MA in Unemployment, yet on the degree it says "International Relations." Equally fascinated and disturbed by how we choose to live.
From the moment World War II came to an end on 2 September 1945 with the formal surrender of the Empire of Japan to the Allied Powers, the outbreak of World War III has been more or less constantly feared, frequently predicted and occasionally planned by people around the globe. Over the years various world leaders, diplomats, scientists, activists and even many less pretentious people have warned that the Third World War would not merely be the final installment of the World War trilogy, but would probably involve such tremendous destructive acts that it might very well constitute the final installment of humanity generally, or at least of the human presence on planet earth. As Albert Einstein famously stated in 1949:
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Over the past seven decades, people have designed, circulated, discussed and anticipated – either with anxiety or excitement – a great variety of potential scenarios for a third and possibly final war to end all wars, all of which have so far – knock on wood – failed to come true. Especially during the Cold War, most of these revolved around a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR. After the worldwide nuclear stockpile had peaked in 1986 and a global trend towards nuclear disarmament had set in, fears of WWIII began to abate somewhat. This development was reinforced by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But even though the total number of atomic weapons in the world has continued to decrease since then, global fears of World War III have resurfaced in recent years and the possible outbreak of WWIII has once again become a recurrent topic in international news.
While it is important to steer clear of overly hysterical claims and reports made and distributed by the many politicians, analysts and journalists who engage in professional fearmongering, it is hard to dismiss, outright, a small number of disturbingly plausible scenarios which have been suggested for the potential beginning of WWIII. Some relatively conceivable WWIII “ground zero” areas are the Korean peninsula, the South China Sea, the Middle East – in particular the area covering Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey’s Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions – Pakistan/India and of course the USA – we can never fully rule out a hysterical Donald Trump launching a nuclear attack on his own territory in a rash attempt to destroy the “fake news” media, can we?
What do you think?
However, in this article I want to discuss a different scenario, which centers on the Baltic states and which I generally take to be the most realistic or least far-fetched option, depending on my mental position along the pessimism-optimism spectrum at a given moment. Below I will first tell something about the Baltic states and their recent history; then I will outline how World War III could start in the Baltics and finally I will discuss three reasons for why this might happen.
Recent history of the Baltic states
In case you are wondering what the Baltic states are, I kindly recommend you to go back to high school in order to slap your geography teacher in the face, or alternatively, to slap yourself in the face in front of your geography teacher and sign up for evening classes to refresh your memory. In any case, the Baltic states comprise Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. If you have never heard of these countries or do not know where in the world they are located, the above recommendation applies to you as well.
In order to understand why WWIII could start in Lithuania, Latvia and/or Estonia, it is useful to consider the recent history of the region around the Baltic Sea. (For the record, I understand the irony of my claim that history can be useful in an article about a potentially catastrophic example of history repeating itself. After all, if history really is so useful, why hasn’t it enabled us to prevent disastrous historical episodes like World Wars from happening again?)
Anyway, the three Baltic states were independent countries in the interwar period, but all of them lost their independence during World War II as the result of a series of occupations, first by the USSR in 1940, then by Nazi Germany in 1941 and then again by the Soviet Union in 1944. After Joseph Stalin had been so kind to “liberate” the Baltic states from the Nazis, the three countries remained incorporated into the Soviet Union for almost half a century. When the USSR finally disintegrated between 1990 and 1991, the Baltic states were among the first countries to break away and regain their independence. Subsequently, the independent republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all began to pursue full integration into the Western world, which resulted in all of them joining both the EU and NATO in 2004 and the Schengen Area in 2007. In recent years all three countries have also adopted the Euro as their national currency.
The scenario: How could World War III start in the Baltic states?
While I most certainly hope the World War duology will never be extended, it seems to me that if there is going to be a Third World War, the Baltics could be where it starts, as it is the most obvious place for a direct confrontation between the world’s biggest nuclear powers, namely the US and Russia.
