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The Danger of Inadvertent War in the Next Four Years

November 16, 2016

In 1914, Austria-Hungary launched what it thought would be a short punitive war against Serbia. The next thing it knew, it was involved in a war against Russia, Italy, France, Britain, and then the United States. Four years later, Austria-Hungary ceased to exist. If the Austro-Hungarian government had known where its Balkan intervention would lead, it would never have launched it. But it didn’t know. World War I was an inadvertent war.

World War I was horrifying, among the greatest catastrophes that humanity had ever experienced. Then, with the advent of nuclear weapons, the idea of inadvertent great power war grew even more alarming. One concern during the Cold War was that a small crisis might lead to a general war, as each side sought to one-up the other. The successful negotiations of the Incidents at Sea Agreement and the host of confidence-building measures emerged from the Conference on Security and Cooperation Europe and its successor were a recognition of this concern. On at least two occasions, the superpowers took the initial steps up such an escalatory ladder. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to use nuclear weapons on France and Britain and London during the Suez Crisis. Then in 1973, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev threatened to send Soviet troops to enforce an Arab-Israeli ceasefire and President Richard Nixon (or Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger) moved American forces to DEFCON 3. Another concern was a technical glitch or an intelligence mis-assessment that might lead one side to believe it had only minutes to respond to a nuclear attack that was already underway, as happened in the United States in 1979 and in the Soviet Union during the ABLE ARCHER exercise in 1983. The end of the Cold War seemed to put an end to most such concerns. The world could rest easy; there would be no World War III and no nuclear war.

With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the odds of inadvertent war with a nuclear-armed Russia have spiked. Ironically, the danger comes not from hostility between the United States and Russia, as it did during the Cold War. Rather, it comes from the coziness between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the campaign, Trump responded favorably to what he perceived as complimentary words from Putin and expressed his admiration for Putin’s leadership. He spoke positively about Russia’s intervention in Syria and downplayed the Russian hacking efforts against Democratic Party targets, at once expressing doubt that they happened and inviting the Russians to do more. Not long before the election, Trump said that as President-elect he might like to meet with Putin. Meanwhile, Putin has welcomed Trump’s election as has Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament which broke into applause and cheers when it heard that Trump had won. Putin probably looks forward to being able to manipulate Trump, whose need for praise and sensitivity to criticism is already the stuff of legend. Putin probably also looks forward to a little payback for President Bill Clinton’s well-publicized manipulation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s.

With the advent of Trump, the greatest danger of inadvertent war is in Europe, probably in the Baltic States. Consider the following scenario. Putin is emboldened by his land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine, still smarting from the historic wrong of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and wanting to return ethnic Russians in the Baltic States to the Moscow fold. He is also aware of Trump’s skepticism about the utility of NATO and confident that the American president is either in his corner, susceptible to manipulation, or disinterested. In other words, Putin does not buy American deterrence. Accordingly, he decides to make an overt military move on the Baltics. Facing the destruction of their countries, these prosperous democracies request assistance under NATO’s Article 5. At this point, Trump is hammered by European allies and American national security experts demanding that he do something unless he wants to be the president who “lost” Europe. Belatedly, he wakes up to the threat and decides that he must respond. However, aiding the Baltics — which are right on Russia’s doorstep and have no strategic depth — is difficult. So the United States and NATO are faced with the unpleasant alternatives of either an extremely bloody and possibly doomed conventional conflict in Eastern Europe, nuclear escalation, or horizontal escalation elsewhere in the world.  Meanwhile, with the United States distracted, the time is ripe for other countries, such as China, North Korea, and Iran to act out.

Improbable? Yes, but frighteningly plausible and far more likely than it was the day before the election. Furthermore, similar scenarios focusing on Poland, Ukraine, and other countries can also be readily imagined. This is a classic low-probability, high-impact scenario. But being this involves nuclear weapons, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?”

 

Mark Stout, Ph.D., is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC. He has previously worked for thirteen years as an intelligence analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and later with the CIA. He has also worked on the Army Staff in the Pentagon and at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yvonne Morales

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20 thoughts on “The Danger of Inadvertent War in the Next Four Years

  1. “and wanting to return ethnic Russians in the Baltic States to the Moscow fold” – any proof that’s the case? if not, then why say it? wishful thinking, Mark?

