Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, has been conducting Russia-Ukraine war simulations with senior U.S. government officials since 2019. In a 2019 simulation, the group simulated the escalation of a NATO-Russia war that could go nuclear and kill over one billion people.
In the simulation, Russia invaded Ukraine in a similar way as the current situation. If NATO intervenes, (as they are threatening to today), then Putin will be backed into a corner. Desperate, Putin will very likely use nuclear weapons. Putin has stated multiple times that he would use nuclear weapons if threatened by NATO.
“If we aren’t careful, what happened in a simulation could happen if a NATO-Russia war erupts over Ukraine,” warned Kazianis.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War II. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an intergovernmental military alliance comprised of 28 European countries and 2 North American countries, collectively opposes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; however, Ukraine does not belong to NATO and the nation is not protected by the treaty.
Since 1997, the NATO military alliance has expanded rapidly, bringing the following countries under its protection: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Albania and Croatia. These military partnerships have advanced steadily into Eastern Europe, coming closer to Russia’s border with each advance. With Ukraine aspiring to join NATO, Putin feels that Russia is under attack.
On the eve of the Ukrainian invasion, Putin addressed the world, “In NATO documents, our country is officially and directly declared the main threat to North Atlantic security. And Ukraine will serve as a forward springboard for the strike. Russia has every right to take retaliatory measures to ensure its own security. That is exactly what we will do.”
After the declaration, Putin ordered “peacekeeping troops” in the Donbas region, where Russia backed the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian forces had been fighting ethnic Russians in these regions since 2014, in what Putin refers to as “a genocide.”
In the simulation, Russian forces take control over Eastern Ukraine, connecting ethnic Russians in the Donbas region with Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine in 2014. In the process, Russia loses over 2,500 soldiers and 100 tanks, as longstanding U.S. and NATO-trained forces defend Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. The simulation sees Russia retaliating against the military buildup in Ukraine with a complete “demilitarization” campaign. Russia launches heavy ballistic and cruise missile strikes to further their mission.
In the simulation, Russia is punished and kicked out of SWIFT, as the West issues direct sanctions on Russian banks (which is currently taking place). This leads to Russian cyber-attacks against the West which target the electrical grid, banking sector, energy plants, etc. If any NATO country is attacked, whether directly or inadvertently, they could invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter, declaring that an attack on one is an attack on the entire alliance. This is where NATO gets involved, escalating the situation further with heavy artillery that far outnumbers beleaguered Russian forces in Ukraine.
According to the simulation, a “no-fly zone” is enacted around Ukrainian cities to protect innocent civilians. (This is currently being debated.) At this point, Russia’s specialized military objectives are thwarted, left incomplete. Any mistakes the Russians make against innocent civilians would give NATO clear justification to intervene. Russia would almost immediately see the no-fly zone as a direct threat that provides NATO a new base of operations just across the Russian border. With economic and agricultural sanctions taking their toll on Russia, Putin could act even more aggressively, taking on airfields and military assets in Ukraine that would have given NATO an advantage. This escalation would force NATO to intervene on the ground in Ukraine. As NATO moves in for a ground war, Russian intelligence would see the troop movement as the beginning of the end. Russia may then preempt the NATO advance by using nuclear weapons.
If NATO were to intervene in Ukraine, the stakes would be raised for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Knowing that he would not stand a chance against all of NATO in a straight up firefight, Putin would most likely escalate the situation further and use nuclear weapons. NATO would almost immediately retaliate with nuclear strikes of their own. If this were to occur, then at least one billion people could be vanquished in the Third World War.
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