How World War III became possible
It was in August 2014 that the real danger began, and that we heard the first warnings of war. That month, unmarked Russian troops covertly invaded eastern Ukraine, where the separatist conflict had grown out of its control. The Russian air force began harassing the neighboring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are members of NATO. The US pledged that it would uphold its commitment todefend those countries as if they were American soil, and later staged military exercises a few hundred yards from Russia’s border.
Both sides came to believe that the other had more drastic intentions. Moscow is convinced the West is bent on isolating, subjugating, or outright destroying Russia. One in threeRussians now believe the US may invade. Western nations worry, with reason, that Russia could use the threat of war, or provoke an actual conflict, to fracture NATO and its commitment to defend Eastern Europe. This would break the status quo order that has peacefully unified Europe under Western leadership, and kept out Russian influence, for 25 years.
Fearing the worst of one another, the US and Russia have pledged to go to war, if necessary, to defend their interests in the Eastern European borderlands. They have positioned military forces and conducted chest-thumping exercises, hoping to scare one another down. Putin,warning repeatedly that he would use nuclear weapons in a conflict, began forward-deployingnuclear-capable missiles and bombers.
Europe today looks disturbingly similar to the Europe of just over 100 years ago, on the eve of World War I. It is a tangle of military commitments and defense pledges, some of them unclear and thus easier to trigger. Its leaders have given vague signals for what would and would not lead to war. Its political tensions have become military buildups. Its nations are teetering on an unstable balance of power, barely held together by a Cold War–era alliance that no longer quite applies.
If you take a walk around Washington or a Western European capital today, there is no feeling of looming catastrophe. The threats are too complex, with many moving pieces and overlapping layers of risk adding up to a larger danger that is less obvious. People can be forgiven for not seeing the cloud hanging over them, for feeling that all is well — even as in Eastern Europe they are digging in for war. But this complacency is itself part of the problem, making the threat more difficult to foresee, to manage, or, potentially, to avert.
There is a growing chorus of political analysts, arms control experts, and government officials who are sounding the alarm, trying to call the world’s attention to its drift toward disaster. The prospect of a major war, even a nuclear war, in Europe has become thinkable, they warn, even plausible.
What they describe is a threat that combines many of the hair-trigger dangers and world-ending stakes of the Cold War with the volatility and false calm that preceded World War I — a comparison I heard with disturbing frequency.
They describe a number of ways that an unwanted but nonetheless major war, like that of 1914, could break out in the Eastern European borderlands. The stakes, they say, could not be higher: the post–World War II peace in Europe, the lives of thousands or millions of Eastern Europeans, or even, in a worst-case scenario that is remote but real, the nuclear devastation of the planet.
I. The warnings: “War is not something that’s impossible anymore”
Everyone in Moscow tells you that if you want to understand Russia’s foreign policy and its view of its place the world, the person you need to talk to is Fyodor Lukyanov.
Sober and bespectacled, with an academic’s short brown beard, Lukyanov speaks with the precision of a political scientist but the occasional guardedness of someone with far greater access than your average analyst.
Widely considered both an influential leader and an unofficial interpreter of Russia’s foreign policy establishment, Lukyanov is chief of Russia’s most important foreign policy think tank and its most important foreign policy journal, both of which reflect the state and its worldview. He is known to be close to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
I met Lukyanov around the corner from the looming Foreign Ministry compound (his office is nearby), at a small, bohemian cafe in Moscow that serves French and Israeli food to a room packed with gray suits. He was candid and relaxed. When the discussion turned to the risks of war, he grew dire.
“The atmosphere is a feeling that war is not something that’s impossible anymore,” Lukyanov told me, describing a growing concern within Moscow’s foreign policy elite.
“A question that was absolutely impossible a couple of years ago, whether there might be a war, a real war, is back,” he said. “People ask it.”
I asked how this had happened. He said that regular Russian people don’t desire war, but rather feared it would become necessary to defend against the implacably hostile United States.
“The perception is that somebody would try to undermine Russia as a country that opposes the United States, and then we will need to defend ourselves by military means,” he explained.
Such fears, vague but existential, are everywhere in Moscow. Even liberal opposition leaders I met with, pro-Western types who oppose Putin, expressed fears that the US posed an imminent threat to Russia’s security.
I had booked my trip to Moscow in December, hoping to get the Russian perspective on what were, at the time, murmurings among a handful of political and arms control analysts that conflict could come to Europe. By the time I arrived in the city, in late April, concerns of an unintended and potentially catastrophic war had grown unsettlingly common.
