Ukraine in mind, India needs a nuclear option against China

                                                         [IRBM Agni-5 launch]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement on 24 February upped the ante for all the parties involved in Ukraine. Sounding verily like his friend Donald Trump, his former American counterpart, Putin warned the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization against interfering in his plans for the erstwhile Soviet province; he promised consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”.  

This was interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons, encompassing a deterrence tactic that the Russians have developed — “escalating to de-escalate”. Meaning, strike so much fear of nuclear war in an adversary state that it decides not to engage or, if already committed, draws away from the fracas.

Clearly, the Kremlin has determined that Russia’s stake in keeping Ukraine out of NATO is high enough to merit escalating the conflict, if needed, to the ultimate level. So far, the US and West European countries have limited themselves to making sympathetic noises, imposing sanctions, and replenishing the Ukrainian military’s stocks of ammunition, anti-tank guided munitions, and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Because one thing no one in the West wants is to get embroiled in a war with Russia that could turn total. So, by way of an outcome, an ‘independent’ Ukraine with no links to NATO is a certainty, as are the Ukrainian coastlines on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov controlled by the Russian Navy. 

A nuclear state is a secured state

Except, the war in Ukraine begs the question: Would Russia have tried militarily to tame Kyiv if Ukraine had retained nuclear weapons in 1994 after the trilateral Budapest Memorandum signed with the US and Russia after the formal breaking up of the Soviet Union? The answer obviously is Nyet! It also proves the obverse, that a powerful nuclear weapon state can mount a conventional military offensive without fearing nuclear retaliation by nuclear allies of the targeted state. This is the premise for China’s aggressive moves in eastern Ladakh as also the South China Sea and against Taiwan. 

It highlights two basic nuclear facts of life, namely, that nuclear weapons endow a country — even if small, poor, and militarily weak — with absolute security, and powerful nuclear countries with the protective shield to further their interests using conventional military might. Such strategic benefits are why nuclear weapons are so sought after. 

It motivated China to secure nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union’s help to fend off a conventionally superior US, Israel with France’s to hold off the Arab states, and Pakistan and North Korea with China’s assistance to neutralise India’s and South Korea-US’ military edge. And why technologically capable Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan may soon go in for nuclear arsenals of their own to face down China because, as the US has once again shown, it will not take a Russian (or Chinese) bullet – nuclear or otherwise — for any ally (Japan, South Korea), quasi-ally (Ukraine, Taiwan), or “strategic partner” (India).

If India has to fight China all by itself, how will it do so? Definitely not under the illusion that its conventional forces are qualitatively on par with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and can wage a sustained war with it. The PLA can fight to a decision, in the main, because of a large and sophisticated Chinese defence industry that can quickly replenish the stocks of spares and whole weapons systems exhausted or destroyed in battle. It is an advantage that an Indian military equipped with imported armaments and a public sector-dominated defence industry stuck at the licensed production-screwdriver level of technology, does not enjoy.

What then? As I have long argued in my books and other writings, nuclear weapons are the only option against an overwhelmingly strong China. In this context, the Russian tactic of ‘escalating to de-escalate’ should be rejigged to deal with India’s prime and only credible adversary — the expansive-minded China. It will require seminal changes in the government’s attitude to nuclear weapons, the nuclear doctrine, and in the deployment of strategic forces.  

Change India’s nuclear doctrine 

The ill-thought out official Indian nuclear doctrine of “massive retaliation” is wholly inappropriate and as a deterrent useless. Of American origin, the massive retaliation concept was conceived in the late 1940s when the US had a nuclear weapons monopoly. In the second decade of the 21st century, this concept, combined with the principles of minimum deterrence and No First Use, constitutes a strategic handicap and major military liability. This is so because these three mutually cancelling concepts will ensure Indian nuclear weapons, other than for safely brandishing against Pakistan, will stay sheathed when it matters most against China.

