Why all the talk about World War III?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Comments made recently by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, a BBC documentary depicting a Russia-NATO nuclear conflict after a pro-Russia uprising in Latvia and British military exercises for possible deployment in eastern Ukraine are all acting to further stoke tensions between Moscow and the Atlantic Alliance. A measured approach is needed to cool tensions.

Like any proud and sovereign nation, Britain has every right to consider and take appropriate measures to maintain and enhance its defence and security capabilities. It is more than justifiable in these times of international terrorism and conflict, keeping in mind the 7/7 London bombings, and regional conflicts in the relative vicinity of Britain, whether in eastern Ukraine or Syria.

Yet the actual predestination of any military build-up and training manoeuvres is another question. A recent announcement that 1,600 British troops would be sent to Jordan to conduct a simulated operation on the same scale as the invasion of Iraq, described by the media as “the first time in more than a decade” that such an exercise was being held, was accompanied by an official clarification. The war game is intended to test the ability to dispatch and deploy a 30,000-strong expeditionary contingent to any crisis “hot spot” anywhere in the world.

However, the stakes have been upped after an unnamed source, quoted by the British daily ‘The Telegraph’ disclosed the immediate strategic goal: “This isn’t a counter-ISIS exercise. If anything, this is much more about us being prepared to join the U.S. in Ukraine than it is in Syria.”

There is no other way to interpret this clarification but to assume that the United States is entertaining the idea of sending troops to Ukraine with Britain as a strategic ally.

Ben Farmer, The Telegraph’s defence correspondent, also quoted a source, most probably in the British Ministry of Defence, as saying that the operation in Jordan “could be a dry run for one day having to send a large armoured force of British troops to Eastern Europe if there was ever a Russian confrontation with NATO.”

The news comes on the back of two symbolic events. First, on 3rd February, the BBC aired an hour-long mock documentary called “World War Three: Inside the War Room,” which presented a fictitious scenario in which the ethnic Russian minority living in Latvia’s eastern region of Latgale, near the border with Russia, revolts and establishes a “Latgalian People’s Republic.” This appeared to be a clearly drawn parallel with the “republics” set up by pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk in 2014.

Assembled in the “War Room” in London, were 10 British former senior military and diplomatic officials facing a challenge: vote for a nuclear counter-strike and risk the breakout of a Third World War, or not? It all comes down to a test of the British leadership’s political will, with General Sir Richard Shirreff, until March 2014 the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, asking the others: “Are we ready to die for [the Latvian city of] Daugavpils?”

A day earlier, on 2nd February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, commenting on the alliance’s annual report, claimed that when, in March 2013 a Russian aircraft with nuclear capabilities came within striking range of Stockholm it was intended as a “simulated nuclear strike against Sweden.”

The statement resonates with a recent poll which states that, in 2013, only 10 percent of Swedes thought it might make sense to join NATO, while the figure is now 41 percent.

The BBC film, a seemingly innocent simulation of a war-like situation, has only served to strengthen the perception of Russia, in European viewers’ minds, as a nation that might conceivably resort to deploying nuclear weapons in a potential conflict scenario. Stoltenberg’s statement is likely to have had a similar effect.

The BBC programme, with scenes set in Latvia, could of course be downplayed on the grounds that it is nothing more than a “hypothetical scenario” and all military strategists on both sides regularly act in accordance with the playbook.

After all, there was no indignant reaction by the Kremlin. Only Russian bloggers took umbrage, going on to claim that, quoting one of them, this is “demonization of Russia of the 85th level,” aimed at habituating the British public to the possibility of a nuclear shoot-out in Europe.

In Britain the spectrum of comments ranged from congratulatory applause to accusations of a “provocation.” Annabelle Chapman from the magazine ‘The Prospect’ disapproved of the BBC product for another reason: “More broadly, by portraying Russia as fearsome, Latvia’s ethnic Russians as separatists, Riga as helpless and its Western allies as hesitant, the program inadvertently echoes some of the Kremlin’s narratives.”

Moscow has never openly attempted to present Russia as “fearsome,” or ethnic Russians living in Latvia as “separatists”, or Riga as a synonym for Latvia as “helpless”, and there have been no claims of believing the West to be “hesitant,” even if some of Russia’s actions of the last few years could be interpreted as indicative of such a stance.

What is more to the point is the consistently played-up presumptions by politicians, top officials and media outlets in the West, that the probability of a war fought with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) should not be ruled out.

The pervasiveness of talk of the coming nuclear Armageddon, even if portrayed as an imaginary scenario, as well as veiled hints that Anglo-American troops are being readied for dispatch to Ukraine, only intensifies fears, enhances stereotypes, and destroys attempts to dispel misunderstanding and build confidence.

True, the BBC film is a grotesque antidote to warmongering. Still, you do not prevent war by making an admission through a “hypothetical scenario” about its inevitability. In fact, quite the opposite. Open debates BBC-style on the “particulars” of a sequence of events prior to World War III could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RIR or its staff.

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