Lukyanov, pointing to the US and Russian military buildups along Eastern Europe, also worried that an accident or provocation could be misconstrued as a deliberate attack and lead to war.
In the Cold War, he pointed out, both sides had understood this risk and installed political and physical infrastructure — think of the “emergency red phone” — to manage tensions and prevent them from spiraling out of control. That infrastructure is now gone.
“All those mechanisms were disrupted or eroded,” he said. “That [infrastructure] has been degraded since the end of the Cold War because the common perception is that we don’t need it anymore.”
That the world does not see the risk of war hanging over it, in other words, makes that risk all the likelier. For most Americans, such predictions sound improbable, even silly. But the dangers are growing every week, as are the warnings.
“One can hear eerie echoes of the events a century ago that produced the catastrophe known as World War I,” Harvard professor and longtime Pentagon adviser Graham Allison — one of the graybeards of American foreign policy — wrote in a May cover story for the National Interest, co-authored with Russia analyst Dimitri Simes. Their article, “Russia and America: Stumbling to War,” warned that an unwanted, full-scale conflict between the US and Russia was increasingly plausible.
In Washington, the threat feels remote. It does not in Eastern Europe. Baltic nations, fearing war, have already begun preparing for it. So has Sweden: “We see Russian intelligence operations in Sweden — we can’t interpret this in any other way — as preparation for military operations against Sweden,” a Swedish security officialannounced in March.
In May, Finland’s defense ministry sent letters to900,000 citizens — one-sixth of the population — telling them to prepare for conscription in case of a “crisis situation.” Lithuania has reinstitutedmilitary conscription. Poland, in June, appointeda general who would take over as military commander in case of war.
Though Western publics remain blissfully unaware, and Western leaders divided, many of the people tasked with securing Europe are treating conflict as more likely. In late April, NATO and other Western officials gathered in Estonia, a former Soviet republic and NATO member on Russia’s border that Western analysts most worry could become ground zero for a major war with Russia.
At the conference, Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow spoke so openly about NATO’s efforts to prepare for the possibility of Russia launching a limited nuclear strike in Europe that, according to the journalist Ahmed Rashid, who was in attendance, he had to be repeatedly reminded he was speaking on the record.
One of the scenarios Vershbow said NATO was outlining, according to Rashid’s paraphrase, was that Russia could “choose to use a tactical weapon with a small blast range on a European city or a Western tank division.”
A few weeks later, the Guardian reported that NATO is considering plans to “upgrade” its nuclear posture in Europe in response to Russia’s own nuclear saber-rattling. One proposal: for NATO’s military exercises to include more nuclear weapons use, something Russia already does frequently.
II. The gamble: Putin’s plan to make Russia great again
Should the warnings prove right, and a major war break out in Europe between Russia and the West, then the story of that war, if anyone is still around to tell it, will begin with Russian President Vladimir Putin trying to solve a problem.
That problem is this: Putin’s Russia is weak. It can no longer stand toe to toe with the US. It no longer has Europe divided in a stalemate; rather, it sees the continent as dominated by an ever-encroaching anti-Russian alliance. In the Russian view, the country’s weakness leaves it at imminent risk, vulnerable to a hostile West bent on subjugating or outright destroying Russia as it did to Iraq and Libya.
This is made more urgent for Putin by his political problems at home. In 2012, during his reelection, popular protests and accusations of fraud weakened his sense of political legitimacy. The problem worsened with Russia’s 2014 economic collapse; Putin’s implicit bargain with the Russian people had been that he would deliver economic growth and they would let him erode basic rights. Without the economy, what did he have to offer them?
Putin’s answer has been to assert Russian power beyond its actual strength — and, in the process, to recast himself as a national hero guarding against foreign enemies. Without a world-power-class military or economy at his disposal, he is instead wielding confusion and uncertainty — which Soviet leaders rightly avoided as existential dangers — as weapons against the West.
Unable to overtly control Eastern Europe, he has fomented risks and crises there, sponsoring separatists in Ukraine and conducting dangerous military activity along NATO airspace and coastal borders, giving Russia more leverage there. Reasserting a Russian sphere of influence over Eastern Europe, he apparently believes, will finally give Russia security from the hostile West — and make Russia a great power once more.
Knowing his military is outmatched against the Americans, he is blurring the distinction between war and peace, deploying tactics that exist in, and thus widen, the gray between: militia violence, propaganda, cyberattacks, under a new rubric the Russian military sometimes calls “hybrid war.”
Unable to cross America’s red lines, Putin is doing his best to muddy them — and, to deter the Americans, muddying his own. Turning otherwise routine diplomatic and military incidents into games of high-stakes chicken favors Russia, he believes, as the West will ultimately yield to his superior will.
