The BBC recently broadcast a documentary in its This World series titled World War Three: Inside the War Room. For UK viewers, it is available on the I-Player until 5 March 2016 from the BBC website, which says that:
Following the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s involvement in Syria, the world is closer to superpower confrontation than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Now, a war room of senior former British military and diplomatic figures comes together to war-game a hypothetical ‘hot war’ in eastern Europe, including the unthinkable – nuclear confrontation.
Ten former diplomats, civil servants, generals, admirals and politicians formed a committee that had to discuss the British response to a crisis in the Baltic. They were making recommendations to the government, which would need the support of Parliament to deploy troops. They were not decision makers.
Actors played the parts of locals and Russian and NATO troops in news reports and also the British Representative to NATO and the National Security Advisors of Germany, Russia and the USA. The only politicians named were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The unnamed US President was in favour of firm action. Use of the phrase ‘Coalition of the Willing’ suggests that it was probably a Republican Administration.
The members of the committee were:
Sir Christopher Meyer, British Ambassador to the United States, 1997-2003.
General Richard Shirreff, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, 2011-2014.
Baroness Falkner, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesman.
Baroness Neville-Jone, Minister of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism, 2010-11.
Admiral Lord West, First Sea Lord, Chief of Naval Staff, 2002-2006.
Sir Tony Brenton, British Ambassador to Russia, 2004-2008.
Lord Artbuhnot, Chair of Defence Select Committee, 2005-2014.
Dr Ian Kearns, Specialist Advisor, National Security Strategy, 2010.
Dona Muirhead, Director of Communication, Ministry of Defence, 1997-2000.
Ian Bond, Ambassador to Latvia, 2005-2007.
One weakness was that the politicians were rather junior for a committee of this importance. Presumably none of the several former Defence and Foreign Secretaries no longer active in party politics were willing to appear.
The exercise was a wargame of the type carried out by governments across the world to look at their responses to potential crises and to identify common themes.
The crisis began with scuffles at the site of former Soviet War Memorial in Tallinn, which led to rioting. Nearly 25% of the population of Estonia are Russians, many of whom claimed that the Estonian police discriminated against them and brutally. The Estonian government accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the violence. Putin condemned Estonia’s treatment of Russians as disgraceful. This made NATO fear that he might exploit the situation to stir up more violence.
In the Latvia the Latgalian-Russian Union took control of the city of Daugavpils in Latgale province near the Russian border and the Mayor announced a referendum on greater autonomy from Riga. The Latvian government said that the referendum was illegal and accused those behind it of being in the pay of the Kremlin.
Riot police and then the Latvian Army were sent in to restore order. The separatists were in control of a 20km of the border with Russia. The Latvian government claimed that large numbers of armed Russians had crossed the border illegally.
The British Representative to NATO in Brussels said that the USA would support action, he was unsure about Germany, Spain and Italy would fall in behind it and he could not read French intentions. The basis of NATO is that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies.
The US NSA stated that the President was pushing to deploy NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which was needed in order to dissuade the Russians from going further. The Latvians needed weapons, with other NATO troops there in supporting role only. The committee had to decided the answer to this and other questions as the crisis developed.
A major issue was balancing the risk that firm action would escalate the crisis into a nuclear war and the risk that making concessions would lead to further Russian demands.
One interesting point was that the dovish members of the committee referred to the lessons of the First World War, where many follow Prof. Christopher Clark’s view that Europe ‘sleepwalked’ into war in 1914. The hawkish ones pointed to the lessons of the 1930s, where a failure to stand up to dictators early on led to the Second World War.
Another was that the nuclear ballistic missile carried by British submarines (SSBN) are not targeted at anybody, but the SSBNs’ high state of readiness means that they can be targeted quickly. Once targeted, they are aimed at military installations rather than population centres, meaning that, as one of the committee said, British nuclear missiles will kill tens of thousands rather than millions.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW HOW THE CRISIS ENDED.
PLEASE ALSO NOTE THAT COMMENTS MAY INCLUDE SPOILERS.
The committee voted 5-4 to agree to the commitment of the NATO VJTF, which includes about 1,000 British troops. A suggestion of resorting to cyber warfare instead was rejected. The NATO Council agreed to the deployment. The committee chairman, Sir Christopher Mayer, did not vote throughout. Presumably he would have had a casting vote.
Four British soldiers were captured by the separatists. The generals believed that a rescue mission had a high chance of success, since intelligence was good and the Russians might be reluctant to show their hand. It was approved and succeeded.
A Russian jet then crashed, just on the Russian side of the border. Putin claimed it was a provocation, NATO said it was an accident.
Fifteen Latvian soldiers were then killed in a helicopter crash. NATO claimed that it was hit by a surface to air missile (SAM) fired from inside Russia. The US, Poland, Baltic states were keen on a NATO counter strike on the SAM battery but Germany was getting ‘wobblier.’
