The year is 2020. The Russian military is conducting a large exercise in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea that borders the NATO member states Lithuania and Poland. An observer aircraft from the Western alliance accidentally crosses into Russian airspace and is shot down by a surface-to-air missile. NATO rushes air squadrons and combat vessels into the region. Both sides warn that they will consider using nuclear weapons if their vital interests are threatened.
Already on edge after the invasion of Crimea, rising tensions in the Middle East, the collapse of arms control agreements, and the deployment of new nuclear weapons, NATO and Russia are suddenly gearing up for conflict. In Washington, with the presidential campaign well under way, candidates are competing to take the hardest line on Russia. In Moscow, having learned that anti-Americanism pays off, the Russian leadership is escalating its harsh rhetoric against Washington.
With both sides on high alert, a cyberattack of unknown origin is launched against Russian early warning systems, simulating an incoming air attack by NATO against air and naval bases in Kaliningrad. With only minutes to confirm the authenticity of the attack and no ongoing NATO-Russian crisis-management dialogue, Moscow decides it must respond immediately and launches conventional cruise missiles from Kaliningrad bases at NATO’s Baltic airfields; NATO also responds immediately, with air strikes on Kaliningrad. Seeing NATO reinforcements arrive and fearing that a NATO ground invasion will follow, Moscow concludes that it must escalate to de-escalate—hoping to pause the conflict and open a pathway for a negotiated settlement on Moscow’s terms—and conducts a low-yield nuclear strike on nuclear storage bunkers at a NATO airfield. But the de-escalate calculus proves illusory, and a nuclear exchange begins.
This hypothetical may sound like the kind of catastrophic scenario that should have ended with the Cold War. But it has become disturbingly plausible once again. Its essential elements are already present today; all that is needed is a spark to light the tinder.
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