To solve the problem of Russia’s conventional military weakness, he has dramatically lowered the threshold for when he would use nuclear weapons, hoping to terrify the West such that it will bend to avoid conflict. In public speeches, over and over, he references those weapons and his willingness to use them. He has enshrined, in Russia’s official nuclear doctrine, a dangerous idea no Soviet leader ever adopted: that a nuclear war could be winnable.
Putin, having recast himself at home as a national hero standing up to foreign enemies, is more popular than ever. Russia has once more become a shadow hanging over Eastern Europe, feared and only rarely bowed to, but always taken seriously. Many Western Europeans, asked in a poll whether they would defend their own Eastern European allies from a Russian invasion,said no.
Russia’s aggression, born of both a desire to reengineer a European order that it views as hostile and a sense of existential weakness that justifies drastic measures, makes it far more willing to accept the dangers of war.
As RAND’s F. Stephen Larrabee wrote in one of the increasingly urgent warnings that some analysts are issuing, “The Russia that the United States faces today is more assertive and more unpredictable — and thus, in many ways, more dangerous — than the Russia that the United States confronted during the latter part of the Cold War.”
Joseph Nye, the dean of Harvard University’s school of government and one of America’s most respected international relations scholars, pointed out that Russia’s weakness-masking aggression was yet another disturbing parallel to the buildup to World War I.
“Russia seems doomed to continue its decline — an outcome that should be no cause for celebration in the West,” Nye wrote in a recent column. “States in decline — think of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914 — tend to become less risk-averse and thus much more dangerous.”
III. The drift: How the unthinkable became possible
The Cold War was a dangerous game, but it was a game in which everyone knew and agreed upon the stakes and the rules. That is not the case today.
The Western side believes it is playing a game where the rules are clear enough, the stakes relatively modest, and the competition easily winnable. The Russian side, however, sees a game where the rules can be rewritten on the fly, even the definition of war itself altered. For Russia, fearing a threat from the West it sees as imminent and existential, the stakes are unimaginably high, justifying virtually any action or gamble if it could deter defeat and, perhaps, lead to victory.
Separately, the ever-paranoid Kremlin believes that the West is playing the same game in Ukraine. Western support for Ukraine’s government and efforts to broker a ceasefire to the war there, Moscow believes, are really a plot to encircle Russia with hostile puppet states and to rob Russia of its rightful sphere of influence.
Repeated Russian warnings that it would go to war to defend its perceived interests in Ukraine, potentially even nuclear war, are dismissed in most Western capitals as bluffing, mere rhetoric. Western leaders view these threats through Western eyes, in which impoverished Ukraine would never be worth risking a major war. In Russian eyes, Ukraine looks much more important: an extension of Russian heritage that is sacrosanct and, as the final remaining component of the empire, a strategic loss that would unacceptably weaken Russian strength and thus Russian security.
Both side are gambling and guessing in the absence of a clear understanding of what the other side truly intends, how it will act, what will and will not trigger the invisible triplines that would send us careening into war.
During the Cold War, the comparably matched Western and Soviet blocs prepared for war but also made sure that war never came. They locked Europe in a tense but stable balance of power; that balance is gone. They set clear red lines and vowed to defend them at all costs. Today, those red lines are murky and ill-defined. Neither side is sure where they lie or what really happens if they are crossed. No one can say for sure what would trigger war.
That is why, analysts will tell you, today’s tensions bear far more similarity to the period before World War I: an unstable power balance, belligerence over peripheral conflicts, entangling military commitments, disputes over the future of the European order, and dangerous uncertainty about what actions will and will not force the other party into conflict.
Today’s Russia, once more the strongest nation in Europe and yet weaker than its collective enemies, calls to mind the turn-of-the-century German Empire, which Henry Kissinger described as “too big for Europe, but too small for the world.” Now, as then, a rising power, propelled by nationalism, is seeking to revise the European order. Now, as then, it believes that through superior cunning, and perhaps even by proving its might, it can force a larger role for itself. Now, as then, the drift toward war is gradual and easy to miss — which is exactly what makes it so dangerous.
But there is one way in which today’s dangers are less like those before World War I, and more similar to those of the Cold War: the apocalyptic logic of nuclear weapons. Mutual suspicion, fear of an existential threat, armies parked across borders from one another, and hair-trigger nuclear weapons all make any small skirmish a potential armageddon.
In some ways, that logic has grown even more dangerous. Russia, hoping to compensate for its conventional military forces’ relative weakness, has dramatically relaxed its rules for using nuclear weapons. Whereas Soviet leaders saw their nuclear weapons as pure deterrents, something that existed precisely so they would never be used, Putin’s view appears to be radically different.