    1. Come on, Roman. Vlad loves to reminisce about “historical Russia.” Consider his words from 2014: “…I expect that the citizens of Germany will also support the aspirations of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity.” Pair that with recent events in Ukraine and Georgia, and it’s hard to reasonably refute Mark’s interpretation. However, while the author does propose a frightening scenario, he is correct in stating the low plausibility of this outcome. It’s a shallow look at the Trump administration as a whole; I do not doubt the Donald as president will be exceptionally susceptible to manipulation by “strongmen” like Putin, but I do question Putin’s ability to effectively counter more sound suggestions of U.S. national security advisors and other key decision makers. And from a modern conflict perspective, it is unlikely Putin will make any surprise overt military move on the Baltics. That’s not Russia’s MO. There will likely be many subtle signals prior to any overt military moves, and these should also be anticipated by our European friends…keep an eye out for Polite People!

      1. “….I do not doubt the Donald as president will be exceptionally susceptible to manipulation by “strongmen” like Putin…”

        I do doubt it as their is no evidence he has been manipulated in the past in his business dealings.

        1. While that may be the case, running a business of golf courses, hotels, and representing a brand is vastly different from running a government. As Mike Morell argued, Trump’s ego is dangerous and will make him susceptible to manipulation by people like Putin, a former agent of the KGB who expertly trained their agents to manipulate people. Putin is salivating at the possibility of a weaker NATO.

          1. Putin is salivating at the possibility of a weaker NATO?

            From the CIA Factbook, GDP estimates for 2015:

            1. CHINA. $19,700,000,000,000
            2 EUROPEAN UNION $19,180,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            3 UNITED STATES $18,040,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            4 INDIA $7,998,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            5 JAPAN $4,843,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            6 GERMANY $3,860,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            7 RUSSIA $3,725,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            8 BRAZIL $3,199,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            9 INDONESIA $2,848,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            10 UNITED KINGDOM $2,702,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            11 FRANCE $2,666,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            12 MEXICO $2,230,000,000,000 2015 EST.
            13 ITALY $2,175,000,000,000

            The EU ALONE has five times the GDP of Russia. That they choose not to use it to honor their commitments for NATO funding is on THEM, not on the Russians, and certainly not on Trump, who like Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Carter before him, doesn’t believe Western Europe is contributing adequately for their own defense.

        2. I suppose you may not catalog his emotion-driven Twitter rants and arrogant statements toward journalists and other critics as evidence, but they shed some light on potential psychological vulnerabilities. I can’t corroborate your statement about manipulation in his past business dealings as I was never privy to his meetings and negotiations. I’ll take your word for it. I prefer a Trump presidency over a Clinton presidency for several reasons, but as I said before, even the most optimistic Trump supporter has to maintain some realism of vulnerabilities.

  2. Somehow, I sense a bias against Trump. With Hillary in charge would the danger be any less. Trump at least seems to be attempting an accord with Putin. Hillary on the other hand was, by my estimation, trying to antagonize him.

    1. I don’t believe this should be a comparison between the two. The election is over, and it’s Trump’s show now. Hillary is no longer relevant, so how President-elect Trump does in comparison to how she would have done makes no difference. We can no longer resort to the argument of “least worst,” as has been over the past several months. How Trump does in real world scenarios against real threats is what matters now. Even the most optimistic Trump supporter has to acknowledge some potentially severe uncertainties in the coming administration. However, I don’t think this is unique to President-elect Trump. Nor do I think Mark is being biased, as he laid out some evidence that may have already set the stage for manipulation (that is, if it isn’t already underway): “He spoke positively about Russia’s intervention in Syria and downplayed the Russian hacking efforts against Democratic Party targets, at once expressing doubt that they happened and inviting the Russians to do more. Not long before the election, Trump said that as President-elect he might like to meet with Putin. Meanwhile, Putin has welcomed Trump’s election as has Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament which broke into applause and cheers when it heard that Trump had won. Putin probably looks forward to being able to manipulate Trump, whose need for praise and sensitivity to criticism is already the stuff of legend.” Either Trump is completely out of touch with the realities of the Russian threat, or he is using some Jedi mind tricks on Putin in an awesomely misunderstood power play.

      1. Maybe the Russians’ reaction had something to do with HRC’s calling for a “no fly” zone over Syria which had the potential to pit USAF and USN pilots against Russian ones.

