Monthly Archives: March 2022

No Confidence Motion and Pakistan Constitution

Syed Sharfuddin*

The concept of no confidence vote in a parliamentary democracy is based on the premise that political power rests with the people and they have the right to choose or reject a government formed in their name. This right is exercised through people’s elected representatives in parliament. While the tenure of an elected government is fixed for five years, the timing for its dissolution is left open ended, emphasising that the executive shall remain in office so long as it enjoys the confidence of the majority in the legislature.

Almost every democratic country has a history of no confidence votes which have been historically less successful than their original intent. The first time a no confidence vote was used was in 1782 in the parliament of England when legislators, angry over the defeat of the British military by the American volunteer army forced Lord North to submit his resignation to King George III. In the UK there have been a total of 11 prime ministers who were defeated in no confidence motions. In India 27 no confidence motions have been moved in Lok Sabha to date but only three have been successful.

In Pakistan which has had a history of interrupted democracy, two no confidence votes were used against the sitting prime ministers (Benazir Bhutto in 1989 and Shaukat Aziz in 2006) which did not pass. A third no confidence motion was filed on 8 March 2022 against the current Prime Minister (Imran Khan) and is yet to be voted in the National Assembly.

The difference between the no confidence motions in India and Pakistan is that in India the leaders of the house resigned in the wake of no confidence motions submitted by the opposition and refusal or absence of support to them from the coalition partners (V P  Singh in 1990, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996 and H D Deve Gowda in 1997), but in Pakistan the leaders of the house decided to face the vote of no confidence motions and were successful in retaining their office. This same pattern is visible in the vote of no confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan who has decided to confront it in the National Assembly instead of tendering his resignation and calling a fresh election as demanded by the combined opposition. However, one Pakistani Prime Minister (Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy) was not allowed to seek a vote of confidence in 1957 and resigned under threat of dismissal by President Iskandar Mirza.

In the Westminster style of democratic governance, a motion of no confidence is a vote of impeachment against the entire council of ministers, including the prime minister. When it is passed by the majority of legislators, the government must resign or in the alternative, offer to dissolve parliament and/or call for a general election. No confidence motions are usually brought on account of serious disagreement on policy issues of governance or on questions of broader national interest or for personal issues of corruption and graft.

In the present no confidence motion in Pakistan against the incumbent Prime Minister, the reasons cited are both policy issues and personality factors. Prime Minister Imran Khan is accused by his political opponents of harming the country’s national interest by unwise economic policies which have led to rampant inflation, uncontrollable price hikes in food items and essential commodities, and visiting Russia on the eve of Russian invasion of Ukraine which allegedly compromised Pakistan’s neutral position in the conflict and annoyed Pakistan’s Western donors and trading partners who have abundantly made it clear that any country siding with the aggressor in the Ukraine conflict will be made to face the consequences of its decision. In Pakistan’s case this has been taken too far as the Foreign Office took exception to the letter of NATO envoys urging Pakistan to condemn Russia in the UN vote and the Prime Minister going public to say he cannot be bowed down to external pressure. On the personality front, the Prime Minister is accused of being reckless and deeply personal in his verbal tirades against the leadership of the opposition and critics of his government, including the media. The army has stated that it is neutral and does not want to get dragged in the matter. However, the military’s interests are served better by not making the US, UK, EU and other Western allies unhappy with Pakistan, even though they welcome Pakistan’s growing ties with Russia and support continuation of Pakistan’s economic and strategic cooperation with China.

The Prime Minister avoided a similar vote of no confidence last year when in March 2021 his Finance Minister lost a crucial election in the Senate, by pre-empting it with a vote of confidence which he won with 178 votes in the National Assembly , as against the required number of 172.

