Why War in Europe is Not an Hysterical Idea

Russian troops are advancing in eastern Ukraine. Threats have been made against Baltic countries. Putin seems to be reassembling the old Soviet Union in slow motion. And, as Anne Applebaum reports in the Washington Post, a new country is being openly discussed -- and created -- in Russia. The new nation, known as Novorossiya, is the "scariest dog whistle of the Ukraine crisis" according to Max Fisher of Vox:

The word literally means "new Russia" — it was an old, imperial-era term for southern Ukraine, when it was part of the Russian Empire, and is now a term used by Russia ultra-nationalists who want to re-conquer the area.

Putin has used the word twice during the crisis. First, he used it in April, about a month after Russia had invaded and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, subtly suggesting that the annexation was justified because Crimea was in Novorossiya and thus inherently part of Russia.

He used it again on Thursday, in an official presidential statement addressed to the eastern Ukrainian rebels that have seized parts of the country — and whom he addressed as "the militia of Novorossiya."

Along with other "dog whistles," Applebaum wonders if there is a real possibility of a general war in Eastern Europe:

Russian soldiers will have to create this state — how many of them depends upon how hard Ukraine fights, and who helps them — but eventually Russia will need more than soldiers to hold this territory. Novorossiya will not be stable as long as it is inhabited by Ukrainians who want it to stay Ukrainian. There is a familiar solution to this, too. A few days ago, Alexander Dugin, an extreme nationalist whose views have helped shape those of the Russian president, issued an extraordinary statement. “Ukraine must be cleansed of idiots,” he wrote — and then called for the “genocide” of the “race of bastards.”

But Novorossiya will also be hard to sustain if it has opponents in the West. Possible solutions to that problem are also under discussion. Not long ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky — the Russian member of parliament and court jester who sometimes says things that those in power cannot — argued on television that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bomb Poland and the Baltic countries — “dwarf states,” he called them — and show the West who really holds power in Europe: “Nothing threatens America, it’s far away. But Eastern European countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation,” he declared. Vladimir Putin indulges these comments: Zhirinovsky’s statements are not official policy, the Russian president says, but he always “gets the party going.”

A far more serious person, the dissident Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, has recently published an article arguing, along lines that echo Zhirinovsky’s threats, that Putin really is weighing the possibility of limited nuclear strikes — perhaps against one of the Baltic capitals, perhaps a Polish city — to prove that NATO is a hollow, meaningless entity that won’t dare strike back for fear of a greater catastrophe. Indeed, in military exercises in 2009 and 2013, the Russian army openly “practiced” a nuclear attack on Warsaw.

Would NATO risk a general nuclear war if Putin was crazy enough to nuke Warsaw? Of course not.  If NATO countries are not going to exert themselves by fighting for Ukraine -- through which travels much of their natural gas supply --they are less likely to go to war to save Poland, or any Baltic country. Putin has read the strategic situation correctly, if, indeed, Piontkovsky has read him correctly.

Or has he?

The use of a nuclear weapon would change the game dramatically. It might not precipitate a nuclear exchange, but it would certainly necessitate a rush of men and material to eastern Europe by the US and NATO. Red lines would be drawn and the region would become a tinderbox. Unless Putin has gone totally insane, it's hard to see him wishing for this situation -- especially since he could probably achieve the same ends by being patient and moving slowly enough that he doesn't provoke the west into responding, as he is doing in Ukraine.

I agree with Applebaum that war in eastern Europe is not an impossibility. But it is also still extremely unlikely. Only blunders comparable to those made 100 years ago in Europe could lead to war.

The fact that it's happened before should remain uppermost in the minds of American and European policy makers as events continue to unfold in "Novorossiya."