  3. Hopefully someone on the transition team has played some Europe Universalis 4 and knows how easy it is to get into the shit when all you wanted to do was annex a one province minor.

  4. This is an important article. In a short article the author could not handle the mess which led up to the Austro-Hungarian decision to punish Serbia in the summer of 1914. One point should not be missed, however, there had been a Balkan War scare in 1912 and Russian military intelligence had penetrated the upper levels of the Austro-Hungarian military and state. Thwy knew, as Professor Bruce Menning has pointe d in a recent article in “The Historian” (5 June 2015), that Austro-Hungary had carried out a covert mobilization in Galicia as part of their war plan to invade Russia. In 1914, Russian intelligence was not so sure about Vienna’s actions but did prududent worse-case analysis. Faced with a slower mobilization pace than Germany and Austro-Hungary, Russia could not risk delay. The author mentioned the 1979 and 1983 cases of mis-perceptions, which could have led to nuclear war between the superpowwers. The world today is more messy and more complex than in 1914 and the intelligence will be incomplete, contradictory and time lines very short. These comments are not about Trump, but there is a simple fact that every new administration has a learning curve and dpends upon the professionals in the IC, Defense, and State to provide guidance during the transition period. It is not uncommon for foreign powers and non-state actors to test new administrations. The author pointed to the Baltic states as a possible source of conflict but one cannot exclude crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, Korean Peninsula, or Persian Gulf. Now contemplate the complex intelligence pcitures that the new administration will have to master. As the Chinese says: “May you live in interesting times.”

    1. Thanks for the kind words and the added analysis. You are quite right. I want to especially highlight your point about the speed with which crises unfold these days. I don’t know if crises unfold any faster now than they did in 1983, but they certainly unfold much more quickly than they did in 1914 and, in fact, fast enough that it can be a serious challenge for a leader to be out ahead of an unfolding situation. That is a dangerous reality.

  5. The bigger issue is should NATO and the EU continue their eastward march toward Russia? I was in West Germany when the East and West were united. A united Germany is a good thing but bringing former members of the Warsaw Pact into the NATO fold incrementally moving eastward closer to Russia is bound to produce fear in Russia. Will Americans and Europeans really support a war against a nuclear armed Russia over some small nations in the Baltic region that really has no direct impact on their lives? I think it would be a hard sell if it possibly involved nuclear war. Americans can understand a Cuban Missile Crisis. A “Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Crisis” will be hard to support.

    1. A recent survey showed that 60% of the Germans surveyed did not support using the German military to defend their NATO allies and neighbors Poland and the Baltic States from Russian aggression.

      Most of the western European states are going to be too busy dealing with the multi million man army of hostile misogynistic 7th century barbarians they’ve imported to execute any military operations outside their borders.

      1. I love that WOTR usually has a civil comment thread with interesting thoughtful discourse. I am disappointed markenoff’s feels the need to resort to religious bigotry to try to make an argument.

  6. “….at once expressing doubt that they happened and inviting the Russians to do more.”

    This is a blatantly disingenuous statement and the article you link to is incredibly misleading.

    At the time Trump made this statement Clinton had already had her illegal, unsecure server on which she stored Top Secret-Special Access information “Bleachbitted” in order to hide the evidence of her crimes of mishandling US national security information and of selling US foreign policy to the highest bidder while she was Secretary of State. This was obviously a joke by Trump and those who do not acknowledge that are either really dense or so blinded by their antipathy to Trump that they cannot see the truth.

    The Russians probably didn’t have to hack Clinton’s server anyway. They probably paid for the administrator password the same way they paid for access to 20% of the US uranium production.

  7. “In 1914, Austria-Hungary launched what it thought would be a short punitive war against Serbia. The next thing it knew, it was involved in a war against Russia, Italy, France, Britain, and then the United States. Four years later, Austria-Hungary ceased to exist. If the Austro-Hungarian government had known where its Balkan intervention would lead, it would never have launched it. But it didn’t know. World War I was an inadvertent war.”

    Hotzendorf, Austrian Chief of Staff and most ardent proponent of war, knew that they were going to start a global war, and knew, in his words, that it would be a “hopeless struggle.” But he said it must be waged regardless because “an ancient monarchy and such an ancient army cannot perish ingloriously.”

  8. Can we refrain from the canard about NATO’s “march East”. NATO expansion is primarily the result of the eastern European states desire to never experience the embrace of their Slavic brothers ever again.