We, indeed the entire humanity, is in a dangerous phase of its existence. It would be a folly to rule out a nuclear war.
Russia knows it is hemmed in from all corners.
Japan and South Korea is in its rear; while the NATO — which was once 1,000 miles too far from St Petersburg is now less than 100 miles away.
All its members of the Warsaw Pact, erstwhile of Soviet Union, are now members of NATO: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (now Czech and Slovakia), Hungary, Poland and Romania, as are three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and the reunified Germany.
Do have a look at the map below to have a sense of Russia’s anxiety, made worse by it being painted as an imperialist power while NATO, much against the evidence, is hailed as upholder of free world.
Thus media wasn’t going to miss yet one-more evidence against “aggressive” Russia when its ex-president Dmitry Medvedev was quoted this weekend of wanting to rearrange the borders even if it meant pushing the frontiers of Poland, a NATO member.
I am not sure if Medvedev needed to say the obvious: Those who know Russia’s geography understand completely what he means while those who are only beholden to propagandists got one more chance to swear against the “rogue” Russia.
If Russia heads out of its western borders, there are only north European plains; conversely, those who who are heading into Russia from its western extremes, they too fan out in a wide open Russian landscape. This North European plains stretch all the way from France to the Ural Mountains.
Russia’s worry has a historical basis too.
It is from these humongous Western frontiers — stretching for nearly 2,500 miles across which are 14 sovereign states, mostly hostile—that its people have fought many existential wars in the last 500 years. The Poles swooped down from across the European plains in 1605, Swedes followed in the footsteps in 1707 and sandwiched between the invasions of Napoleon (1812) and Hitler (1941) was one more grave threat from the Germans in 1914, all emanating from these very Western borders.
(I know you would be relating it with India’s own fate on its Western borders from Ghaznis, Gauris, Mughals and Afghans for a millennium but we would come to it later.)
Now how does Russia comes to term with such an open space which makes defending its Western borders a living everyday nightmare?
Well, there indeed is a narrow point in this stretch between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains—and its called Poland.
If Russia could keep its enemies behind this narrow window, before they spread out on the vast Russian plains, it increases the safety of its continental shelf manifolds. Conversely, if the enemies get past Poland, their task gets that much easier.
It’s in this context that Medvedev referred to pushing the borders of Poland for Russia’s security.
But wait, we are only warming up to the matter.
The idea of Russia began only in the ninth century. A federation of tribes, Kievan Rus, sprang up around the Dnieper River who often found themselves pummelled by the Mongols, even after it had relocated itself to the Moscow region in the 13th century.
Since the geography offered them little protection, they spread themselves towards East (Ural Mountains), South (Caspian Sea) and North (Arctic Circle). Gradually, they gained the access to the Caspian Sea, and then to Black Sea; and Caucasus Mountain was one geographical feature which came handy as a natural barrier against the Mongols.
So, now Arctic made it safe in the North; Urals took care of South but the West was still a recurring nightmare (This is rather a crude explanation by me without nuances but I hope the general readers get the picture of Russia’s situation.)
The worry goaded Russia to do what the geography demanded from them: In the 18th century, it occupied Ukraine and so Carpathian Mountains was now a natural defense (see map below). It also took control of what is today known as Baltic states to defend itself if the attack came over from the Baltic Sea.
Finally, there was now a ring of safety around Moscow: Arctic above, downwards over the Baltic, sliding further to Ukraine and then Carpathian Mountains to Black Sea to Caucasus to the Caspian, rising upwards to the Urals which rounded up to the Arctic Circle; it indeed was a ring of safety.
This then is the geographical reality which offered some cruel historic lessons to the Russians; and this when we haven’t even spoken about its East which faces the militarized Pacific Ocean completely in thrall to the United States, not to speak of their countless military bases.
How Russia has protected itself in the East, on the boundless seas, is another story which the space here doesn’t allow me to dwell upon.
(But Russia has done a mighty good job, so much so that its widely rated as the second biggest naval power in the world —yes, this too might be a surprise to you since it’s so less spoken about — and which I would take up in one of the trilogy books I plan to have on Russia by the year-end.)
Meanwhile, just satiate your curiosity with the knowledge that its stock of nuclear submarines is massive, widely dispersed and almost untraceable at least where it’s deployed in the Arctic zone. It has the power to disrupt the very trade across the Atlantic which is the lifeline of Western powers.
If you look at China, you won’t find it much dissimilar to Russia.
China too expanded into its surrounding regions to create a buffer for itself on the continental shelf.
(So did the United States but in the discourse of our times, one is expansionist and the other protectionist of its motherland even though both are pursuing a likewise objective.)
As the Russians sought that cushion for its mainland around Moscow, China too looked to cotton its Han heartland. It occupied and sent millions of its settlers across the arc of Manchuria, inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet etc.
