Our Own Great Illusion

By David Eisler


The Atlantic Council’s fantastic Art of Future Warfare project held a contest recently to write a front-page news article describing the fictional outbreak of “the next great power war.” The winning entry, as well as a few runners-up which were also published, tackled the question in fascinating and unique ways. This type of blended fiction, addressing serious questions though creative thinking, is one of the great joys of this genre.

I took a slightly different approach in my story. For one, the outbreak is entirely conventional in nature and is set only a few short years in the future. Recent events in Ukraine, as well as a beehive of activity in the Baltics (including elements from my old Army unit, the 2nd Calvary Regiment), have brought the possibility of war in Europe to a degree higher than impossible, a level which many of us would have still believed only a year ago. Because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how dangerous the situation could be if either side slips and makes a lethal mistake, I thought it would be worth sharing my take on the question, which I hope remains forever fictional.


Brussels, Belgium. August 1st, 2016

The streets of Brussels are calm. Crowds of locals and tourists gather on the cobblestones of the historic Grand Place to sip flavored beers in outdoor cafes, soak up the summer sun, and take photographs of one of western civilization’s great cultural landmarks. They laugh and smile, smoke the occasional cigarette, and marvel at the gorgeous buildings lining the perimeter of the square.

A few miles to the northeast, behind a series of barriers, gates, and security checkpoints, an American diplomat wipes his brow and sweats through his dark suit as he walks briskly to attend another emergency meeting of NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the echoes of his heavy footsteps reverberating down the sprawling hallways. The streets of Brussels are calm, he knows, but the plains of Latvia are full of death, and the long peace to which Europe has grown accustomed has succumbed to the tragedy of great power politics.

Three weeks ago, when American pilot Major Mark Bauer’s lifeless body landed in the Baltic Sea after his plane was shot down by a Russian air-to-air missile, the international community watched as a crisis began that balanced delicately on the unstable edge of inadvertent escalation. In the seven days that followed, the crisis moved at the speed of modern outrage, ensuring that the avalanche of war would sweep across Europe for the first time in more than half a century. Today, columns of Russian tanks barrel across the Pskov Oblast border, reinforcing the first wave of troops bogged down against U.S. and Latvian forces desperately defending the approaches to the capital. Intense air and ground combat has already left hundreds of soldiers dead and thousands of civilians displaced from their homes, with no sign that either side is willing to give in.

Without regard for hindsight or history, pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have already begun searching for answers to war’s timeless companion question — “why?” Unprecedented access to information and data offers a trove of opportunities for the aspiring historian to determine the precise moment where it all began and what could have been done differently. And they have no shortage of starting points: the Russian violation of Estonian airspace on July 13th which provoked the U.S. interception and subsequent shooting down of three Russian fighters; the joint U.S.-NATO declaration of a no-fly zone over the Baltic Sea; the alleged Russian cyberattack on U.S. financial markets; President Obama’s deployment of additional troops to Riga to augment and support the Latvian Army; or, simple as it may sound, the killing of Major Bauer.

But Major Bauer’s death, like Franz Ferdinand’s over a century ago, was the spark, not the kindling. Several years of scholarship have yielded a hefty body of work on Russian military forces tempting fate along the poorly identified shorelines of international deterrence. Dozens of policy reports and independent analyses have detailed more than one hundred known instances of Russian brinksmanship and open defiance of the European status quo, including shooting down a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine, patrolling a nuclear submarine through the waters off the coast of Sweden, the quickly abandoned “peacekeeping” mission to protect ethnic Russians in Latvia (with mechanized infantry), numerous aggressive violations of neighboring nations’ airspace, and last year’s terrifying incident when two Russian Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” strategic bombers launched mock cruise missiles from the Labrador Sea near northeastern Canada, splashing into the Atlantic only fifty miles from New York City.

Such militaristic antics under the direction of Russian president Vladimir Putin have tested the boundaries of international laws and norms, as well as the limits of European and American tolerance. For every incident which resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians, Russian officials have been quick to deny either involvement or intentional wrongdoing, thereby holding the world’s ire just below the boiling point. But President Obama’s decision to deploy ground troops to Latvia demonstrated that the international community has become less willing to shrug its collective shoulders every time a Russian diplomat says “oops” — even if that decision has already led to American soldiers killed in action in European soil.

***

When Russian bombers struck Riga on the 15th of July, seven days after Major Bauer’s death, the window for diplomacy had already closed. A mere twenty-four hours earlier, Latvian president Andris Berzinš invoked Article 5 of NATO’s collective defense treaty in a passionate speech to the North Atlantic Council, marking only the second time in history that a member state called on the Alliance in response to an attack, and the first in Europe. (The United States also invoked Article 5 on September 12th, 2001). At the time, photographs had surfaced of Russian armored vehicles entering Latvian territory, once again under the alleged banner of peaceful intervention to protect Latvia’s Russian-speaking population. Latvian land forces, which had deployed forward to the border from Riga three days earlier, opened fire on what they claimed to be Russian infantry, leading to a skirmish that left several dead on each side. The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov decried the “cowardly attack” and declared that the peacekeeping force would push forward, ostensibly to Riga, triggering the tripwire that had worried the region’s geopolitical observers and analysts for years.