In countries where there are fragile federations or political parties are fragmented and region based, the frequency of no confidence votes is relatively high. As a safety measure for political stability, these countries place restrictions on the number and process of initiating no confidence motions in legislature. Historically, no confidence motions do not have a high success record in world parliaments. Some constitutions also include a defection clause to discourage legislators from switching their membership or vote in the legislature from the party on whose ticket they were elected to another party during the legislative tenure of parliament. Sometimes these restrictions encourage former members of old parties who are electable in their constituencies to form small parties and avoid the defection clauses because they can exercise influence on a minority government by joining government coalition with the ability to switch support from the ruling party to the opposition when it suites them. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s governing party PTI has 155 members in parliament which is supported by 23 legislators from its coalition partners comprising 7 from MQM, 5 each from PML(Q) and BAP, 3 from GDA, one each from AML and JWP, and one independent member. The opposition consists of 163 members, comprising 84 from PML(N), 56 from PPP, 15 from MMA, 4 from BNP, one from ANP and 3 independent legislators.

There are two types of no confidence motions: a regular motion of no confidence, and a constructive motion of no confidence. The regular motion of no confidence is prevalent in many parliamentary democracies. This system calls for the removal of an existing government and beginning the process of either replacing it by another government or calling for a general election through a vote, supported by the majority of legislators in the legislative house. The voting is done either secretly, or through a vote of Ayes or Nos or through a division of the house, usually with no third option of abstaining. In the regular motion of no confidence a government can be brought down if those who are supporting the motion are larger in number than those against whom the motion has been moved. Usually, in the regular vote of no confidence, the majority of the total number of legislators elected to the house is not required to determine the success or failure of the motion, as long as those who are present and taking part at the time of the voting pass or reject the motion. The onus of proving that they have the required majority to bring a government down rests with the opposition parties that have moved the motion of no confidence and not with the government against whom the motion is moved. There are some limitations placed on the regular motion of no confidence such as the minimum number of legislators required to bring a motion to the floor of the house, the requirement of a quorum and whether it is a secret ballot.  

A constructive motion of no confidence on the other hand severely limits the ability of the opposition to vote out government. A constructive motion has two safety features which are not present in the regular motion of no confidence. These are the requirement that a majority of the total membership of the House should pass a motion of no confidence as against the majority of those present; and an agreement must be achieved on an alternate candidate who would be voted in to replace the leader of the house against whom the vote of no confidence is passed. Where these requirements are not met, the motion of no confidence fails. A constructive motion of no confidence is therefore a vote for a new government to replace the one which is being removed by a vote of no confidence. In a constructive vote of no confidence, a government can survive even if it has the support of only one or two members, as long as the rest of the members are not agreed on an alternate candidate to form a new coalition government.

The constructive motion of no confidence is further strengthened by the caveat of having a higher number of legislators who can present the motion or a resolution of no confidence against a sitting government. On a global average this number varies between 10 to 25 percent of the total number of legislators. Pakistan has placed this limit at 20 percent which means that a motion of no confidence should have at least 68 or more signatures to be accepted by the Speaker of the National Assembly for taking necessary action. A second method is to place a limit on the number of no confidence motions that can be introduced in the same session and the interval between them. The Pakistan constitution places no limit on the number of no confidence motions that can be initiated against a government but in the Rules of Business (Rule 113) the time limit for resubmitting a resolution of no confidence to parliament is 6 months.

The constructive motion of no confidence is also strengthened by allowing slightly longer time to the government to react to the motion. It can vary from 48 hours to 2 weeks. In Pakistan’s case it is roughly 2 weeks.

The system of constructive motion of no confidence is followed by the parliaments of Germany, Spain, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Belgium and Israel. Three of the seven countries are former east European states. Two of these countries, Belgium and Israel introduced this system not due to historical tradition but as a result of political reforms. The system encourages continuity of government during the term of parliament and prevents smaller coalitions partners from extracting higher political concessions from a government struggling to keep its majority in parliament.

There are three ways through which a government can be constitutionally dismissed in Pakistan. The first is under Article 58; the prime minister advises the president to dissolve the National Assembly and call fresh elections before the expiry of the electoral term of parliament. The second is under Article 91 (7); the president may ask the prime minister to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly if he believes that the prime minister does not command the confidence of the majority of the Assembly. The third method under Article 95 (1 to 4); a resolution for a vote of no confidence, moved by not less than 20 percent of the total membership of the National Assembly, is passed against a sitting prime minister by a majority of the total membership of the National Assembly.

