Let's talk about World War III by Nikolai Sokov

August 26, 2008

Asia Times

It is time to seriously contemplate World War III. The most important elements are already in place. Just as so many experts on the Caucasus have predicted, the region has become a power keg and the main source of great-power rivalry.

Obviously, disagreements between great powers go far beyond this region and, in fact, conflicts and war in the Caucasus are rather insignificant in their grand games and calculations. Yet the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Russia all have important symbolic stakes there – there are promises to local players and fears that abandoning them might hurt reputation and global standing.

Paradoxically, the chances of a major, global armed conflict have increased since the probability of a large-scale nuclear war has declined to zero, in all practical terms. No one fears that the world will be annihilated, and thus the world is now deemed reasonably safe for a conventional war.

Let us try to imagine how World War III might start. World War I started with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand by Serbs in Sarajevo. The act was senseless – Franz Ferdinand was widely believed to be the more sensible and moderate member of the Austrian imperial family. Russia – the ally and patron of Serbia at the time – certainly did not authorize it, although there are rumors that some Russian diplomats and intelligence officers knew about the plans. Yet Russia felt compelled to intervene on the side of Serbia when Austria – predictably – responded with all its military might: just a few years earlier Russia had abandoned Serbia to the mercy of Vienna, and doing this a second time was deemed untenable. This is, in a nutshell, how World War I unfolded.

Let us move to the South Caucasus now. There is talk in Washington and Brussels that, following what is classified as Russian aggression, Georgia will soon receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for joining NATO. The prospects of membership are quite uncertain, however, because some members of NATO (aptly classified by Donald Rumsfeld as ‘Old Europe’) are not enthusiastic. Yet in the United States the idea about ‘defending Georgia’ is very popular, thanks to a large extent to the presidential election campaign in which candidates have been able to use the war in Georgia to their advantage.

In fact, Georgia does not have to become a member of NATO – a long process fraught with many impediments. It is much easier to simply deploy two or three battalions of US troops in Georgian territory to convert it into a new version of West Germany during the Cold War. Fifty years ago US troops in West Germany served as hostages: American deaths as a result of a Soviet attack would have inevitably drawn the United States into a shooting war with the Soviets. This was one of the more brilliant schemes. We do not know whether it actually worked because we do not know whether the Soviet Union actually planned to attack, but the logic seems sound.

The advantage of unilateral American guarantees of this sort is that the decision can be made quickly, it will score major political points, and avoid the inevitable squabbles of alliance politics.

Now, the truly wild card in the game of defending Georgia is whether the Georgian leadership – in the near future this means Mikheil Saakashvili – will be prepared to play as part of a team. One irrefutable fact about what the Russians now call the ‘five-day war’ is that for years the United States very clearly and forcefully warned Georgia to avoid direct conflict with Russia. Yet, Saakashvili and his team went to war, and when they realized they were losing they asked Washington to interfere militarily. This truly casts doubts about whether the same people will care about the US’s interests when they obtain ‘automatic’ security guarantees.

Now imagine the repetition of exactly the same scenario a year from now. With troops in Georgia, the US government will not be able to stay away or back down. Whatever actually provokes hostilities, the US’s pro-Georgian and anti-Russian version will prevail. This means America will be at war.

The Russians cannot back down either, and their pretext will be the exact opposite of Tbilisi’s and Washington’s. They will be at war as well.

Obviously, Russian troops can overwhelm the Georgian military, but they do not stand a chance against the United States. Active military doctrine has an answer to that – limited Russian use of nuclear weapons against the military bases from which Americans mount attacks and against command and control centers. We are talking about an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean and perhaps a few US bases in Europe. Welcome to World War III – mostly conventional and spiced with a few nuclear mushrooms here and there.

The truly fascinating aspect of this gloomy scenario is that the two leading emerging economic and political powers of the world, China and India, are completely outside the game. For them, there are no interests and no stakes, whether real or imaginary, in a US-Russian war over the South Caucasus.

This is cause for hope. If we can safely live through the transition period as economic and eventually political power shifts from traditional capitals toward Asia, we might avoid a direct clash between major powers and nuclear weapons use. The way economic trends run these days, we only need to be lucky for a few years.

Dr Nikolai Sokov is senior research associate at James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is an expert on post-Soviet security politics.

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