The government has to change its view of nuclear weapons as mere symbols of power and see them, instead, as affording the country a dynamic military means to control the level and intensity of conflict with China by deterring the PLA from pushing its conventional military and terrain advantages, as the PLA has done in Ladakh. In this context, a revamped nuclear doctrine should state bluntly that Indian nuclear forces are oriented principally to the China threat, No First Use is discarded, and that a First Use nuclear doctrine is now operational but only against China. 

Further, to show India means business, New Delhi should announce a two-tiered strategic defence of atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) placed as nuclear tripwire to bring down whole mountain sides without venting radioactivity (because the collapsing earth will absorb it) on large aggressive PLA formations that breach the Line of Actual Control (LAC). And, as back-up, batteries of forward deployed canisterised Agni missiles, capable of launch-on-launch and launch-on-warning, comprising a short fuse deterrent. 

Such a posture of defensively arrayed ADMs and canister-borne Agni missiles will at once shift the onus and the responsibility for India’s nuclear use to China, especially if it is made clear by the government that their triggering will be dictated entirely by PLA actions in-theatre without exactly defining the nuclear use threshold to retain ambiguity and manoeuvring space.

Just as Russia and Western Europe know that they have too much to lose in a nuclear exchange by militarily challenging Russia in Ukraine, China needs to be convinced that the situation on the LAC has changed, and that India will hereafter not fight China on Chinese terms by restricting its actions to the conventional military field. 

The Indian government, alas, is painfully slow in learning military lessons and, where the threat of use of nuclear weapons against China is concerned, apparently has a mental block. This when such threats, based on a credible nuclear posture with ADMs and canisterised Agni missiles, can actually leverage more responsible Chinese behaviour. After all, whatever the cost to India of a nuclear exchange, the prospect of China likely losing Beijing, the Three Gorges Dam, the Lop Nor nuclear weapons complex, and/or its entire wealth-producing eastern seaboard, will compel President Xi Jinping and the PLA to do a rethink about the costs of not having a settled border with India, and speed up a negotiated resolution of the long-standing border dispute.


Published in, March 25, 2022 under the title — “India’s nuclear doctrine is useless. Discard no-first-use, say nukes are for China threat”, at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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27 Responses to Ukraine in mind, India needs a nuclear option against China

  1. Ayush says:

    Our nuclear kill chain can be destroyed by pla cyber attacks.Ironically,we have taken US help to harden our critical defense networks.Besides are you aware of the fact that we have carried out several unannounced hypersonic tests in past few months.The result has been a “dazzling success”.US is getting heartburns watching a supposed lackey surge ahead of them.
    A true eye watering moment for us Indians indeed!

  2. Ayush says:

    Besides,you probably are not aware how we will fight the Chinese.We will bypass them completely at the tactical level.we are going to target only their command control and comma.People have that this is the only way a much inferior Indian military can hope to defeat the pla.We will blanket their comm centers and handful of forward airfields with air and ground launched cruise missiles.Their underground command centers will be taken out by shaurya missiles which have a special one ton deep penetration warheAd.It is said to be at par with the Chinese DF-16

  3. Amit says:

    Great article, reiterating the points you make in your book, WIINAGP(Y). You didn’t mention thermo nuclear testing (maybe due to space constraints for the article), but India should do that too. It’s a good conducive time as there probably won’t be any sanctions on India due to this as well. Read your article on ThePrint too – great platform for a wider audience. What is your sense for how receptive this Government would be to these ideas now?

  4. Gerald says:

    Mr karnad I love your insight, but i think history might disagree.nuclear deterrent might work against an anglo-saxon country like América that loves to Flex it’s muscles against smaller,Weaker conuntries with no repercutions to itself AND abhors fighting the strong, but against china Is less likely.remember that china doesn’t want to Conquer india, you both just have a border dispute.in1969,moscow’s Nukes weren’t a deterrent for china to Clash with Russia in a border dispute in the damiyanski/zhengbao island despite moscow having many More nuclear weapons thank her.I dont think india with her even smaller amount of Nukes might pull it off.Would love to know your thoughts in this.bye.