The Pakistan constitution combines the features of both the regular and constructive forms of vote of no confidence without making it mandatory that in the event of a vote of no confidence vote having been passed by the National Assembly, the same Assembly should simultaneously elect a new leader of the National Assembly to form a new government.

Article 95 of the Pakistan constitution, read with Articles 58, 63 (A) and 91 (7), provide guidance about the conduct of vote of no confidence. The procedure for initiating a motion or resolution of no confidence and taking a vote on it is provided in the Procedure and Conduct of Business of the Pakistan National Assembly, 2007. Rule 37, read with Rules 323 and 38 of the Rules of Business, state that the Speaker has a period of 14 days from the date a resolution of no confidence has been received by him to bring it to the floor of the National Assembly for action. In addition, the Speaker has the discretion to call for a vote on the resolution between three to seven days of the circulation of notification of the resolution, during which time he may also set aside a number of days for a debate on the motion. On the conduct of the poll, Pakistan follows the most transparent but democratically questionable method of members voting by an open vote by the division of the house. At the election of the Senate Chairman in 2021 the Supreme Court set aside the request of the government to cast an open vote and instead ruled in favour of the secret vote.

Since the restoration of civilian democracy in 2008, Pakistan’s political parties have placed a great deal of emphasis on parliaments completing their full term of five years. Cutting short a term through a vote of no confidence or a snap election called by a prime minister is an expensive affair for countries like Pakistan which have large budget deficits. Over the years there have been efforts to strengthen the office of the prime minister by removing the obstacles placed on his authority by intermittent martial laws. In 1997 two landmark constitutional amendments were adopted to strengthen the office of the prime minister. The 13th amendment removed Article 58(2B) of the constitution which was introduced in the constitution in 1985 by General Zia ul Haq. The 8th amendment, as it was called, gave the president the authority to dismiss a sitting prime minister and his government on charges of corruption.

The 14th amendment further strengthened the position of the prime minister by giving the heads of political parties the authority to dismiss a legislator who was elected on the party ticket for breach of his party’s discipline or voting contrary to party direction. Article 63-A of the constitution states that a legislator who was elected on the ticket of a party may be deemed to have defected and unseated after due process, if he resigns from the membership of his party or joins another parliamentary party, or votes or abstains from voting contrary to the direction by his parliamentary party when the Assembly takes a vote on the election of a prime minister or chief minister, a vote of confidence or no confidence, or a money bill or a constitution amendment bill.  

In 2003, the omnibus 17th amendment giving legitimacy to General Musharraf’s Legal Framework Order restored the defunct 8th amendment in Article 58 in a different form and empowered the president to dissolve the National Assembly without consulting the prime minister or a resolution passed by the legislature. It also made the president’s action subject to reference and approval of the Supreme Court. However, under a civilian government in 2010, the 18th amendment removed this power from the president and gave it back to the National Assembly.

Recommendations

Since the constitution includes many features of a constructive vote of no confidence, the parliament should consider adding to it the condition that the passage of a vote of no confidence should be dependent on the opposition being able to elect a new leader of the house in the same session which votes to bring a government down by a majority vote of no confidence to guarantee continuity of governance, political stability and avoiding an expensive election exercise outside the parliament’s fixed 5 year term. If the opposition fails to get the required majority for the proposed alternate leader of the house, then a no confidence motion passed against a sitting prime minister should be declared null and void. In other words, the same majority that votes to bring down a sitting government should be in a position to vote in a new government as long as they have 50% plus one vote of the total number of house in their favour.


Parliamentary democracy encourages continuity of the political process through the representative institutions of the people. It is when these institutions fail to perform their function or are denied their role, the question of fundamental rights of people comes into play. As long as the National Assembly is functioning and the parliamentary parties are able to exercise their rights under the constitution as the representatives of the people, there is no reason why the parallel route of agitation and mass rallies should be simultaneously followed by opposition leaders. The government should enact a law outlawing political agitation, mass rallies and public ‘dharnas’  if the parliamentary route for resolving political issues is open to political parties under law and if the judiciary is playing its role to ensure that the opposition gets the required space within the political system to challenge the government on corruption charges, matters of national interest and important policy issues. There is also a need for the parliament and the judiciary to work together to reinforce parliamentary good conduct and promote high standards of interaction between the government and opposition political parties and their leadership, in particular discouraging their political workers to use abusive language and shun the disgusting vocabulary of vagabonds and street urchins. That the political elites should be told to censor their language is itself most regrettable, let alone them advising their workers to be careful in shaping an acceptable discourse of political debate in the country.  

