This is how the next
World War starts
With one miscalculation, by one startled pilot, at 400 miles an hour. And now that Russia is determined to destabilize the West, this scenario is keeping the military establishment up at night.
By David Wood
Several times a week, a U.S. Air Force pilot takes off from the Royal Air Force base in Mildenhall, England, and heads for the northernmost edge of NATO territory to gather intelligence on Russia. One of these pilots is 40-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Webster, a veteran of many such expeditions and a hard guy to rattle. On a typical flight, his four-engine, silver and white RC-135 jet will rise gracefully over the old World War II bomber bases in East Anglia. It then flies over the North Sea and Denmark, taking care to remain within international airspace. When Webster reaches the Baltic Sea, the surveillance operation begins in earnest. Behind the cockpit, the fuselage of his plane is crammed with electronic equipment manned by some two dozen intelligence officers and analysts. They sit in swivel chairs, monitoring emissions, radar data and military communications harvested from below that appear on their computer screens or stream through their headphones. Inside the plane, it is chilly. The air smells faintly of jet fuel, rubber and warm wiring. The soft blue carpet helps absorb the distant thrum of the engines, and so it is also surprisingly quiet—at least until the Russians show up.
As the Polish coast fades into the distance, Webster may swing left to avoid passing directly over the heavily armed Russian base at Kaliningrad. This is where, without warning, a Russian SU-27 fighter may materialize as if out of nowhere, right outside the cockpit window, flying so close that Webster can make out the tail markings. No matter how often this happens—and lately, it has been happening a lot—these encounters always give Webster a jolt. For one thing, he and his crew can’t see the planes coming. Although his jet is carrying millions of dollars worth of the most sophisticated listening devices available to man, it lacks a simple radar to spot an incoming plane. So the only way Webster can find out what the Russian jet is doing—how close it’s flying, whether it’s making any sudden moves—is to dispatch a junior airman to crouch on the floor and peer through one of the 135’s three fuselage windows, each the size of a cereal box and inconveniently placed just below knee level.
In normal times, being intercepted isn’t a cause for concern. Russian jets routinely shadow American jets over the Baltic Sea and elsewhere. Americans routinely intercept Russian aircraft along the Alaskan and California coasts. The idea is to identify the plane and perhaps to signal, “You keep an eye on us, we keep an eye on you.” These, however, are far from normal times. Every few weeks, a Russian pilot will get aggressive. Instead of closing in on the RC-135 at around 30 miles per hour and skulking off its wing for a while, a fighter jet will careen directly toward the American plane at 150 miles per hour or more before abruptly going nose-up to bleed off airspeed and avoid a collision. Or it might perform the dreaded “barrel roll”—a hair-raising maneuver in which the Russian jet makes a 360-degree orbit around the 135’s midsection while the two aircraft hurtle along at 400 miles per hour. When this happens, there is only one thing the U.S. pilot can do: pucker up, 1. A common military expression that refers to a certain type of, well, clenching in times of extreme anxiety. fly straight and hope his Russian counterpart doesn’t smash into him. “One false move and you may have a half second to react,” one RC-135 pilot told me.
By now, it is widely recognized that Russia is waging a campaign of covert political manipulation across the United States, Europe and the Middle East, fueling fears of a second Cold War. But it’s less understood that in international airspace and waters, Russia and the U.S. are brushing up against each other in perilous ways with alarming frequency. This problem, which began not long after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea in 2014, has accelerated rapidly in the past year. In 2015, according to its air command headquarters, NATO scrambled jets more than 400 times to intercept Russian military aircraft that were flying without having broadcast their required identification code or having filed a flight plan. In 2016, that number had leapt to 780—an average of more than two intercepts a day. There has been a similar increase in Russian jets intercepting US or NATO aircraft, as well as a significant uptick in incidents at sea in which Russian jets run mock attacks against American warships.
Russia is hardly the only source of anxiety for the Pentagon. American and Chinese ships and aircraft have clashed in the South China Sea; in early 2016, Iran seized 10 Navy sailors after their boats strayed into its waters. But senior U.S. officials view run-ins with Russia as the most dangerous, because they are part of a deliberate strategy of intimidation and provocation by Russian president Vladimir Putin—and because the stakes are so high. One false move by a hot-dogging Russian pilot could send an American aircraft and its crew spiraling 20,000 feet into the sea. Any nearby U.S. fighter would have to immediately decide whether to shoot down the Russian plane. And if the pilot did retaliate, the U.S. and Russia could quickly find themselves on the brink of open hostility.
“We are now at maximum danger,” said Admiral James Stavridis, a former commander of NATO.
