Highlights of April 2024


Developments in Russia and Ukraine

The dynamics in the Russia-Ukraine war continue to exhibit same patterns as those seen in the recent past. These dynamics are characterized by the Russian inability to expand any further in Ukraine as well as the inability to consolidate a few areas that it has established its troop presence in, and the inability of Ukraine to evict Russia and secure a decisive victory. As a result, a stalemate continues to persist in the war, despite constant attacks by each side into the territory of the other, especially using drones.

However, what this stalemate is helping to achieve in the long run is a lot more significant. It is gradually bringing about a near-permanent crippling of Russian economy, society, and military capabilities from within. Already, in terms of military outcomes, the Black Sea standoff is going in favour of Ukraine; for, the Russian Navy’s reserve of admirals and ships is steadily decreasing following numerous setbacks at the hands of Ukraine’s drone and missile offensive, leading to the destruction of one-third of the Black Sea Fleet. Another significant development was Ukraine’s drone attack on a refinery in Tatarstan, which hit a target 1,200 kilometers from the war frontlines and showed that Kyiv can bring the war far deeper into Russia than ever before. The attack provoked a rethink within federal Russian provinces, leading to doubts about Russia’s ability to defend them.

Interestingly, Russia no longer terms the ongoing war as a special military operation and calls it a war. This means that the country is preparing itself for a long haul instead of a faster victory. However, the more this war of attrition drags on, the more will be the costs exacted from Russia, both materially and psychologically. Terrorist attacks, restiveness and resentment among the locals, dependence on pariah states like Iran and North Korea, and becoming a Chinese satellite state have left Russia highly powerless and diminished. Most recently, the rise of independent and powerful right-wing, pro-imperialist, neo-Nazi paramilitary outfits within Russia – which have criticized Putin’s leadership as well as his calls to “denazify” Ukraine – are increasingly posing a challenge to Putin’s authority.

These long-term changes exemplify the real outcomes of the ongoing war. They are set to have long-term implications for European strategic calculus. The fact that this war has been going on for more than two years has left European security hanging in a delicate balance of power. So far, European response to the war has been determined by its selfish political interests – rather than any deeper moral vision. Threatened by Russian aggression and irrationality, Europe has determined that Ukrainian advances in the war might propel an insecure Russia to take the escalation to the next level, turning it into a disastrous thermonuclear war. This, perhaps, explains the lackluster European approach and lack of aid to Ukraine. At the same time, any meaningful Russian advancement in the war may lead to an overcoming of Ukraine entirely, thereby turning Ukraine into a Russian front to wage war against the rest of Europe and amplifying the Russian power manifold. This is also an unacceptable outcome for Europe. Any undesirable outcome for Europe is also undesirable for the United States, as the security of both are inseparably connected.

It is in this context that it is possible to situate the USD 60 billion in aid cleared by the US House of Representatives which will act as a big morale booster for Ukraine. In terms of military advantage, it may pave the way for Ukraine to continue resisting Russia and perpetuate the existing balance of power but is unlikely to assure decisive victory.

Developments in Science and Technology

As the development of technology scales new heights, its applications are diversifying in more and more areas, and the deployment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) across all these areas has become a constant factor. While – as discussed in previous issues – governments are grappling with the question of how to regulate AI, they are also hastening to enter an emergent arms race driven mainly by AI capabilities, which seeks to change ideas of military strategy completely.

A recent example of this is the development of the Strategic Support Force (SSF), developed by China over the last few years, and increasingly being deployed to supplement Chinese military intelligence and capabilities across all domains, particularly domains like outer space, cyberspace, electromagnetic and psychological warfare domains. China defines the development of these new capabilities across these unexploited domains as building “strategic capabilities in emerging areas” which will give the country “asymmetrical” advantages and “hugely” change the military balance between rivals.

However, even as AI scales new heights, there is also now a dawning realization of its limitations. The speed with which generative AI technologies are being developed reflects the mechanical nature of the entire process. As soon as a model is developed, its competitor comes forth and the earlier one becomes outdated. Technologists have called this the scaling hypothesis, premised on the idea of exponentially limitless growth of technology and its potential to overtake human abilities based on more and better data and more advanced computer chips.

