Umair Haque 15 March 2022
How World War III Was Predicted to Happen, And How it Looks a Lot Like Right Now
You’d be lying and I’d be lying if either of us said: it’s not a worrisome situation. That the thought hasn’t crossed our minds, or doesn’t several times a day right about now. Are we headed towards nuclear war?
The best way I that can answer that question is to talk about a documentary I watched a few years ago, and again recently. It was no ordinary one, though. Made by the BBC, it took you inside a war-game — a simulation. Now, when I say war-game, this documentary tracks how our political and military leaders run “games” about how situations ignite — and evolve.
This documentary was special because it did something rare, which has never happened before or since. It went inside such a war-game. Of World War III.
It’s from 2016 — and yet it’s eerie and chilling — because even in 2022, it turns out to have been frighteningly accurate.
I highly, highly recommend you track it down and watch it. Here’s how the BBC describes it — I’m quoting this because I want yo to understand that this isn’t some kind speculative film, it’s a document of a serious war-game about World War III, the only such one I know of that exists in the public domain.
“The War Room faces a scenario that has haunted western strategists since the Ukraine conflict began: potential Russian military involvement in the Baltic States of Latvia and Estonia. Like Ukraine these countries have sizable Russian speaking minorities, but unlike Ukraine they are members of NATO, whose founding treaty states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all of them. Because of this, western analysts regularly war game a situation where Russia seeks to exploit ethnic tensions in the Baltic and test the strength of the NATO Alliance.
“These ‘war games’ are normally held in secret. For the first time, we have filmed a major war game with some of Britain’s most senior military, political and diplomatic figures. The War Room includes former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Sir Richard Shirreff; First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West; Joint Intelligence Committee Chair, Baroness Neville-Jones; British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Christopher Meyer; and British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton — and the group contains a whole spectrum of views about how we should regard President Putin’s Russia.
“The war game was filmed over several hours in a single sitting, using concealed cameras in a purpose built set in a secure location in Central London. The scenarios were developed over many months of research, including conversations with serving military, diplomatic and political experts around the world. The film captures the escalating drama and tension of an unfolding conflict and the heated debate, as the War Room decides what actions Britain should take — right up to the brink of Armageddon.”
This documentary was so controversial at the time that people said it should never have been made. It is seriously chilling to watch — especially now.
What happens in the war-game about World War III this film documents? It begins like this.
Russia invades a neigbouring country, Latvia, on the basis of a false flag operation. Latvian separatists — ethnic Russians — ask for protection from Russia. Russia soon enough sends in arms under the guise of “humanitarian support.” The separatists takes a city, which is the capitol of a region, and declare that they want a referendum. This country is pretty soon gripped by war.
Sound eerily familiar?
It’s not Ukraine, no — but the elements are all there. Russia invades, a false flag operation, a puppet regime, war. The war-game was prescient, correct in the major contours of what actually is happening now, a short eight years in the future.
And the table is divided between doves and hawks.
What happens next in it?
The people around the table are confused. Bewildered. Doves argue with hawks and hawks argue with doves. They debate using cyberattacks, their own false flags. The doves raise the point that NATO’s a defensive alliance — the hawks say it can’t be that simple and that looks weak.
After a lot of debate, NATO agrees to send in its joint high readiness task force. Its job isn’t to engage — but merely to defend the regions of Latvia which haven’t been taken yet. Meanwhile, the Latvian army — with suspected Russian reinforcements — tries to fight off the separatists.
The situation’s already getting messy, muddy, complex.
Then a Russian jet gets shot down, just inside the border. Is it another false flag operation? Probably. Russia probably downed its own jet, since NATO troops weren’t engaging to begin with. And yet Putin calls the threat a “grave provocation” — and demands an explanation from NATO. NATO denies shooting down the jet.
Russia retaliates by shooting down a Latvian helicopter from a missile battery inside Russia. And now the doves and hawks have a serious decision to make. The most serious one yet. Do they shoot down missile batteries on Russian soil? That’s the escalation to the point of hot war on Russia itself.
And yet some kind of retaliation needs to happen, the hawks say. Russia can’t simply shoot down air forces and not face any consequences. The doves prevail. In response, Russia offers a ceasefire proposal. But it’s just a feint — because it divides Latvia, which is NATO territory.
Finally, NATO delivers an ultimatum. Russia has 72 hours to leave Latvia, or else NATO will use force. The countdown’s begun, the hawks say — because Russian military doctrine is to use tactical nukes in response to such a level of escalation. Instead of accepting Russia’s “ceasefire,” NATO responds with an ultimatum. It will finally use Article Five — the article of collective defense.
72 hours pass. The deadline’s reached — and Russia hasn’t withdrawn from Latvia and restored its territorial integrity. Instead, Russia moves its nukes closer to its borders. And puts them on higher alert.