Like Russia too, China has its perennial worry across sea on its east which we call the Pacific Ocean.
It is Pacific Ocean which makes China survive on its needs and flourish through its trade.
It is Pacific too which brought in imperialists on its shores and a humiliation which lasted for a century, not too long ago.
It is Pacific again when China looks out and sees Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines; and Australia and New Zealand on its tails; who would do the bidding for a hostile West.
If Pacific is blockaded, China would implode.
So would India.
If seas are not accessible as it accounts for 95% of India’s trade, including 80% of its imported energy on which it runs.
How do you think the geography has treated us and how history’s lessons of centuries of subjugation been learnt or ignored in our security doctrine?
We all know that in our passage upwards, we have Pakistan and China on our shoulders and Himalayas on top which is both a shield and obstruction to the world.
The rest of India is awashed by sea from three corners over a stretch of 7,516km.
By the seventh century, India had all the elements to be a seapower: Thriving seaports, skilled sailors and Chalukyas and Pallavas commanding its southwest and southeast regions.
Then Chalukyas, under Pulakeshin II, made its move, conquering Konkan Coast between the Gulf of Khambhat and modern Goa; and crossing the Narmada River to bring the region we call Orissa and Andhra Pradesh under his heels.
Pulakeshin II thus came to be known as “Lord of both the eastern and western seas” even though Chalukyas in southeast were never completely subdued and the conflict between the two, sucking in lesser southern kingdoms of the Pandyas and Cheras, as it did the kings of Sri Lanka, lasted for more than a century.
All of it though didn’t affect India’s pole position. It sat astride the shipping lines which linked the Middle East and Africa with Southeast Asia and China. (Overland trade too wasn’t an issue since there was no Pakistan and Indian traders could spread themselves even though the volume wasn’t as big as on the seas.)
The story of Mughals was completely different from the ones Europeans pursued around the same epoch.
Mughals were happy with the “command of the coast” whereas the Europeans looked for “command of the seas”, a distinction which the fear is we haven’t appreciated in full to this very day.
So Mughals had competent navy but all it looked for was to come on top of littoral and riverine warfare.
There were no big ships but only fleets of war galleys.
The Mughals devoted itself on nodal points—ports, fortresses and coasts—and never ventured on to open sea lanes.
Then Portuguese worked out the passage to India; being outnumbered resorted to war and brutality with our coastal kingdoms and were successful enough to sail on for profits till Java and Sumatra, part of present day Indonesia.
Mughals then took the help of Dutch and Englishmen who were all too eager to clip Portuguese wings before supplanting their European pioneering sea power with more of the same much to India’s misfortune.
In due course, Indian Ocean came to be known as no better than Britain’s Lake.
Today India has the second largest army in the world: But if the two World Wars were continental wars, and the next one is Ocean World War, how prepared do you think we are?
History tells us that civilisations and powers don’t emerge without a hold on seas and oceans.
And as long as imperialism is a fact of our lives, sea power is essential for a country like India which seeks a global presence and leadership of Global South.
History also tells us that imperialists have that big stick in the form of dominance at sea which we witnessed in instances of Korea and Vietnam, Greece and Panama and countless other countries who sought liberation or a free choice under the sun.
It surely is not lost on India to do more than just guard its coasts: It can’t have a navy like the United States but it has the example of Russia which relies on no less than 11 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines for its defence.
India has one nuclear submarine—INS Arihant—and it has taken us over a dozen years though admittedly the cost (Rs 900 billion) is prohibitive too.
The memory of United States’ sending its nuclear-powered USS Enterprise into Indian waters on the onset of Indo-Pak 1971 war is still acute. It was then a Soviet Union nuclear-submarine, leaving Vladivostok and trailing the moving US threat, which deterred the Americans from unleashing its fury on us.
This is not a piece to dwell on Indian navy at length but the other day Raja Menon, a former rear admiral of Indian navy, and a submarine specialist, lamented in an article that India still doesn’t have a grand oceanic strategy.
Russia had a similar predicament for much of its history, and after much yo-yo, the existential threat still drove it to leave its coasts and be a threat to its enemies in open seas, not just in war but also in disrupting the trade—and communication (in naval parlance intelligence)—which is the lifeline for Atlantic powers.
India hasn’t yet spelled out its National Security Strategy, like Russia does periodically, but it would be presumptuous to believe it doesn’t know the wages required for its onward growth.
India won’t grow to its potential if it’s not prepared to pay the cost imperialists would demand in due course.
History is witness that seapowers don’t become great if its citizenry haven’t been co-opted in the process. It’s part of culture for seapower nations.
The Modi government’s Agniveer scheme, in this respect, is a step in the right direction.
We the citizens on our part too need to wake up to our history–and geography.