With these issues in mind, I traveled to Germany this winter to talk with U.S. Air Force General Tod D. Wolters, who commands American and NATO air operations. We sat in his headquarters at Ramstein Air Base, a gleaming, modern complex where officers in the uniforms of various NATO nations bustle efficiently through polished corridors. “The degree of hair-triggeredness is a concern,” said Wolters, a former fighter pilot who encountered Soviet bloc pilots during the Cold War. “The possibility of an intercept gone wrong,” he added, is “on my mind 24/7/365.” Admiral James G. Stavridis, the commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013 and now Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, is more blunt. The potential for miscalculation “is probably higher than at any other point since the end of the Cold War,” he told me. “We are now at maximum danger.”
This may sound counter-intuitive, given President Donald Trump’s extravagant professions of admiration for Putin. But the strong consensus inside the U.S. military establishment is that the pattern of Russian provocation will continue—and not just because the various investigations into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia make détente politically unlikely. Antagonizing the West is central to one of Putin’s most cherished ambitions: undermining NATO. By constantly pushing the limits with risky intercepts and other tactics, Putin forces NATO to make difficult choices about when and how to respond that can sow dissension among its members.
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In addition, a certain belligerence towards the U.S. is practically a political necessity for Putin. The Russian leader owes his popularity to “the tiger of patriotic mobilization,” said Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Given the country’s diminished status in the world and its stalled economy, he added, militarized fervor for the motherland “is the only thing going for his regime.” Meanwhile, 2. According to an analysis by the U.S. Army War College, “the top leadership is moving the country onto a war footing” in response to what it sees as “an arc of crisis around Russia and a period of great turbulence in international affairs.” since the departure of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, his foreign policy team is now dominated by officials who advocate a hard line on Russia. 3. These include ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and senior National Security Council Russia adviser Fiona Hill. Secretary of Defense James Mattis predicted at his confirmation hearing that “there are an increasing number of areas where we are going to have to confront Russia.” For all these reasons, Philip Breedlove, who retired last summer after three years as supreme allied commander of NATO, isn’t optimistic that Russia will back off anytime soon. “We’re in a bad place and it’s getting worse rather than better,” he told me. “The probability of coming up against that unintended but strategic mess-up is, I think, rising rather than becoming less likely.” When Breedlove’s successor, General Curtis Scaparrotti, took command in May 2016, he grimly warned a gathering of diplomats and officers of a “resurgent Russia” and cautioned that NATO must be ready “to fight tonight if deterrence fails.”
All of this is happening at a time when most of the old Cold War safeguards for resolving tensions with Russia—treaties, gentlemen’s understandings, unofficial back channels—have fallen away. When a Russian jet barrel-rolls a U.S. aircraft, a senior U.S. official hops in a car and is driven to the white marble monolith on Wisconsin Avenue that houses the Russian embassy. There, he sits down with Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador who has recently attained minor fame for his surreptitious meetings with various Trump associates. A typical conversation, the U.S. official told me, goes something like this: “I say, ‘Look here, Sergey, we had this incident on April 11, this is getting out of hand, this is dangerous.’” Kislyak, the official said, benignly denies that any misbehavior has occurred. (When I made my own trip to the embassy late last year, a senior official assured me with a polite smile that Russian pilots do nothing dangerous—and certainly not barrel-rolls.)
Among the many senior officers I spoke to in Washington and Europe who are worried about Russia, there was one more factor fueling their anxiety: their new commander-in-chief, and how he might react in a crisis. After a Russian fighter barrel-rolled an RC-135 over the Baltic Sea last April, Trump fumed that the Obama administration had only lodged a diplomatic protest. He considered this to be a weak response. “It just shows how low we’ve gone, where they can toy with us like that,” he complained on a radio talk show. “It shows a lack of respect.” If he were president, Trump went on, he would do things differently. “You wanna at least make a phone call or two,” he conceded. “[But] at a certain point, when that sucker comes by you, you gotta shoot. You gotta shoot. I mean, you gotta shoot.”
One day in the mid-1980s, I stood with a cluster of American troopers on a hillside observation post near the Fulda Gap, on the border between East and West Germany. If there was going to be a war, it would come here. The Red Army would pour across the border and attempt to bludgeon the smaller U.S. and NATO forces into surrender. Each side had deployed nuclear weapons close at hand.
The soldiers at the border post were tense, serious. A few nights earlier, a man had tried to escape from the East, sprinting jaggedly across a stretch of plowed ground, somehow avoiding snipers, landmines and teams of killer dogs. The East German police shot him as he scaled a chain-link fence mere yards from the safety of West Germany. Impaled on the barbed wire, he bled slowly to death as the Americans watched in horror, his fading cries cutting through the night.