Russia’s official nuclear doctrine calls on the country to launch a battlefield nuclear strike in case of a conventional war that could pose an existential threat. These are more than just words: Moscow has repeatedly signaled its willingness and preparations to use nuclear weapons even in a more limited war.
This is a terrifyingly low bar for nuclear weapons use, particularly given that any war would likely occur along Russia’s borders and thus not far from Moscow. And it suggests Putin has adopted an idea that Cold War leaders considered unthinkable: that a “limited” nuclear war, of small warheads dropped on the battlefield, could be not only survivable but winnable.
“It’s not just a difference in rhetoric. It’s a whole different world,” Bruce G. Blair, a nuclear weapons scholar at Princeton, told the Wall Street Journal. He called Putin’s decisions more dangerous than those of any Soviet leader since 1962. “There’s a low nuclear threshold now that didn’t exist during the Cold War.”
Nuclear theory is complex and disputable; maybe Putin is right. But many theorists would say he is wrong, that the logic of nuclear warfare means a “limited” nuclear strike is in fact likely to trigger a larger nuclear war — a doomsday scenario in which major American, Russian, and European cities would be targets for attacks many times more powerful than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even if a nuclear war did somehow remain limited and contained, recent studies suggest that environmental and atmospheric damage would cause a “decade of winter” and mass crop die-outs that could kill up to 1 billion people in a global famine.
IV. How it would happen: The Baltics scenario
In September of last year, President Obama traveled to Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million people that most Americans have never heard of, andpledged that the United States would if necessary go to war with Russia to defend it.
Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania — together known as the Baltic states — are at the far edge of Eastern Europe, along Russia’s border. They were formerly part of the Soviet Union. And they are where many Western analysts fear World War III is likeliest to start.
These small countries are “the most likely front line of any future crisis,” according to Stephen Saideman, an international relations professor at Carleton University. Allison and Simes, in their essay warning of war, called the Baltics “the Achilles’ heel of the NATO alliance.”
A full quarter of Estonia’s population is ethnically Russian. Clustered on the border with Russia, this minority is served by the same Russian state media that helped stir up separatist violence among Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.
But unlike Ukraine, the Baltic states are all members of NATO, whose charter states that an attack on one member is an attack on them all. Whereas a Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted Western sanctions, a Russian invasion of Estonia would legally obligate the US and most of Europe to declare war on Moscow.
“We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again,” Obama pledged in his September speech in Estonia.
Less than 48 hours after Obama’s address, Russian agents blanketed an Estonia-Russia border crossing with tear gas, stormed across, and kidnapped an Estonian state security officer, Eston Kohver, who specialized in counterintelligence. Kohver has been held illegally in a Russian prison for nine months now.
It was something like an act of geopolitical trolling: aggressive enough to assert Russian dominion over Estonia, but not so aggressive as to be considered a formal act of war that would trigger a Western counterattack. And it was one of several signs that Putin’s Russia is asserting a right to meddle in these former Soviet territories.
The Russian military has already begun pressing the Baltic states. Russian warships were spotted in Latvian waters 40 times in 2014. Russian military flights over the Baltics are now routine, often with the planes switching off their transponders, which makes them harder to spot and increases the chances of an accident. Military activity in the region had reached Cold War levels.
NATO, fearing the worst, is increasing military exercises in the Baltics. The US is installing heavy equipment. And in February, the US military paraded through the Russian-majority Estonian city of Narva, a few hundred yards from Russia’s borders.
It’s a textbook example of what political scientists call the security dilemma: Each side sees its actions as defensive and the other side’s as offensive. Each responds to the other’s perceived provocations by escalating further, a self-reinforcing cycle that can all too easily lead to war. It is considered, for example, a major contributor to the outbreak of World War I. That it is entirely foreseeable does little to reduce the risk.
Even if Russia in fact has no designs on the Baltics, its bluffing and posturing has already created the conditions for an unwanted war. In early April, for example, a Russian fighter jet crossed into the Baltic Sea and “buzzed” a US military plane, missing it by only 20 feet. It was one of several recent near-misses that, according to a think tank called the European Leadership Institute, have had a “high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation between Russia and Western states.”
Meanwhile, Russia has been flying its nuclear-capable strategic bombers along NATO airspace, often with the planes’ transponders switched off, making an accident or misperception more likely. As if that weren’t dangerous enough, the bombers — hulking, decades-old Tupolev Tu-95 models — have become prone to accidents such as engine fires. What if a Tu-95 went down unexpectedly, say, off the coast of Norway? What if it was carrying nuclear warheads, or it went down during a moment of high tension? Such incidents can lead to misunderstandings, and such misunderstandings can lead to war.
