US Ups the Ante: Are We Indeed Headed Into WWIII and What Can Save Us?

The UK and Commonwealth may be mourning the passing of Queen Elizabeth II yesterday. I am in mourning as well, but for a very different reason: the gathering in the Ramstein air base in Germany yesterday reshuffled the deck on Western military and financial assistance to Ukraine, raising contributions to the ongoing holy crusade against Russia from still more nations and adding new, still more advanced precision strike weapons to the mix of deliveries to Kiev. It was an open summons to the Kremlin to escalate in turn, as were the test firing the same day of a new intercontinental rocket, the Minuteman III, from Vandenberg air base in California and the unannounced visit to Kiev yesterday of not only Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was featured in Western media accounts, but also other top officials of the Biden administration. The most notorious member of this delegation was surely Blinken’s deputy, Victoria Nuland, who had stage managed the February 2014 coup that put in power in Kiev the Russia-hating regime that Zelensky now heads.

The Russians may be compelled to take the bait due to the course of military action on the ground. As now becomes clear, they have just suffered some losses in very heavy ground and artillery fighting these past few days around Kharkov. The Ukrainian gains were facilitated by the advanced weaponry recently arrived from NATO countries, by the targeting data they are receiving from the U.S. and from off-stage tactical direction from NATO officers. By ‘take the bait,’ I mean the Russians may escalate to all out war on Ukraine. This question figured prominently in yesterday’s major news and political talk show programs of Russian state television. I will go into these matters in some detail below.

Regrettably, all of the foregoing also obliges me to revisit the critique I published a couple of weeks ago on the latest essay in Foreign Affairs magazine by John Mearsheimer. His overarching message on the dangers of our stumbling into a nuclear war is better substantiated by the latest developments, even though I believe that Mearsheimer failed to identify the several successive steps that lie ahead before we find ourselves in such a war. Mearsheimer oversimplified Russian options to deal with setbacks on the ground. This also will be a central issue in my narrative below.

Finally, in this essay I will direct attention to the second dimension of the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the entire Collective West: the economic war being waged on the Russian Federation via sanctions, which now far outnumber those directed against any other country on earth. This war, as I will argue, is going well for the Russians. More importantly for us all, it is the sole area in which the peoples of Europe may have a say in putting an end to the mad policies being pursued by their national governments under the direct pressure of Washington.

Over the past ten days, we have witnessed the start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive which was preceded by so much anticipation in Western media. A reversal of Russian fortunes in the war was predicted, leading to the stalemate or outright defeat for Russia which Mearsheimer and some other analysts in the US foreign policy community feared would trigger a nuclear response from the Kremlin.

In fact, the Ukrainian counteroffensive got off to a very bad start. It opened in the south, in the Kherson region. Kherson, which is predominantly Russian-speaking, was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to the Russians and it has strategic importance for ensuring Russian domination of the Black Sea littoral. However, first results of the Ukrainian attacks there were disastrous for the Ukrainian armed forces. It soon was obvious that they had deployed new recruits who had little or no military experience. The infantry attacked across open terrain where they were easily destroyed in vast numbers by the Russian defenders of Kherson. I have heard the figure of 5,000 Ukrainian casualties in the Kherson counter offensive. Obviously the Russians were jubilant, though there were reports of some Ukrainian reservists being withdrawn from the field of action for redeployment elsewhere.

What followed was something the Russians evidently did not expect, namely a well prepared and implemented assault on their positions around the northeastern city of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city. Kharkov was briefly surrounded by Russian forces at the start of the war, but was left in relative peace as the Russians refocused their strategy on taking the Donbas and avoiding major urban warfare except in one place, Mariupol. Exactly what the Russian game plan has been was recently explained in a remarkable paper published by a certain ‘Marinus’ in the Marine Corps Gazette.

A couple of days ago I picked up the following amidst the chatter of panelists on Evening with Vladimir Solovyov: “yes, we made some mistakes, but it is inevitable in a war that mistakes are made.” As from the latest news on the apparent loss of Balakliya and surrounding villages on the outskirts of Kharkov, we can see that the Ukrainian tactics were precisely those which Russia had been using so effectively against them from day one of the ‘special military operation,’ namely a feint in one war zone followed by all-out attack on a very different region. Of course, the ‘feint’ around Kherson, if that is what it was, entailed the cynical sacrifice of thousands of young and not so young Ukrainian foot soldiers. But the resultant distraction prevented the Russians from bringing up sufficient manpower to successfully defend their positions around Kharkov, which include the strategically important city of Izyum.

