STOLYPIN: No, World War III is not on the horizon

STOLYPIN: No, World War III is not on the horizon
Russia can't defeat Ukraine, a poor country a third of its size, yet the Western warnings that "Nato it next" are growing in volume and frequency. / bne IntelliNews
By Mark Galeotti director of consultancy Mayak Intelligence January 20, 2024

It has suddenly become unexpectedly and depressingly fashionable to predict the imminence of World War III, and the westward march of Moscow’s grim legions. Most recently, German defence minister Boris Pistorius flatly asserted that, “Vladimir Putin will one day even attack a NATO country.” Not may – will.

The kind of rhetoric that was such a fixture of the worst days of the Cold War is again being mobilised, albeit with ‘”authoritarianism” replacing communism. Has there suddenly been an upsurge in the potential threat from Russia and a country whose military is currently unable to master Ukraine, let alone an alliance of 31 of the richest and best-armed nations in the world? Or is there something else going on?

Sounding the Alarm

Much of this talk is based on an assumption that Russian capability necessarily means intent: that if Moscow can attack the West, it will. In November, for example, the prestigious German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) published a report saying that “Vladimir Putin and Kremlin elites and intelligentsia have long cherished the ambition to restore Russia’s powerful empire,” and so Nato “must be able to fend off a Russian attack in six years.”

The clarion call was that the West only had that narrow window of opportunity to build its own military forces up to a strength that would guarantee deterrence.

In effect, this triggered something of a downward bidding war, as Jacek Siewiera, head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, suggested that this was complacent, and “NATO countries on the eastern flank should adopt a shorter, three-year time period to prepare for confrontation.”

In some quarters, this has now become almost axiomatic: that as soon as this disastrous and brutal war in Ukraine is over, Russia will be devoting whatever resources it takes to rearm, that it will be able to do so in a matter of a few years, and that it will then be marching on Europe unless confronted with a much more formidable Nato.

This presupposes a Russia able to maintain or even exceed its current record defence spending, year on year, and also that its industrial production can sustain this pitch, while ordinary Russians meekly accept the inevitable decline in their standard of living. If that is done, then of course, it is impossible to rule out the risk to the West entirely.

Putin’s decision to invade in February 2022 was proof of his willingness to take chances according to some analysts — proof, to others (me included) that an essentially risk-averse leader can dramatically miscalculate. Either way, it is indeed true that a future Putin, if he felt it both in his interests and safe to accomplish, might consider some incursion into Nato.

Those are, though, some pretty substantive ‘ifs’. Nonetheless, this helps explain why, as recently was reported, the German defence ministry has wargamed a potential Russian attack. That is the job of defence establishments: to develop plans to deal with a range of contingencies, ranging from the highly-likely to the just-about-plausible.

Motivation matters

But why might Putin take such a risk? Ukraine (and Belarus) matter to him, and to many Russians, in a way Finland, Estonia or Poland simply do not. He is not out to recreate the tsarist empire, nor the Soviet Union – otherwise, why have, say, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan not been re-incorporated already? – but rather draws on prejudice and a deeply-misinformed sense of history to claim that Ukraine is essentially a part of Moscow’s patrimony.

Putin has, of course, threatened neighbours in Central and Northern Europe (and beyond) on many occasions, but for all that, he has given no real hint of being willing to take the dangerous step of attacking Nato, even in the years when his military had not just been chewed up in Ukraine, when his defence plants weren’t having to rely on smugglers and expedients for the components they used to buy from the West, and his population had not already seen perhaps 300,000 of its number killed or wounded. He didn’t even try it during the (first?) Trump presidency, when the US president was inveighing against European Nato members for not pulling their weight.

Admittedly, relations with the West are vastly more acrimonious now. As far as Putin is concerned, the West’s military and economic support for Ukraine means that it is, in effect, at war with Russia, even if it is a different kind of war, and he is right. However, this is not a man with some zealous commitment to an ideology he wants to export, but rather an insecure and authoritarian kleptocrat committed to staying secure and in power.

Shades of ‘victory’

It is perhaps telling that many of the predictions of the potential immanence of World War III start with the warning that it becomes more likely — or even inevitable — if Ukraine “loses.’

An emboldened Russia, we are told, would sweep forward, confident that the West had demonstrated that it was divided, weak and cowardly. Yet what does “lose” mean in this context?

While Putin presumably still wants to see Ukraine shorn of its south-eastern provinces and forced back into Moscow’s orbit, there seems little if any prospect of a collapse of the defenders’ lines and a Russian surge all the way to its western borders. Even the worst-case scenarios presuming a total cessation of Western assistance, which is almost inconceivable, only image Russia being able to force its way forward to the Dnipro and maybe Odesa. Besides, in such circumstances it would find itself in a massive campaign of pacification and reconstruction as it tried to consolidate and maintain its hold on an unhappy new population.

To be sure, if Putin does manage to snatch something that looks like a “victory,” then the West will have been humbled. Yet the notion that this creates an inevitable momentum and a desire to pick a new fight, with a more powerful foe, and one likely to put aside its internal squabbles in the face of a new, direct threat, seems hard to sustain.

In many ways, the suspicion must be that it is no coincidence that these increasingly alarmist calls come at the very time when “Ukraine fatigue" is on the increase, when both the EU’s and USA’s aid programmes are currently being blocked for political reasons. This looks less about Russia and more like an attempt to break the logjams by raising the stakes, moving beyond moral outrage and an aggressive and brutal invasion and to an attempt to present it as the only option to prevent a wider war. As a political gambit, it may work, even though it devalues the case for defending Ukraine on its own terms.

Soft words, big sticks

However, there are also dangers to this new line. Either way, it certainly makes sense for European countries to take their security seriously and stop freeloading off the US. If anything, making Nato a harder target minimises any temptation for Putin or his successors, which is ironically both in Russia’s and Europe’s interest. This does mean proper defence spending, adequate industrial capacity, attention paid to the non-military aspects of modern war, from cybersecurity to counterintelligence.

The old Roman saying was “let him who desires peace prepare for war.” At the same time, though, too strident a rhetorical turn has its own dangers. If Europe becomes too used to deploying inflammatory language and if re-armament looks too directly and explicitly aimed at Moscow, then it not only plays to Putin’s attempts to legitimise his authoritarianism on the basis of a supposed external threat, it may also make the paranoid old men in the Kremlin genuinely think there is a threat. We must not forget that Putin and his closest allies probably believe that the West is committed to the humbling and maybe even destruction of Russia.

Europe’s defence must be taken seriously, but another dictum is also relevant here: Theodore Roosevelt's admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Step up the genuine re-armament, step down the language.

Sometimes, security can take explicitly defensive forms, such as in the Baltic States’ new common programme to fortify their borders with Russia and Belarus. However, there is much less of a distinction between armed forces configured for a notionally defensive or offensive role. Instead, political signalling, whether to Putin, his successor, or the Russian people, will be crucial. World War III is not coming – unless we are all, Nato and Russian, very stupid.