The August sun leads a political analyst’s fancy to projections about the future informed by the past. August, through Barbara Tuchman’s famous The Guns of August, remains a kind of ‘meme’ symbolizing the road to World War I, a war born in circumstances with some commonalities with those we live in today: rising powers, declining powers, ill-advised alliances, contested Slavic territories, and naked human ambitions for expansion and empire. August also has a special meaning for rusologists as a month of momentous political events. For them, August has brought watershed moments like the 1991 August coup, the Kursk submarine sinking, and the 2008 Georgian-Ossetiyan-Russian ‘August War’. Given the slow-escalating global confrontation surrounding the Russo-Ukrainian war or war for NATO expansion, it seems a good time to think about how this multi-layered set of crises might escalate so that we might better understand the need to end the crisis through statesmanship, diplomacy, and compromise rather than by military means (kinetic or otherwise). There are just too many ways for the present war crisis to escalate and for things to ‘go south’ even further.
Russia’s invasion in February almost immediately escalated from a Russo-Ukrainian war sparked by NATO expansion and the Western-backed February 2014 Maidan revolt to the level of a NATO-Russian war. We might date 26 April 2022 the beginning of the end of the first almost entirely Ukrainian phase of Russo-Ukrainian War. Since that date when NATO convened a summit to discuss weapons supplies and other forms of assistance to Ukraine and approximately timed with the West’s urging Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy to reject the Istanbul agreement that both sides had been inclined to accept, the Russ0_Ukrainian War has been transitioning through a proxy war stage to a NATO-Russian War; one largely driven by the question of whether or not NATO can expand and otherwise do what it likes in what Russian sees as its sphere of influence. With the transitional proxy war stage, Ukraine functioned as a de facto NATO member bearing the brunt of the war burden to the detriment of its people and economy and potentially the destruction of its statehood, which serves as a useful buffer between Russia and the West/NATO. This next escalatory stage is not be to a NATO proxy-Russian war but a full-on NATO-Russian war in which Ukrainian forces will play less of a combat role and equipped, guided, and effectively commanded and led by NATO. This larger NATO war effort is intended to roll back Russia’s gains in Ukraine’s east and south and bring the war to Russia perhaps not with ground troops per se, but with aerial attacks and the deployment into Russian of sabotage and terrorist forces, organized by NATO special forces in order to fuel a Russian insurgency against the Putin regime. In the interim, this perhaps will lead to a second Crimean War that will be more global than the first version of 1850-1854.
The recent Ukrainian Kharkiv counteroffensive (and the wise Russian withdrawal to concentrate focus on the east and south as originally intended) was not nearly so much a Ukrainian counteroffensive as it was a NATO counteroffensive. Russia’s withdrawal was a consequence of Russian President Vladimir Putin never having considered occupation as a goal of the ‘special military operation — no less all of Ukraine as Western propagandists and agitated analysts contend. The Kharkiv advance was organized on the basis of: NATO training of tens of thousands of Ukrainian forces; massive Western weapons supplies to Kiev (e.g., see https://www.ustranscom.mil/cmd/usp.cfm); the NATO Central Command’s and Western intelligence’s deep embeddedness into the Ukrainian forces; NATO-designed counteroffensive tactics, strategy, and plan; large numbers of former Western soldiers and officers participating in the operation; possible participation of Polish officers and troops brought in under the new Ukrainian law allowing Polish citizens nearly equal status as that of Ukrainian citizens; and possible participation of Western special forces advisors if not units.
The new character of the war — a Russo-NATO war with only Ukrainian bodies being used to carry out the war — is a major escalation. It is essentially now a stealth world war, with NATO and especially the United States functioning de facto and perhaps even de jure as combatants. This is likely to be met with a series of Russian escalations. There can be a crossing of a threshold between NATO’s stealth combatant role and an official NATO intervention that could be triggered by a NATO member’s unilateral action prompting a Russian attack on that NATO member, a Russian attack or Western- or Ukrainian-claimed Russian attack in response to which NATO can do no other than enter the war officially, or any number of unforeseeable ‘blacks swans.’
Once NATO enters the war officially, supplying troops, there is likely to be a next stage beyond the NATO-Russian war proper. It is likely to involve limited involvement of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), China, and the Sino-Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) even if there is no breakout of war around Taiwan – a de facto World War III. With a war for Taiwan or a NATO invasion of Russian territory, World War III will become full-blown and likely go nuclear.