A debate has ensued in political circles about the interpretation of Article 63A of the constitution whether the vote of a legislator who has voted against the party direction in a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly is to be counted or discarded for deciding the result. The government’s position is that if the ruling party has decided not to be present in the National Assembly when the vote of no confidence is in progress , the very presence of a legislator from the ruling party is an act of defection and it is right for the Speaker to discount his vote. The opposition on the other hand believes that the reading of the Article 63A is unambiguous about the defection and its due process, and that it does not prevent a legislator from exercising his fundamental right to vote. In the event of a constitutional crisis arising out of a tie on a vote of no confidence, this question is likely to go to the Supreme Court creating further instability in the country. The parliament should reconsider amending this Article to clearly state whether a vote cast by a defecting legislator in a vote of no confidence is to be denied or counted to decide the result.

Finally, in a parliamentary democracy power rests with the people who elect their representatives to exercise it on their behalf in the act of governance. However, in reality the political representatives of the people rarely connect with the people except at the time of election. When an opposition threatens the government with a vote of no confidence or when a government defends it in the Assembly, it is hard to establish whether the legislators are indeed reflecting the will of the people or pursuing their own personal agendas to advance their political careers. It therefore make a strong case for the political reform of the electoral system and within it the replacement of the regular system of no confidence vote with that of a constructive system of no confidence vote as has been done in Belgium and Israel. If Pakistan does this, it will be the first country in the Commonwealth to take the first step toward strengthening parliamentary democracy by one more notch.

*Mr Sharfuddin is a political analyst and a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs, Commonwealth Secretariat, London UK (2200-2006).

Russia-Ukraine Conflict: A Neutral Analysis

Syed Sharfuddin*

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 did not come as a surprise to anyone except Ukrainians who did not take the warnings of the US and other NATO members seriously. What was a surprise for Russia was the resistance put up by the Ukrainian leadership and regular armed forces who made it extremely hard for what Moscow though would be a walk in the park with its overwhelming land troops equipped with medium to long range artillery. As of writing this essay on Day 16 of the invasion, Russia has not been able to break the national resistance to enter Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. But most of the South and East Ukraine has fallen to Russian occupation and it is a matter of days that Kyiv would also fall to Russian troops. To understand why Russia launched the invasion into Ukraine, and whether it was necessary, one needs to look at the post world war global world order, which was refined and reinforced in the 1990s by the US and its allies following the dissolution of Soviet Union and the rise of China as a rival economic power. This essay, however, does not discuss history but focuses on the present conflict and the factors that surround its complicated nature.

Apart from the misery of the Ukrainians who have been used as a football by the big powers, with more than one million becoming refugees and 400,000 people uprooted internally from their homes and hundreds who died in missile attacks, this conflict has exposed the deep fault lines that underpin the existing world order for the maintenance of global peace and security. It has also exposed the double standards that are followed by the powerful states to justify and maintain their dominance of this order both within and outside the UN system.

Russia’s Position

In President Vladimir Putin’s view, this military operation (he does not want to call it a war) would not have been necessary if NATO had not moved away from its assurance of the 1990s that it would not expand to the Baltic states in Eastern Europe posing a direct threat to the sovereignty and security of Russia. Vladimir Putin holds the present government in Ukraine responsible for killing 14000 people in the Russian majority regions of Donetsk and Luhansk which proclaimed independence from Kiev subsequent to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. According to the Russian narrative, Volodymyr Zelensky supported the Ukrainian armed forces with funds, equipment and entertainment shows on the frontline in the separatist region of Donbas, but he also promised to implement the 2015 Minsk Agreement and agreed to respect the civil and political rights of the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine. After his election in 2019 he reneged on his promise and instead of mending ties with Russia, he started to court the US for NATO membership. To win the US support, Volodymyr Zelensky banned Russian-language newspapers and TV channels, imprisoned his political opponents and outlawed opposition political parties in Eastern Ukraine and sent thousands of Ukrainian troops and Neo-Nazis in Donbas to eliminate pro-Russia separatists. Early this year, the debate whether Ukraine should apply for membership of NATO and abandon its policy of staying neutral in any future confrontation between Russia and the US, or maintain the status quo culminated in favour of the former view prevailing in the government. President Putin saw this as Ukraine crossing the red line and after failing to get reassurance from NATO that it would not deny Ukraine membership of the Western defence alliance if it applied for it, he ordered Russian army to move into Ukraine before Ukraine’s application for NATO membership was submitted and approved officially.