By late April, when NATO officials gathered at the security conference in Estonia’s capital of Tallinn, the severity of the danger had become unmistakable. As Ahmed Rashid wrote from the conference:
Baltic presidents and NATO officials were unusually blunt in describing the extent to which the security architecture in Eastern Europe has collapsed, how Russia poses the gravest threat to peace since World War II, and how the conflict in Ukraine and the loss of the Crimea has left the Baltic states on the front line of an increasingly hostile standoff. Amid these tensions, the thought of a plane crash leading to war seems scarily plausible.
It is not just Western officials who fear such an incident could spark war. Fyodor Lukyanov, the prominent Russian analyst who is considered close to the government, worried that the NATO military exercises in the Baltics meant to deter Russia were also contributing to the problem.
“Russia reacts to that because Russia perceives it as a hostile approach to the Russian border,” he explained. “And it’s a vicious circle.”
It is easy to imagine, Lukyanov said, any number of ways that the powder keg could explode.
“Without any intention to create the big conflict, it might happen,” he said. “One step, another step, and reciprocity can become very dangerous. Say a Russian aircraft comes very close to an area that NATO believes is prohibited while Russia believes it’s not prohibited, and then British aircraft respond. It might be manageable, and in most cases of course it will be, but who knows.”
V. How it would happen: A plot to break NATO
It was Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political analyst and frequent Kremlin critic, who first suggested the theory, last August, that Putin’s plan for the Baltics was more sophisticated, and more calculated, than anybody realized.
Piontkovsky was trying to answer a question that Western analysts and policymakers had been puzzling over since Russian provocations began in the Baltics last fall: What does Putin want? Unlike in Ukraine, with which Russia has a long shared history, there is little demand among the Russian public for intervention in the Baltic states. They are of modest strategic value. And the risks of Russia’s aggression there are potentially catastrophic. Why bother?
His is a theory that is now taken much more seriously by Western policymakers — and appears more plausible all the time.
Putin hopes to spark a conflict in the Baltics, Piontkovsky wrote, so as to force Western European leaders into an impossible choice: Fulfill their NATO obligation to defend the Baltics and counterattack, even if it means fighting World War III over a tiny post-Soviet republic most Europeans couldn’t care less about — or do nothing.
The implications of doing nothing, Piontkovsky pointed out, would extend far beyond the Baltics. It would lay bare NATO’s mutual defense provision as a lie, effectively dissolving the military alliance, ending a quarter-century of Europe’s security unification under Western leadership, and leaving Eastern Europe once more vulnerable to Russian domination. In this way, Putin could do what Soviet leaders never came close to: defeat NATO.
“This is his most cherished objective,” Piontkovsky told me when we talked in his kitchen, in a leafy Moscow neighborhood across the river from Gorky Park. “It’s an enormous temptation. He may retreat at any stage, but the temptation is enormous, to destroy NATO. … The risk is big, yes? But the prize is enormous.”
“To destroy NATO, to demonstrate that Article V does not work, the Baltic republics of Estonia and Latvia are the best place for this,” he said. “It’s happening now, every day. Intrusions into the airspace, psychological pressure, the propaganda on TV.”
He suggested that Putin, rather than rolling Russian tanks across the border, would perhaps seed unmarked Russian special forces into, say, the Russian-majority city of Narva in Estonia, where they would organize localized violence or a phony independence referendum.
A handful of such unacknowledged forces, whom Putin referred to as “little green men” after they appeared in Crimea, would perhaps be dressed as local volunteers or a far-right gang; they might be joined by vigilantes, as they were in eastern Ukraine. They would almost certainly be aided by a wave of Russian propaganda, making it harder for outsiders to differentiate unmarked Russian troops from civilian volunteers, to determine who was fighting where and had started what.
Such an intervention would force NATO into an impossible choice: Are you really going to open fire on some hoodlums stirring up trouble in Estonia, knowing they might actually be unmarked Russian troops? Would you risk the first major European war since 1945, all to eject some unmarked Russian troops from the Estonian town of Narva?
Putin, Piontkovsky believes, is gambling that the answer is no. That NATO would not intervene, thus effectively abandoning its commitment to defend its Eastern European member states.