The Russo-Ukrainian War or the Stealth War for NATO Expansion
Russia’s invasion in February almost immediately escalated from a Russo-Ukrainian war sparked by NATO expansion and the Western-backed February 2014 Maidan revolt to the level of a NATO-Russian war. Since NATO member-states, including the U.S., are already deeply involved in the war, there is little to prevent the war from escalating into a full-fledged NATO-Russian war, with all the grave risks such a development would entail. Ukraine is functioning as a de facto NATO member, as it was becoming before the war, bearing the brunt of the war burden to the detriment of its people and potentially the destruction of its statehood, which serves as a useful buffer between Russia and the West/NATO. NATO weapons are put in the hands of Ukraine’s military and paramilitary neofascist-dominated groups. We also know that NATO leader, the U.S., and NATO are performing key military functions in the war. Intelligence from NATO members satellites and other sources are choosing or at least approving targets for Ukrainian forces to attack, including civilian targets and Russian territory (https://12ft.io/proxy?q=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.telegraph.co.uk%2Fworld-news%2F2022%2F08%2F01%2Fbritain-helps-ukraine-hunt-russian-spies-eyeing-western-military%2F). Retired former U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor has asserted that NATO officers form a military staff that is directing much of the Ukrainian war strategy and tactics. NATO member-countries’ citizens, usually retired servicemen, and likely active servicemen are fighting alongside the Ukrainians as volunteers as well as training and advising Ukrainian forces. Britain and other NATO members have been training 10,000s of new Ukrainian soldiers per month. The Ukrainian military is now three times the size of Russia’s, whose forces could never have occupied all of Ukraine and were never intended to do so. NATO soldiers are likely to become more prevalent in the war and more Polish.
Poles are even more anxious to see Russia defeated militarily than perhaps even Washington or their Lithuanian coinhabitants of the ancient commonwealth that carried out the first hybrid invasion on Slavic territory four centuries ago. It is important to note that Polish messianism and Russophobia drives its forward stance against Moscow, and Warsaw has growing ambitions to not just lead Eastern Europe but all of Europe. The Ukrainian war next door offers a good opportunity for Poland to seize the leadership from Russia-dependent and Russia-receptive Germany. A Ukrainian law recently signed by Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy gives Polish citizens the rights similar to those of Ukrainian citizens. This could serve as legal cover for thousands of Polish soldiers to enter Ukraine, don Ukrainian uniforms, and using NATO-supplied Western equipment begin fighting against Russia’s forces. When proof of any such gambit emerges – as it inevitably will – Russia could decide to hit Polish targets in response, bringing NATO into the war more directly in one form or another.
There are other places where tensions could lead to a Russian and/or NATO escalation and expansion of the war. For example, perhaps at the request of the West or perhaps without, Azerbaijan could open up a second front for Russia in Armenia. Russia is a guarantor of the shaky ceasefire in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and it would be forced to intervene to protect Armenia if a major escalation by Azerbaijan appeared on the verge of inflicting a major defeat on Moscow’s historical ally. Similarly, instability in Moldova/Transdniestria or one of the Baltic states prompting an attack on Russian forces in Transdniestr, a renewal of the Kaliningrad blockade, or a Russian incursion in one of the Baltic states. But Crimea is likely to be the fulcrum around which World War III will evolve. The West (e.g., through Turkey) could ‘encourage’ Baku or machinate in Moldova in order to provoke a crisis. One in the former could spark a CSTO response. In both cases, Russia could be faced with a second front, complicating its Ukraine op but further internationalizing the Russo-Western war.
Clandestine NATO functions will become transparent once the NATO-led nature becomes manifest and public. Ukrainian forces gradually will take a back seat and be integrated into a larger NATO forces and war effort, declared under an Article 5-worthy Russian attack, will be designed to roll back Russia’s gains in Ukraine’s east and south. Any success on the mainland will open a path to Crimea backed by naval operations in the Black Sea, leading to a second Crimean war. The first Crimean War in the 1850s was in fact the first world war. The region is the southern cleft in the Black-to-Baltic Sea ‘intermarium’ that forms the divide between the Western and the Russian-Eurasian civilizations.
A Second Crimean War would certainly become more global than the first, which included some Western operations in the Baltic (White) Sea and even in Russia’s Far North and Far East. On the Russian side, Belarus will almost certainly be forced to enter the war willingly or not, and Russia will likely seek and at least partially succeed in bringing some other members of its own military alliance, the CSTO, into the war effort. China may assist in mobilizing at least some token participation of the CSTO’s other members (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) especially the Central Asian members. China and some other SCO members (India, Pakistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; candidate members – Belarus, Iran, Mongolia, and Afghanistan) will likely assist in providing equipment and perhaps limited numbers of troops, and this will escalate into World War III.