  5. whatsintanyway says:

    I think the startegy makers should be trained in Poker and bluffing. What say you ?

  6. Deepak says:

    Mirv capability needs to be added to Agni 5 .More SSN’s and SSBN submarines ,developing hypersonic missile with a range which could hit eastern china should be a top priority for India if India needs to counter China on nuclear warfare.

  7. Email from Air Marshal Vinod Kumar ‘Charly’ Verma (Retd)

    Fri, 25 Mar at 4:44 pm

    Very apt and timely.

  8. Sankar says:

    A brilliant reading of strategic fundamentals at play. But is anyone listening in Delhi darbar?

    On “… and replenishing the Ukrainian military’s stocks of ammunition …”, it is recorded not so much in western news, that Moscow has threatened anyone caught supplying military hardware to Ukraine will be targeted for consequences. One needs to read TASS and Ria Novosti for the news from the other side of the divide.

    To my reading of military events, the Black Sea has now been lost to NATO forever!

  9. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Had Putin succeeded in his original plan of taking Ukraine within 4-5 days of the fighting, China and Pakistan would have launched a two front war against India.

    This was the main reason that Imran Khan went to Moscow on 23rd-24th February however, Russian forces have encountered a fierce resistance by the Ukrainians as a result of which, the war has entered its second month now with too many uncertainties as to its final outcome.

    Taiwan is totally safe now because the Chinese government is worried by the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West. They very well know that China is next in line if it initiates any military move against Taiwan.

    Chinese foreign minister’s trip to India reveals that China wants to repair ties with India. China is supposed to host BRICS summit later this year so, they won’t start any conflict at the border with India.

    For the Indian government this is an excellent opportunity. The whole world is pre-occupied with Russia-Ukraine war. It’s now or never. India should initiate operations to take back the whole POK.

    Considering the present geo-political situation China will surely stay away from India-Pakistan conflict.

    • Deepak says:

      @Gavrav,India cannot annex POK unless Pakistan disintegrates.Even if India wins war and annex POK it will be a great headache later in handling crores of additional trouble makers who hate India from their bottom of the heart.
      India should concentrate on destabilizing Pakistan from within by helping rebels who wants to form Independent Balochistan,Pashtunistan and Sindhudesh. Given a plebiscite option no Baloch is going to vote to stay with Pakistan. Baloch Independence movement is that strong but they lack international support to fight Pak military. Pashtunistan and Sindhudesh fire is already there but the fuel is not there to make this movement stronger.India’s only job is to add fuel to this fire by providing all possible support to rebel groups which India failed to do till to this day for whatever reasons.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        @Deepak- And Pakistan hopes that India disintegrates. They have been supporting Khalistan, free Kashmir movements plus multiple insurgent groups in the Northeast region of India and the Naxalites.

        Neither Pakistan can disintegrate India nor India can disintegrate Pakistan anymore. Get real.

        Either accept the present international border between the two countries as final thereby making terms like POK/IOK irrelevant or go for a full fledged military war to settle the matter, once and for all.

    • Sankar says:

      “Had Putin succeeded in his original plan of taking Ukraine … ” –

      What was Putin’s original plan and where did you find it? There has been a huge amount of misinformation circulating in the Western Press to cover up the abject failure of NATO to stand up to Moscow. One example, Russia sought military support from Beijing. And that fake news in the west forced Beijing to issue an official denial which Tass published – this is the nature of war! Even in India Today live panel discussions, this has come out explicitly when Russian journalists and Ukrainian journalists (with Western journalists) presented their cases with contradiction.