From my vantage point on top of an old concrete bunker, I looked across the misty farmland. A mile or two away were the emplacements of the Soviet Red Army. “See ‘em? Right there!” a sergeant told me. Not sure whether I was looking in the right place, I raised my hand to point. The sergeant swiftly knocked it down. “We don’t point!” he exclaimed, almost panicked. Russian and American commanders had banned such gestures, since they could so easily be mistaken for someone raising a weapon. Among troops on the front line, there was an unmistakable sense that catastrophic war was more likely to be set off by an accident than by an intentional invasion.
Looking back, it seems nothing short of miraculous that the Cold War actually remained cold. On so many occasions, misunderstandings and confusion could have erupted into mutual annihilation. One of the most frightening near-misses came in 1983, when the aging Soviet leadership in the Kremlin was convinced that an attack by the U.S. was imminent. They had been badly rattled by President Ronald Reagan’s declaration that the Soviet superpower was an “evil empire” destined for “the ash-heap of history,” and by his talk of developing a so-called Star Wars defense system capable of zapping any target from space. And so when Soviet spies began reporting on a large-scale US-NATO military exercise, code-named Able Archer, the Kremlin concluded that they were witnessing preparations for a massive conventional and nuclear offensive.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on December 8, 1987. It was the first time that the two sides committed to reducing their nuclear arsenals. (Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images)
It did look like the real thing. The Pentagon sent tanks, artillery and 19,000 troops into Germany for weeks of mock combat operations. Bombers were loaded with dummy nuclear warheads in a rehearsal of procedures for transitioning from conventional to nuclear war. In Moscow, the General Staff began calling up military reserves and canceling troop leaves. Factories conducted air raid drills. Fighter and bomber squadrons were put on heightened alert. And inside the Kremlin, senior leaders considered a preemptive nuclear strike to avoid defeat, according to a top-secret U.S. intelligence report produced six years later. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency picked up some of this, but officials simply didn’t believe the Soviets thought the U.S. intended to launch a nuclear attack. After all, they reasoned, these rehearsals were an annual event and the U.S. and NATO had even issued press releases describing Able Archer as a training exercise. They didn’t realize that in Moscow, these assurances were waved aside as lies.
The Soviets decided not to act, for reasons that remain unclear—but misunderstandings like these alarmed both sides. The U.S. and Russia together had more than 61,000 nuclear warheads, many mounted on missiles targeted at each other and on hair-trigger alert. And so, beginning in the late 1980s, the United States, Russia and their allies started developing a set of formal mechanisms for preventing accidental war. These treaties and agreements limited the size of deployed forces, required both sides to exchange detailed information about weapon types and locations and allowed for observers to attend field exercises. Regular meetings were held to iron out complaints. Russian and American tank commanders even chatted during military exercises. The aim, ultimately, was to make military activities more transparent and predictable. “They worked—we didn’t go to war!” said Franklin C. Miller, who oversaw crises and nuclear negotiations during a long Pentagon career.
And yet few of these agreements have survived Putin’s regime and the brewing animosity between Moscow and Washington. The problem, a senior U.S. official explained, isn’t that the agreements are faulty or outdated, but rather that the Russians can no longer be trusted to observe them.
The result is that the U.S and Russia are now more outwardly antagonistic than they have been in years. Since the Cold War ended in 1991, NATO has accepted 10 European countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union. In response, Russia has expanded its military; engaged in powerful cyberwar attacks against Estonia, Germany, Finland, Lithuania and other countries; seized parts of Georgia; forcibly annexed Crimea; sent its troops into Ukraine; and staged multiple no-notice exercises with the ground and air power it would use to invade its Baltic neighbors. In one such maneuver last year, Russia mobilized some 12,500 combat troops in territory near Poland and the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. According to a technical analysis by the RAND Corp., a lightning Russia strike could carry its troops into NATO capitals in the Baltics in less than 60 hours.
Last year, NATO shifted its official strategy from “assurance”—a passive declaration to stand by its allies—to “deterrence,” which requires sufficient combat power to repel armed aggression. The alliance also approved a new multinational response force, some 40,000 troops in all. In January, under a separate Obama administration initiative, the United States rushed a 4,000-strong armored brigade combat team to Poland and the Baltic states. (Lieutenant General Tim Ray, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, explained that its objective is to “to deter Russian aggression” by stationing “battle-ready” forces in forward positions.) Army engineers have started strengthening eastern European runways to accept heavier air shipments and are reconfiguring some eastern European railroads to handle rail cars carrying tanks and heavy armor. This March, a U.S. combat aviation brigade arrived in Germany with attack gunships, transport and medevac helicopters and drones, and is deploying its units to Latvia, Romania and Poland.