Izyum is close to the Russian-Ukrainian border southeast of Kharkov and is a major logistical base for munitions and weaponry that are sent onward to support the Donbas operation. The latest information on the Russian side appears to be that the Russians have now dispatched large numbers of reservists to this area to hold their positions. They also speak of intense artillery duels. We may well assume that both sides have experienced heavy loss of life. As yet, the outcome is unforeseeable. Meanwhile, Russian war correspondents on the ground in Donetsk insist that the Russian advance towards Slavyansk, in the center of the former Donetsk oblast, is continuing without pause, which suggests that the strikes on their munitions stores claimed by the Ukrainians have not been totally effective. If Slavyansk is taken in the coming few weeks, then Russia will quickly assume control of the entire territory of the Donbas.

In last night’s talk show program, host Vladimir Solovyov said that this latest push in the Ukrainian counteroffensive was timed to coincide with the gathering at the Ramstein air base, Germany of top officials from NATO and other allies under the direction of the visiting US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. If the Ukrainian efforts were failing in the field, then the cry would go up: we must provide them with more weapons and training. And if the Ukrainian efforts in the counteroffensive were succeeding, those in attendance at Ramstein would hear exactly the same appeal to aid Kiev.

Though Evening with Solovyov, on air from about 23.00 Moscow time, offered viewers some few minutes of video recordings from the opening of the Ramstein gathering, far more complete coverage was provided to Russian audiences a few hours earlier by the afternoon news show Sixty Minutes. Here, nearly half an hour on air was given over to lengthy excerpts from CNN and other US and European mainstream television reporting about Ramstein. Host Yevgeni Popov read the Russian translation of the various Western news bulletins. His presentation clearly sought to dramatize the threat and to set off alarm bells.

For his part, Vladimir Solovyov went beyond presentation of the threat posed by the United States and its allies to analysis of Russia’s possible response. He spoke at length, and we may assume that what he was saying had the direct approval of the Kremlin, because his guests, who are further removed from Power than he is, were, for the most part, allowed only to talk blather, such as the critique by one panelist of a recent pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia article in The New York Review of Books by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, who counts for nothing in the big strategic issues Russia faces today.

So, what did Solovyov have to say? First, that Ramstein marked a new stage in the war, because of the more threatening nature of the weapons systems announced for delivery, such as missiles with accuracy of 1 to 2 meters when fired from distances of 20 or 30 kilometers thanks to their GPS-guided flight, in contrast to the laser-guided missiles delivered to Ukraine up till now. In the same category, there are weapons designed to destroy the Russians’ radar systems used for directing artillery fire. Second, that Ramstein marked the further expansion of the coalition or holy crusade waging war on Russia. Third, that in effect this is no longer a proxy war but a real direct war with NATO and should be prosecuted with appropriate mustering of all resources at home and abroad.

Said Solovyov, Russia should throw off constraints and destroy the Ukrainian dual use infrastructure which makes it possible to move Western weapons across the country to the front. The railway system, the bridges, the electricity generating stations all should become fair targets. Moreover, Kiev should no longer be spared missile strikes and destruction of the ministries and presidential apparatus responsible for prosecution of the war. I note that these ideas were aired on the Solovyov program more than a month ago but then disappeared from view while the Russians were making great gains on the ground. The latest setbacks and the new risks associated with the Western policies set out at Ramstein bring them to the surface again.

Solovyov also argued that Russia should now use in Ukraine its own most advanced weapons that have similar characteristics to what NATO is delivering to the other side. As a sub-point, Russia should consider neutralizing in one way or another the GPS guidance for US weapons. Of course, if this means destroying or blinding the respective US satellites, that would mean crossing a well-known US red line or casus belli.

Next, in the new circumstances, Russia should abandon its go-it-alone policy and actively seek out complementary weapons systems from previously untouchable countries, such as Iran and North Korea. Procurements from both have till now been minimal. On this issue, a couple of panelists with military expertise were allowed to explain that both these countries have sophisticated and proven weapons that could greatly assist Russia’s war effort. Iran has unbeatable drones which carry hefty explosive charges and have proven their worth in operations that are unmentionable on public television. And North Korea has very effective tanks and highly portable field artillery which are both fully compatible with Russian military practice, because the designs were based on Chinese weapons, which in turn were copies of Russia’s own. These weapons also have shown their worth in the hands of unnamed purchasers in the Middle East. Moreover, North Korea has a vast store of munitions fully compatible with Russian artillery. It was also mentioned in passing that insofar as Kiev has mobilized in the field many Western mercenaries and covert NATO officers, Russia should also recruit from abroad, as for example, whole brigades from North Korea available for hire.