Piontkovsky’s scenario, once considered extreme, is now widely seen by Western security experts and policymakers as plausible. At the end of 2014, the military intelligence service of Denmark, a member of NATO, issued a formal paper warning of precisely that:
Russia may attempt to test NATO’s cohesion by engaging in military intimidation of the Baltic countries, for instance with a threatening military build-up close to the borders of these countries and simultaneous attempts of political pressure, destabilization and possibly infiltration. Russia could launch such an intimidation campaign in connection with a serious crisis in the post-Soviet space or another international crisis in which Russia confronts the United States and NATO.
“The concern is that what Putin wants to do is break NATO, and the best way to do that would be to poach on the Baltics,” Saideman, the political scientist, told me on a call from a European security conference where he said the scenario was being taken very seriously.
“And if Germany doesn’t respond to incursions in the Baltics, if France doesn’t respond and it’s just an American operation, then it will lead to the breaking of NATO, is the theory,” he said. “That’s the biggest concern.”
Saideman described a variation on this scenario that I heard from others as well: that Putin might attempt to seize some small sliver of the Baltics quickly and bloodlessly. This would make it politically easier for Western European leaders to do nothing — how to rally your nation to war if hardly anyone has even been killed? — and harder to counterattack, knowing it would require a full-scale invasion.
“I think they’re very serious about this,” Saideman said. “There’s a real concern.”
VI. How it would happen: The fog of hybrid war
In early 2015, Pew pollsters asked citizens of several NATO states the exact question that analysts and policymakers from Washington to Moscow are gaming out: “If Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is our NATO ally, do you think our country should or should not use military force to defend that country?”
The numbers from Western Europe were alarming: Among Germans, only 38 percent said yes; 58 percent said no. If it were up to German voters — and to at least some extent, it is — NATO would effectively surrender the Baltics to Russia in a conflict.
This poll is even worse than it looks. It assumes that Russia would launch an overt military invasion of the Baltics. What would actually happen is something far murkier, and far more likely to leverage European hesitation: the playbook from Ukraine, where Russia deployed its newly developed concepts of postmodern “hybrid war,” designed to blur the distinction between war and not-war, to make it as difficult as possible to differentiate grassroots unrest or vigilante cyberattacks from Russian military aggression.
Putin may already be laying the groundwork.
In March of 2014, shortly after Russia had annexed Crimea, Putin gave a speech there pledging to protect Russians even outside of Russia, which many took as a gesture to the substantial Russian minorities in the Baltics.
Then, in October, Putin warned that “open manifestations of neo-Nazism” had “become commonplace in Latvia and other Baltic states” — repeating the language that he and Russian state media had earlier used to frighten Russian speakers in Ukraine into taking up arms.
This April, several Russian outlets issued spurious reports that Latvia was planning toforcibly relocate ethnic Russians into Nazi-style ghettos — an echo of similar scaremongering Russian propaganda broadcast in the runup in Ukraine.
Martin Hurt, a former senior official of the country’s defense ministry, warned that his country’s ethnic Russian minority could be “receptive to Kremlin disinformation.” Moscow, he said, could generate unrest “as a pretext to use military force against the Baltic states.”
In early 2007, Estonia’s parliament voted to relocate a Soviet-era military statue, the Bronze Soldier, that had become a cultural symbol and annual rallying point for the country’s ethnic Russians. In response, Russian politicians and state media accused the Estonian government of fascism and Nazi-style discrimination against ethnic Russians; they issued false reports claiming ethnic Russians were being tortured and murdered. Protests broke out and escalated into riots and mass looting. One person was killed in the violence, and the next day hackers took many of the country’s major institutions offline.
Russia could do it again, only this time gradually escalating further toward a Ukraine-style conflict. NATO is just not built to deal with such a crisis. Its mutual defense pledge, after all, rests on the assumption that war is a black-and-white concept, that a country is either at war or not at war. Its charter is from a time when war was very different than it is today, with its many shades of gray.
Russia can exploit this flaw by introducing low-level violence that more hawkish NATO members would consider grounds for war but that war-averse Western European states might not see that way. Disagreement among NATO’s member states would be guaranteed as they hesitated over where to declare a moment when Russia had crossed the line into war.
Meanwhile, Russian state media, which has shown real influence in Western Europe, would unleash a flurry of propaganda to confuse the issue, make it harder to pin blame on Moscow for the violence, and gin up skepticism of any American calls for war.
Germany, which is widely considered the deciding vote on whether Europe would go to war, would be particularly resistant to going to war. The legacy of World War II and the ideology of pacifism and compromise make even the idea of declaring war on Russia unthinkable. German leaders would come under intense political pressure to, if not reject the call to arms, then at least delay and negotiate — a de facto rejection of NATO’s collective self-defense.