Ever since Russia annexed Crimea and made further military incursions into Ukrainian territory in 2014, Russia’s Tsar-like leader Vladimir Putin has been dropping hints and/or making threats (depending on your interpretation) about his continued interest in a westward expansion of Russian territory, including the reincorporation of the Baltics into Mother Russia. For example, in September 2014 Putin allegedly threatened Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko with the scenario of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland and Romania by saying:
"If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest".
As I will discuss later, there are good reasons to believe that this was more than mere rhetoric, in particular when it comes to the Baltics. In fact, various foreign policy analysts are anticipating Russian intrusion in the Baltic states according to a covert strategy, similar to the one employed in Ukraine. Accordingly, Russian activity would at first focus on fueling internal unrest in the Baltics by advancing the formation of a militant “liberation movement” among the relatively large Russian populations in especially Latvia (27% ethnic Russians, 34% Russian speakers) and Estonia (24% ethnic Russians, 30% Russian speakers) and to a lesser extent Lithuania (6% ethnic Russians, 8% Russian speakers). Only after the Baltic states have been significantly destabilized in this manner, would Russia start an overt campaign to “protect” and/or “liberate” the “oppressed” Russians in the Baltics. For a more complete description of such a scenario, check out this article by the guy who claims to have predicted Putin’s moves in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
The above scenario could end with a potentially nuclear confrontation between Russia on the one side and the US and its allies on the other, since the Baltic states are all part of the NATO Alliance, which in practice is led by the US – just look at NATO's budget, over 72% of which was paid by the US in 2016.
Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which all NATO members have signed, all members are obliged to come to the each other’s rescue when any of them are under attack, since
“an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies."
Therefore, by the time Russia’s involvement in the Baltics has become obvious, all other NATO members – including the nuclear powers France, the UK and the US – would be obligated to militarily confront Russia in order to defend their Allies, thereby possibly unleashing World War III. Of course they could instead opt to ignore their NATO obligations, but that does not really make for a more probable option, as it would render the military pact meaningless and destroy all trust between its member states, leaving the European “Allies” to face the threat of an expansionist Russia on their doorstep by themselves, while the US would suffer a tremendous symbolic and strategic defeat against its geopolitical rival. Also, let’s not forget that in this scenario, the person in charge of deciding whether the US will engage or back down and whether it will use the nuclear option might very well be Donald Trump. So yeah, **** would probably go down, and humanity would not necessarily live to tell the tale.
That is some scary stuff, I know. So before proceeding with my three simple reasons for why the Baltics in particular might be next on president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s foreign policy wish-list (or bucket-list, depending on the outcome) and might therefore become the first front line of WWIII, I recommend you to calm your nerves by watching this video of a bunch of cute panda's playing on a slide:
A video so cute, it may help you forget about WWIII for a moment...
The explanation: Why might World War III start in the Baltic states?
1 The Baltics are blocking Russia’s access to Kaliningrad
The first reason why WWIII might begin in the Baltics has to do with their geographical position between Russia's mainland and the Kaliningrad Oblast, which is a small, but strategically important Russian exclave bordering on the Baltic Sea, Lithuania and Poland. When the USSR collapsed and morphed into the Russian Federation between 1990 and 1991, Kaliningrad got cut off from Russia proper due to the independence of Latvia and Lithuania (and to a certain extent Belarus). Ever since then it has been in the interest of Russia to reconnect Kaliningrad with mainland Russia.
The Kaliningrad Oblast is of great strategic importance to Russia for a number of reasons. In addition to housing air force bases and having the only Russian port which stays ice free throughout the year and where Russia’s Baltic Fleet is stationed, its close proximity to many of the European members of NATO, make it particularly suitable as a military outpost for carrying out defensive and/or offensive operations against NATO forces. Particularly disturbing in this regard is the fact that in 2013 Russia began deploying ballistic missiles that can be used to carry out nuclear attacks into the Kaliningrad Oblast, allegedly to preempt US plans for a European ballistic missile defense system.
