The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts prides itself on paying keen attention to warnings about the apocalypse (and usually pooh-poohing them). So when Vox’s Max Fisher writes a 10,000 word essay on “How World War III became Possible,” we here at Spoiler Alerts sit up and take notice.

Fisher ain’t soft-pedaling his thesis:

There is a growing chorus of political analysts, arms control experts, and government officials who are sounding the alarm, trying to call the world’s attention to its drift toward disaster. The prospect of a major war, even a nuclear war, in Europe has become thinkable, they warn, even plausible.
What they describe is a threat that combines many of the hair-trigger dangers and world-ending stakes of the Cold War with the volatility and false calm that preceded World War I — a comparison I heard with disturbing frequency.
They described a number of ways that an unwanted but nonetheless major war, like that of 1914, could break out in the Eastern European borderlands. The stakes, they say, could not be higher: the post–World War II peace in Europe, the lives of thousands or millions of Eastern Europeans, or even, in a worst-case scenario that is remote but real, the nuclear devastation of the planet.

You really have to read the whole thing because I’m not sure any summary will do it justice. Fisher does an excellent job of explaining why more nuclear tensions warrant more worry than, say, asteroid defense.

In essence, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic conundrum is that he wants to restore Russia’s great power status back to the good old days of the Cold War, but his Russia is much, much weaker than the old Soviet Union. This is true whether you look at economic capabilities, conventional military forces, or nuclear forces. Putin, however, thinks that he’s Keyser Sozed a way around that problem:


In essence, Putin thinks that his comparative advantage is his willingness to go to the brink and stare down the West in any confrontation. This is why he’s lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons — the dimension where Russia is closest to parity to NATO — and why he’s embracing hybrid warfare in dealing with Ukraine and the Baltics. Putin wants to create the image of a “grim trigger” strategy when dealing with allies or adversaries, in the hope that this deters other actors from any noncooperative actions.

There are ways in which this strategy is a doppelganger of NATO’s Cold War strategy. It’s worth remembering that during that era, NATO viewed its conventional forces as weaker than the Warsaw Pact’s. That was why NATO rejected a “no first use” doctrine during the Cold War; it needed the nuclear deterrent to compensate for the Soviets’ conventional military advantage. It’s also worth remembering that the outlier in Russia’s nuclear doctrine isn’t its current posture, but the 2010 strategic doctrine that was more benign than its other post-Cold War doctrines.

So will it work? No, which is the problem. The hard truth remains that Putin’s strategic position now is weaker than it was five years ago. Now he has to deal with a weaker domestic economy, a hostile Ukrainian government that will create more Russian casualties, and a NATO that’s gearing up to more credibly defend Eastern Europe. Putin has responded in numerous ways, none of them terribly effective. Sure, he’s embraced the east — but China will be happy to exploit this opportunity for commercial gains and not much else. And for all the talk about Russia’s efforts to propagandize its way into the hearts and minds of some European populations, the fact remains that European leaders are likely to be more resolute in an escalating crisis, and the European Union is still way more powerful on the continent than Russia. The only way in which Putin’s strategy has worked is in bolstering his own domestic standing.


But, again, the failure of Putin’s strategy is the problem. As I noted last year, Putin’s response to a bad situation is usually to gamble for resurrection through some form of escalation. Fisher’s concern — and mine — is that Putin will respond to his current status quo with even more conflict escalation to test NATO’s mettle.

Now is usually the time when I write my “calm down” paragraph. And, indeed, there are ways in which Fisher’s essay, while very disconcerting, might be overblown. At this point, it seems that both NATO and Russia believe that a “frozen conflict” equilibrium benefits them, which means that escalation is less likely than Fisher presents in his essay.

The truth, however, is that I’m not feeling all that calm, for two reasons. First, as I’ve said, I don’t think Putin’s strategy will work, which means that at some point he’s going to need to escalate again. Second, Fisher’s essay presents a Russia that believes the Obama administration is hell-bent on encirclement. Imagine what Russia will think when Obama’s more hawkish successor comes to power?

Developing…. in some very disturbing ways.