The Russian objectives in its military operation against Ukraine are a neutral and non-nuclear Ukraine, its demilitarisation from the Eastern regions inhabited by the Russian-speaking population, denazification (whatever it means), recognition of Russian Crimea and recognition of the independent states of Donetsk and Luhansk. According to Russian leaders, these terms are non-negotiable.

Russia sees the NATO reaction to its invasion as a contradiction of what the US and NATO did elsewhere in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, replacing their leaders with pro-West puppet regimes who were imposed on their peoples through the use of force. Instead of encouraging President Zelensky to negotiate peace with Russia, Vladimir Putin accuses the West of escalating the war by supplying arms and mercenaries, while launching a hysterical propaganda against Russia and enforcing a strict sanctions regime against Russia. 

NATO’s Position

The US and NATO do not Trust Vladimir Putin. They believe that he wants to restore the glory days of the former Soviet Union by keeping its neighbouring states under Russia’s sphere of influence. The West regards this conflict not as Russia’s war but as Putin’s war of wanton ambition. On Ukraine’s membership question, NATO has taken the position that every country has the sovereign right to decide its future and join a defence pact that it considers necessary for safeguarding its independence and sovereignty. The West regards the invasion of Ukraine by Russia as a violation of the principle of non-interference and respect for the territorial integrity of states, which is backed by international law and upheld by the UN and OSCE. The US and NATO have made it clear that instead of imposing a no fly zone over Ukraine or deploying NATO troops inside Ukraine to stop the Russian advance, they will supply lethal arms to Ukraine to defend itself and use economic sanctions against Russia which will exact a heavy economic cost on Putin’s government and its supporters. These sanctions include suspension of the SWIFT banking system for Russia, freezing financial assets of Russia and Russian banks and its billionaire oligarchs in Western countries, boycotting Russian commercial aviation, banning investment and trading contacts with Russia, ending the Most Favoured Nation status in trade and placing a freeze on its oil exports. US corporations in technology, food and consumer goods and European car manufacturers have closed their operations in Russia resulting in thousands of job losses for the Russians. The Russian Rouble and stock market is under severe market pressure. In addition, foreign fighters have gone into Ukraine to fight Russian troops alongside Ukraine’s regular army and freshly trained civilian volunteers. The strategy of NATO is not to fight Russia directly with NATO forces but to exact insurmountable pressure on Vladimir Putin to isolate him from his people or force him enough to withdraw from Ukraine in a humiliating reversal of his invasion order.

The US and its European allies believe that Ukraine is not the last stop of Russia. They draw a parallel between Hitler’s Germany which kept on taking European countries by force to fulfil its ambition as the dominant power in Europe. The Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Finland, Hungary and Poland share this assessment and have asked NATO to remain prepared to invoke article 5 of the NATO charter if a NATO member state is attacked by Russia. An appeasement of Russia in Ukraine could embolden Vladimir Putin to move further into Europe to create rebel enclaves of Russian population sympathetic to Moscow. However, NATO is reluctant to engage in a military showdown against Russia which could easily escalate to a nuclear war which no one, including Russia, wants to fight because if it starts, there will be no one left to claim victory.

Instead, NATO is confronting Russia on other fronts. Besides imposing the toughest economic sanctions, NATO is fighting Russia on cyber space, media and public relations. The Russian viewpoint of the war is completely blocked out in the US and Europe on TV, newspapers and social media. Western public is furious against Russia watching atrocities committed by the Russian artillery on civilians in many Ukrainian cities, including those under Russian siege. This is reciprocated by Russia and Russians are only getting information that Kremlin approves for public release in Russia.

