Max Fisher (http://www.vox.com/2015/6/29/8845913/russia-war#warnings) says it is highly possible but with low probability. Cheryl Rofer (http://nucleardiner.com/2015/07/06/world-war-iii-coming-think-again/) has written a rebuttal and says it is highly unlikely with an even lower probability and that Fisher is just trying to scare us. Being a natural cynic and pessimist, I say all wars have low probability but they also have very high costs, consequently the danger needs to be taken seriously.
Fisher notes how closely the current situation resembles Europe before the Great War. When I read Margaret MacMillan’s “The War that Ended Peace”, I was hard pressed to know which century it referred to. The parallels between the quarter century leading up to 1914 and today were frightening to say the least. Rofer doesn’t necessarily disagree but says that we have far better intelligence today in terms of troop movements etc. and more worryingly we also have nuclear weapons.
People who start wars are not rational. Like all criminals, they believe they are smarter than the average bear and that the laws of probability, like all other laws, do not apply to them. Rofer is betting Putin is not irrational enough to start a nuclear war. She reminds us of Nixon’s “Crazy Leader” theory that if you act crazy enough people begin to fear you because you just might BE crazy enough. Fisher is betting the other way.
The one thing that tips the odds in Fisher’s favour is the Russian rulers’ inherent unconcern for its citizens, going back centuries and manifest for example in the 27 million deaths of Soviet citizens (of which 10 million may have been Russian) in the Second World War. For a Western city of any size to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb would be a tragedy beyond description. For Putin, anything less than the total destruction of Moscow is just part of the cost of doing business.
Both Fisher and Rofer agree that Russia’s nuclear doctrine which sees an ever lowering threshold for use of nuclear weapons and a great deal of sabre rattling is a response to their military weakness. It is currently based on “non-escalating” use of nuclear weapons. This means if they get in a jackpot they drop a small nuc on a small western capital (Warsaw, Riga. . .) or a large group of NATO troops as a warning shot. NATO either escalates to full scale nuclear war and destroys the earth or surrenders rather than go that route.
Whole careers have been built around and digital forests destroyed, trying to understand “What Putin wants”. Rofer and Fisher offer the usual suspects and as Rofer points out, none of them are mutually exclusive. The problem being how to weight and therefore respond to the individual “wants”. Rofer correctly describes Kremlin emissions as a great deal of noise while Fisher seems to take them all seriously.
Putin wants respect and great power status for Russia. Respect and great power status are funny in that you either earn it or you don’t have it. Whining and demanding don’t get you far. Ask Kaiser Wilhelm II. It is hard to respect an inveterate liar and regional bully. As a Canadian, I have no comprehension of the need to be a great power. All it gets you (unless you are in the 0.01%) is high taxes to pay for military adventures and opportunity to send your children to be killed. Great power status and $5 will get you coffee at Starbucks.
Putin and therefore Russia are terrified of NATO and an American invasion. Why anyone would want to invade Russia is a mystery. The world, probably including China, just wishes Russia would get its act together, become a functional modern state, provide for its people and engage with the rest of the world in a civilized manner. One of the things Putin apparently wants is to destroy both NATO and the EU, returning Europe to nation states and great power politics, where the big guys divide up the world and the little guys can go whistle (Congress of Vienna 1815, Paris 1919, Yalta 1945).
The trick to accomplishing the destruction of NATO is to do something to which NATO must respond militarily but is small enough or insignificant enough or confusing enough that they do not. Such as annex Narva or even invade the Balkans.
Then there is Ukraine. Russia fully believes it owns Ukraine, the same way England believed it owned Ireland. According to Russian insiders as quoted by Fisher, Putin will not-no-never give up Ukraine. Rofer wonders if this isn’t more noise from the Kremlin, necessary to bargaining positioning.
Putin and his DNR/LNR proxies have stopped referring to Novorossiya. It was a nonstarter anyway and may well have been part of the distracting noise emanating from the Kremlin. Putin wants Donbas to stay in Ukraine, with power to wreck anything pro-west Ukraine may want to undertake and to eat every nickel Ukraine has to rebuild it. The “Separatist-backed Russian military”, as one writer referred to them, continue to batter away at the Ukrainian army, shelling them every night with heavy artillery and making small forays with sabotage and reconnaissance groups which are always driven off. Ukraine is playing strictly defense, letting the enemy come to them and one hopes, suffering fewer losses. What the purpose of all this is, I have no idea but expect someone does. For the latest in who shot who, UNIAN provides good coverage. http://www.unian.info/war/.
It seems to be a given that if provoked by a determined Ukrainian offensive to retake the Donbas, that Russia will overtly intervene and take everything to the Dnipro River, including Kyiv. If they pulled it off as a surprise attack, they could likely do it in a week, the renewed Ukrainian army notwithstanding. The problem then becomes to occupy it. My question is why occupy it? In and out and leave the smoldering ruins behind with a list of demands that are either met or there will be more of the same. And dare the West to do anything about it.
People talk about a repeat of “the little green men” in the Baltics. As Fisher points out, they will not look like “little green men”, they will look like local thugs in t-shirts and ball caps. Whether or not there is any local support for them in any of the Baltic countries is neither here nor there. Using the hybrid warfare approach they can have the place in flames. Will NATO turn its guns on “civilians” before it is too late? That was the problem in Donbas – who were the Russians and who were the locals and who do you shoot?
Fisher despairs that the West does not take the Russian threat seriously enough. Rofer says in her rebuttal and others agree (http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/07/08/realism-takes-hold-in-the-west) that indeed they do but they are ignoring it in public while quietly working on containing it as much as they can without triggering an escalation unnecessarily. Overtly providing arms to Ukraine would be one such action. Which is why, as much as I and everyone else would like to see Ukraine fully armed with modern weapons, it is not happening. Cooler and wiser heads are prevailing – so far.
This is likely why America is not releasing satellite photos showing the degree of Russian intervention in Ukraine. To call Russia’s bluff would back Putin further into a corner and invite overt intervention on a larger scale. At the same time, it would put pressure on the West, now that they “know for sure” to actually provide military aid to Ukraine. More escalation.
In the meantime Ukraine has its own internal battles to fight (http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2015/07/07/ukraines-citizens-have-defeated-putins-new-russia-now-poroshenko-must-defeat-ukraines-oligarchs) . Corruption permeates everything. Cleaning it up means starting at the top (and in the middle and at the bottom). The Rada seem happy to clean up corruption as long as it is not THEIR corruption. One of the bigger roadblocks to reform is rumored to be Prime Minister Yatseniuk. It is hard to find people whose hands are not dirty and so many of the current power brokers have links to the Party of Regions in their past.
Timothy Snyder is one of the best experts on this part of the world that I have found. this presentation is worth an hour of your time to really understand what is behind all the commotion.
I am a cynic and a pessimist. Also a fatalist. So I will sit tight and see what happens. Interesting times.