Turkey, as well Hungary and India, could be pivotal swing states, whose alignment with either the rest (‘East’) or the West could tip the balance in the regional wars or overall global conflict. Turkey’s role will be pivotal in this war and may decide whether the nascent global war stops at this phase or escalates to full-scale world war. Turkey could defect from NATO and side with Russia and China in the emerging alternative global system and alliance to those of the West and NATO. Turkey’s control over the Bosporous Straits can help to deny or limit NATO naval forces’ access to the Black Sea, which will be crucial for seizing Crimea away from Russia. Failure to take Crimea and increasing assistance to Russia from ‘the rest’ can help Russia defeat the West in this Crimean War.
In connection with or autonomously from events in Ukraine, a larger war could also be sparked by a decision by Moldova to integrate into Romania or put down unrest by Russian, Ukrainian, and or Turkish (Gagauz) minorities. This could be sparked by fears in Tiraspol resulting from a Russian move against Odessa, indicating a drive to Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestria. Any such Romanian-Moldovan scenario would force the breakaway republic of Transdniestria and the Gagauz Autonomous Republic to assert independence and perhaps integration with Russia, sparking a Russo-Romanian war. Turkey, another important swing state in any res-West WW III, also would likely respond to events in the Black Sea or Moldova, separate from or connected with the second Crimean war or expanding world war.
Another risk is that a coalition of post-Soviet elements will create a de facto or de jure coalition of partisan, volunteer forces and/or states opposed to Russia or, organized by Russia under the CSTO, against Ukraine and other pro-Western former Soviet republics. For example, some Ukrainians are encouraging Georgia to open a ‘second front’ against Russia. This will encourage Georgian volunteers to head to Ukraine or could eventually be taken up by a nationalist Georgian government under certain circumstances.
Becoming wholly manifest over time, World War III would then see Sino-Russian alliance members expand the war to parts of Asia by attempting to settle their own regional scores or achieve their own regional ambitions in ways that counter NATO or NATO members’ moves in Ukraine or elsewhere. For the alliance’s leaders – China and Russia – that means Taiwan and former Soviet republics-become or -would-be NATO members (that is Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Transdniestr, the Baltic states), respectively. Under circumstances — such as a threat to Kaliningrad as developed two months ago when Lithuania attempted to halt Russian transportation to the exclave — Russia could try to move into additional former republics beyond Ukraine once NATO forces entered Ukraine or Russian territory– first of all the Baltic states. China might seek to establish its full sovereignty over Taiwan and perhaps seek territorial gains in contested territories with India, which would likely attempt and could indeed remain neutral.
India is the premier swing state that could sway the outcome of a East-West or rest-West world war. It is a kind of cleft state, with one foot in the republican West as a viable federative republic regime and another foot among the ‘rest’ as a member of SCO, a co-member of BRICS with China and Russia, a historical victim of Western colonialism, and arguably the Eurasian landmass’s second foremost power. However, SCO is still not yet a primarily military bloc. Indian neutrality could serve as a pretext to justify within SCO’s internal politics a Chinese move against SCO-member India’s Ladakh region. Japanese neutrality is unlikely, meaning likely Sino-Japanese conflict.
Russia and the U.S. will still be on opposite sides through proxies in the Syrian civil war, with Moscow’s forces supporting the Assad regime and U.S. forces and supplies backing a broad if weak anti-Assad coalition of mostly Mulsim Brotherhood, Al Qa`ida, and ISIS types. The West is supporting some Kurdish forces against Damascus; Russia is doing the same to a lesser degree against Turkey. If Iran is already a SCO member and perhaps even if it is not, it could invade Iraq and link up with Syria in our world war scenario and perhaps challenge Israel in war. It might also step up actions against the Saudis, for example, in Yemen.
Any Western-backed Azerbaijan move to re-start or continue its war for Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia could play into either Iranian or Turkish hands, with Istanbul and Teheran becoming key protagonists in the war. Should Turkey defect from NATO, Sino-Russian diplomacy could produce a modus vivendi in which Iran and Turkey sign a Mideastern Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, dividing areas in the Levant and South Caucasus for conquest and or de-sovereignization and heightened influence.
In addition to the local political-military tensions and conflicts mentioned above, obviously there is an underlying global economic confrontation between the West and the rest, which is aggravating tensions further.
In sum, there a host of ways in which the current Ukrainian (and Syrian) conflict can ignite or escalate into regional wars or more global by dint of other conflicts, many of them with a Russo-Western subplot. From there escalation might have no limits.
World War III becomes an existential threat to one or more combatant parties and so goes nuclear.
A decade ago Ukraine was a tinderbox, and it has blown up. Now the region and the world are tinderboxes. How long before they blow up?
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022), The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.