Within NATO there are different views on the application of sanctions and confronting Russia. Ukraine’s repeated calls to NATO to intervene militarily resulted on deaf ears. Joining the sanctions’ call, Germany suspended the construction of Russian gas pipeline NORD-2, but it did not suspend NORD-1 which brings Russian gas to Germany to meet its energy shortfall. Hungary did not join the US call to boycott the import of Russian oil. Poland wanted the US to deploy jets and declare Ukraine a no fly zone but the US did not want to escalate the conflict to a higher military level. Slovenia has asked NATO members to stop all imports from Russia. Although Turkey voted yes for the General Assembly resolution, it did not officially condemn Russia for the invasion but called it “unacceptable”. Turkey is a NATO member but it also has good relations with Russia and Ukraine and is committed to facilitating negotiations between the two sides. Ankara made a mediation attempt by hosting a trilateral meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia Ukraine and Turkey in Antalya on 10 March 2022, which ended after one session making no progress on ceasefire, but agreeing that the possibility of future talks should remain open ended.

Impartial Position

The UN Security Council meeting on 26 February 2022 and the subsequent UN General Assembly meeting of 2 March 2022 seeking to condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine and calling on the the parties to end hostilities were quite revealing in their voting pattern. While the majority of the member states supported the West’s position in voting for the resolution which was adopted at the General Assembly by an overwhelming majority, 35 states abstained and 12 did not participate in the voting. States that abstained included three nuclear states namely China, India and Pakistan, as well as many Asian and Gulf States. These states have full sympathy for Ukraine whose people are going through a humanitarian catastrophe, but these states do not want to be a party to the power struggle between one side and the other. In choosing to be non-partisan, these states want to keep good relations with all major powers, be it China, Russia, the US, UK or the EU. They do not want to be told that if you are not with us, you are against us. Unfortunately, the West has not accepted the right of these countries to remain neutral in this conflict. Prior to the UN General Assembly vote in New York on 2 March 2022, Western Envoys posted in Islamabad wrote a joint letter advising the government of Imran Khan to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine. The letter was rejected by the Pakistan Foreign Office as an attempt to influence its neutrality. Pakistani social media is full of speculation that the West is quietly working with the opposition to pass a vote of no confidence against Imran Kahn in Parliament and force him out of government. The opposition in Pakistan has accused the Prime Minister of visiting Moscow on the eve of Russian invasion of Ukraine. On 10 March addressing a Press Conference the federal Minister for Interior of Pakistan confirmed the speculations that the vote of no-confidence tabled in the Parliament by the combined opposition was because of Ukraine, and for the government’s refusal to comply with the demands of the West. If the vote of no-confidence fails, the West may as well use other levers such as tighten IMF conditionality on the next tranche of payment, or retain Pakistan on the grey list of FATF for an indefinite period. The US State Department has an office which monitors the voting pattern of countries on US-sponsored resolutions at the UN and calibrates US foreign and security policy toward them accordingly.

It is reasonable to assume that the number of abstentions on the UN General Assembly vote would have been higher than 35, had the West not actively lobbied and put diplomatic pressure on politically vulnerable and foreign aid dependent countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America to vote in favour of the UN resolution. It is interesting that after voting against the UN Security Council resolution on Ukraine on 26 February 2022, the UAE changed its position and voted in support of the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine on 2 March 2022. South Africa was also in the same dilemma. After initially announcing that South Africa will remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict, the South African Foreign Minister issued a statement prior to the UN vote in support of the NATO position. The statement was, however, retracted later after the ANC leadership decided to stand firm on its neutral stance in keeping with its long standing policy of not getting involved in big power rivalry.  