The one inherent limitation of this hypothesis, which is now increasingly visible, is that AI models will precipitate in the absence of data. In the mad rush for data, data is not only being bought, but also being made by AI companies by creating large networks of people for this purpose, which would ultimately be used to train AI models. Very soon, the process becomes inefficient. There is also an increasing realization that no matter how refined the data and the process through which it is generated, the AI models based on it can never master real life situations and dilemmas faced by human beings. They will always be limited by data. An instructive example of this is that current generative AI models are only capable of system-1 thinking. In human beings, this corresponds to an automatic mode of thinking based on instinctual decisions. In their present stage, where scientists are making painstaking efforts to apply AI models to more and more complicated applications, they are also increasingly realizing the superiority and necessity of the human brain.

Going a step further, what the scientists do not seem ready to admit is the nature of the human brain itself. They assume that AI models – as neural networks – can mirror the brain, assuming that the human brain is constituted of such biological neural networks which give rise to its functions, spanning understanding, intelligence, emotions, and sensations. However, the human brain is not simply a product of biological mechanisms, but is also dynamized by consciousness, which determines everything else. This is what makes human intelligence real. Artificial intelligence will continue to remain artificial precisely because it is constituted of and limited by its human-made composition.

Israel-Hamas War

The Israel-Hamas war witnessed an unprecedented rupture in the form of a barrage of more than 300 Iranian drones and missile attack on Israel. This was stated to be in response to the Israeli attack on an Iranian consulate in Syria which led to the killing of two top Iranian officials. The Iranian counterattack on Israel was unprecedented as this was the first time that Iran was directly getting involved in the ongoing conflict, the first time that Iran was directly confronting an enemy (Israel) and represented the biggest crisis in the region since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the attack, while Iran proclaimed that it had accomplished its mission and declared retreat, Israel was left in a difficult spot.

The biggest dilemma before Israel, and its ally United States, was how to respond to the Iranian aggravation without causing a regional escalation of the war. The US made it clear that it did not want Israel to attack Iran directly as it would expand the war regionally. Israel also probably did not want that, as such an escalation would inevitably draw Hezbollah and Lebanon into the war, thereby cornering Israeli manpower and resources into another active front. At the same time, Israel could not rest the matter without some kind of retaliation, lest it give a victory to Iran and embolden the enemies of Israel to cause further damage.

A small window of relief was offered to Israel in that the Iranian attack did not cause any damage or casualties in Israel. With the help of US, UK and Jordan, Israel was able to anticipate 99% of the Iranian projectiles. As a result, Israeli allies insisted – and Israel also calculated – that the retaliation can be proportionate without causing excessive damage to Iran and prevent the further expansion of the conflict. Subsequently, Israel carried out limited strikes in Isfahan in central Iran targeting an air defence facility. Satellite images showed that the strikes did not destroy or significantly damage the facility. Iran, on its part, denied that the airstrikes were carried out. With this, at least, the brief but extremely dangerous confrontation between Iran and Israel came to an end.

However, as far as the war between Israel and Hamas is concerned, Israel is continuing to press ahead in Gaza and has not let up on its offensive. After laying sufficient ground and giving warnings, Israel has now begun to enter Rafah, which is near Egypt and where majority of Palestinians are now concentrated. This offensive is happening even as Egypt and Qatar are continuing to make frantic efforts to come up with a palatable peace plan for stopping the war and ensuring the release of hostages. Israel, however, continues to stick to its original position that it requires a complete dismantling for Hamas for there to be any viable peace. Even though Israel has signaled openness to various peace proposals, none of them have yet come up to the mark, as all of them leave Hamas unpunished.

Continuing Politics Over Sandeshkhali Debacle

In the aftermath of the brutal Sandeshkhali issue (covered in the previous issue), the continuing politics over it reflect the depths that the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal is plumbing in a bid to prevent Hindus from consolidating. Over the past few weeks, the TMC has launched a relentless narrative war against the BJP, releasing videos in a bid to show that the entire Sandeshkhali event was orchestrated by the BJP. The video shows women saying that they were forced by the BJP to make rape allegations, another video shows people being made to sign blank sheets where the BJP could then pen its own narrative, and yet another so-called sting video shows a local BJP leader saying that the whole Sandeshkhali event was a conspiracy.

That these videos being systematically put out by the TMC are fake is self-evident. In the wake of these vides, several women BJP workers clashed with TMC members over this issue. Women workers from BJP, under the leadership of Rekha Patra, beat up TMC men and even gheraoed the Sandeshkhali police station in response to the fake propaganda war unleashed by the TMC. BJP also released evidence and testimony of a woman saying that TMC had pressurized and threatened her to make fake statements.