So far, these efforts to shore up NATO have proceeded despite the Trump administration’s occasional shows of disdain for the military alliance. 4. Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and repeatedly chastised members for not paying their fair share of defense costs. In a March meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump pointedly did not shake her hand. In late March, Scaparrotti acknowledged that he had not yet briefed the president about NATO-Russia relations. However, Trump’s secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, recently made a point of affirming that NATO is the “fundamental bedrock” of American security. Any change to that policy would be met with fierce opposition in Congress from defense stalwarts like Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is demanding that the United States use “all elements of American power” against Russia.
This February, the two top commanders of the United States and Russia met in Azerbaijan, in a rare effort to bring some stability to U.S.-Russia relations. A month later, they met again in Turkey to review a procedure to prevent accidents involving aircraft operating over Syria. But that’s a narrow issue. A broader restoration of the Cold War-era constraints on military activity seems unlikely. Increasingly, each side sees the other as an adversary. A senior Russian diplomat put the blame squarely on the United States. “We are being seen as an object to deter—as the enemy,” he told me. “In that case, how are we going to talk?”
What this means is that there are few remaining mechanisms to defuse unexpected emergencies. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in late March, Scaparrotti acknowledged that he has virtually no contact with Russian military leaders. (“Don’t you think that would be a good idea?” Independent Senator Angus King of Maine queried. “If you could say, ‘Wait a minute, that missile was launched by accident, don’t get alarmed’?”) In 2014, in response to Russia’s intervention in Crimea, Congress passed a law halting almost all military-to-military communications. Even the spontaneous and informal exchanges that used to occur among Russian and American officers have largely ended.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who commands U.S. Army forces in Europe, told me last year that he knew his Russian counterpart—at the time, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov—but had no direct contact with him. If a problem arose—say, a U.S. Special Forces sergeant serving as a trainer in Ukraine suddenly encountered a Russian commando and gunfire broke out—Hodges couldn’t have called Kartapolov to cool things off. There are no other direct lines of communication. Once, Hodges told me, he sat next to the general at a conference. He filled Kartapolov’s water glass and gave him a business card, but the gestures were not reciprocated and they never spoke.
In December 2015, a Turkish F-16 jet shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Russian fighter plummeted in flames and its co-pilot was killed by ground fire. The surviving pilot, Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, said he’d been attacked without warning; Turkey insisted that the Russian plane had violated its airspace. Within days Putin had deftly turned the incident to his advantage. Instead of seeking to punish Turkey, he accused the U.S. of having a hand in the incident, without any evidence. Then he coaxed Turkey, a NATO member, into participating in joint combat operations over Syria. He also engineered Syrian peace talks in which the United States was pointedly not invited to participate. It was a bravura performance. Russia, says Breedlove, the retired NATO commander, “is playing three-dimensional chess while we are playing checkers.”
Putin’s favored tactic, intelligence officials say, is known as “escalation dominance.” The idea is to push the other side until you win, a senior officer based in Europe explained—to “escalate to the point where the adversary stops, won’t go farther. It’s a very destabilizing strategy.” Stavridis cast it in the terms of an old Russian proverb: “Probe with a bayonet; when you hit steel withdraw, when you hit mush, proceed.” Right now, he added, “the Russians keep pushing out and hitting mush.”
This mindset is basically the opposite of how both American and Soviet leaders approached each other during the Cold War, even during periods of exceptional stress such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Having endured the devastation of World War II, they understood the horror that lurked on the far side of a crisis. “When things started to get too close, they would back off,” said Miller, the retired Pentagon official.
The term of art for this constant recalibration of risk is “crisis management”—the “most demanding form of diplomacy,” writes Sir Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. Leaders had to make delicate judgments about when to push their opponent and when to create face-saving off-ramps. Perhaps most critically, they had to possess the confidence to de-escalate when necessary. Skilled crisis management, Freedman writes, requires “an ability to match deeds with words, to convey threats without appearing reckless, and to offer concessions without appearing soft, often while under intense media scrutiny and facing severe time pressures.”
A recent textbook example came in January 2016, when Iran seized those 10 U.S. Navy sailors, claiming that they had been spying in Iranian waters in the eastern Persian Gulf. President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, immediately opened communications with his counterpart in Tehran, using channels established for negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. By the next morning, the sailors had been released. The U.S. acknowledged the sailors had strayed into Iranian waters but did not apologize, asserting that the transgression had been an innocent error. Iran, meanwhile, acknowledged that the sailors had not been spying. (The peaceful resolution was not applauded by Breitbart News, headed at the time by Stephen Bannon, who is now Trump’s chief White House strategist. Obama, a Breitbart writer sneered, has been “castrated on the world stage by Iran.”)
