January 24, 2024

How Great Is the Threat of War: Pessimists and Optimists


Recent spate of statements from Estonia’s leading political figures references the time frame of as little as 2 or 3 years when Russia might act militarily against NATO. This is at the pessimistic end of the assessments of such a probability. More optimistic versions assess that this probability would be high only in some ten years, counting from the end of high-intensity war in Ukraine.

Defence planning must take into account worst-case scenarios as well as their plausibility and their probability. The timeframe of 3-5 years is plausible, but its probability is contingent on too many factors that are currently in flux: the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2024-26, Moscow’s reading of the window of opportunity that depends on the outcomes of various elections in key countries (e.g. US, Germany, France), pace of NATO’s rearmament, speed of Russia’s military reconstitution, and so on. Many of those factors will play out within exactly 3-5 years, but it will be too late to do much if the outcome is most negative. So, the decision-makers face the choice between acting now or facing the potentially catastrophic consequences of naïve assessments and inaction a few years from now.

In the present geopolitical environment, keeping in mind Russia’s clearly stated intent to continue using military force to destroy the existing European security architecture as well as Kremlin regime’s proclivity for making disastrous strategic misjudgements and miscalculations, it is the responsibility of the decision-makers and planners to take such worst-case scenarios very seriously and base national and NATO-wide preparations accordingly. There will be more and more voices saying that this is an overblown reaction, and that Russia has no wish to attack the Baltics and thus trigger a war with the Alliance, but this is exactly the propaganda line peddled by the Kremlin that we have heard for a long time. Following the rule of a thumb that something “is not true until the Kremlin denies it”, we should discard those voices as dangerously naïve at best and malicious amplifiers of strategic deception at worst. Russia’s neoimperial aims are broader than curtailing sovereignty of the Baltic states, but it will not hesitate to exploit us as a vector for advancing those aims if and when it senses an opportunity.

Of course, in those plausible and possible scenarios we must consider that the nature and character of Russia’s aggression might differ from how they acted against Ukraine. The key to constructing such scenarios is understanding how Russia manipulates perception of escalation risk (and its consequences) in the minds of Western audiences and what it can do militarily against NATO to secure most favourable strategic outcome. It may not be a large-scale conventionally military attack, but something on a smaller scale accompanied by threats of nuclear escalation and even limited actions in nuclear domain to substantiate such threats. What we must understand is that Russia has a clear hostile intent towards us, possesses political will to reconstitute its military means even during the war against Ukraine, and will be looking for the right opportunity to cause the collapse of NATO, redraw the borders to its liking, and restore its geopolitical control over swathes of Europe.

The upshot of taking the military threat posed by Russia seriously is that wide-ranging and expedited preparations for war on our side will decrease the chances of such a war breaking out, as they will have a strong deterrent effect on the adversary. It is this deterrent effect of combined national will for self-defence, strong high-tech military capabilities and allied (especially US) resolve and full support that ensure business and public confidence in countries such as Israel, South Korea or, during the Cold War, West Germany. Investing into strong defence and strong alliances today means deterring aggression tomorrow and assuring investors that their investments will remain safe. Short-term effect of strategic clarity and communication about Russia’s threat can be negative on investor sentiment, but the outcome of that clarity – stronger collective defence – is a long-term win for our economic growth and prosperity.

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