      I do not think that the Russian military came up with a plan of carpet-bombing Ukraine as the US did in Iraq. They are progressing methodically to prevail in their final aim which is as Putin has stated to “de-militarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Remember NATO bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days before gaining control. One does not know the final outcome here. Most likely it will end up fragmenting present Ukraine, if it survives in some form, with Russia creating its own satellite state in the South. Ukraine’s population is 30% Russians. There is already bickering between Hungary’s President and Zelensky since Hungarians constitute a majority population in West Ukraine. The US and NATO are just spectators in this war, they have backed off already. They cannot create a no-fly zone over Ukraine that Zelensky wanted.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        @Sankar- Putin was expecting the Afghanistan model in Ukraine. He thought that Zelensky would run away to a Western country and Ukrainian army will surrender. This is what happened in Afghanistan last year when Taliban started its march to Kabul.

        The original plan was that Russia just has to initiate the war and Ukrainians will surrender.

        Imran Khan was in Moscow on 23-24 February. The Russian invasion was launched on 24th February. Imran’s visit was the first visit by a Pakistani head of state to Russia in 23 years. What was the urgency?

        I live in China and don’t take any media report as gospel truth be it the Chinese, Western or Indian media. One needs to connect various dots to derive some conclusion in Geopolitical affairs.

    • Deepak says:

      @Gavrav, I am realistic only that is the reason why I am telling it is not possible to annex POK and even if India annexes it by defeating Pakistan, managing it ll be a big headache.Annexing POK comes with heavy cost which is not affordable.
      Post Independence, India annexed Junagadh,Hyderabad,Goa,Sikkim which was successful because of locals support , Siachin because it is an empty land,few villages of Gilgit Baltistan during 1971 war because these are too small population to cause trouble but Kashmir is a problem till to this day because locals hate India.This is a reality.
      Pakistan is already a failed state and a Chinese colony.All other groups hate Punjabi domination and want to get rid of them.
      Nobody predicted such sudden disintegration of mighty Soviet Union a decade before it collapsed.India cannot make Pakistan disintegrate but it can accelerate its fall that is what I am telling.
      If mighty Soviet Union can collapse why not a failed country like Pakistan collapse?

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        @Deepak- I very well know that neither Gazwa-aiyeyy-Hind nor Akhand Bharat will ever happen.

        My comment was directed towards hardline BJP fan boys like Hindu Sena, which recently took out a march in Delhi in support of ‘Akhand Russia’ and vowed to annex whole of Pakistan.

        USSR collapsed due to relentless internal sabotage done by the American agencies. Isn’t the Indian NSA doing so with Pakistan?

        Persistence pays maybe Doval needs to do more regarding the aforesaid.

    • Deepak says:

      @Gavrav,I agree with you both Akhand Bharat and Ghazava e Hind day dreamers are far removed from reality.
      Both India and Pakistan already disintegrated in the recent past.In 1947, Indian muslims aided by British partitioned India.In 1971,Bengali muslims aided by India partitioned Pakistan.Borders are not permanent,if they do not learn lessons from the history then both countries will face further disintegration.India looks stable for foreseeable future but Pakistan looks shaky due to own mistakes.

    • Sankar says:


      Hi, I fail to see how by:
      “One needs to connect various dots to derive some conclusion in Geopolitical affairs”
      one can conclude that:
      “Putin was expecting the Afghanistan model in Ukraine. He thought that Zelensky would run away to a Western country and Ukrainian army will surrender.”

      On the contrary, as I understand by reading the news on-ground report Putin is in complete control of the war. In contrast, Biden has been appalling in his latest outburst in Poland. Right then Russian missiles were raining down on the Ukraine border with Poland hardly 400 km from where Biden was making his speech. Putin has unleashed a devastating strike on Ukraine whereas instead of fighting the war militarily Biden & Co simply have resorted to information warfare.

      Zelensky and his Coterie have nowhere to run. They are the prime culprit for the disastrous predicament the Ukrainians are facing now. They violated the Minsk agreement which Russia and Ukraine had signed in the recent past. They say that Ukraine does not belong to Nato, but they will place Nato missiles in Ukraine. What nonsense is that? All this is available in international news in recent days if you are following.

