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Knocking on the door of World War IV – Part 3 of the World War IV Series

In this five-​part series, I explore the development and scope of what I have termed World War IV. This series is based on my presentation at the CDA Institute Roundtable “Knocking on the Door of World War IV,” held in Ottawa on 10 June 2015.

Prominent German columnist Theo Sommer, writing in Die Zeit, recently argued that the West had nothing to fear from Russia and should stop “rattling its swords.” With the Soviet Union’s end, he observed, Russia lost one-​quarter of its territory, one-​half of its population, and a significant portion of its wealth. He noted that its army, which counted four million soldiers in Soviet times, now numbers three-​quarters of a million. What is more, Western experts are divided on the question of how many could be moved into or close to a combat zone, such as the thousands of Russian troops deployed over the past year alongside or over the Ukrainian border. Some sources place these numbers at around 80,000, which is many more than most NATO members can field.

That said, Russian President Vladimir Putin probably means it when he says that anyone who attacked NATO would have to have his head examined. From this, I think we can safely conclude that Russian Forces will not launch a frontal attack on NATO if it is clear to the Kremlin that Alliance members are ready to honour their security guarantees under Article V of the Washington Treaty.

But are they? A recent Pew poll has shown that less than 50 percent of publics in six out of eight larger NATO member countries would be in favour of using military forces if a NATO ally became involved in a major military altercation with Russia. Germany came last in the group of eight countries polled. The US and Canada were the only two countries that polled over 50 percent. But just how far would the two North American states be prepared to go if their main European partners seemed less than prepared to intervene on behalf of an ally, let alone a partnering state such as Ukraine?

So, President Putin can be forgiven for doubting whether Alliance solidarity would be engaged if he launched an action of the type that he did in East Ukraine in the Baltic states, where there are large Russian populations and very small national defence forces. NATO is preparing to correct this over the next year or so by prepositioning equipment, establishing local command centres and increasing the number of troops that can be rapidly deployed towards its eastern front.

If confirmed, this will undoubtedly give the Russian President food for thought. My suspicion, however, is that he has another ace or two up his sleeve, namely to leverage the conflicts underway in two other major regions of the world, as described in Part 2 of my blog post series.

The first ace is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-​Sham (ISIS). Within a year or so, this competitor of Al-​Qaeda has managed to occupy huge expanses of territory in Syria and Iraq, build a war chest of about a billion dollars, and attract some twenty thousand jihadists from outside the region to help establish a new caliphate. ISIS is potentially a threat to Assad’s Syria and the Mullahs’ Iran but even further afield to Russia, given its fifteen to twenty million strong Muslim population, and even China given its thirty million strong and largely alienated Muslim community in the country’s western reaches.

For the time being, however, both Assad and Putin – and even China – have an interest in ISIS continuing its surge. First, ISIS can help weaken or destroy the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front, the two main forces aiming to remove President Assad. Second, ISIS with its mediatized beheadings and mass murders against Shiites and minorities makes Assad “look good” and may bring some key western countries around to accepting Assad as the lesser evil, an eventuality that would confirm the position that Russia and China have taken on this conflict from the start. And third, a strong ISIS absorbs the West’s energy and attention, correspondingly reducing their capacity to address issues in and around Ukraine.

The situation in Iraq is more complex but not dissimilar. What we observe in Iraq is an increasingly fragile state where realities on the ground are pushing it towards at best a kind of proto-​federalism and at worst disintegration into three states. Iran, through the support it has given to the Shiite-​dominated government in Bagdad, seems to be slowly but surely creating another pro-​Iranian bastion in an increasingly dangerous Middle East. At the same time, it seems rather unlikely that the Shiite-​dominated Iraqi army or the Iranian-​sponsored Shiite militias will be able to press significantly into Iraqi Sunni or Kurdish territory.

The provisional outcome in this theatre is one whereby Tehran notches up another foreign policy advance. This is important at a time when Iran has not only negotiated a nuclear deal with the United States and its colleagues in the P5+1, but is also talking to Russia about a transaction that would result in the sale of the S-​300 air defence system, which could protect it against an Israeli or an American attack designed to take out its nuclear capacity.

So, Moscow is potentially sitting pretty. Up to a point, it “owns” Damascus and Baghdad. And its actions have at the same time helped to strengthen ISIS in both countries, forcing Westerners and above all Americans to focus on a second crisis area, dissipating their efforts in the European theater in the process. I would also not exclude the possibility of back channels between Russia and ISIS on an agreement that would see Russia use its influence with Damascus and Tehran to leave Sunni-​areas dominated by ISIS to its control in return for ISIS agreeing to refrain from establishing new chapters of its Caliphate on Russian territory.

Vladimir Putin’s second ace is the People’s Republic of China. Some five years ago, Moscow launched its pivot to Asia, roughly coinciding with the unveiling of a similar initiative by the US. In the interim, Russia-​China cooperation has increased significantly. Moscow has expanded its commercial and energy exchanges with Beijing. China was one of the few countries to send soldiers to Moscow to commemorate the Russian/​Soviet victory in World War II earlier this year. The two countries have carried out joint manoeuvres, including in the Eastern Mediterranean – and so on.

In parallel, the United States has worked to improve the bilateral relationship with China at the same time as it strengthen ties with Japan, South Korea, and the six regional states embroiled in tensions with Beijing over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.

How much of the Sino-​Russian linkage is show, how much is substance? Both Russia and China share an interest in weakening what they see as a unipolar world dominated by the United States even if their interests are far from identical. I suspect Russia would be more than happy to see a worsening of the security situation in and around the East/​South China Seas, as this would compel the Americans to divert attention away from the European theatre. Similarly, China would likely welcome a deteriorating situation in Europe, which would reduce US capacity to deal with the situation in Asia. Of course, both Russia and China would probably prefer that ISIS became such a threat to the status quo in the Muslim world that this would obviate any Western effort to deal with developments in their respective regions, without of course putting themselves at risk.

In summary, Vladimir Putin, to make his game in Europe, needs to help create other fronts that preoccupy his adversaries and soak up their energies. He is roughly half way there.

There is nothing new about such machinations. Strategic slight and shifting alliances have been part and parcel of all the great wars of the twentieth century. We should not be surprised to see them in action again. But we also need to be clear about the fact that we are engaged in a process that risks descending into another world war. By my reckoning this would be the fourth in the last hundred years – as I outline in Part 1 of this blog post series.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-​based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance.

(Image courtesy of Dmitry Lovetsky/​AP.)

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