Despite the nominal involvement of nearly every country in Europe through NATO’s official response, the actual fighting has remained localized to Latvia — perhaps reflecting the spectrum of threat perceptions within the Alliance. Only Poland, Romania, the other Baltic states, and non-NATO member Finland have begun mobilizing their troops, but their combined combat capability is limited without the support of the United States (who already has one infantry brigade in Latvia with several more en route) as well as the other Western European militaries. National opinion polls across the continent, though, have shown that while the people of Eastern Europe greatly fear Russian revanchism, most Western Europeans believe the conflict is primarily a bilateral issue between Russia and Latvia and would prefer not to get directly involved.

These polls have complicated NATO’s ability to react decisively, creating contradictory political pressures on the Western European governments. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has urged unity across the Alliance, but the built-in bureaucracy has slowed the deployment of additional combat forces to the front lines to support the Americans and Latvians already engaged. American diplomats at NATO headquarters have spent tireless hours drumming up support from additional allies, resulting in roomfuls of handshakes but little concrete action. The bulk of the effort has focused on Germany, whose parliament has not yet voted to authorize its military forces to participate in combat operations, leaving nearly half of NATO’s newly-christened Rapid Response Brigade stranded in a state of frustrating impotence.

For some officials hoping to stem the pace of escalation, this may be a good thing. Although Russian troops demonstrated the ability to mass quickly and in great numbers during the 2008 war with Georgia as well as the 2014 conflict with Ukraine, they do not yet appear to be in a hurry to expand their offensive beyond Latvia. Since the December 2014 collapse of the Russian economy and the continued pressure on global oil markets, Putin’s strategic maneuvers have been more cautious despite the frequent tactical brinksmanship, a scheme many believe he uses to maintain support among the Russian people. By concentrating his offensive in Latvia, Putin may be playing into the indifference of the British, French, Germans, and many Americans unwilling to send their sons and daughters to die for a country on the periphery of a union many believe is no longer worth the costs. There is also the fear, grounded in Russian military doctrine, that Putin would use nuclear weapons should his conventional forces find themselves on the verge of defeat.

This sacrificial logic — let Latvia fall if it saves Europe from total war — naturally appeals to anyone not within striking range of bombs and bullets. Life for those near Central Park, Trafalgar Square, the Brandenburg Gate, or along the Champs-Élysées continues much as it did before, with citizens deriving peace of mind from the assumption that time and distance will save them from death and destruction, their actions limited to fist-shaking at the nightly news and heated debates with colleagues about what should be done, one hand holding a cup of coffee while the other grips a smartphone and scrolls through the latest updates from the front. American anger at the loss of one of its pilots may have hastened the speed of the initial military response — especially with the pool of presidential candidates eager to project strength ahead of November’s election — but NATO’s credibility now depends on Western European governments convincing their people that preserving the Alliance and stopping Russia is worth fighting and dying for.

We’ve been in this position before, assured in our belief that war was no longer the answer and that territorial aggression could be countered by the weapons of economics rather than physical violence. British economist Norman Angell, writing in 1910 that Europe’s economic interdependence had made wars of conquest obsolete, claimed that “war has no longer the justification that it makes for the survival of the fittest; it makes the survival of the less fit…The warlike nations do not inherit the earth; they represent the decaying human element.” Angell’s book, The Great Illusion, had the misfortune to be published on the cusp of the greatest war the world had ever known, and scholars ever since have used it as a cautionary tale about underestimating the allure of power and influence over wealth and prosperity.

History may have conspired to undermine Angell’s thesis during his lifetime, but his ideas slowly returned to fashion as the struggle of great powers became a historical curiosity in the face of more immediate and modern-sounding threats like terrorism and cyberwar. When the Cold War ended, armed conflict in Europe became nearly unimaginable despite centuries to the contrary. But the forces of international relations have a way of upsetting and restoring balance. Like the slow shifting of Earth’s tectonic plates, they suggest an inevitable eruption after decades of silent dormancy. Today, with European peace quickly becoming a happy memory, we are forced to confront our own great illusion that lured us into the state of complacency and belief that great power wars had been lost to history, that we were somehow different, that it could never happen to us.

We do not know if Major Bauer’s death at the hands of a Russian fighter jet was truly an accident or a deliberate spark designed to change the European balance of power. Nor do we yet know how this war will ultimately shape the political landscape of what is certain to be a new world order, rebuilt from settled dust, toppled ruins, and granite gravestones. But this won’t keep us from debating the war’s roots and causes even as streams of people across Europe, including four thousand American troops, flee and die in the horrible ways that only war can provide. We will continue to search for answers and meaning to our unanswerable questions because that is part of our humanity. We will watch our house burn to the ground, wondering if the fire started from an indiscriminate flash of lightning or a hot stove left on for a few minutes too long.

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