Overland transport between Russia proper and the Kaliningrad Oblast is essential for Russia to be able to fully exploit the strategic advantage of this territory, but it is impossible without the cooperation of at least one NATO member state. Even if Russia makes use of the territory of Belarus, its ally, it still needs to cross either Lithuanian or Polish soil in order to reach Kaliningrad, and while these two countries have generally allowed this, Russia can never be sure of their continued cooperation. In fact, with the increasing tensions between Russia and the West in recent years, the transits arrangement with Lithuania in particular has come under strain.
Considering the above, it is easy to see why continued and especially rising tensions between Russia and NATO/the EU, could produce a situation in which Russia wants to ensure overland access to Kaliningrad as a defensive and/or offensive measure. By far the easiest way to achieve this, would be by crossing and occupying the Suwalki Gap, which is the stretch of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad, along the Lithuanian-Polish border. NATO considers the Suwalki Gap particularly difficult to defend because if Putin would order Russian forces to move simultaneously out of Kaliningrad and through Belarus to take position along the Suwalki Gap, the Baltic states could soon be cut off from their NATO allies. This would also make a subsequent Russian takeover of the Baltic states strategically beneficial and, despite the presence of NATO troops in the region, relatively simple, not in the least due to the large ethic Russian population in the region which could be mobilized by Moscow. Of course by that time WWIII might already be underway, as any Russian action along the Suwalki Gap, let alone an outright attack on the Baltic states, would require all NATO members to come to the defense of their Allies and launch an offensive against Russia.
2 As NATO’s weakest link, the Baltics are the ideal place for testing the Alliance
The strategic considerations discussed above are closely related to a second reason for why the Baltics could become the first stage of WWIII, namely that given the right conditions, Putin might want to put NATO to the test by making a move on its most vulnerable members, the Baltic states, in hopes that the Alliance would fail to live up to its promise of collective defense under the pressure of an actual threat and consequently disintegrate.
And the Baltics clearly are NATO's weakest link for a variety of reasons. Their location between mainland Russa, Kaliningrad and Belarus make them vulnerable to Russian attacks from different sides at the same time. Furthermore, the only land border that connects any of the Baltic states with another NATO member (apart from each other) is the short Lithuanian-Polish border along the Suwalki Gap – a defensive nightmare. Finally, the relatively large presence of ethnic Russians in the region could be exploited by the Kremlin as a means of destabilizing the Baltics.
Obviously, if Putin would manage to call NATO’s bluff in the Baltics, Russia would win a very significant strategic and psychological victory over the US and its other Western adversaries, as they would be exposed as harmless barking dogs that will not actually bite if someone decides to enter the gate and start an “occupy” movement on the lawn. However, if Putin underestimates NATO’s unity and the Alliance responds with a large-scale collective defense operation, WWIII is likely to become a reality.
While it is difficult to describe exactly the “right conditions” under which president Putin would be willing to undertake such a bold move, plenty of inspiration can be got from reading some of the recent headlines mentioning “Trump”, “NATO”, the EU, “Brexit” and/or “Turkey”.
Yes, if you have followed the news in the past year, or at least occasionally caught a glimpse of the international headlines in that period, you can hardly have missed the fact that Donald Trump, the president of the US (it remains a surrealistic experience for me to write down the name in connection with the job) and therefore the alleged “leader of the free world” has been openly questioning the utility of NATO since before he even clinched the Republican nomination, and you are likely to know at least something about the recent developments regarding Brexit as well as the deteriorated relationship between Emperor Erdogan’s Turkey and the member states of the EU, most of which happen to be NATO members as well.
If you consider these events in the context of this article, you might be wondering how much longer Putin can remain patient? After all, when better to put the supposed “collective defense pact” of your adversaries to the test than at a time of significant internal division combined with a leadership vacuum because the long-term leader, which happens to be the strongest member, is openly questioning the usefulness of the Alliance?
3 The lost Russian brethren in the Baltics
The final reason is related to ideology. The relatively large ethnic Russian populations of the Baltic states (in particular of Latvia and Estonia), render them vulnerable to Russian interference. It probably wouldn’t put much of a strain on the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to mobilize these national minorities with the aim of destabilizing the Baltic states and eventually assisting the Russian forces during a push for the annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The ethnic Russians living in the Baltic region could also provide Putin with at least a symbolic excuse for such a move as a means of “protecting” and “liberating” his Russian brethren from Baltic “oppression”.