The dirty politics being played by the TMC over this issue is unlikely to hoodwink the electorate. In a desperate bid to get votes, TMC had no strategy but to spin the ironic and ludicrous narrative that under a TMC-ruled state, BJP could engineer the entire Sandeshkhali saga. That this could have happened in a TMC stronghold, ruled with an iron fist by its goons, and under the nose of a TMC Chief Minister, is the biggest contradiction. Such twisting facts are unlikely to endear the TMC to Hindus. Indeed, it will be widely perceived as TMC attempting to defend the accused, Sheikh Shahjahan, who committed systematic land grabs and sexual abuse over a long period of time. The latest incident is yet another lesson about the depths to which power-hungry leaders can fall, condoning everything from gross injustice to anti-national activities.

Uttarakhand Forest Fires

Forest fires in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand have become a yearly occurrence in the summer months. This year they have taken a particularly virulent form, spreading over 1000 hectares, and raising questions about the likelihood of rising incidence of forest fires with the exacerbating impacts of climate change. Such was the incidence of forest fires this time that aid of the Indian Air Force, Army personnel, volunteers, and home guard personnel had to be called upon to control the situation. They mainly used Bambi buckets (which can carry up to 5000 liters of water) to douse the fires. The hotspots were Nainital, Haldwani, and Ramnagar forest divisions. The incidence of fires was to such an extent that there was a danger of the blaze fanning out to heavily populated urban centers including Nainital city, with poor visibility constraining the Air Force’s firefighting efforts.

In general, forest fires have been attributed to three key variables: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Dry leaves, pine needles, and other flammable materials act as fuel, while hot and dry weather conditions provide the necessary heat. Oxygen fuels the combustion process, allowing fires to spread rapidly. The primary cause for the fires in Uttarakhand has been linked to heightened dryness, exacerbated by a heat wave in Champawat and Nainital districts, and scant winter rainfall and snow in the Himalayas since September last year.

In addition, human negligence, changes in land-use patterns, cutting down of forests for agriculture, planting of pine trees, and lack of climate proofing mechanisms also contribute to the spread of forest fires. In the case of Uttarakhand, locals have been reported as setting deliberate fires for the growth of good quality grass, to cover up illegal cutting of trees, for poaching, etc., even though setting a forest fire is a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code. Indeed, more than 95 percent of forest fires in India are initiated by humans.

These fires have a serious impact in terms of exacerbating environmental crisis, as burning forests intensify heat and lead to black carbon emissions, thereby adversely affecting water systems and air quality. Not only that, but they also contribute to the mounting challenge of irreversible environmental degradation and climate crisis. In 2023, forest fires, globally, generated around 2,170 megatons of carbon emissions. The year 2024 alone has, so far, witnessed double the average number of forest fires world over compared to the last year. Last year also saw intense forest fires. In Europe, they burnt an area of more than half a million hectare, and in Canada, the estimated burnt area amounted to over 18 million hectares (roughly twice the size of Portugal).

In a state like Uttarakhand which is already being adversely impacted by climate change, the mounting intensity of forest fires serves to worsen the already fragile ecology of the state. In the past few years, the state has witnessed destructive floods, landslides, and land subsidence. These adverse environmental events have accelerated even as the so-called development model of the state is being advanced by successive governments.

In the case of forest fires, it must be noted that these occurrences have increased so much in frequency and intensity that they can no longer merely be dealt with as natural processes. Yet, governments across the world and their coterie of experts and scientists continue to exhibit this problem-solving approach, based on the assumption that implementing piecemeal solutions can lead to change. These piecemeal solutions include prescriptions such as raising greater awareness among people, changing agricultural practices, conserving forests etc. Yet, what these solutions fundamentally lack is the spirit with which they are implemented. Being mostly driven by a commercial motive they end up producing opposite results. Take the instance of governmental targets to increase forest cover through schemes like compensatory afforestation. Paradoxically, while there has been a spree of tree plantations conducted in the name of afforestation, yet they have ended up planting monocultures and such varieties of trees which are harmful for the soil, bad for the environment and more prone to catching fire.

Thus, if it is the commercial motive which drives policy and action, little can be achieved by way of solutions. The need of the hour is to fundamentally change our collective attitude, motivated by a deeper psychological change, without which all solutions will continue to cause more harm than good.


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