There has been a dangerous escalation in the chances for a potential military confrontation between Russia and the West, especially if the Kremlin decides to expand the “Russian world” beyond Ukraine.

Russian Black Sea fleet sailors shout as they march during a military parade in Sevastopol, March 18, 2015. Russia marked the one year anniversary of the incorporation of Crimea peninsula. Photo: AP

The unprecedented frankness of Vladimir Putin in the documentary film “Crimea: The Way Home” has provoked an extremely heated debate both in Russia and abroad. The Russian president’s admission for the first time that Russian troops were sent to Crimea, as well as the fact that, in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, he was ready to put his country’s nuclear weapons on alert, shocked the international community.

The airing of the documentary film on Russian TV has fueled debate that Putin may be hatching plans to expand the so-called “Russian world” at the expense of neighboring states. Kazakhstan, Moldova and the Baltic countries, all with large Russian-speaking populations, have been named among the Kremlin’s possible targets. But to what extent do these hypothetical plans for annexation correspond to reality and Russia’s actual capabilities?

The annexation of northern Kazakhstan is a hot topic of discussion throughout the Central Asian country itself. The aggravation of the Ukraine crisis and the growth of militarist sentiment inside Russia have prompted much talk of a possible repeat of the Crimean scenario. Business Insider, for example, recently published maps showing President Vladimir Putin’s alleged plans to seize land in former Soviet republics. Among the potential victims was Kazakhstan.

For all that, Kazakh experts are inclined to perceive the threat as somewhat fictitious. They believe that peace and stability will continue to hold sway and that no prerequisites exist — or could possibly exist — for a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev appears to be artfully pursuing a multi-vector policy in relations with Russia and China, which could rule out any annexation plans that Moscow may be harboring. On top of that, Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, which has been many years in the making and is of critical importance to Russia.

Another country whose territory could be claimed by the Kremlin, according to Western experts, is Moldova. Speaking in Washington, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Commander of U.S. European Command General Philip Breedlove stated that, “The challenge [posed by Russia] is global, not regional, and enduring, not temporary.” Moscow’s “next target,” he said, could be Moldova, using Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria as the basis for a new special operation.

But even supposing that such plans exist, given that Russia is so bogged down with the hostilities in Donbas, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu might simply lack the firepower for another large-scale military campaign.

The Russian contingent in Transnistria numbers no more than 3,000, and is clearly not sufficient to seize the entire territory,” says renowned Russian expert and deputy editor of opposition newspaper Daily Journal Alexander Goltz. 

“Fantasizing about military strategy, one might suppose that this contingent could ensure the arrival of the main body of troops, nothing more. But in the current situation even that looks highly problematic, since all of Russia’s more or less combat-ready formations are one way or another engaged on the Ukrainian border.”

Russian political analysts say that Western military chiefs are examining their potential adversary’s capabilities and drawing conclusions about what could happen and how to respond in such an event. 

“What Breedlove says is, on the whole, quite logical,” believes the editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov. “Does Russia have the potential to destabilize Moldova? Yes. That means they have to be ready. It does not mean that it will happen. But it’s better to be prepared than to do port-mortem analysis.”

Another hypothetical and far-fetched scenario regarding the expansion of the “Russian world” comes from Russian political analyst Andrey Piontkovsky, who has long developed his own particular thesis. Most of his recent publications have appeared under the same heading in different languages: “Mr. Putin, are you ready to die for Narva?”

Piontkovsky presents the expert community with the following scenario for the outbreak of World War III. In line with Putin’s concept of “gathering in” native Russian lands, which he declared shortly after the annexation of Crimea, Russian-speaking residents of Narva, Estonia, will hold a referendum on joining Russia. To confirm the results of this declaration of free will, Estonia would see the arrival of a group of heavily armed “little green men,” who would then spend their “vacation” busily setting up new border posts.

