war

What Would Happen if Russia and Europe Went to War?

A handy guide to some unimaginable horror.

by Colin Drury
Mar 30 2017, 4:45pm

Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko, courtesy of Press Association Images

Europe—a continent that, historically, has liked nothing better than all-out war—is currently enjoying an unprecedented age of stability. With the exception of the odd regional and civil skirmish, it has been relatively at peace for the past 72 years. It is a golden era.

But peace is not inevitable. If you think Europe can't descend into a bar fight like drunks at closing time again, know you're not the first to believe it. Some people dreamed something similar during the Concert of Europe—a system put in place to uphold the balance of power in the mid-19th century—and again in the four decades of calm that followed the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian conflict. The second period ended with WWI. So they misjudged that.

Could we also have misjudged the proximity of mass conflict in the 21st century?

Some say so. Security experts are increasingly investigating scenarios where a stronger Russia on one side and Europe's NATO allies on the other go from diplomatic tensions to full on slapping each other. This, they stress, is unlikely. But if global events have taught us anything, it's that unlikely doesn't mean impossible. In fact, the above could happen in three simple steps.

One: Donald Trump makes good on his hints and pulls the US out of NATO. Two: An emboldened Vladimir Putin decides to help himself to the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia—he has long believed should be part of Russia. Three: Given these states have been NATO members since 2004, the rest of the alliance—the UK, Germany, France, and others—go to their aid.

The result? "Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere," reckoned the Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky when discussing the possibility last year.

So that's not ideal.

But could Russia and Europe really go to war? And if they did, how would that work out? Be warned: As Keir Giles, associate fellow with the UK foreign-policy think tank Chatham House, that is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in London tells me, "There's not much good news."


WATCH: The Special Ops Olympics—War Games


1. Tensions Rise

Tensions between Russia and Europe are always high. Even so, the present unease is ominous.

On one hand, Russia has been holding major nuclear drills for 40 million citizens, sending submarines into the territorial waters of other nations and running mock bombing missions on the edge of British airspace. Forcibly annexing part of another country, This behavior isn't generally viewed as good neighborliness, either.

Yet NATO isn't entirely averse to mucking things up. The alliance has almost 10,000 troops in countries that border Russia, while a two-week war game featuring thousands of personnel and 50 aircrafts is being held in Scotland right now. The enemy state in such rehearsals is often given a somewhat unambiguous name: the Reds.

2. The Flash Point

It's not wildly anti-Russian to say the current administration favors the countries that border the Baltic Sea—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 

Putin believes these former Soviet states should never have become independent: Each has a large Russian population and strategically excellent sea ports. He's certainly not keen on them being NATO members and sees the alliance—not without rationale—as encircling Russia.

"If you compress a spring," he warned in 2014, "eventually it will snap back."

With America gone, that snap back could happen instantly.

"They would move on the Baltic states more or less immediately," says Giles, who is also director of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Oxfordshire. "Putin believes Russian security requires the Baltic states under its domain. But you need to look further. It's hard to put a definitive border on how far ambitious Russians think the frontier should expand. But certainly you're looking at Poland and Finland too."

3. Internet Down! Shots Fired!

Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr 

In 2015, a study by research institute the RAND Corporation concluded it would take just 60 hours for Russia to overrun Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Giles, however, believes the signs would be there sometime in advance. "There would be a noticeable rise in Russian diplomacy and media focusing on issues that could give rationale for an armed intervention," he says.

On some pretense, such as a peacekeeping mission, thousands of troops would gather on the border. In the days before any invasion or attack, the target's internet would be shut down or disrupted by specialist telecommunications soldiers. Power supplies would fail, and ATMs would stop functioning. Cellphones and TV signals would be jammed. Perhaps most ominously, personalized texts would be sent direct to opposition officials, soldiers, and citizens, creating confusion and panic. In some cases, these texts would appear to come from someone already in the recipient's phone book.

"In the right circumstances, this could be enough," says Giles. "Russia doesn't need to roll tanks across a border. They can stage an attack without a military presence. Misinformation and civil disorder could lead to regime change with a client government of Moscow taking charge. That would meet Russia's security and economic objectives."

