Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the high wire the USSR and NATO walked during the Cold War. Both sides knew they could utterly destroy the other side (and the rest of humanity, for good measure) and both sides knew they couldn’t get off a first strike which made it impossible for the other side to still wipe them out. Despite grave fears, the world survived the Cold War and MAD—we threaded the tightrope.
NATO expansion threatens the equilibrium of mutually assured destruction. MAD requires that both sides have clear and transparent knowledge of what the other side will and won’t escalate over. In the Cold War, both sides knew that an attack on a NATO or Warsaw Pact member by the other side would lead to general war, and understood that that general war could easily escalate to nuclear confrontation, probably started by whoever thought they were losing. Everyone outside of NATO was, essentially, in play.
The closest we came to nuclear annihalation was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US was unwilling to tolerate Russia having missiles on Cuba, since that meant first strike capability against the US. If the USSR had (or thought it had) first strike capability, the logic of MAD disintegrated. So Kennedy was willing to escalate over the issue, and quite rightly so. Cuba was also, frankly, inside the US’s sphere of influence, though the US wasn’t willing to push the issue with a real invasion. But Russia wasn’t sure if the US would escalate, and until Khrushchev decided Kennedy was serious about it, the world hung in balance.
So When Merkel says that Georgia joining NATO is merely a matter of when, not if, I start to get real twitchy because I don’t know that both sides are sure if either will escalate or not.
The problem with NATO expansion is simply this: each expansion calls into question NATO’s willingness to go to war. Would the US and Europe and (importantly) Turkey really declare war with Russia over Georgia or one of the Baltic States? Or even the Ukraine?
Everyone thinks NATO is a magic bullet. That if you add someone to it, it’s this wall that the Russians won’t cross.
What if they do?
- Everyone is supposed to declare war on Russia but some NATO members, maybe including the US, don’t. NATO falls apart, if people won’t come to the defense of other members, it’s no longer a real military alliance.
- NATO members all declare war, per their treaty obligation.
Russian strategic doctrine then calls for an all out assault, and if they start to lose, to go to tac nukes, and if they lose even with tac nukes, to go to strat nukes. And they would lose a general war, no question, but depending on where the US army is stationed at any given time, it’s not unthinkable that they could blow right through the Ukraine, Poland and into Germany before they stall out and start getting pushed back. That land is essentially one big open plain. The only hope of stopping them, given their local superiority in number of tanks, is to go massive air power. You do that, and their doctrine is to reply with tac nukes.
It escalates very fast. NATO’s clearly willing to do it under certain circumstances – certainly for Poland. But for Georgia? It would be like the old USSR deciding that one of the various US invasions of Latin America was causus belli and escalated to nukes over it. People would think they’re insane. Yet we’re inviting the reverse. It’s like inviting Panama to the Warsaw Pact.
And I wonder what China does? I wouldn’t want to be Taiwan at such a time. Sounds like a good time to institute that one China policy.
Merkel has decided to finish encircling Russia.
We’ll see if Russia agrees with that solution. I don’t think Putin will do it, but the thought has to be running through his mind, as it is through mine, that the troops are already in Georgia and that a reintegrated Georgia won’t be joining NATO.
Fortunately, I doubt he wants another 10 year Chechen campaign on his hands. It would pin down too many troops.
But the larger point is simply this: if Georgia or the Ukraine joins NATO, NATO’s commitment to defend those countries has to be ironclad and seen as ironclad. If Russia doubts that commitment, or thinks that the possibility of NATO being so close to Russia might make NATO think it could get away with a first strike, then Russia may act. And if Russia acts, we could have a cascade that leads to nuclear war.
So the questions I think NATO leaders need to seriously ask themselves are twofold:
- Am I really willing to go to war with Russia over Georgia or the Ukraine?
- Am I, personally, willing to die in this war? Because if it goes nuclear, I could.
Some will call this appeasement. They’re the same folks who probably wanted NATO to send the tanks in during Prague Spring. And certainly there’s a moral argument for it (though lord knows Saakashvili is not some paragon of democracy, along with being an idiot). But there’s a reason NATO didn’t go toe-to-toe with the Warsaw Pact for Eastern Europe’s freedom, and that reason is that their suffering, while real, was a lesser evil than war between the two alliances.
Georgia breaks the logic of MAD. It is too clearly in Russia’s sphere of influence, it is completely impossible to actually defend, and there is too much reason to doubt NATO nations willingness to go to war with Russia for Georgia. For all those reasons, it is not clearly off limits for conventional attack, and therefore could provoke a war, because it’s uncertain to both sides what would happen.
That uncertainty could get a lot of people killed.
So, it’s harsh, it’s cold, but letting Georgia into NATO is reckless and stupid and could well lead to what we managed to avoid during all those decades of the cold war – a real nuclear exchange.