In response, NATO puts its own nuclear forces on higher alert — sending a clear signal to Russia. The world’s heart is pounding now. “Putin is edging us further and further towards armageddon,” says one advisor.
The deadline’s passed. And now it gets extended. Nobody wants to actually trigger Article Five. What happens if it is triggered? The consequences are too horrific to think about.
So Article Five never gets triggered.
NATO has been divided and doesn’t act.
But Western nations don’t all agree on that. NATO backs down — but America forms a “coalition of the willing,” with Britain and France, among others. They send in troops, to clear the occupied city and region. This faction believes diplomacy has failed — and force must be used.
Coalition forces are soon enough parachuting into Latvia. There are firefights in the separatist regions.
And then something dramatic and terrifying happens.
Russia uses a tactical nuke. It detonates an Iskander nuclear warhead a kilometre in the air above the Baltic Sea, where British and American navies have moved major warships to — devastating them, sinking them, and killing thousands.
But Russia calls it a mistake. By a “commander who exceeded his authority” and “who will be dealt with.” It apologizes — and says Putin does not want a nuclear war. It says all its nukes have been their highest states of readiness.
Can anyone believe that? The people around the table debate. They’re stunned and bewildered and horrified. “Is this more Maskirovka,” one person says — the doctrine of Russian military deception?
The doves say: Putin is apologizing, give him an off ramp. Even if it’s not sincere, at least it’s a way out. Accept the apology and don’t retaliate. Both sides should stand down now.
The hawks say this is obviously insincere. We have to pursue our military operation and get the Russians out of Latvia — even if we don’t retaliate for a nuclear strike. We can’t stand down — even if we don’t retaliate.
But America can’t accept that. It thinks there must be consequences. It decides to propose retaliation. Like-for-like retaliation. A nuclear strike on a military target. A lesson must be taught now.
The doves, in desperation, propose all kinds of guarantees, diplomacy, off-ramps. Anything but a like-for-like strike. Offer Russia a chance to surrender, even. They understand things are now spiralling out of control, fast.
Even the coalition of the willing doesn’t support the like-for-like retaliation. But America goes it alone, and does it anyways. Russia’s tactical nuke has destroyed warships and killed thousands. It can’t go unanswered, this camp says. Feelings are running hot. Clear thinking is starting to fail.
America uses a tactical nuclear weapon of its own — and takes out a military target.
Russia readies its ICBMs for launch. They only have to be targeted now. City-killers. Civilization-killers.
The world is now on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Remarkably, the people around the table, horrified, bewildered, devastated — how did things get so bad…so fast? — agree not to retaliate. What’s the point of adding to the destruction of the world? It decides not to fire its own city killers. Deterrence was about stopping the end of world — not killing tens of millions of innocent Russians. Our cities may be on the verge of being lost — but do we “pointlessly kill millions of Russians,” as one leader asks?
And that is where the film ends.
See how chilling all that is? How eerily prescient?
Let’s talk about a few things that are already deeply real, too real.
What happens in this film is that things escalate. That is what is happening now. It’s been a few short weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine — and in that time, escalation has gone from military targets to civilian targets to weapons of war aimed at civilian targets to war crimes.
Western leaders, in this simulation, are confused and baffled by Russia’s use of Maskirovka — military deception. Russia downs its own jet — and calls it a NATO attack. And it retaliates for that — gaining an escalation for free. Then it offers a ceasefire, a feint, which NATO can never accept, since it divides NATO territory.
But this sequence of deception leaves Western leaders bewildered. They don’t quite know how to respond. And so instead of escalating where they should, and retaliating to deter, they escalate and retaliate in all the wrong ways. They seem to think Russia’s ceasefire proposals are serious, they let Russia escalate for free, instead of retaliating then, and retaliate too late, when Russia is no longer deterred.
This deception, this Russian way of war, works. NATO doesn’t trigger Article Five. Russia strings it along with promises of cease-fires, and baffles it with Maskirovka.
Never triggering Article Five is the mistake which leads to the end of the world as we know it.
The “coalition of the willing” is then formed, and its troops take on Russia in Latvia. Russia does what it always going to do — it’s military doctrine is literally made of this — uses a tactical nuke.
It apologizes — because it knows even this breaks the last rule of war, never use nukes. It apologizes — even if it’s insincere — precisely because it is looking for a last off-ramp, a last way out.
But at this point, NATO is too splintered and divided. It’s calmer members are willing to entertain the offer, and try to de-escalate. But it’s hotter-headed members demand like-for-like retaliation. America goes ahead and uses a tactical nuke of its own.
And then the world begins to end.
Now. What has really gone on here? If you follow the above — and yes, it’s complicated and intense, for a very good reason, because it’s a real document of how our military and political leaders think World War III might ignite, not just a fiction — then the lessons go something like this.
Even our own leaders don’t handle the simulation well. They make crucial mistakes. Three of them, in particular.