And if no such regime change happened?

Think hybrid warfare: all the above combined with the sudden movement of troops into the country. "We don't know how exactly an occupation would look, but Russia does practice this scenario," says Giles. "What we do know is it would be over pretty swiftly."

4. NATO: Fight or Fall

Once diplomacy fails, the hard fact is that a US-less NATO almost certainly doesn't have the firepower to win a war with Russia.

We'll ignore nuclear weapons for now and keep things conventional. Russia has more men (the reserves alone are 2.5 million strong) and hardware. As a single country, its chain of command is better streamlined. Soldiers are battle-hardened from Ukraine and Syria. After a decade of $40 billion-a-year military upgrades, its weaponry—such as the Pantsir-S1, a tank that can literally destroy cruise missiles—is superior too.

It's also possible some NATO members would withdraw—in particular Turkey, given the warm relationship between President Putin and President Recep Erdoğan. That's 600,000 men—the second-biggest contingent after the US—gone.

The result would be the last of NATO facing an existential decision: Fight and probably lose, or, in this scenario, cut the Baltic states loose.

Or, as Ian Shield, associate lecturer in international relations at Anglia Ruskin University, puts it: "The choice would be between reneging on the treaty—which would certainly lead to the disintegration of NATO and probably, by extension, the whole European order—or participating in a cataclysmic war extending up to nuclear weapons."

Rock and a hard place, basically.

5. War on the Ground

Ballistic short range missiles. Photo via Wikimedia

Let's carry on gaming, though, and say NATO engages Russia. How does that go?

Not well for either side, says Shields: "On any battlefield, there would be annihilation—although these wouldn't be battlefields like we have previously known. Missiles and artillery have far greater range and precision, meaning enemy posts, infrastructure, armories, and even entire towns could be destroyed from within home territory. What you have is fewer individual battles but far greater destruction. If neither side backed down, entire swathes of Europe—it's impossible to know where—would be reduced to rubble. The death tolls would be unimaginable."

Britain wouldn't be safe; the English Channel has become a hopelessly outdated moat. "Russian aircrafts wouldn't need to even enter British airspace," says Shields. "They could land precision strikes from well outside."

Both sides would wrestle for control of the seas around Scandinavia. Cyber attacks, meanwhile, could shut down transport infrastructure, hospitals, media, and utilities.

Russia's main advantage amid the carnage would be two-fold. First, because it has more weaponry and men, it can, essentially, keep blasting away longer. Second, its sheer landmass means it could better absorb the devastation: NATO could wipe out every single structure hundreds of miles into its adversary's territory, and Moscow wouldn't even be scratched.

6. Going Nuclear

As any history student knows, it doesn't matter if you have 7,000 nuclear weapons (Russia) or 200 (Britain and France); their cataclysmic qualities level things up. The thought goes that the pressing of the red button means MAD: mutually assured destruction. If one side starts throwing warheads about, the other responds in kind. Both adversaries are wiped out. Right? Wrong.

"What Russia has in its arsenal that the West doesn't is tactical nuclear weapons," explains Giles. "These are not big city-leveling nukes, but ones that can destroy battlefields or neighborhoods. The West had these weapons but got rid of them. So its only response to a tactical nuclear strike would be a full nuclear attack. Which is self-defeating because it would also ensure their own destruction. The West is missing several rungs on the escalation ladder that Russia has built into its strategy."

Nonetheless, once things go nuclear, it all becomes unpredictable: cities wiped out, millions dead. At this point, even the most advanced strategists tend to stop plotting possible paths.

7. But Cheer Up

If the US leaving NATO is a gateway to Armageddon, the good news is it seems increasingly unlikely. Trump probably won't ditch the alliance.

That's because it doesn't only keep the US secure; it's also politically and economically advantageous. It gives Washington influence in Europe and protects a vast and prosperous continent that—and this is important—spends much of its wealth with American companies.

That said, maybe it's still worth remembering peace here really does hang by threads. Maybe go out and play more.

Follow Colin Drury on Twitter.