When relations between the West and Russia were bad, but not so bad: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the 2021 US-Russia Summit in Switzerland.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | fake images
Saber rattling and rhetoric between Moscow and the West have become noticeably more aggressive this week, raising concerns that a direct confrontation between the two power blocs could be more likely.
In the past few days alone, for example, Russia has cut off gas supplies to two European countries and has repeatedly warned the West that the risk of nuclear war is very “real.”
Besides, russian president vladimir putin he has said any foreign intervention in Ukraine would provoke what he called a “lightning-quick” response from Moscow, while his foreign ministry warned NATO not to test its patience.
For their part, Western officials have rejected Russia’s “bravado” and “dangerous” nuclear war rhetoric, and the UK has called on Western allies to “double down” in their support for Ukraine.
CNBC asked the strategists about the likelihood of a direct confrontation between Russia and the West. This is what they said.
Earlier in the week, Russia’s foreign minister warned that the threat of nuclear war “cannot be underestimated” and said NATO arms supplies to Ukraine amounted to the military alliance engaging in a proxy war. with Russia.
Putin doubled down on bellicose rhetoric on Wednesday, threatening “lightning-fast” retaliation against any country that intervenes in the Ukraine war and creating what he called “strategic threats to Russia.”
He then appeared to allude to Russia’s arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons when he warned that Russia could boast “tools” for a retaliatory response “that no one else can claim to have right now… we will use them if necessary.”
But strategists told CNBC that Putin is playing on risk aversion in the West and that the chances of a nuclear war are remote.
“I think it’s outside the realm of possibility right now that there’s going to be a nuclear war or World War III that really extends well beyond the borders of Ukraine,” said Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, he told CNBC.
“If there is a border overflow right now, we are probably still looking at something like Moldova being vulnerable to an invasion,” he said.
A US infantryman in a combined arms live-fire exercise at the Al-Ghalail Range in Qatar, on November 14, 2018.
Specialist Jovi Prévot | US Army
He noted that Russia has a long history of using “risky nuclear policy” as a way to prevent the West from pursuing security policies it doesn’t like, with escalating hostile rhetoric aimed at deterring NATO members from making deliveries. of heavy weapons to Ukraine. .
However, Ramani pointed out that the threat posed by Russia could become more acute if it felt humiliated on the battlefield. In particular, military setbacks in the Ukraine around May 9 could pose some danger. That’s Russia’s “Victory Day”: the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat by the Soviet Union in World War II.
“Putin has had a history of increasing unpredictability if he feels Russia is being humiliated in any way…and if there are major setbacks, especially around 9 [of May] then there is the risk of unwavering action,” he said. “But there is also a logic of mutually assured destruction that will hopefully control everyone.”
The threat of nuclear strikes is part of Putin’s “playbook,” said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
“Putin enjoys taking risks and believes he has much more risk appetite than the West,” he told CNBC on Thursday. “He’s trying to use the old playbook of ‘if I scare you enough, you’ll back off,'” he said.
“Ultimately, if it uses nuclear weapons, even a demonstration attack, this would make Russia a global pariah,” Alberque said. He advised Western leaders: “We just have to be able to manage our risk and keep our nerves and not panic when he does something we didn’t expect.”
There are no indications that there will be a direct confrontation, Liviu Horovitz, a nuclear policy researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told CNBC.
“Both the US and Western European governments have repeatedly said they have no interest in escalating this conflict beyond Ukraine, and I see nothing to suggest NATO troops will be fighting in Ukraine any time soon.”
Still, if a broader war were to break out, “NATO’s overall conventional capabilities would surpass Russia’s,” he noted. The important thing now is that “all parties must avoid any steps that could create misunderstandings,” she said, steps that could lead to an accidental and potentially catastrophic war.
While NATO has refused to provide Ukraine with aid that could be misconstrued as a direct attack on Russia, Western allies continue to increase pressure on Moscow.
In fact, the economic punishment of Russia has been increasing day by day, in the form of more sanctions on its companies, key sectors and officials close to or within the Putin regime. Russia’s own economy ministry expects the economy to contract as a result, by 8.8% in 2022 in its baseline scenario, or 12.4% in a more conservative scenario. Reuters reported.
Russian forces patrol in Mariupol, Ukraine, where the Russian military has taken control, on April 22, 2022. “There is no end in sight to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and relations with the West are likely to continue to deteriorate.” said an analyst. .
Leon Klein | Anadolu Agency | fake images
For its part, Russia has tried to inflict its own pain on European countries that, unwisely, rely heavily on Russian natural gas imports. This week, suspended supplies to Poland and Bulgaria because they refused to pay for gas in rubles. Russia’s move was described as “blackmail” by the EU, but defended by Moscow.
While a direct confrontation between Russia and the West remains unlikely, a close Russia watcher said Western governments need to imbue their populations with a “war mentality” to prepare them for the difficulties they could face as the fallout continues. war economics. These include rising energy costs and disruption to supply chains and products from Russia and Ukraine, which are among the world’s largest “bread baskets.”
“We are likely to see further escalation of economic warfare because in some ways it is a rational and logical move by both sides who are having a hard time fighting each other directly because of the risks of nuclear escalation.” Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC on Thursday.
“Russia will cut off gas to more countries, will increase its demands for rubles, because it wants to make sure that ruble convertibility remains open, and the West must prepare for this with an all-out war mentality, making Western populations understand that this is going to have real economic costs and real impacts on the cost of goods, cost of living and inflation for years to come.”
“If we don’t take this war mentality and apply it to economic warfare, then it will be much easier for Putin to win and be successful there,” Hess said.
After more than two months of war, Russia has expanded its control of territories in eastern and southern Ukraine, seeking to create a land bridge from Russia through the territory of Donbas to its annexed territory of Crimea. But it has also suffered heavy losses in terms of manpower and weapons.
In the meantime, The West continues to promise more and more support to Ukraine, and the country’s forces are mounting strong resistance to Russian troops, signaling a protracted and bloody conflict ahead. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned on Thursday that the war in Ukraine could last for years.
Andrius Tursa, adviser for Central and Eastern Europe at Teneo Intelligence, said that in this context, “there is no end in sight to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and relations with the West are likely to continue to deteriorate.”
“The rhetoric in Russia is already shifting from declarations of fighting ‘nationalists’ in Ukraine to a so-called (proxy) war with NATO. Multiple flashpoints could further increase tensions with the West,” he said. These include the recent explosions in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria (which could serve as a pretext for a greater Russian presence in the region) that could bring the conflict “dangerously close to NATO borders”, Tursa said in a note. on Wednesday.
“Moscow could also intensify threats to NATO over arms supplies to Ukraine, especially after Ukraine has allegedly targeted multiple military and energy facilities in Russia. Finally, the decisions of Finland and Sweden to join NATO would be perceived by Moscow as another security threat. to Russia and could increase military tensions in the Baltic region.