Amidst the increase in large-scale military exercises in Europe and Russia, apocalyptic scenarios are becoming commonplace. Thankfully, the worst-case scenarios are unlikely at best. Here’s why.

A U.S. paratrooper during the NATO-led peacekeeping military exercises to maintain proficiency in airborne operations in Kosovo. Photo: AP

NATO’s Allied Shield exercise in June, which involved 15,000 troops from 19 NATO countries, was the largest since the Cold War. Yet August 15 in Germany saw the start of yet more military maneuvers, codenamed Swift Response 15, set to last about a month. It represents the largest Allied airborne training event on the continent in the post-Soviet era.

Russia, meanwhile, is not far behind. In late August, the Collective Rapid Reaction Force of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will hold its own exercises, codenamed Interaction-2015, involving more than 2,000 troops from across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). At the same time, Moscow and Beijing are preparing for the active phase of the Marine Interaction-2015 (II) naval maneuvers, scheduled for August 23-27 in the Far East.

Against this backdrop, the latest report (published on August 12) by the influential non-governmental expert group European Leadership Network (ELN), made up of former high-ranking military personnel and politicians, is rather unnerving.

The ELN report suggests that both NATO and Russia are preparing for possible military action against each other. Although the ELN experts acknowledge that neither Moscow nor Washington and its allies are hardly likely to be planning a large-scale military confrontation, they are downbeat about the situation in Europe. The unpredictability surrounding the exercises is further aggravating the tensions, which both sides, says the ELN, should take immediate steps to reduce.

Over the past 15 months, NATO and Russia have indeed been fine-tuning possible operations against each other. But is it evidence of an approaching conflict, and on what scale? And is it possible that Europe could see a major war that no one wants? Unlikely. Nevertheless, it is worth considering some hypothetical scenarios and their chances of becoming real.

Apocalypse not now

First of all, it should be stated that neither the authors of the ELN report nor Russian or Western leaders and diplomats have ever mentioned open warfare. Full-scale military operations against Russia to change the constitutional order of Russia, or an Allied response to a hypothetical “Russian invasion of the Baltic countries,” are topics only for the most pugnacious politicians, mainly right-wing nationalists.

Significantly, such threats are not even taken seriously by people in the Baltic countries themselves. For instance, Evhen Tsybulenko, a political scientist of Ukrainian origin whose pre-election campaign for a seat in the Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu, was full of promises to protect Estonia with NATO bases and who shot a video of “little green men” in Narva in the end gained only 25 votes.

Just a few days of large-scale open warfare would cause enormous damage to the whole of Eastern Europe, a humanitarian catastrophe and unthinkable casualties. In addition, the losing side would likely resort to tactical nuclear weapons. Such scenarios might be good bedtime reading, but are a tad implausible.

Moreover, the question arises as to what the West would do if it won? If the largest country in the world were robbed of its agencies of central government and unified system of management and plunged into chaos, hindering the extraction of resources from the earth and the implementation of business projects? NATO’s track record of occupying countries and establishing transitional governments is poor, as demonstrated by Afghanistan and Iraq.

Similarly, it is unclear what Russia would do with the Baltic countries, which, in the opinion of a number of high-ranking NATO generals, it could seize in two days.  If one imagines an impossible situation in which the Alliance abandoned its allies in Eastern Europe, it would certainly be seen in the Kremlin as the most important victory since 1945.

But it should be remembered that even if Russia could theoretically include such hostile countries in its own zone of influence, it would create such serious economic problems and tensions that only years of substantial investments and countless boots on the ground could control.

Hence, the chances of such an apocalyptic scenario ever materializing are slight.

Local wars as the most likely scenario

Most experts consider a local war with the direct participation of NATO and Russian forces to be more probable. Moreover, some Western estimates suggest that one is already underway in one form or another in the Donbas, and could eventually lead to open confrontation between the West and Moscow.

For instance, Californian political scientist Edward Walker speaks of a full-scale “proxy war” in the Donbas and fears the Kremlin’s asymmetric response to NATO actions to strengthen Ukraine’s defense capability. 

While the West has long accused Moscow of stationing troops in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian media have started reporting the appearance of Allied instructors and even military units in the region. If Russian experts are to be believed, the Ukrainian army is preparing a new large-scale offensive, which means that the next round of fighting in the Donbas threatens to be on a larger scale and bloodier. More importantly, relations between Moscow and the West will sour even further.

All told, a direct clash between the Russian Federation and NATO in the Donbas is still unlikely. The heightened tension will only lead to an escalation of the “hybrid war,” i.e. military operations that have more to do with cyber attacks, economic sanctions and propaganda than with conventional forces.

For the West, the ultimate goal of the ongoing hybrid war is, if not regime change, then at least to force Moscow to abandon its current foreign policy and claims to regional leadership.

Yet direct military intervention with an unclear outcome is too high a price to pay for such changes. Therefore, one of the signals that NATO is trying to send Moscow through its recent exercises is the Allied commitment to prevent a repeat of the events in Crimea and the Donbas anywhere in Europe. Simultaneously, the high frequency of NATO exercises makes its troops more combat-ready and more able to coordinate joint actions involving several countries.

In addition, they are forcing Moscow to spend extra resources on similar “reciprocal maneuvers,” which, in the context of economic sanctions, are costly for the Kremlin. Hence, the military drills are in many respects part of the hybrid war.

As for the direct use of force, it should be remembered that members of the Russian opposition seriously believe that, despite the economic and political pressure from the West, the only way to change the government in Russia is through a coup or a “Maidan.” 

Although Putin’s approval rating is high, various actors in the West are apparently confident that sanctions and political pressure over a period of several years could bring about change in Russia. In this scenario, well-trained NATO troops could be deployed as “peacekeepers” to secure strategically important facilities, disarm part of Russia’s disoriented military, and install a pro-Western government in the Kremlin.

Yet this scenario seems far-fetched. The Russian opposition is not popular and lacks any leader capable of realistically opposing Putin. The former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky largely talks to Western audiences, whereas in Russia he is perceived as someone who wants to hand back Crimea and return Russia back to the gangster 1990s.

Peace will have to wait

The rise in military tensions highlighted in the ELN report is not going to abate any time soon. Neither Russia nor the West can be seen to be soft on the issue of Ukraine.

The hybrid war, in which Russia looks more like the defending side, is set to continue, accompanied by new large-scale maneuvers, reconnaissance flights along national borders, and propaganda statements. A major military success by one of the warring parties in the Donbas will only exacerbate the situation further.

A peaceful compromise on the unrecognized republics leading to the normalization of Russia-West relations is unlikely. The only possible détente would be a situation in which the warring parties laid down their arms, thereby “freezing” the conflict. But would they do it? And who would claim victory if they did?

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.