However, as various commentators have pointed out, for Putin the “liberation” of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states might be more than a means to an end. In fact, in many of his speeches Putin has indicated that he views the protection of Russians abroad is an end in itself. This goal is a product of the underlying ideology which seems to motivate his behavior as the leader of Russia. This ideology is centered on a belief in Russian exceptionalism, which refers to the idea that the Russian people and their Orthodox faith have a special destiny awaiting them. Putin appears to be convinced that it is his duty to fulfill that destiny by expanding the territory of the Russian Federation so as to unite his subjects with their Russian brethren who are currently scattered across parts of Europe and Asia. For a more detailed analysis of Putin’s ideology, check out this article and this one.
So while Putin is often portrayed as an ice cold realist whose actions are the product of semi-rational calculations on the basis of international security concerns and domestic power considerations, this Russian torso exhibitionist and apparent horse lover (see picture below for proof) , could actually be driven by a quasi-religious, nationalistic inner force. And it is this political messianism which might make him willing to risk everything to fulfill his purpose, including World War III and the thermonuclear self-destruction of mankind that might result from it. Now take a moment to distract yourself from this horrifying image of the future by enjoy a horrifying image from the past, namely this epic shot of “Tsar” Putin riding a horse barechested.
For anyone worrying about the likelihood of World War III breaking out anytime soon, I recommend taking a look at what is going on in and around the Baltics, as that is where WWIII may well start. Luckily, the situation in the region has remained fairly peaceful over the last years and there are currently few signs of large-scale violence erupting in the area anytime soon.
So all is fine, except for the fact I am obviously kidding. As should be clear by now, the situation in the Baltic region has gotten seriously messed up over the last few years. Since Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine which began in early 2014, Russia and the West have been harassing each other with sanctions and boycotts and tensions have predictably flared up between the national majority populations of the Baltic states and their Russian ethnic minorities. Furthermore, the Russian federation has continued to build up its troops in Kaliningrad and has repeatedly held massive, unannounced military exercises along its border with the Baltics, while NATO has deployed an “Enhanced Forward Presence” consisting of multinational battle groups in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland in hopes of deterring a potential Russian attack. Furthermore, the governments of both Lithuania and Estonia have reintroduced permanent conscription as a response to (perceived) Russian threats and behavior. Despite the NATO presence in the Baltics, or perhaps precisely because of it, there have been repeated instances of Russian fighter jets violating the airspace of the Baltic states in recent years. Unsurprisingly, Russia has also stepped up its efforts in its information war against the Baltics by which it aims to win and maintain the loyalty of ethnic Russians living in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and the Baltics states have repeatedly been the target of cyber attacks by Russian hackers, as have many other members of NATO and/or the EU. Of course, the Baltic governments and their western allies have countered with their own version of events which emphasizes Russian aggression and deception. In addition to all of these reassuring developments, Russia has recently announced plans for a large-scale military drill to be held in Belarus in September of this year which will include nuclear weapons training (Is it nuclear practice time again? Yay!). In response, Estonia has expressed fears that the Russo-Belarussian “war games” may be used as an excuse for the Federation to permanently station thousands of troops in Belarus, while Lithuania has called for a permanent US military presence in the Baltics, next to the NATO presence, in hopes of changing Russia’s threatening attitude towards the region.
So yeah, move along people, nothing to see there in the Baltics. After all, we know that guns make places safer from America’s excessively low firearm-related death rate in comparison with other countries, so naturally the increasing number of guns, tanks, troops and most of all nuclear missiles in and near the Baltics are already making the world a safer place. Yes, that was sarcastic and yes, World War III could really happen and if it did, it most likely would start in the Baltics.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend people to start digging nuclear fallout shelters in their backyards though. If WWIII really goes down, hiding out in a little bunker in your garden is not going to keep you safe, or sane, for that matter. And don't even think about hiding in your fridge, you are not Indiana Jones. I mean really, you aren't, no matter what hat you wear or what whip you carry around with you.