Today, thanks to real-time video, the men in the Kremlin and White House can know—or think they know—as much as the guy in the cockpit of a plane or on the bridge of a warship.
Neither Putin nor Trump, it’s safe to say, are crisis managers by nature. Both are notoriously thin-skinned, operate on instinct, and have a tendency to shun expert advice. (These days, Putin is said to surround himself not with seasoned diplomats but cronies from his old spy days.) Both are unafraid of brazenly lying, fueling an atmosphere of extreme distrust on both sides. Stavridis, who has studied both Putin and Trump and who met with Trump in December, concluded that the two leaders “are not risk-averse. They are risk-affectionate.” Aron, the Russia expert, said, “I think there is a much more cavalier attitude by Putin toward war in general and the threat of nuclear weapons. He continued, “He is not a madman, but he is much more inclined to use the threat of nuclear weapons in conventional [military] and political confrontation with the West.” Perhaps the most significant difference between the two is that Putin is far more calculating than Trump. In direct negotiations, he is said to rely on videotaped analysis of the facial expressions of foreign leaders that signal when the person is bluffing, confused or lying.
At times, Trump has been surprisingly quick to lash out at a perceived slight from Putin, although these moments have been overshadowed by his effusive praise for the Russian leader. On December 22, Putin promised to strengthen Russia’s strategic nuclear forces in his traditional year-end speech to his officer corps. Hours later, Trump vowed, via Twitter, to “greatly strengthen and expand” the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. On Morning Joe the following day, host Mika Brzezinski said that Trump had told her on a phone call, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” And in late March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump was becoming increasingly frustrated with Russia, throwing up his hands in exasperation when informed that Russia may have violated an arms treaty.
Some in national security circles see Trump’s impulsiveness as a cause for concern but not for panic. “He can always overreact,” said Anthony Cordesman, senior strategic analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a veteran of many national security posts throughout the U.S. government. “[But] there are a lot of people [around the president] to prevent an overreaction with serious consequences.” Let’s say that Trump acted upon his impulse to tell a fighter pilot to shoot a jet that barrel-rolled an American plane. Such a response would still have to be carried out by the Pentagon, Cordesman said—a process with lots of room for senior officers to say, “Look, boss, this is a great idea but can we talk about the repercussions?”
And yet that process is no longer as robust as it once was. Many senior policymaking positions at the Pentagon and State Department remain unfilled. A small cabal in the White House, including Bannon, Jared Kushner and a few others, has asserted a role in foreign policy decisions outside the normal NSC process. It’s not yet clear how much influence is wielded by Trump’s widely respected national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. When lines of authority and influence are so murky, it increases the risk that a minor incident could boil up into an unintended clash, said retired Marine Corps General John Allen, who has served in senior military and diplomatic posts.
To complicate matters further, the relentless pace of information in the social media age has destroyed the one precious factor that helped former leaders safely navigate perilous situations: time. It’s hard to believe now, but during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for instance, President Kennedy and his advisers deliberated for a full 10 weeks before announcing a naval quarantine of the island. In 1969, a U.S. spy plane was shot down by North Korean jets over the Sea of Japan, killing all 31 Americans on board. It took 26 hours for the Pentagon and State Department to recommend courses of action to President Richard Nixon, according to a declassified secret assessment. (Nixon eventually decided not to respond.) Today, thanks to real-time video and data streaming, the men in the Kremlin and White House can know—or think they know—as much as the guy in the cockpit of a plane or on the bridge of a warship. The president no longer needs to rely on reports from military leaders that have been filtered through their expertise and deeper knowledge of the situation on the ground. Instead, he can watch a crisis unfold on a screen and react in real time. Once news of an incident hits the internet, the pressure to respond becomes even harder to withstand. “The ability to recover from early missteps is greatly reduced,” Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has written. “The speed of war has changed, and the nature of these changes makes the global security environment even more unpredictable, dangerous, and unforgiving.”
And so in the end, no matter how cool and unflappable the instincts of military men and women like Kevin Webster, what will smother the inevitable spark is steady, thoughtful leadership from within the White House and the Kremlin. A recognition that first reports may be wrong; a willingness to absorb new and perhaps unwelcome information; a thick skin to ward off insults and accusations; an acknowledgment of the limited value of threats and bluffs; and a willingness to recognize the core interests of the other side and a willingness to accept a face-saving solution. These qualities are not notably on display in either capital.