Defcon Watch: On the cusp of "katastropha"
NATO and Russia playing dangerous game of nuclear chicken
“Either we lose in Ukraine, or the Third World War starts. I think World War III is more realistic, knowing us, knowing our leader. The most incredible outcome, that all this will end with a nuclear strike, seems more probable to me than the other course of events.”
So said RT editor Margarita Simyonan on a Russian panel show late last week. This as Russian state TV also broadcast a nuclear war simulation that showed Russian ICBMs showering London, Paris, and Berlin within 200 seconds of launch—an attack scenario that, according to the simulation, would, of course, leave no survivors. As NATO and Russia remain on a collision course to war—what would be World War III; and yes, very likely result in nuclear Armageddon—it seems that a dangerously self-fulfilling prophesy is beginning to evolve out of the loose-cannon rhetoric in which both sides continue to traffic. Take Eurasia Group head and geopolitical influencer Ian Bremmer’s recent tweet that “since February 24 this war has been mostly about Russia vs. Ukraine. It’s quickly becoming about Russia vs. NATO.” Ohhhh-kay. And that’s a good thing? (To be fair, Bremmer is simply pointing out the obvious; but no one who supports a full-throttle response to deplorable Russian aggression seems to mind even so, throwing caution to the radioactive wind.)
Or how ‘bout former NATO commander Richard Shirreff’s statement that the West should prepare for “the worst-case scenario. ‘The worst case [being] war with Russia.’” Though Shirreff does go on to clarify: “By gearing itself up for the worst case, it is most likely to deter Putin because ultimately Putin respects strength.”
Oh, well, let’s hope so…as a matter of deterrence. What does “gearing up” mean exactly? It certainly worked for Reagan when it came to medium-range Pershing II missile deployments in West Germany in response to the presence of Soviet SS-20s in the western USSR; but Reagan was a different animal with a different zoo at his disposal, and was dealing with a different adversary at a different time in history—he wasn’t responding to Soviet [or Russian] aggression in the East. On the contrary, his predecessors, first Ike and then lame-duck Lyndon Johnson, made no such move that would risk strategic provocation as a matter of deterrence in response to Soviet crackdowns on the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 or Prague Spring in 1968, in which Soviet forces invaded both countries. And Reagan’s own escalation, while certainly in line with his maxim “peace through strength,” was always incremental in nature and a matter of proactive rather than reactive diplomacy, even when perceived as a response to Soviet aggression or belligerence.
In the case of Ukraine, ad hoc escalation in the form of “upping-the-ante” in “tit-for-tat” fashion, rather than act as a deterrent, will likely only lead to a widening of the conflict beyond Ukrainian borders—in other words, World War III—especially within an echo chamber of heated rhetoric from both sides. Some of that, timed appropriately, is necessary. Most of it not. But our political and pundit-class, driving the inertia from both sides of the aisle—if there even is an aisle anymore—possess neither the dexterity nor elegance to properly navigate the perils. They ain’t smooth.
Case in point: Was it really wise or necessary for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, after his recent tour of Kyiv, to state that a key U.S. goal in supporting Ukraine is “to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kind of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”? Austin further clarified the means to that end as continuing to degrade Russia’s military. OK. Great. Agreed. But why tell the Russians that? Openly. Why define that as a primary objective of senior leadership and U.S. strategy when it will only inflame Russian paranoia concerning NATO ambitions and Russia’s own defense. A degradation of the Russian military to the point that it can no longer project power—or, from the Russian point-of-view, defend the “motherland”—will only increase the Kremlin’s reliance on strategic weapons to fill the void in the wake of conventional losses; in other words, nukes. And should Russia therefore perceive the degradation objective as a threat to the state itself—not necessarily the whole country, just the state (meaning Putin and his securocrat henchmen)—then the likelihood of a world war involving nuclear weapons increases exponentially, if one simply considers the Kremlin’s own criteria for their use.
If Bremmer’s point casting Ukraine as merely a center of gravity in a greater existing conflict between NATO and Russia is truly the case, should we not then alter, or at least re-examine, our diplomacy to properly address the imminent danger, shelter us from the gathering thermonuclear storm? Perhaps put the brakes on where necessary, or apply the right pressure points more surgically? Update the algorithmic formulas guiding our foreign policy to include Russian perceptions of our actions and avoid the worst-case scenarios that seem more inevitable with each passing day—because in this case, the worst case isn’t simply war between NATO and Russia; it’s nuclear war between NATO and Russia. And that would truly be the war to end all wars—and perhaps all human history itself.
Alex Holstein is the co-author of Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man, due out ***May 25, 2022, from Lyons Press, and available for pre-order NOW at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He holds an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies from the London School of Economics, where he wrote his thesis on the Soviet KGB.