5 reasons why the threat of a global war involving Russia is overstated

Despite the growing potential for military conflict in either Europe or the Middle East, the risk of a great power war has been greatly exaggerated by the media and top political leaders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, chairs a meeting with military officials in the National Defense Control Center in Moscow. Photo: AP / Sputnik

The contemporary discussion of security interactions among major powers is depressing to participants and observers alike. Experts and politicians are warning us of an increasingly high likelihood of a military conflict – possibly a nuclear one – between Russia, on the one hand, and the U.S. or NATO, on the other.

In the West, many argue the dangers associated with a “resurgent” Russia and vow to defend themselves from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “aggressive” actions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter accused Russia of threatening the world order and starkly warned: “Make no mistake, the United States will defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.”

The tensions have been growing and have become especially high since the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Russian military flights over the Baltic and Black Sea in response to NATO’s active buildup on Russia’s European borders has done little to calm these fears. The Turkish decision to shoot down a Russian warplane by claiming violation of its airspace in November 2015 revived the discussion of Moscow’s possible military conflict with Istanbul and NATO, of which Turkey is a member. More recently, the hype has been over the Kremlin’s alleged preparations to invade the Baltic States and the West’s need to respond.

In Russia, these threats and discussions are taken seriously, and the responsibility for these security tensions has been squarely placed on the Western powers. The frequently repeated charges are that the West and NATO have encircled Russia with military bases and refused to recognize Moscow’s global interests. Russian media have actively discussed the U.S. National Security Archive’s Cold War documents on a nuclear attack against Russia and China declassified on Dec. 22, 2015.

Last week, while attending the Munich Security Conference, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev compared the contemporary security environment with the one that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and reminded the audience of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s words that “foreign policy can kill us."

In the meantime, contradicting Medvedev, Russian experts often bemoan the fact that the Cold War was far more predictable and less dangerous than today’s multipolar world. What many have initially viewed as a generally positive transition from the U.S. “diktat” is now presented as leading toward a great power war.

This increasingly apocalyptic mood on both sides reflects a growing international instability and breakdown of important communication channels between Russia and the West. Since the beginning of Ukraine crisis and up until the G20 meeting in Antalya in December 2015, the two sides have barely interacted. Appalled by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists, Western leaders pursued policies of sanctions and isolation, whereas the indignant Kremlin has sought to demonstrate its indifference toward such policies.

Only since Antalya have Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama resumed their attempts to regularly discuss issues of importance. Western and Russia military, too, severed their contacts although the two sides have recently begun to coordinate their actions in the Syrian airspace. The aforementioned alarmist views and arguments are misplaced because they underestimate the dangers of the Cold War and overestimate those of today’s world.

Despite some attempts to present the Cold War as generally stable, predictable, and peaceful, this is not the time to feel nostalgic about it. Multiple crises from Berlin to Cuba and Afghanistan extended across much of the Cold War era. State propaganda on both sides was reinforced by an intense ideological confrontation accompanied by drills and necessary preparations for a nuclear war.

The Oscar-nominated film “Bridge of Spies” directed by Steven Spielberg reproduces some of that hysterical atmosphere in the United States where the public was mobilized for any actions in support of the government. In the Soviet Union it was no different. For the world outside the West and the U.S.S.R., this was not a peaceful, but rather an increasingly chaotic and violent time – the conclusion well documented by scholars of the Third World.

Recommended: "Buzz about World War III only fuels Russia's confrontation with the West"

Why today's world is less dangerous than the Cold War

Today’s world, while threatening and uncertain, is hardly more dangerous than the Cold War, for the following reasons.

First, whatever the rhetoric, major powers are not inclined towards risky behavior when their core interests are at stake. This concerns not only the nuclear superpowers, but also countries such as Turkey. The prospect of confronting Russia's overwhelmingly superior military should give pause even to someone as hot-tempered as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Even if Erdogan wanted to pit Russia against NATO, it wouldn’t work.

So far, NATO has been careful to not be drawn into highly provocative actions, whether it is by responding to Russia seizing the Pristina International Airport in June 1999, getting involved on Georgia’s side during the military conflict in August 2008 or by providing lethal military assistance and support for Ukraine. Unless Russia is the clear and proven aggressor, NATO is unlikely to support Turkey and begin World War III.

Second, Russia remains a defensive power aware of its responsibility for maintaining international stability. Moscow wants to work with major powers, not against them. Its insistence on Western recognition of Russia’s interests must not be construed as a drive to destroy the foundations of the international order, such as sovereignty, multilateralism, and arms control.

Third, the United States has important interests to prevent regional conflicts from escalating or becoming trans-regional. Although its relative military capabilities are not where they were ten years ago, the U.S. military and diplomatic resources are sufficient to restrain key regional players in any part of the world. Given the power rivalry across several regions, proxy wars are possible and indeed are happening, but they are unlikely to escalate.

Also read: "Munich re-thinks the Russia threat"

Fourth, unlike the Cold War era, the contemporary world has no rigid alliance structure. The so-called Russia-China-Iran axis is hardly more than a figment of the imagination by American neoconservatives and some Russia conspiracy-minded thinkers. The world remains a space in which international coalitions overlap and are mostly formed on an ad hoc basis.

Fifth, with the exception of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), there is no fundamental conflict of values and ideologies. Despite the efforts to present as incompatible the so-called “traditional” and “Western” values by Russia or “democracy” to “autocracy” by the United States and Europe, the world majority does not think that this cultural divide is worth fighting for.

Despite the dangers of the world we live in, it contains a number of important, even underappreciated, checks on great powers’ militarism. The threat talk coming from politicians is often deceiving. Such talk may be a way to pressure the opponent into various political and military concessions rather than to signal real intentions. When such pressures do not bring expected results, the rhetoric of war and isolation subsides.

Then a dialogue begins. Perhaps, the increasing frequency of exchanges between Obama and Putin since December 2015 - including their recent phone conversation following the Munich conference - suggest a growing recognition that the record of pressuring Russia has been mixed at best.

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

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