      I think this war will end in the not-so-distant future. Behind the scene, Zelensky is under tremendous pressure from Western leaders to negotiate a settlement with Russia. Make no mistake, that Russia will enforce that it is going to be in Russian terms.

      If not, Moscow will continue the war until Russia prevails. As a nation-state, the red army has more than a Millenium accumulated experience in fighting war, which is formidable to overcome for any nation on earth.

  10. Email from Joydeep Sircar
    Sat, 26 Mar at 8:25 am

    Excellent . Given the selfish cowardice of the US, please consider Chinese pressure on US to make lndia desist from going nuclear in case of war, perhaps by feeding us false intel or terrifying strategic scenarios. You know how susceptible we are to US pressure. USA may also feed vital lndian data to China to curry favour from Xi, they are treacherous enough for that.

    J. Sircar

  11. Ayush says:

    @ gaurav
    You are spot on.Putin’s spectacular trashing at the hands of a fifth rate pipsqueak like Ukraine has served a very good lesson for china.The message is loud and clear:the era of large scale conventional wars is over.PLA war doctrine is copy paste of Russia along with most of their equipment.Their top pla brass must be getting night wettings watching Russia get humiliated.That’s the only reason for this recent outreach.Also, we have certainly stunned them with our recent unannounced hypersonic cruise missile tests.

    • Gerald says:

      “Putin’s spectacular trashing at the hands of a fifth rate pipsqueak like Ukraine has served a very good lesson for china.The message is loud and clear:the era of large scale conventional wars is over. ”

      Highly questionable statement seems you have eaten a good portion of anglo propaganda .the comment of sankar Is More spot on.come back to reality

  12. Itanium says:

    @Prof Karnad Great article! Thought Agni 2s have long been forward deployed in Arunachal?

  13. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Putin saying “such as you have never seen in your entire history” has been taken out of context. This part of the address was to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the 4th para to which this extract belongs, is meant “for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside”. Interference from the outside, implies interference into a place that is ‘Inside’. Also in the context of an exhortation to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the very notion of a nuclear threat is antithetical and there cannot be any meaning other than a threat of conventional military conflict. In fact, the Russians are now claiming that their *conventional* special military operations have been successfully directed to the task of neutralizing NBC threats from inside Ukraine.
    Additionally at multiple times Putin has stated/indicated that the threat of nuclear exchange comes into play only in the case of an ‘existential threat to Russia’. So Russian nuclear threat ends up being more like a contingent promise (aap woh kariye, aayi shapat mein yeh karunga, aap woh mat kariye, aayi shapat mein bhi yeh nahi karunga). They can afford to hold out this promise because their deterrence exists at every level – including at the conventional military stage of hostilities. The very idea of working on a Burevestnik and Posiedon is to further the goal of a ‘third strike capability’ and demonstrate an evolution in military thought moving beyond the older paradigm which ended at second strike.
    Most likely the twist is propaganded with deliberate thought, to enable the West to wash its hands off its ‘responsibility’ to protect their Neo Nazis operating inside Ukraine.
    I needed to put this in context because Putin is the, most contemporary *and* sovereign, practitioner of military studies. Hence without invoking Putin it becomes difficult to understand what others could/should/would be doing.
    With all due respect, your idea of ADMs, has always sounded to me as a search for a mythical panacea. I am afraid it will sound very sweet to the ears that do not/cannot/would not/care not, for putting in place a graduated military response that matches the enemy at every stage of hostilities – starting from conventional to tactical to strategic. There is nothing that ADMs can do and that cannot be replicated by conventional means at much cheaper cost, with much smaller overall risks and way more effectively. Nearly 70% of waterflow in Indian rivers is from within Indian catchment areas and it implies multiple underground aquifers of varying sizes. The wish for further amending nuclear policy sounds more like a wish to avoid having to address the needs for conventional military hardware.
    Even if we decide to modify the paper work why must we go on to clarify everything by way of paperwork and claims only. What is the credibility of the claims made by anybody in the Indian Deep State. Why cannot we on the other hand just start working on an Indian version of a Poseidon Status-6 and ignore the paper work – that will do a whole lot more by way of a response. After that it will be the Chinese who will ask for clarifications in the nuclear policy. Then clarify whatever you want to. Fact is there is too much talk and no walk.
    Not to say that the nuclear posture need not be revised. But then it needed updation from the day it was made by Vajpayee, every single day beginning from the day of its promulgation. Vajpayee’s policy told us that Indian deterrent was ambiguous because it was also aimed at deterring non-nuclear WMDs. Then we were also told that 25KT deterrence (going upto a max of 500 KT) is good enough for a ‘massive retaliatory second strike’. That 20 Agnis is good enough to be begin with. That silos in reverse sides and trains, were good enough. That second use was good enough. I for one have absolutely always wished for a respectable Indian presence in every single stage of graduated military response right upto Armageddon (including the ADMs). But merely an updation of nuclear policy does not even begins to become a response to the threat held out. The threat held out currently and for the foreseeable future, by the Chinese, is that Pakistan gave you one Kargil and China is ~20X more powerful hence ……. Chinese moved back from the territories they took in 1962 and held on only to those territories that they knew would be strategically relevant in their future plans. What will the Chinese do by moving into Uttar Pradesh or even just Uttarakhand.