NATO Membership

Like the EU expansion in Europe since its inception, NATO has also been expanding in Europe to counter Russia’s perceived threat. NATO was founded in 1949 by 12 states from Europe and North America comprising Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the US. In the 1950s Greece, Turkey and Germany joined NATO. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999. Five years later in 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia became NATO members. NATO continued to expand further admitting Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020. The US wanted to make Ukraine a NATO member in 2008 but did not go as far as inviting Ukraine to apply due to reservations of Germany and France. Vladimir Putin is extremely sensitive to NATO’s expansion in Europe which he regards as a Western strategy to encircle Russia from the west, as well as through the south from the Black Sea. The root cause of the present conflict in Ukraine is the refusal of NATO to announce that it will not make Ukraine a member of NATO.

Observations

The Ukraine conflict has revealed cracks in the post-world war political and financial order which needs a thorough overhaul, taking into account the shifting power balance away from the world war II victors to new economic and geo-strategic state-actors that either did not exist as independent states back in 1945 or were not directly involved in the setting up of the order following the great war. The present order is simply not relevant even for the powers that conceived and sustained it and which worked for them for 77 years after the end of the world war.

This is more so in the financial markets where few countries with Reserve currencies control the net value of world liquidity. The Bretton Woods system was abandoned by the US in 1971. The US Dollar is no longer linked to the US gold reserve except that the Green back has the sovereign guarantee of the US Government. The exchange rates of many raw material and commodities supplying countries are fixed through an unfair and unequal system based on the basket of Reserve currencies where the theory that the more a country devalues its currency the greater are its exports prospects, undermines the value of the work of farmers and manufacturers of exporting countries. This is how shops like Primark manage to sell a Made in Bangladesh jumper cheaper than a cup of Starbucks coffee. The exporting countries do not get the fair value of their products because of the unfair exchange rate which is heavily in favour of Reserve currency countries. This is a completely different subject not related to the present topic but it shows that the existing global financial system also needs a major overhaul, which the Ukraine conflict has come to highlight in the wake of stagflation threatening many countries.

The UN which was established primarily to prevent armed conflicts in the world has failed in its primary mission. The big powers that established the UN did not care for this failure because a serious war never came home on the territory of Europe or the US to disturb the peaceful lives of their citizens. The P5 are no longer the sole powers that can decide on matters of peace and security, using the UN Security Council in which they monopolise decision-making under Chapter vii of the UN Charter. The decision making mechanism for peace and security has moved away from the UN to NATO and G7 forums, which is even more dangerous because it excludes a lot many regions and countries affected by conflicts. The General Assembly has no mandate to impose its resolutions on the states that ignore UN resolutions with impunity. The democratisation and overhaul of the UN is necessary to restore its credibility and make it relevant to prevent future conflicts and wars.

The inter-dependence of states due to globalisation came under strain due to worldwide Covid-19 restrictions in 2021 and now it is challenged in 2022 by the war in Ukraine. Countries are realising that dependence on other states is not necessarily a good thing as supply chains can be chocked and create economic slowdown, even if temporarily. Germany depends on Russia for natural gas for 50% of its energy requirement, and France 25%. NATO members are now talking about cutting their dependency on Russian fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy. It will take time to reduce or completely switch this dependency, but it will be a major shift toward nationalism and self-sufficiency for European states. Russia and China may also reduce their dependency on Europe and the US for technology and diversify their exports to the emerging markets in Asia and South America or engage in bilateral trade between them forming an economic and strategic block to counter the Western dominance. For South Asian nations, this would pose both an opportunity and a challenge because countries in this region have their own territorial disputes and they are not insulated from the ramifications of wider global developments.

The toughest sanctions imposed by the West against Vladimir Putin’s regime will not impact on Russia in the short term so as to force a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine without achieving the objectives of the military operation. These sanctions will hurt Russian economy and development in the long run, but at the same time the sanctions will push Russia to explore new economic partners and use a financial system away from the SWIFT to move money internationally and collaborate with the Chinese who are already operating a digital money transfer system similar to SWIFT. Russia will also reduce its dependence on the US Dollar and other Reserve currencies of the West and could develop an alternate currency, including an online digital currency for trade with the outside world. Russia and China have the capability to put an alternate currency trading system in place. Russia’s high energy reserves can also be used to dictate the terms of trade by forcing the buyers of Russian fossil fuels to pay for their purchases in the currency Russia chooses outside the US Dollar and Western banking system.