First, de-escalation fails. NATO and the West try to offer Putin “off-ramps” — but he doesn’t take them. They try to negotiate but Putin is not interested. That is because he is more interested in reconstituting the geographical USSR, ordered by his own neo-fascist politics.
He is only interested in them when things reach the point of hot war, serious war, nuclear war. And by then, that is when the West itself withdraws the off-ramps, having been pushed too far, its own finger on the button.
So when one side is willing to de-escalate, the other isn’t, and vice versa. De-escalation fails catastrophically.
What happens alongside that?
Deterrence fails. Latvia is NATO territory. And despite NATO leaders trying to deter Russia from directly interfering in this situation, they don’t manage to. They wait too long, or they don’t act fast enough, or they don’t intervene firmly enough. They only act in the mildest possible ways.
In the end, they don’t trigger Article Five. And the lesson from this simulation is that had they triggered Article Five when it should have been triggered, then the whole cycle of escalation which proceeded from not triggering could have been avoided. Because at that moment — and only at that moment — Russia could have been deterred. But because NATO doesn’t trigger Article Five fast enough, so a vicious cycle of escalation sets in.
And once deterrence and de-escalation fail, it is a very, very short series of steps to the end of the world. To nuclear annihilation. Russia uses a tactical nuke. One. America uses one in retaliation. One. From there, the next level of escalation is reached: ICBMs are readied. City-killers are about to be fired.
The world is a few minutes away from ending.
Now. How realistic is all that? I think it’s incredibly realistic. Prescient. Eerily accurate. The only place I don’t think it’s realistic is at they very end. Probably, the world can survive a few rounds of tactical nuclear exchanges, before both sides escalate to the level of ICBM city-killers. How many rounds? Certainly more than one. Five? Ten? Twenty? It’s anyone’s guess.
But in the rest of its details, this war-game is utterly compelling and convincing. Russia does have designs on NATO territory. Ukraine is just the beginning. Western leaders are indeed baffled by Russian Maskirovka — downing its own jets, blaming the other side is what happened in the film, in our context, it’s Russia at the UN telling tales of biowarfare labs and saying “it’d be a shame if all of Europe got infected by spills in those Ukrainian labs — not our fault!”
And worryingly, deterrence and de-escalation are already both failing as a result. Deterrence is visibly failing. Putin escalates every day. Every single leader in Eastern Europe is warning that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine — so he’d better stopped in Ukraine.
But nothing the West is doing yet is really deterring him. Yes, it’s good and beautiful that the West suddenly came together, and mounted such a fierce response. But the point, as the hawks said in the war-game, is deterrence, and Putin is not yet deterred. Our sanctions and so forth have not really done much to frighten him off yet, to stand him down — because, as I’ve explained, he doesn’t regard us as very formidable foes.
You can see that most people in the West think there should be a no-fly zone — but leaders are afraid it could “trigger World War III.” They need to think carefully about that. It’s not obvious that’s the case. The war-game teaches us that it’s just as like no no-fly-zone could trigger World War III, by making deterrence fail.
There are certain points in processes like this, dynamic ones, unstable ones — war — where things can be changed. Only at some points does deterrence really work, and you have to get those points exactly right, or the system spins out of control.
In this case, we need to think very, very carefully about why Putin isn’t deterred — and not just jump, frightened, to the conclusion that anything we do could “cause World War III.” If that is our pre-assumed conclusion, then of course we have already surrendered. We leave ourselves no room for actual deterrence — or de-escalation.
The final lesson this war-game teaches us is that deterrence and de-escalation work in tandem. They aren’t independent things — as hawks and doves in the simulation tend to think. Rather, they work together. When you deter an enemy, then they de-escalate. When they are ready to de-escalate, give them an off-ramp.
But give them an off-ramp before you have deterred them — and it’s fruitless. They will just go on escalating, and regard you as weak. That is where we are now.
We are offering Putin off-ramps, desperately, before we have deterred him. Undeterrred, he is just escalating. Off-ramps are only useful once an enemy has been deterred — we are failing to really understand how deterrence and de-escalation must work together, or they will work against one another, making a rival think you are weak and confused and bewildered, which is what happens when you offer de-escalation to someone, like Putin, who is not yet even deterred.
Maskirovka. The failure of deterrence. The failure of de-escalation. Retaliation — in all the wrong ways. Nonretaliation — at all the wrong moments. These are the mistakes made in the simulation. And I can’t help but see the West making at least some, if not all, of those same mistakes now.
What’s my conclusion? Our military leaders are more experienced in these kinds of war games than our politicians. You will note something striking if you look. They are recommending, in general, faster and more direct action. That is not because they are warmongers. Our generals are not the warmongers. It is not “warmongering” to respond tactically in the face of an aggressor. Our military leaders have kept a fragile peace for decades now. They deserve our respect for their thinking.
Right about now, I suggest we listen to them. They know how to fight this war — and win it — before it annihilates the world.