Inside weeks, it had had swept through the Low Countries, destroyed Belgium’s defences, swept aside Paris’ defences, could, Adolf Hitler had once bragged, could “storm the gates of heaven itself”. Instead, the men of the 6th Army, the flower of the German Wehrmacht, emerged from the ruins of Stalingrad in February, 1943, half-dead from starvation and cold, crushed by the Red Army. The time was coming, the Soviet Union’s ruler, Joseph Stalin, exulted on May 1, 1943, “to break the backbone of the Fascist Beast”.
Then, six weeks later, the German lawyer and foreign office official Peter Keist heard a knock on the door of his room in Stockholm’s plush Strand Hotel. His visitor was Edgar Clauss, a businessman of uncertain nationality and even more uncertain business. Local German residents, diplomatic records tell us, thought him “either a braggart or a spy”; “he was both”, the historian Vojtech Mastny
The businessman had come bearing a message from the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the feared Soviet secret police: Stalin, his public posture notwithstanding, wanted to explore peace.
Lessons ought be learned in both Islamabad and New Delhi from the strange story of Soviet-Nazi secret diplomacy in 1943-1944—a time when the two countries were locked in a war of existential survival that claimed tens of millions of lives. The weekend’s murderous clashes on the Line of Control are just a far wider escalation of violence, one that could end in a larger crisis that is in neither country’s real strategic interests—which is as-rapid-as-possible economic growth. Political prestige
Put simply, New Delhi has made punishing Pakistan-backed terrorism by striking across the Line of Control an article of political prestige. Faced with continued terrorism, New Delhi finds itself compelled to do so repeatedly—even when there are no clear tactical or strategic ends to be secured by violence. This is what strategic affairs experts call a “commitment trap”.
This much is clear: military escalation on and across the Line of Control is a strategy that is tried, time-tested, and demonstrated to be ineffectual. In the early 1990s, as ever-growing numbers of jihadists began crossing the Line of Control into Kashmir, the Pakistan Army began using artillery to shell Indian positions—thus, making it hard for India to interdict or ambush infiltrators. In turn, India retaliating bombarded the Neelam valley, the site of road feeding Pakistani infrastructure along the northern stretches of the Line of Control.
Even though Indian artillery superiority was clear even this period, the Pakistan army proved willing to soak up the damage. Killings of terrorists in Kashmir—a rough-and-ready measure of the levels of infiltration—rose steadily until 1994. Killings of civilians and security forces, two other key indices, also steadily until 1996, falling only after the reintroduction of democratic politics in Kashmir.
Few Indians understand that even India’s victory in Kargil did nothing to still Pakistan-backed terrorism: violence escalated steadily until 2003, when the two countries agreed to a ceasefire.
In 2019, government data shows to October 10 shows, there have been 2,317 clashes—levels higher than 2003, though thanks in part to large-scale bunker construction on both sides, fatalities have been low. In essence, though, both countries are back to where the were.
Ever since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, New Delhi has become increasingly aggressive in response to Pakistani provocation. That year, shelling across the Line of Control was punished with disproportionate fire assaults. Then, in 2016, India struck across the Line of Control, in the first publicly-disclosed operation of their kind. Finally, in 2019, air power was used to strike at a Jaish-e-Muhammad facility inside Pakistan.
For all the public impact these events had, their strategic impact has been—at the very least—debatable. The 2016 strikes, the government’s own data shows, didn’t stop an escalation of terrorist violence in Kashmir. The levels of violence in 2019, the data available suggests, isn’t going to be that different from 2018 either—something that’s now forcing India to escalate, again, on the Line of Control.
Escalation isn’t serving Indian security interests, though. Even though India’s intelligence services estimate more than 45 terrorists have entered Kashmir since August—and more than 100 since January—not one infiltrating group has been interdicted. That’s likely linked to artillery exchanges on the Line of Control, which force Indian troops to take cover and thus facilitate infiltration.
“The point isn’t whether more Indian soldiers or more Pakistani soldiers are killed in these exchanges”, Ajai Sahni, the Director of the Institute of Conflict Management has said. “No Indian soldier’s life should be lost without a clear, strategic end, and I cannot see one here”.
In his May Day message to his troops in 1942, Stalin addressed what he called the “babble of peace” emanating from Germany. “But of what kind of peace can one talk with imperialist bandits from the German-Fascist camp, who have flooded Europe with blood and covered it with gallows? Is it not clear that only the utter routing of the Hitlerite armies and the unconditional surrender of Hitlerite Germany can bring peace to Europe?”
Even as Soviet armour battered the Nazi counter-offensive during in the summer of 1943, opening the long road to Berlin, though, Stalin kept up the secret diplomacy.
In May, 1943, Soviet and Nazi negotiators were reported by United States intelligence to have conducted several days of negotiations at a country estate outside Stockholm. The discussions led nowhere, with Hitler holding out for the Ukraine, and the Soviets proving unwilling to concede anything beyond their 1941 borders. Kleist, for his part, received an offer from Clauss to meet with the Soviet diplomat AM Alexandrov. As late as 1944, we know from the
work of historian HW Koch, Kleist remained in contact with his Soviet interlocutors.
E Razin, a military officer Stalin used to voice his views, explained it thus in 1943: the “separation of politics and strategy, and the neglect of the requirements of politics for ‘purely strategic’ reasons are fraught with dangerous consequences”. “Politics and war influence each other but they are not factors of the same order; primacy always belongs to politics”.
For Stalin and his intelligence services, a deal with the Nazis wasn’t the only Plan B: they also explored a coup against the Nazis by Prussian military conservatives and assassinations by the Red Orchestra spy network, while all the while working to secure outright military victory. The point of war was to achieve strategic ends—not shed blood.
It isn’t that coercion can’t work. In 2003, Pakistan’s then-ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, began a secret peace process with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, aiming to secure a final-status agreement on Kashmir. Even though Pakistan’s nuclear weapons deterred India from going to war, General Musharraf realised the crisis of 2001-2002 imposed asymmetric costs on his country’s economy. New Delhi, too, saw reason to back off: the crisis scared away investors, undermining India’s wider strategic objectives.
Kashmir terrorism continues to escalate
But as things stand, New Delhi’s Pakistan policy has taken it to a remarkably dismal place. In spite of its increasing reliance on violence, terrorism inside Kashmir continues to escalate; there is nothing to show Pakistan’s military has been deterred.
Even though the prospect of sanctions by the Financial Action Task Force have led Pakistan to restrain levels of terrorist violence, the country has shown no signs of shutting down its jihadist proxies. Islamabad calculates, likely correctly, that allies like China, as well as the United States’ need for a partner in Afghanistan
Worse, the violence is making Pakistan’s army stronger within the country, the threat of war allowing it to silence and marginalise politicians as well as civil society formations who seek a negotiated peace with India. The only winner is the jihadist.India could ratchet up the pain—but only at great risk to its own long-term economic prospects. Talking to Pakistan might achieve nothing good either: multiple rounds of dialogue in the past, after all, have achieved nothing. But the lesson from the secret diplomacy of 1942-1944 is that that wise keep more than a hammer in their toolboxes—a hammer, moreover, worn down by excessive use.