Reducing dependence on other countries will encourage Germany and Japan to invest heavily in their defence forces. The two countries seem ready to take this route in the coming years. While Australia, the US, UK and France will benefit from this investment by supplying their defence technology and improving their economies through defence exports, in the long run it will be a very dangerous world where each country will have indigenous military capacity to threaten a neighbour with armed conflict. Countries which have a strong economic and defence capability can always be held to ransom by far right nationalist leaders winning elections on populist slogans and using their muscle power to bully smaller neighbours.   

While Russian troops are still in Ukraine, in the immediate future NATO will have to rethink its strategy of dealing with Russia if it does not want to use military force to avoid a danger of escalating the war and brining it inside the territory of NATO members. This will mean NATO either conceding the point that Russia has a right to feel sensitive about its “zone of influence” just as the US feels strongly about its “zone of influence” in South and Central America, or NATO carrying on with a long drawn regime of punitive sanctions against Russia which will in turn hurt not only NATO members but will also have a negative global impact on all countries. Already, Russian retaliation has halted cooperation with the US and UK in the production of rocket components and launch of non-commercial satellites in space. Stopping exports of luxury cars and goods to Russian buyers will also hurt US manufacturers in terms of reduced sales.

The Ukraine war has also shown the double standard of countries which have been preaching human rights to others away from their homes. The racist treatment of non-white and non-nationals fleeing Ukraine by the Ukrainian authorities, as well as their poor welcome by the countries where they walked to seek refuge was most unfortunate because they were not in some uncivilised continent but in Europe. The Ukraine war also shattered the stock image of a refugee being black skinned or brown eyed. In the 70 years interregnum since the world war, Europe had almost forgotten that refugees could also be blonde, blue eyed, wear the cross, look healthy and speak the same language as the hosts.

The Ukraine war has also thrown away the myth of freedom of expression and thought. As soon as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, European countries blocked the news coming out of Russia to their public and concentrated only on showing the atrocities committed by the Russian troops on civilians, including heart breaking accounts of people fleeing their homes, maternity homes being bombarded and heart wrenching scenes of homes and buildings destroyed in Russian missile attacks. The sanctions story is also dominated by what the West has imposed on Russia without reporting on the sanctions Russia has imposed on the West in retaliation. International television stations such as Al-Jazeera and TRT News have struggled to remain neutral because any violation of the neutral reporting protocol can shut down their transmission in NATO states. Newspapers are, however, relatively independent in publishing opinion pieces which cover all aspects of the conflict.

There is no denying the fact that the moral responsibility for carrying out aggression against Ukraine rests with Russia, and not with Donetsk and Luhansk which are seeking self-determination in an attempt to break away from Ukraine. There is also no question about the sovereign right of Ukraine to decide in its own interest whether it wants to join NATO or remain neutral. But having said that why wasn’t this applied to Serbia, Indonesia and Sudan when the West supported the self determination of the people of Kosovo, East Timor and South Sudan and insisted on their secession as independent countries. But in the breakaway states of Ukraine, Kashmir, Northern Cyprus, Palestine and now Afghanistan, the West has not supported the principle of the right of self-determination of the people who want to live independently as internationally recognised states. The contrast is too obvious to be obfuscated through a media block out, economic brow beating or display of force.

The main beneficiary of the showdown between Russia and Ukraine, and by implication Russia and US, is China which has chosen not to take any sides, but it has indirectly supported Russia. The thought of Taiwan becoming Ukraine is worrying if China at any point in the future follows the example of Russia to invade Taiwan. Would NATO pre-empt this scenario by making Taiwan a member of NATO? And how far is NATO willing to go to contain Russia’s ambition to re-write the past and create a union of East European and Central Asian states which once comprised the former Soviet Union. It would have been far better if after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1988, the US had offered NATO membership to Russia emerging fresh as the successor state of the Soviet Union. In fact, a unipolar world did not require an enlarged NATO but a strengthened UN. But the past cannot be rewritten neither by Vladimir Putin nor by the leaders of NATO. Meanwhile the world is crying for Ukraine which badly needs peace.

*Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs, Commonwealth Secretariat, London (2000-2006).