With NATO’s military buildup near Russian borders and signs of instability from the Middle East to East Asia, it’s no longer inconceivable that the great powers could find themselves involved in a conventional war.

Members of the U.S. Army airborne brigade during the Black Arrow military drills in Lithuania. Photo: AP

NATO’s plans to increase its troop presence in the Baltic States near Russian borders, recent U.S. military exercises in the Persian Gulf and China’s assertive overtures in the South and East China Seas are just the latest signs that the world order has become even more fragile. In fact, a conventional war between the great powers might become reality now that nuclear weapons are no longer a deterrent.

“Is conventional conflict possible among nuclear weapon states? The short answer is it will have to be, and given all powers are planning for such a contingency, it is likely to be,” reads a recent report of the Valdai Discussion Club. “What Makes Great Power War Possible,” co-authored by Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center, and Andrei Sushentsov, an associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) and the program director at the Valdai Discussion Club, analyzes the odds of a conventional war involving the great powers.

Taking into account the fact that many countries are stepping up their military budgets and investing in conventional means of warfare, such warnings are particularly relevant. China has increased its military budget by 132 percent between 2006 and 2015, while military expenses by Saudi Arabia and Russia grew by 97 percent and 91 percent, respectively, during the same period of time, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko. Source: SIPRI

Meanwhile, in 2015 the United States remains the power with the highest military expenses of almost $600 billion annually, despite a recent sequester that affected its defense budget.  At the same time, the total military budget of the top 15 countries – including Russia, China, the U.S., Europe and the states of the Middle East – is about $1.3 trillion.

With the steady proliferation of missile defense technology, led first and foremost by the U.S., the perceived utility of nuclear weapons as a meaningful deterrent to war will continue to decline,” reads the Valdai report. “Powers will increasingly place emphasis away from their nuclear arsenal and onto conventional deterrence.” 

Moreover, nuclear weapons may become vulnerable to conventional precision strikes. Such risks will encourage the U.S. to focus more on missile defense and new efforts “to reduce the relevance of nuclear weapons as they pose the only credible existential threat to the American homeland,” according to the Valdai report.

Historically, nuclear deterrence had always been an important factor in preventing potential conflicts between powers from escalating too far, as indicated by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the most dangerous point of the Soviet-American confrontation, provoked by the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Luckily, this crisis failed to spin out of control and Soviet and American leaders were able to find common ground.

Today, Russia is hardly likely to use its nuclear arsenal against a potential opponent, unless there is an existential threat for the entire nation emanating from another nuclear power. This is part of Russia’s national security doctrine. Likewise, the U.S. won’t target its nuclear warheads against Russia for the same reasons, although Washington doesn’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons to protect its allies.

Such balance gives reason for some pundits to see nuclear weapons as a sort of deterrent panacea against any potential conflicts between powers. Some of them even encourage the further development of nuclear weapons by third countries, argues Petr Topychkanov, an associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program. However, nuclear potential doesn’t prevent conventional wars at all.

“In fact, the nuclear factor has never been an effective impediment to conventional wars between nuclear powers, especially those ones that were engaged in [proxy] wars on the territory of third countries,” Topychkanov told Russia Direct, giving the example of the 1950-1953 Korean War that also involved the Soviet Union and the United States.

“After all, if you develop new military technologies and weapons, you might be tempted to use them one day,” the expert added, pointing to another example: the 1999 Kargil War between two nuclear states – India and Pakistan.

Alarmist mentality as a driver of conventional wars

Another warning sign that a conventional war might break out between leading powers is the negative sentiments among the world’s top military brass, which usually come up with the most negative scenarios and prepare themselves for the worst.

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For example, a recent report prepared by U.S. military experts from the RAND Corporation tests “every possible scenario in a series of war games” and spreads fears about a possible war with Russia.  The authors of the report estimate that Russia might overrun Eastern Europe in three days. It would only take between 36 and 60 hours for Russia to occupy the Baltic States.

The media only fuels these fears, as indicated by the BBC-produced faux-documentary “World War Three: Inside the War Room,” which describes Russian troops invading Latvia, provoking a response from UK and NATO, and ultimately leading to a nuclear war with the West.

In fact, this scenario aims to assess a country’s response when responding to Russian aggression. Even though a full-fledged war between Russia and the West is seen as exaggeration and pure fantasy, military pundits look at this problem from a very different perspective.

It is a matter of preparing oneself for a low-probability and high-impact event and investing in this endeavor a great deal of money. After all, it is the military top brass of a certain country that makes decisions, said Kofman during the presentation of the report last week. Military officials tend to look at the possibility of a conflict from the alarmist perspective.

Increasing distrust between great powers during a time of geopolitical rivalry exacerbates the problem and leads to what some experts call “undeclared war,” with the use of non-military means, including sanctions and information campaigns. From this perspective, some nations are in a state of confrontation, which some pundits describe as a “hybrid” or “non-linear” war.

Although there is nothing new in such tactics, it is becoming increasingly conspicuous today. The most evident examples are the Moscow-Washington confrontation over Ukraine and the Russian-Turkish face-off, resulting from the Kremlin’s decision to intervene in Syria and the downing of the Russian jet by Ankara shortly thereafter

The latter incident underlines another dangerous aspect of a conventional war, which might happen in the future – a great deal of uncertainty. Nobody could predict Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet. Nobody expected Moscow and Ankara to be on the slippery slope of military confrontation, especially given the fact that, before the Kremlin started its gambit in Syria, Russian-Turkish relations were in very good shape.

Today the classic rules of conventional war don’t work anymore in the realm of “black swans” (extremely low-probability but high-impact events) - especially when modern states are so interconnected. It turns out that not only Russia and the U.S. have monopoly on the use of force, but also others stakeholders, according to Sushentsov.

As modern warfare technologies continue to evolve in new ways – such as a new focus on cyberspace – conventional wars between great powers are becoming increasingly dangerous and unpredictable. They might target an opponent’s vital economic and energy infrastructure, command and control systems and could lead to havoc in civilian infrastructure. This would make it even more difficult to localize a potential conflict.

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“The objective will be to prevent an opponent from being able to implement an effective resistance, while rapidly raising the costs to their economy and political system,” the Valdai report reads.

With such warnings in place, military officials will always be on alert, expecting hypothetical strikes from a potential enemy at any time. Such logic is hardly likely to bring peace and stability in the world. But, no matter whether it is good or not, this is just inevitable given the current turbulence of world politics.