In such a scenario, it is disturbingly easy to imagine how NATO’s European member states could split over whether Russia had even crossed their red line for war, much less whether to respond. Under a fog of confusion and doubt, Russia could gradually escalate until a Ukraine-style conflict in the Baltics was foregone, until it had marched far across NATO’s red line, exposing that red line as meaningless.
But the greatest danger of all is if Putin’s plan were to stumble: By overreaching, by underestimating Western resolve to defend the Baltics, or by starting something that escalates beyond his control, it could all too easily lead to full-blown war.
“That kind of misperception situation is definitely possible, and that’s how wars start,” Saideman said, going on to compare Europe today with 1914, just before World War I. “The thing that makes war most thinkable is when other people don’t think it’s thinkable.”
In 1963, a few months after the Cuban missile crisis had almost brought the US and Soviet Union to blows, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech drawing on the lessons of the world’s brush with nuclear war:
“Above all, while defending our vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”
That is the choice that Putin may well force upon NATO.
VII. How it would happen: The Ukraine scenario
Evgeny Buzhinsky has spent much of his professional life with the threat of global nuclear destruction hanging over his head. A lifelong Russian military officer, he earned his PhD in military sciences in 1982, just as the Cold War entered one of its most dangerous periods, and rose to the General Staff, where he remained for years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, through periods of calm and of tension.
He retired in 2009 as a lieutenant general and remains active in Russian national security circles, now heading the PIR Center, a well-respected Russian think tank that focuses on military, national security, and arms control issues.
Buzhinsky, when I met him in Moscow, had a warning for me. Those in the West who worried about the possibility of a major war breaking out in the Baltics were missing the real threat: Ukraine. The US, he feared, does not appreciate how far Russia is willing to go to avoid a defeat in Ukraine, and this miscalculation could pull them into conflict.
“Ukraine, for Russia, is a red line,” he warned. “And especially a Ukraine that is hostile to Russia is a definite red line. But the US administration decided that it’s not.”
This was a concern I heard more than once in Russia. When Fyodor Lukyanov, the Moscow foreign policy insider, warned that Russian foreign policy officials saw a major war as increasingly possible, and I asked him how they thought it would happen, he cited Ukraine.
“For example, massive military help to Ukraine from the United States — it could start as a proxy war, and then …” he trailed off
Lukyanov worried that the US does not understand Russia’s sense of ownership over Ukraine, the lengths it would go to protect its interests there. “It’s seen by many people as something that’s actually a part of our country, or if not part of our country then a country that’s absolutely essential to Russia’s security,” he said.
Buzhinsky is one of those people. Like Lukyanov and other Russian analysts, he worried that the United States had wrongly concluded that Putin would ultimately acquiesce if he faced likely defeat in Ukraine. The Americans, he said, were dangerously mistaken.
Gregarious, bear-sized, and clearly accustomed to dealing with Westerners from overseeing arms control treaties during much of the 1990s, Buzhinsky sipped a grapefruit juice when we met in downtown Moscow.
“A year ago, I was absolutely convinced Russia would never intervene militarily,” he said about the possibility of a full, overt Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Now I’m not so sure.”
The view of the Russian government, he said, was that it could never allow the defeat of the pro-Russia separatist rebels in the eastern Ukraine region sometimes called Donbas. (In August, when those rebels appeared on the verge of defeat, Russia provided them with artillery support and covertly sent troops to fight alongside them, none of which Moscow has acknowledged.)
If Ukrainian forces were about to overrun the separatist rebels, Buzhinsky said, he believed that Russia would respond not just with an overt invasion, but by marching to Ukraine’s capital of Kiev.
“A massive offensive on the Ukrainian side” against the rebels, he said, would lead Russia to openly enter the war. “A war with Russia in Ukraine — if Russia starts a war, it never stops until it takes the capital.”
When I asked Buzhinsky if he really believed Putin would launch a full Russian invasion of Kiev in response to a Ukrainian effort to retake Donbas, he answered, “Yes, definitely. He said twice publicly, ‘I won’t let it happen.’ As he is a man of his word, I am sure he will.”
Such a scenario, he said, could lead to a larger conflict no one wants. The Americans believe that “Russia will never dare, Putin will never dare, to interfere,” leaving the US unprepared in case it should happen. “And then I could not predict the reaction of the United States and NATO.”
Buzhinsky outlined another way he feared Ukraine could lead to a larger war. If the US provided sophisticated military equipment to Ukraine that required putting American trainers or operators near the front lines, and one of them was killed, he believed the US might feel compelled to intervene outright in Ukraine.
Would Russia really risk a major war over Ukraine, one of Europe’s poorest countries?
