Close to the Brink

In January 2015, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Science and Security board decided to move the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. The clock now sits at three minutes to midnight, which marks the closest humanity has ever been to apocalypse since 1984, a moment in the Cold War when communications between the United States and the Soviet Union had gone dark. In 1984, the world watched in terror as politicians on both sides of the Iron Curtain worked to ease tensions. Today, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders brush off the current arms race as a non-issue, despite warnings from outside the political sphere. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists issued a statement explaining their move: “In 2015, unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity.” The group went on to state that, “World leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.” Warnings have gone unheeded.

Officials from Russia and NATO have routinely denied that they are involved in an arms race. However, both sides continue to pile troops along the Russian-European border in numbers not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The tension between Russia and NATO began in March 2014 when Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law incorporating Crimea, Ukraine, into Russia. He was then accused of backing Ukrainian separatists in the region. In September 2014, NATO opened a military base in Lithuania amid growing concerns that Russia would challenge the sovereignty of Baltic countries. Since then, Eastern Europe has been set alight with heavy military exercises in both Russian-sympathetic and NATO territories, representing aggressive showcases of power. NATO has planned an additional 270 military exercises this year and Russia has announced that it will conduct upward of 4,000. Such displays of power may be an attempt to deter either side from taking further concrete action. However, in the past, this method of deterrence has proven ineffective. One needs only to look back to World War I for proof.

It’s not hard to imagine an action, similar in magnitude to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, sparking a direct military confrontation. European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank, has recorded sixty-six “close military encounters” between Russian and NATO military forces and between Russia and Sweden and Finland, both of which are allied with NATO. A single miscalculation could worsen the already tense standoff or even push it over the brink.

While NATO and Russia have dismissed claims of an impending conflict, media on both sides have ramped up war rhetoric. While popular Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly compared Putin to Hitler, Russian news agencies have gone as far as calling for the use of nuclear warheads. Media on both of sides of the conflict have encouraged nationalist and extremist views, to the point where it may be difficult for either side to take a step back. Adding to the war rhetoric is deep-seeded mistrust. In an interview with Vice News in August, then General Raymond Odierno of the United States Army said, “We know the Russians are getting ready for something. We just don’t know where.” In the same interview he stated that, “Russia is constantly assessing the reaction of NATO to any of their actions.” The Kremlin is not inclined to offer any benefit of the doubt to the West. Crippling sanctions imposed on Russia have backed Putin into a corner, where he is likely to lash out if provoked.

In late August 2014, United States president Barack Obama delivered a speech in Estonia’s capital, only 500 miles from Moscow. His intention was to reassure Eastern Europe that Putin’s support for separatists in Ukraine would not translate into Russian territorial gains elsewhere, and that NATO would not allow aggression to go unchecked. He said, “We will defend our NATO allies and that means every ally, […] You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.” Hopefully, he will not be forced to stay true to his word.

There is no need to explain the dire consequences that will follow a conflict between NATO and Russia. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Putin has no intention of stepping down. In fact, he needs to display nationalist power and aggression to gain legitimacy after the violent protests that followed his last election. Therefore, the burden falls on NATO to take a step back and defuse the tense situation. As leaders of the organization, Germany and the United States should work together. It’s important to stand strong, of course, but a war with Russia is not in anyone’s best interest. There is no need to continue reckless and threatening military exercises or display such outward war rhetoric. We can and should stop now, before it’s too late.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.