Don't think WW III can't break out

CAUTIONARY TALE: In a book by a former Nato deputy supreme allied commander, an unnamed Russian President - based on Mr Putin - wages war with Ukraine and Nato members.


    Jul 08, 2016

    Don't think WW III can't break out

    WITH the two world wars increasingly passing from living memory, it's becoming easier to forget just how much they dominated the lives of almost every family in Europe.

    Quietly, though, that is changing.

    When North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) states meet in Warsaw at the end of the week for the annual heads of government meeting, they will be doing so amid the most serious tensions with Moscow since 1989.

    Europe remains home to more than half the world's nuclear weapons.

    No one doubts that should a third major war overwhelm the continent, it would almost certainly be worse than any of those that preceded it.

    Yet, a growing number believe the risk is quietly increasing. In May, retired British General Richard Shirreff - who served as Nato's deputy supreme allied commander at the time of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 - wrote a book explicitly suggesting all-out war with Russia could happen as soon as next year.

    On the surface, the book is a novel but he has underlined in interviews that he views it a highly plausible scenario.

    In his book, all sides are essentially operating from a position of weakness.

    His unnamed Russian President - clearly modelled on Vladimir Putin - initiates hostilities with Ukraine and the Nato member Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to distract from economic woes at home, particularly a falling oil price.

    Western leaders, meanwhile, overplay their limited military hand.

    Politicians on both sides have their eyes as much on their domestic politics as anything else. The result is a chain of errors with potentially devastating consequences.

    These real-world tensions have been a long time coming.

    Even in the 1990s, Russian opinion - both within the military and political elite and wider country - was incensed at what felt like growing Western disdain and encroachment into what Moscow had long seen as its exclusive sphere of influence.

    Restoring what Russia sees as its self-respect has been at the heart of Mr Putin's rule.

    The problem is that no one really knows what the best way of avoiding conflict is.

    For Sir Shirreff and many others, particularly in Nato's more exposed eastern states, the answer is assertive deterrence, putting enough military forces in the region to make any conventional Russian assault difficult.

    Much of that is already happening, at least up to a point.

    The United States has dramatically ramped up its military activity in Europe since 2014, sending tanks, special forces and other soldiers to front-line states as well as making high-profile deployments of heavy military equipment.

    Baltic, Nordic and Eastern European nations are ramping up defence spending - albeit several steps behind Moscow, which has poured oil revenue into its military over the last decade with the specific aim of being able to deliver overwhelming force in its very immediate neighbourhood.

    As in Ukraine and Georgia, the most likely flashpoints look to be regions with large ethnic Russian populations - essentially the border districts of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

    The governments of those countries have already stepped up development and political efforts in those regions to reduce the risks but some analysts worry Nato's activities may end up overly militarising the situation.

    As non-Nato members, neither Ukraine nor Georgia could count on Western military support when they wound up fighting Russia in 2008 and 2014.

    The Baltic states are a different matter - under Nato's founding charter, an attack on one is an attack on all.

    During the Cold War, Nato's supreme allied commander Europe - always the senior US officer who also commands all US forces on the continent - had operational control of European Nato forces facing Russia.

    But that is no longer the case - many decisions now also require political authorisation from member states.

    It's the sort of messy situation that would make handling of confrontation much harder.

    Russia has placed its nuclear arsenal at the centre of its strategic approach to this kind of confrontation.

    According to Western experts, its recent military exercises have relied heavily on what it calls a single "de-escalatory nuclear strike".

    The theory is that if Russian forces are engaged with an enemy like Nato, once they have won the conventional battle, they would launch a single nuclear strike with the aim of intimidating the West into standing down and accepting the results.

    In major exercises in 2013 that simulated an invasion of one or more of the Baltic states, the scenario appeared to end with a nuclear strike on Warsaw, Nato officials say.

    More recently - perhaps worrying that such an approach might make a Nato nuclear response inevitable - Russian exercises have tended to target a single purely military target.

    A strike like that could kill thousands if not more - and what would happen next is almost impossible to predict.

    Already, opinion polls suggest German voters in particular would be reluctant to fight to defend Nato allies.

    US presidential contender Donald Trump has explicitly questioned the long-term survival and purpose of Nato.

    In the era of social media and 24-hour news, however, it is equally easy to imagine a furious US electorate demanding a savage retaliation.

    In the post-Cold War world, the US has become used to doing what it wishes. Nor, as the British referendum has shown, is European politics currently particularly predictable.

    Miscalculation is not inevitable. But it is arguably becoming more likely.