Doing so risked a hot war, but a failure to respond could lead to Russia pushing forward. There was a preference to attack a target in Latvia and no consensus for an attack on Russian soil. It would be necessary to take out full air defence system, an act of war that might cause a nuclear response. It was decided to make it clear we know they did it and that the next attack will be responded to.
Next, a column of 300 Russian trucks entered Latvia. Russians said it carried humanitarian aid, the Latvians arms and ammunition. It was escorted by elite Russian Guards Air Assault troops. It was pointed out that the first Russian convoy into Ukraine did carry humanitarian aid.
Putin proposed that all foreign countries should withdraw, the UN take over the humanitarian role, the referendum take place and NATO re-commit to not stationing permanent troops in Baltic states. Was this a basis for discussion with the referendum the sticking point or exactly what Putin wanted?
The US thought that there were too many troops on the ground and wanted Russian troops out of Latvia in 72 hours and restoration of full Latvian territorial integrity. It was prepared to use force if the Russians did not leave. It was noted that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is part of Russian doctrine. The US proposal was supported 5-4 and then backed by Parliament.
The NATO naval Task Force in the Baltic was close to the Russian Baltic Fleet. Putin announced that tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed to Kaliningrad and that Russia was ready to repel any aggression against Russian people or territory.
The response to this was to make intensive diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions whilst targeting British nuclear missiles against Russia and to let the Russians know that this had been done. Admiral West did not attend future meetings as he was dealing with this.
The German priority was to seek a ceasefire. Many Europeans wanted the deadline extended. The US thought that if Putin wanted fragmentation of NATO he was succeeding and talked of a Coalition of the Willing, comprising US, France, Baltic states, Poland. Workable. It was argued that joining gave the UK the right of consultation. The proposal to join Coalition of the Willing after first trying diplomacy was passed 7-1. Baroness Falkner was the only committee member to always oppose taking action.
Overnight the US launched an offensive to re-take Daugavpils. The pro-Russian separatists suffered heavy casualties and four British soldiers were killed.
A nuclear missile then exploded over the Baltic, sinking the amphibious assault ships HMS Ocean and USS America. Over 1,200 British sailors and marines were killed. US casualties were not given, but the America carries up to 3,000 sailors and marines. The Russians claimed that the local commander exceeded his authority and would be ‘dealt with.’ All their tactical and strategic nuclear weapons had been taken off the highest state of readiness.
Proof of what Russians say is whether they now withdraw from Latvia. The US President, however, decided on a limited like for like nuclear strike on military target. The British opposed this and wanted the ground campaign to continue.
The US destroyed a target in Russia with a tactical nuclear weapon. Russian ICBMs were then readied for launch. If any were fired at the UK, the British would have only a few minutes to decided what instructions to give their SSBN captains. The vote was 5-3 against firing since deterrence had failed and there was no point in killing Russians to avenge dead Britons.
I was a little puzzled by the final vote since it is well known that there is a letter of last resort, written by the Prime Minister, in the safe of every British SSBN, telling the captain what to do if he is certain that the UK has been destroyed by a nuclear attack.
4 responses to “World War Three Inside the War Room”
Very interesting. If Putin senses weakness he will exploit it. My two cents. Thanks!
I agree. If you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile.
Meanwhile HMS Ocean, destroyed in this fictional programme when part of the NATO Baltic task force, is to take part in a NATO major exercise in the Baltic!
This was a thoroughly gripping and terrifying docu-drama. Interesting to read your thoughts. Regarding the letter of last resort: my understanding is that it is only opened if the PM and their deputies are killed as a result of war. Assuming the PM is alive, s/he takes strategic advice from a panel like the one in the BBC programme.
I cannot imagine why Putin would risk armageddon by wading into the Baltics. But he certainly senses weakness in Europe and Washington and has already wrongfooted the West in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. And, as this programme aptly points out, his domestic popularity is directly connected to his aggressive posturing on the world stage.
One thing’s for sure: a Trump presidency would only further embolden Putin.
Whereas Putin would fold when confronted by Hillary Clinton, backed up by Sanders??? Putin did not get to where he is by entreaties from the likes of those two. Clinton isn’t Boadicea, and is an extremely wobbly substitute for Maggie Thatcher. Dream on….
As a Canadian who has spent over forty years travelling throughout the US on civil and government business, I have come to learn that Trump is a tough, highly skilled, high stakes negotiator who would never let your crisis scenario get as far as it did. On the other hand, Obama would be simply paralyzed under the stress, as would, regrettably, Canada’s boy Prime Minister.
Disregard all the rubbish published by the left-leaning UK, European and US popular media about Trump. They all pay fawning homage to Obama for no particular reason, while non-Americans wonder why Trump’s battle cry of “Let’s Make America Great Again” has had such an electrifying effect on US voters (who most decidedly don’t fawn) while sweeping his opponents aside. Foreigners and the US media, however, just can’t understand that.