    You further say : “The PLA can fight to a decision, in the main, because of a large and sophisticated Chinese defence industry that can quickly replenish the stocks of spares and whole weapons systems exhausted or destroyed in battle. It is an advantage that an Indian military equipped with imported armaments and a public sector-dominated defence industry stuck at the licensed production-screwdriver level of technology, does not enjoy.”
    Please note that 100% of the Chinese threat is based on their state owned enterprises. Russian threat to the NATO too is also based on their state owned enterprises. The so called private sector in USA is funded by money printing and bound by export controls – so exactly how much of it is private!? And doesn’t the US private sector MIC ‘leak’ its secrets to the Chinese ? Wasn’t the contractor who leaked the Scorpene manual a private sector entity working for another private sector entity? Wasn’t the Exocet a product from private sector of the supplier country and weren’t its technical/operational parameters ‘leaked’ ?? How will Indian private sector be any different. Privatization of MIC is not going to help with China.
    On top of everything else and very unfortunately, today we have an army full of people who will speak of further NBC capability development only when they are about to retire. Obviously this group will be more than happy to keep kicking the ball onto the future generations. Mulling a change in policy plays to their basic urges of seeking personal distractions. Indian nuclear capabilities developed over several decades and the final result of the collective thought of these nationalist groups was the Vajpayee’s nuclear policy. Mail karo, palla jhaado – later on tell everybody, ‘maine to mail kari thi’. For ages these general group has told us how Haji Peer could/should have been with India. Kartarpur should have been in pocket. POK should be seized. For ages we were told that China took advantage of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Can’t this group find any opportunity in the Ukraine crisis?

  14. Ayush says:

    Dr karnad, Biden has just said openly “for gods sake this thug cannot remain in power”.This is after “war criminal”, “murderous tyrant”, “absolute thug”.Has biden forgotten that Putin has some 1500 odd TN’s in his hands.Also, US is carrying out massive cyber attacks against Russian mil comms/space/financial institutions including the central bank.they are doing everything short of kinetic warfare.People in south block are on the edge what Biden saying.

  15. Email from Air Marshal Hairish Masand (Retd)
    Harish Masand

    Sat, 26 Mar at 7:53 pm


    Well said. Hope the policy makers hear.

    Warm regards,

  16. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Ashraf Gani’s brother accuses India to be the real troublemaker in Afghanistan. He blames India and the US as responsible for all Afghan ills.
    I would love Dr Karnad’s views on the same.

  17. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad, I believe India had a great chance to have a cordial relationship with Pakistan under pm Imran Khan who was probably the most pro Indian politician in Pakistan but we have wasted this opportunity due to our domestic pollitics. What are your thoughts on this ?

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