If any of these ideas put out by Solovyov last night are indeed implemented by the Kremlin, then the present confrontation in and over Ukraine will truly become globalized, and we have the outlines of what may be called World War III. However, I note that the use of nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise, does not figure at all in the set of options that official Moscow discusses in relation to the challenges it faces in its Ukraine operation. Such a possibility would arise only if the NATO forces being sent to the EU’s ‘front line states’ grew in number by several times those presently assigned and appeared to be preparing to invade Russia.

Before Ramstein, before the news of Ukrainian successes on the ground in the Kharkov sector, I had plans to write about a very different development this past week that coincided with a different calendar: the end of summer vacations and return to work of our national governments. With the return, our presidents and prime ministers would finally have to address the critical state of the European economies, which are facing the highest inflation rates in decades and an energy crisis brought about by the sanctions on Russian hydrocarbons. Speculation was rife on what exactly they would do.

I was particularly struck by several articles in the 7 September edition of The Financial Times and planned to comment on them.

For months now, the FT has been the voice of Number 10, Downing Street, at the vanguard of the Western crusade to crush Russia. Their editorial board has consistently backed every proposal for sanctions against Russia, however hare-brained. And yet on the 7th their journalists ran away with the show and cast doubt on the basic assumptions held by their bosses. One article by Derek Brower in the “FT Energy Source” newsletter has the self-explanatory title “The price cap idea that could worsen the energy crisis.” As we saw today, Brower’s concern was misplaced: finally, the EU could not agree a price cap policy. This notion, promoted from the United States by none other than the Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, is in full contradiction with the practices of the global hydrocarbon market, as even a few EU leaders understood, depriving the initiators from the Baltic States of their hoped for consensus.

Another article of the 7th in FT, by Valentina Pop, Europe Express Editor, analyzed quickly and competently the problems facing European policy-makers in their bid to alleviate the pain to households and industry that the latest electricity and heating bills would otherwise present, given that they are several times higher than just a year ago and are unaffordable by large swathes of the population. Pop identified the key issue thus: how to provide aid quickly to those most in need given the constraints and resources available to the various government bureaucracies: “Some capitals will take many months in determining which households require help” she says. Of course, ‘many months’ of patience in the broad population will not be there.

But the most surprising article in this collection from the 7th was in the “Opinion Lex” section of the paper which was nominally about how Russian banks have weathered the storm that broke out when the EU sanctions on their industry first were laid down shortly after the start of Russia’s ‘special military operation.’ Indeed, VTB and other major Russian banks have returned to profitability despite it all. The author finds that ‘sanctions are biting less than western politicians hoped.’ Not only did the expected banking crisis not materialize, but the ruble is at five-year peaks and inflation is falling. Moreover the official Russian financial data behind these generalizations is said to be sound by independent and trustworthy market observers. The key conclusions are saved for last: “Russia has shown it can bear the pain of western sanctions. Western Europe must endure reprisals as robustly, or concede a historic defeat.” The ‘reprisals’ in question are the complete shutdown of Russian gas deliveries through Nord Stream I until Europe lifts its sanctions.

It is interesting that even the Opinion article by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg published on the 7th in FT carries the following grim warning: “We face a difficult six months, with the threat of energy cuts, disruptions and perhaps even civil unrest.’ [emphasis mine]

To be sure, here and there in Europe, there are a few clever administrators who find promising solutions to the pending crisis of energy bills. In her first day in office, Britain’s new Prime Minister Liz Truss announced one such solution: to immediately freeze the maximum energy bill per household at the present level of 2500 pounds sterling per year and then to turn around and agree with the power companies a subsidy for them to cover their losses.

This is fine for nipping in the bud possible ‘civil unrest.’ But the question remains how Britain will finance the estimated 150 billion pounds this will cost in the first year alone. If a similar solution were approved in the EU, the overall cost would surely approach the 800 billion euros of assistance borrowed to cover losses attributable to the Covid pandemic a year ago. But whereas the Covid aid was financed by collective borrowing of the EU, no such solidarity is likely to deal with the energy crisis, given that Germany, the Netherlands and other northern Member States oppose this becoming a general practice and will apply a veto. The British solution, however clever it may be, will hardly be available to many countries in the EU on their own given their high state indebtedness.

Then there is the second question of what to do to assist industry. Failure to give industry proper relief will result in company closures and rampant unemployment, which finally also sparks political protest. In any case, such solutions do not deal with the knock-on effects of vastly increased government borrowing to finance the energy subsidies, something which in the best of times always reduces capital available for other government services and capital available to private business for investment and job creation.

These various problems in dealing with the energy crisis that Europe created for itself by imposing sanctions on Russia may well be intractable and may well lead to spontaneous protests in a number of European countries this fall.

There is no antiwar movement on the Old Continent to speak of. So popular protests over the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma being imposed from the chanceries on the people without anything resembling public debate may be the salvation of us all if they induce war mongering politicians to resign.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2022