The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's warning about the possibility of outbreak of "full-blown wars" with the use of nuclear weapons in the current global security scenario can be seen as a timely interjection on the eve of the G8 and North Atlantic Treaty Organization summits taking place in the United States. Russia has already put the American hosts on prior notice that it will dissociate from any attempt at the G8 to impose views on Syria or Iran.
Speaking at an international conference on international law at St. Petersburg, Medvedev said on Thursday, “The introduction of all sorts of collective sanctions bypassing international institutions does not improve the situation in the world while reckless military operations in foreign states usually end up with radicals coming to power. At some point such actions, which undermine state sovereignty, may well end in a full-blown regional war and even – I’m not trying to spook anyone – the use of nuclear weapons.”
Who could Medvedev have had in mind as the madcap to use nuclear weapons in the 21st century? His remarks pertained to the trend in international life to use "all sorts of collective sanctions bypassing international institutions." Conceivably, Syria and Iran sail into view as the potential arena of conflict.
Consider the following. The US finally decides to shed its ambivalence and intervenes in Syria. Of course, the US would overpower Syria – eventually. Equally, Syria will likely resist, because for Damascus, it is an existential crisis. Large sections of the Syrian nation also militate against foreign intervention. In short, western interventionist forces will have to take some beating as they wade into the Syrian cauldron. This is one context where the temptation may arise to use tactical nuclear weapons to assert the military superiority. The NATO did commit war crimes in Libya to break the stalemate.
Reckless military adventures
A similar scenario is possible also over Iran. In fact, the probability is higher since Iran will resist a US attack like nobody's business. It may seem horrific that the US may contemplate – after a gap of so many decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the use of nuclear weapons to conclusively register victory in a bloody war, but then, there is also a "sleeping partner" to consider – Israel.
Clearly, Israel lacks the military superiority to defeat Iran. And if Iran sets out to teach Israel a harsh lesson or two, US will find itself protecting its ward from annihilation. Moreover, at what point would Israel decide to unleash its own nuclear weapons? And Israel has a consistent track record of using overpowering military might. By the way, Israel is highly likely to be drawn into any conflict over Syria as well.
Now, who says Medvedev had Syria and Iran mind? A US intervention in Pakistan is also an eventuality that cannot be ruled out at some stage if the defeat in Afghanistan turns out to be terribly humiliating to American prestige. Also, factor in that NATO's destiny as a military alliance and a potential global security organization is at stake in Afghanistan. A hard-hitting blow at Pakistan could be just the characteristic US response if the US military bites the dust in Afghanistan. Simply put, the Cambodia analogy repeats.
Of course, it will be an unequal battle since the US is far more powerful than Pakistan. But then, Pakistan also has nuclear weapons. This is where trouble begins. As Medvedev put it, US’ reckless military adventures “usually end up with radicals coming to power.” The observation holds relevance for Syria and Iran, where almost certainly, any “regime change” will result in the ascendancy of radical forces in Damascus and Tehran. But it is almost tailor-made for the developing new phase of the Afghan civil war.
In the event of an extremist takeover in Afghanistan, regional powers may get drawn in, especially Pakistan and India, which are of course nuclear powers. Needless to say, any Pakistan-India rivalry over the Afghan situation in the post-2014 period would have dangerous consequences for regional security. The two countries are engaged in an incipient dialogue that may appear promising at the moment but there is a real danger that the debris of the US’ Afghan strategy may fall on the dialogue and simply emasculate the voices of sanity. It can’t be otherwise, because for Pakistan, a “friendly” government in Kabul constitutes a crucial national interest, which is not open to discussion, while for India, influence in Afghanistan is a key element of its medium and long term regional strategy toward China, which is increasingly becoming an obsessive thought in all that it does.
Again, Medvedev’s words have an even greater relevance to the situation surrounding Pakistan. The point is, with all the aberrations that the US may today find in the Pakistani policies, there is still an elected government in Pakistan. The Pakistani military, which controls the nuclear weapons, also has a tradition of being a cautious player. The mainstream Pakistan temper is of a moderate Muslim country. However, the “moderate” pillars of the Pakistani state will be the casualties if the US continues to humiliate Pakistan at the present rate. Under immense pressure from Washington, for example, the Pakistani establishment is reportedly about to cave in and reopen the transit routes for the NATO convoys heading toward Afghanistan. The US certainly pins hopes on using Pakistan as the gateway for its “New Silk Road”. But what is being overlooked is that Pakistan is also a sea of discontent, seething with resentment over the US’ bullying tactics in the region and in the Muslim world on the whole.
No such thing as “absolute security”
It does not need much ingenuity to foresee that Medvedev’s prediction can come true unless the US exercises great restraint in its Pakistan policy. Any US attack on Pakistan in the heat of the moment during a catastrophic setback on the Afghan battlefield (which cannot be ruled out in the prevailing politico-military conditions) will radicalize Pakistan. And it is unthinkable that radical forces would gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Besides, these radical forces have never hidden the agenda of an old score to settle with Pakistan's old adversary, India, which also is a nuclear power.
No doubt, Medvedev's statement quintessentially underscores the critical importance of all players on the world theatre playing by the rules of the game, according to international law and the United Nations Charter. This is where India, which enjoys repute as a responsible nuclear power, needs to be very careful in formulating its regional policies on Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan. The heart of the matter is that the killing of an Archbishop on a Serajevo street in a morning in June some 98 years ago was in itself an innocuous event, but eventually it turned the world upside down. It may seem that the Indian government's decision to cut back on oil imports from Iran is an obligatory step in tune with the best spirit of US-Indian strategic partnership.
The Indian decision may be Innocuous in itself, and, arguably, Indian diplomats may aim to extract reciprocal concessions out of the Obama administration during the forthcoming meeting of the US-India Strategic Dialogue in Washington. Again, for argument’s sake, Obama may decide to oblige his Indian partner – especially if the latter also fulfills his pledge to award lucrative nuclear commerce to the Westinghouse in the Indian market worth dozens of billions of dollars – and all that may lead to a quick membership for India in the international technology control regimes such as the Nuclear Supply Group.
But given the style of US diplomacy which is always fixated on stringing its reluctant partners to lead them to seamless vistas from where there is no turning back easily, where does India ultimately draw the line vis-à-vis the US-Iran standoff or the US-Pakistan tensions or the failure of the US strategy in Afghanistan? Besides, it becomes impossible to draw the line if and when the fire engulfs the neighbor's house. Simply put, these are all neighboring countries for India – Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – and India will be stupid to put trust blindly in absolute security when the region is edging dangerously close to catastrophe.
There are times when India needs to stand up and speak out that the US' regional policies – toward the Middle East and Central Asia – seriously endanger India's long-term interests. To meekly behave, instead, like a poodle, as the Indian government has done on the Iran sanctions, may not even be the best opportunistic course available.