What would NATO’s response be? According to the all-important Article 5 of the Alliance’s charter, all Member States are duty bound to render immediate military support to Estonia. Failure to do so would mark an event of epochal significance: the end of NATO, the end of the U.S. as a world power and guarantor of Western security, and unprecedented political sway for Putin’s Russia across the entire European continent.

Yet Piontkovsky asserts that the answer to the question of whether or not NATO would come to Estonia’s rescue if the latter faced being dismembered by a nuclear power is not clear-cut. All the more so if Putin were to state that, threatened by NATO’s superior conventional forces, he had no choice but to order a “limited nuclear strike” on, say, two European capitals.

Piontkovsky’s fears seem to be backed up by the recent revelations: Putin was indeed ready to give the order to put Russia’s nuclear forces on full alert. The Russian leader can be accused of many things: hypocrisy, contempt for political opponents, vindictiveness, aggressiveness – but no one would ever call him suicidal

The various conceptual foundations for supposing that Putin has designs on neighboring lands are perhaps no more than mind games. For military planners, they can be used to pursue a particular set of goals, as mentioned by Lukyanov, while political experts can apply them for their own purposes. Many no doubt are trying to “stake out” an original theory on which to build a reputation and a career.

The peril lies in the fact that these mind games are leading to real and very dangerous war games. The assumption that Russia poses a threat to the Baltic countries after its Crimean operation swiftly materialized in the form of large-scale military assistance. A long line of conveyors loaded with American tanks and armored vehicles recently entered Riga. The city’s main port also became acquainted for the first time with U.S. military power in the shape of Abrams heavy tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers. A cargo ship with the somewhat suggestive name “Liberty Promise” brought more than 120 units of U.S.-made military hardware to the Latvian capital.

How did Moscow react? Of course, such a large and diverse delivery of military equipment to a region that borders Russia was viewed as a provocation. One can only imagine what the reaction would be if lethal weapons were supplied to Kiev on the same scale, especially against the backdrop of an observable lull in the fighting in Donbas. That was followed by the outrageous outburst of retired U.S. General Robert Scales, who on Fox News called for the U.S. to kill as many Russians in Ukraine as possible.

Stratfor Analytical Center, described by some in the U.S. as the “shadow CIA,” recently published six scenarios on Russia’s potential actions in Ukraine, ranging from the annexation of Donbas to the total occupation of the whole of Ukraine.

Russia, too, is escalating the military planning. Reports on the deployment of Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region caused great consternation in the West. The subject was addressed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu: “There’s been a lot of bluster recently about Iskander missiles being sent somewhere supposedly off limits,” he said. “Nowhere on the territory of the Russian Federation is off limits.”

Although the Russian Defense Ministry is only preparing to send missile installations to Kaliningrad, T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Iskanders are cute” have already appeared. It can be assumed that similar T-shirts will appear in Crimea following the announcement of plans to site Tu-22M3 strategic bombers on the peninsula.

Both sides’ military preparations are gathering momentum by the day; so too is the military hysteria. Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s chief propagandists, has stated that Russia is the only country in the world “capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” Announcing the decision to place strategic bombers in Crimea, the TV channel Rossiya mentioned in passing that the aircraft are able to carry nuclear warheads.

This serves to create a psychological atmosphere in which people are forced to face up to the greatest horror of all: nuclear war. At the same time, the political leaders of Russia and the West are entering a period in which even a minor armed incident could trigger an inappropriate response

“The world is not threatened by the Kremlin’s decision to wage war with it,” believes Russian political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov, who teaches at Oxford. “The problem is that a war could flare up against the Kremlin’s will. We must not be afraid of Russian aggression, but Russian hysteria.”

Then again, given the rising alarmism in the U.S. Senate, American hysteria is also to be feared. In this climate any levelheaded decision by the Obama administration and the U.S. president himself, who is unwilling to lend his unconditional support to the hardliners on Capitol Hill, in particular regarding the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine, can only be welcomed.