Menu Close

Could NATO go to war with Russia … and what would happen if it did?

A call to arms… Shutterstock

A new book by General Sir Richard Shirreff, Nato’s deputy supreme allied commander for Europe between 2011 and 2014, evokes a potential scenario that leads to a devastating future war with Russia.

The book, 2017 War with Russia, is clearly labelled as a work of fiction. But it portrays a fairly convincing manufactured incident that the fictional president of Russia uses as a causus belli for a clash with NATO. In his account, Russia rapidly expands its war aims by invading the Baltic States, which are NATO members, and world war ensues. Perhaps more worryingly, the author has since told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that such a conflict is “entirely plausible”.

Fact vs fiction

I do not want to give any more away about the book (it is a good and authentic, if gloomy, read). But the general’s underlying political message – clearly articulated in the book’s preface – is that the hollowing out of defence capabilities across the West and its reluctance and inability to stand up to Russia is making war ever more likely. Is this an accurate assessment of the real world?

NATO countries (in green). By Addicted04, own work, CC BY

The novel is reminiscent of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and the excellent The Third World War: August 1985 by General John Hackett. The latter, written at the height of the Cold War, was conceived as a “future history”, supposedly looking back at the outbreak and subsequent unfolding of a full-blown NATO vs Warsaw Pact war.

Shirreff’s book, however, is a far more overtly political piece, and is deeply critical of the West’s reduced defence spending and its unwillingness – and inability – to stand up to the Russian threat. At first sight, this appears a persuasive case, but on reflection is perhaps slightly less so.

Shirreff’s scenario assumes either that the Russian president had no other option to achieve his political goals than through the use of military force – or “hard power” – or that he is what might be termed “an irrational actor” in the mould of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Neither strikes me as convincing.

Russia has undoubtedly suffered economically from the global downturn in energy prices and from economic sanctions following the annexation of the Crimea, but the degree of dependence, in particular energy dependence, that Western Europe has on Russia is highly significant.

The security of co-dependence

For example, the Nord Stream pipeline laid in international waters along the Baltic from Russia to Germany, supplies a significant – according to EU figures, 38.7% – proportion of Western Europe’s gas needs. In turn, Russia desperately needs the foreign earnings this generates. Consequently, the two sides of this hypothetical war are heavily economically inter-dependent. Put another way, Russia rationally could bring much more significant, and cheaper, political pressure to bear by turning off the gas supply: why resort to the chancier option of war?

The ultimate peacekeeper? Shutterstock

But is the real President Putin irrational? A real-life analysis of the Russian president’s actions would suggest that he is being entirely rational and that his actions are those or an arch-realist who places the needs of his country first. Putin, it seems, is looking to play the long game.

Looked at from the viewpoint of Russia, and especially European Russia, she is being hemmed-in by her opponents with more and more of her neighbours coming under the sway of the US, the West … and NATO. Turkey, on Russia’s southern border, joined the military alliance in 1952, and since the end of the Cold War, many of Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States have signed up, too. Many in Russia want their leader to kick back against this.

Russia has, moreover, always respected a strong leader, and the present incumbent of the Kremlin enjoys levels of popularity – at least 80% – that Western politicians can only dream of. Sabre-rattling is all part of this strongman image, but why risk it all by undertaking that most risky of manoeuvres in international politics: war?

It’s certainly in Putin’s interests that the West cuts defence spending and has a diminished appetite for brinkmanship and it is perhaps understandable that a recently retired general should push for this to be reversed. But does that really make a war any more likely? Probably not – although there’s always that niggling possibility.

World War III

But if there was to be war with Russia, what might it look like? The Cold War scenario of vast armies fighting a large-scale conventional war dominated by tanks and aircraft directly supporting the battlefield is as outdated a concept as it is unlikely.

Both sides have considerable resources at their disposal but NATO is significantly larger than Russia in simple numbers: NATO has a total of 3.6m personnel in uniform, Russia 800,000; NATO 7,500 tanks, Russia 2,750; NATO 5,900 combat aircraft, Russia 1,571. However, these bald figures do not tell the whole story as NATO’s forces are deployed globally to a far greater extent than Russia’s, and even acknowledging that Russia could achieve a temporary military advantage in, say, the Baltic, for how long and at what price? Nevertheless, today’s armies are smaller and more reliant on technology than they were during much of the 20th century and the likelihood of a Kursk-style pitched battle between heavy armour is highly unlikely.

That said, the ever-greater reach of missiles and artillery, the accuracy and potency of modern precision-guided munitions, the extensive use of surveillance systems (from space, via drones, and through highly sophisticated electronic eavesdropping) would make a contemporary battlefield highly dangerous and highly destructive, as pictures from even relatively small-scale recent conflicts from Grozny to Aleppo show.

Warplanes over Moscow. Shutterstock

Consequently, while the armies and individual battles might be smaller than those in World War II, the death toll, the loss of war-making material and both sides’ ability to reduce everything in their paths to rubble would make a large-scale conflict far more wide-reaching and, in terms of recovery, longer-lasting than anything we have seen before.

In such a conflict, the very term “battlefield” would itself be highly misleading: such a war, employing ships, submarines and aircraft with truly global reach, would indeed be a world war and would pay scant attention to the difference between military and civilian targets: this would truly be a war among the peoples.

And not just an earth-bound war: outer space would be a highly contested arena as would cyberspace, with both sides seeking to disrupt all aspects of normal life as the war was taken into the realms of politics, infrastructure, information and commerce, too.

Despite Shirreff’s warnings, the nightmare scenario of nuclear war is highly unlikely as neither side ultimately would wish to unleash destruction on that scale. Likewise, chemical and biological weapons would, if employed at all, be used at a very local level, and sparingly.

That is not to say that the scale of the destruction would not be significant, however. This would be total war, waged on every imaginable front, from the internet and the stock market to outer space.

The general has, then, written an excellent and compelling novel. But while there might be some argument in favour of a more robust foreign policy and greater defence spending, to dismiss the Russian leadership purely as aggressively irrational is both naive and shortsighted. Ultimately, when it comes to a new world war, both sides now have far too much to lose.

For an alternative view, read more here.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 153,000 academics and researchers from 4,487 institutions.

Register now