despite many conflicts and provocations, the specter of nuclear war was never raised.
The steady geopolitical situation, however, changed radically on 24 February this year, when Russia invaded Ukraine and advanced on the capital of the country, Kyiv. The conflict had been simmering for over nine long months. The two countries have had a troubled history, even though Russia and Ukraine share many cultural, linguistic, and religious ties. Ukraine was subsumed in 1922 soon after the First World War in the Soviet Union as one of its Republics. Of the fifteen republics that constituted the Union, Ukraine was the most populous, second only to Russia. It produced the most agricultural products, armaments and was the home of the vaunted Soviet Black Sea fleet. Besides, the Ukrainians proved to be some of the toughest fighters against the Germans during the Second World War.
Following the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine, like the Baltic States and the Muslim Central Asian republics, became an independent country. In 2000, Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia, anointed Vladimir Putin, a mid-level KGB officer, to be his successor. Since then, relations with Ukraine have been fraught with difficulties. Putin has never fully reconciled to the idea of an independent Ukraine. Unfortunately, in recent years, Ukraine has been beset with instability and rampant corruption, yet is unwilling to comprise on its independence. Russia has been worried with some justification, that like other former Soviet republics, Ukraine may join the NATO alliance, which it regards as a threat to its security.
The seeds of armed conflict were sowed in in 2014 when Russia forcibly seized Crimea from Ukraine and annexed it. Crimea was originally a Muslim Khanate, nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, that was conquered by the Russian Czarina, Catherine, in 1783 and incorporated into the Russian Empire. However, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, Crimea remained part of Ukraine. The seizure of Ukraine by Russia did not ignite any great outcry by world powers. Most observers believe that lack of any push-back gave Putin the idea that whole of Ukraine could be similarly captured and reabsorbed into Russia.
Putin followed up and invaded Ukraine in February 2022, after denying for weeks that he had any such intention. With Russia’s huge military and arsenal of modern weapons, it was expected that Ukraine would collapse rather quickly, the Russians would occupy Kyiv, toppling President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Government. Defying all predictions and helped by massive US and European assistance, the Ukrainians offered fierce resistance. It is a common experience that a nation defending its own territory and about to lose its freedom will fight with all the resources it can marshal. Government control on news has ensured that the Russian people are unaware of the true nature of the ongoing conflict with Ukraine.
The US and many countries of the world have sanctioned Russia, placing restrictions on its sale of oil and gas, the main source of revenue for the country. However, this ban is not observed universally, as many countries, including China and India, continue to buy Russian oil at discounted price. Nevertheless, the savage fighting has brought great destruction and sufferings to the Ukrainian civilian population centers and Russia has been accused of committing war crimes. The United Nations General Assembly, with an overwhelming majority, has passed resolutions condemning the Russian aggressions against Ukraine. Unfortunately, Pakistan along with China and India chose to abstain from voting condemning the aggression.
The conflict in recent months has taken an ominous turn as President Putin has threatened to use low yield nuclear weapons. The name is misnomer, as these weapons are highly lethal, packing huge destructive power. President Biden and the Western allies have warned that use of such weapon would invite massive retaliation, with unknown consequences. The world inadvertently would be thrown into a nuclear Armageddon. However, it has been somewhat reassuring that the high-level US and Russian security officers have been in contact to avoid setting off a conflagration either by accident or misunderstanding. Some US Congressman have also been urging the Government to encourage the Ukrainians, who have been doing well on the battlefield against the Russian, to engage in negotiations with the Russians. Furthermore, the recent capture by Republicans of majority seat in US Congress also raises the possibility that they may not be as resolute in their support of Ukraine as the current Congress.
Russia, that still holds some 20% of Ukrainian territory, has now adopted a new strategy, slash and burn. Using highly lethal Iranian drones, they have been targeting civilian infrastructure, electric and water grids. Ukrainians have no defense against these weapons and their major cities have lost power and water supplies, forcing their population to shiver in bitter cold. The military planners believe that these tactics will incite civil unrest in the Ukrainian population and bring the country to its knees. Thus far, no such expectation has materialised.
Why is there major concern around the world about the Russian’s invasion of Ukraine? Since the end of the Second World War, the European continent has seen no major land-based conflict and the principle of inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force has largely been honoured. This rule has given the smaller countries the reassurance that their powerful neighbours cannot seize and keep their land by force, something that has been a common practice throughout history. Pakistan, which has recently been threatened by an Indian minister that they planned to reclaim Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan by military force, would have good reasons to worry if Ukraine is dismembered.