For months, Moscow has been suggesting that Western military involvement in Ukraine, even something as mild as providing the Ukrainian military with certain arms, would be taken as an act of war against Russia. Like Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons, this has been shrugged off as bluster, mere rhetoric, just for scoring domestic political points.
What Buzhinsky was trying to underline to me was that the threats are real — that Russia might consider its interests in Ukraine so vital that it would risk or even fight a war to protect them. He was not alone in saying this — I heard it from many others in Moscow, including Russian analysts who are critical of their country’s Ukraine policy as too aggressive.
Buzhinsky explained that Russia had set this as a red line out of the fear that a Ukrainian reconquest of eastern Ukraine would lead to “the physical extermination of the people of Donbas,” many of whom are Russian speakers with cultural links to Russia. Russian state media has drilled this fear into the peoples of Ukraine and Russia for a year now. It does not have to be true to serve as casus belli; Moscow deployed a similar justification for its annexation of Crimea.
The connection to Ukraine is often expressed by everyday Russians as an issue of cultural heritage; Kievan Rus, a medieval Slavic federation with its capital in the present-day Ukrainian capital of Kiev, is something like Russia’s predecessor state.
But this is likely about more than nationalism or kinship with Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Moscow is notorious for its conviction that the US is bent on Russia’s destruction, or at least its subjugation. It is paranoid and painfully aware of its isolation and its comparative weakness. A hostile and pro-Western Ukraine, Putin may have concluded, would pose an existential threat by further weakening Russia beyond what it can afford.
Allison and Simes, in their essay on the risk of war, described Ukraine as a potential ground zero for wider conflict because of this.
“Russia’s establishment sentiment holds that the country can never be secure if Ukraine joins NATO or becomes a part of a hostile Euro-Atlantic community,” they wrote. “From [Moscow’s] perspective, this makes Ukraine’s non-adversarial status a non-negotiable demand for any Russia powerful enough to defend its national-security interests.”
It is practically a cliché in international relations: “Russia without Ukraine is a country, Russia with Ukraine is an empire.” Putin’s Russia appears to believe that reclaiming great-power status is the only way it can guarantee security against a hostile West.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert, traced this Russian government obsession with Ukraine back to Putin’s political weakness at home, as well as Russia’s sense of military insecurity against a hostile and overwhelmingly powerful West.
“I suspect that the desire to unite the Russian world and to subjugate the non-Russian neighbors is driven by a fundamental sense of insecurity,” Lewis said in a much-circulated September podcast on Putin’s nuclear threats. “That, like the Soviet leadership, he has to try very hard to stay in power, and so there’s a tendency as his legitimacy declines to try to blame outside forces. And the problem is that when you try to look at the world in that conspiratorial way, there’s always a justification for subjugating the next set of neighbors.”
This means that should the US or other Western countries become sufficiently involved in Ukraine that Russia cannot maintain control of the conflict, then Russia may feel this puts it at such existential threat that it has no choice but to escalate in response. Even at the risk of war.
Russia knows it would lose a full-blown war with NATO, of course, but it has other options. An official with the Russian Defense Ministry’s public advisory board told the Moscow Timesthat should Western countries arm Ukraine’s military, it would respond by escalating in Ukraine itself as well as “asymmetrically against Washington or its allies on other fronts.”
Russian asymmetrical acts — cyberattacks, propaganda operations meant to create panic, military flights, even little green men — are all effective precisely because they introduce uncertainty and risk.
If that sounds dangerous, it is. American and NATO red lines for what acts of “asymmetry” would and would not trigger war are unclear and poorly defined.
Russia could easily cross such a line without meaning to, or could create enough confusion that the US believes it or its allies are under a severe enough threat to demand retaliation.
“You don’t get to walk this back,” Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute, warned in comments to the New York Timesabout what could happen if the US armed Ukraine’s military, as Congress is pushing Obama to do.
“Once we have done this we become a belligerent party in a proxy war with Russia, the only country on Earth that can destroy the United States,” Rojansky said. “That’s why this is a big deal.”
VIII. The nuclear dangers: The red line is closer than you think
This August, as the Russian military launched its undeclared and unofficial invasion of eastern Ukraine to defend separatist rebels there against defeat, Putin attended an annual youth conference at Lake Seliger, just north of Moscow. During a Q&A session, a teaching student asked an odd question about the “cyclical” nature of history and concerns that Russia could be “drawn into a new, open global conflict.”
Putin, in his answer, did something that the leaders of major nuclear powers generally avoid doing — he rattled the nuclear saber a bit:
Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. These are not just words — this is the reality. What’s more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability and developing our armed forces. They have become more compact and effective and are becoming more modern in terms of the weapons at their disposal.