World War III: The Armageddon scenario

World War III: The Armageddon scenario

Updated: 2 months, 24 days, 1 hour, 52 minutes, 34 seconds ago

There is an eerie commonality of the war in Ukraine and the events of Second World War, especially the chain of events that led to the war.


“We are closer to Armageddon, than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Crisis”
US President Joe Biden

PUNE: History often provides glimpses of the future; and a peek into the past can give an inkling of the shape of things to come. There is an eerie commonality of the war in Ukraine and the events of Second World War—and not just in the arena of the battle. The chain of events that led to the war finds an echo here, as do the roles of the major players involved. There is also a likelihood that this war could expand in scope in much the same manner that the Second World War did.
When a proud, nationalistic Germany was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles following its defeat in the First World War, it laid the seeds for the Second. The mood of the nation set the ground for the rise of Adolf Hitler, who rearmed and revitalized Germany and set it on the road to regain past glory. It began with the annexation of Sudetenland, Poland, Czechoslovakia and France in 1938-39; and culminated in the disastrous, uncalled for invasion of the Soviet Union in May 1941, which ultimately destroyed the Third Reich. It is significant that while the Western powers continued supplying the Soviet Union with arms, aid and many promises, they actually entered the war in Europe only in June 1944, a good three years after Russia had battled Nazi Germany virtually single handed and weakened it sufficiently to ensure its eventual defeat.
At the same time when Germany was pushing its nationalistic goals in Europe, Japan was rising in the East as a militaristic power with visions of creating a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere (something on the lines of China’s Belt and Road Initiative). As Japan pushed its economic and strategic rise, the western nations led by the United States, blocked its access to oil, rubber, iron and natural resources that were essential for its island economy. Japan responded to western sanctions and pressures by launching a pre-emptive attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, hoping to destroy the US fleet. The audacious strike had mixed results. It destroyed most of the warships, but could not hit the US carriers which were out at sea. The world plunged into war in both the Europe and the Pacific which ended with the Red Army in Berlin, and culminated in August 1945 with the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where war has revisited Europe after 70 years with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Only this time the roles are reversed. It is Russia playing the role of a fiercely nationalistic Germany that seeks to reassert itself in Europe. Russia has been the aggressor, with its largely uncalled for invasion of Ukraine. It is Ukraine playing the role of the Soviet Union. Battered by the aggressor, it holds out against huge odds, in spite of enormous casualties. Like the Soviet Union of 1941, it has been urged on with aid and moral support by the western powers, but little actual action. And like western powers in 1941-44, they too have let the war prolong to weaken Russia, as it suits their long-term strategic interests.
And in the East, China has adopted the mantle of Japan—a military and economic power with nationalistic dreams—though it is far stronger than Japan was at the time. Like Russia, China seeks to redress so-called “historical wrongs” as it tries to reunify areas which they consider “historically Chinese” back into its fold. Its perception of these areas extends across the China Sea, Ladakh and most importantly, Taiwan.
China has strong economic ties with the West, but it is sympathetic to the Russian cause and their two leaders share a lot in common. It stands to gain more by aligning itself with the West—especially after Russia’s battlefield reverses—but the war finds echo in China and could well encourage it to pursue its own agenda in Taiwan.
Let us visualize a worst-case scenario. One, where Russia and China come together in their nationalistic goals against what they perceive as a common enemy—the US and the West. This could be triggered off through a series of events that sparks off a World War in Europe, and also leads China to follow a similar course in Taiwan. It may not take place in the immediate future; hopefully it will not even occur. But yes, the seeds are in place and a chain of events could just trigger it off.

In a worst-case scenario, the war in Ukraine continues in an endless stalemate. Like the German-Soviet conflict of 1941-45, the battles rage across a vast front and erupt periodically with offensives and counter-offensives from either side. The Ukrainians are buoyed by vast quantities of western aid, newly trained recruits and foreign mercenaries, and launch a major counter offensive. The counter offensive in the south retakes Kherson, and puts all of Crimea within reach. In the east they strike the weakest part of the Russian lines (whose location is helpfully provided by US intelligence) and drive the Russians back across the frontier. The Ukrainians come within striking distance of Smolensk and Belgorod—the vital administrative hubs which provide the logistics for Russian troops in Ukraine. Photographs of Ukrainian soldiers on Russian soil flood the print, television and social media channels and the news of “the Debacle on the Donetsk” penetrates into Russian media and news channels. The Russian population, hitherto insulated from news of the war, become aware of the setbacks on the battlefield. The hastily trained conscripts send back tales of horror from the front lines, and a growing number of body bags make their way back into Russia. Rumblings arise against Putin and the war. Even in the inner coterie, influential party members and powerful oligarchs question Putin’s handling of the situation, and he feels an increasing threat to his own position. Like all autocrats, he sees signs of a palace coup all around him and decides to take a gamble to salvage the situation.
He orders his commanders to use tactical nuclear weapons to halt the Ukrainian advance and retrieve the situation. A bright orange flash rips through the darkness of the early morning, as a .3 kiloton nuclear warhead explodes in a low air burst above the Ukrainian bridgehead on the Donetsk River—the vital bridgehead in the East from where the Ukrainians can launch their offensive into Russia. For good measure, he also orders a strike on the town of Lyiv—the small town just 20 kilometers from the Polish border where western aid is received. Two Kinzhal missiles, with sub-kiloton nuclear warheads in their cones, race at hypersonic speed across the Russian frontier, penetrate the air defence and hit Lyiv. One smashes into the line of warehouses. Another hits a railway siding, damaging it beyond redemption. The effects are disastrous. The twin blasts destroy a massive consignment of western aid, including six batteries of newly received HIMARS launchers and thousands of rounds of precious ammunition. The detonating ammunition compounds the effect and the town is virtually flattened by the blast.
In the shocked aftermath of the strikes, Russia brazenly denies using nuclear weapons. It claims that the explosions were the result of high-powered conventional munitions, and even hint that the Ukrainians could have been planning to use their own nuclear weapon, which detonated prematurely. Residual radioactivity lingering over the area reveals the evidence, but Russia denies it as fabricated charges by the West. They warn the West, that should they use “concocted evidence” to strike Russia, it will be forced to use its strategic nuclear arsenal to retaliate in self-defence. The message is clear.
Russian counter-attacks in the wake of the blast overrun the Ukrainian positions and recapture lost territory. Putin gambles that the western powers will still be reluctant to get involved, and his “escalate to de-escalate” strategy will pay off. And he almost gets away with it.
The NATO and US leadership consider the responses. After all, Russia has crossed “the Red Line”, but NATO intervention could provoke him into unleashing a barrage of nuclear missiles, especially if he feels his own survival is at stake. But this action cannot be allowed to go unanswered. NATO imposes a “No-Fly-Zone” over western Ukraine and places all NATO forces in Europe on high alert. US warships and submarines come into the Baltic Sea, dangerously close to the Russian enclave at Kaliningrad. Turkey, another NATO member, blocks access to Russian shipping into the Black Sea, and US and NATO submarines enter the crucial waters.
As the stand-off continues, the inevitable happens. A Russian SU-25 on a photo-reconnaissance mission from Belarus strays into the “No-Fly-Zone” imposed by NATO. In spite of warnings the pilot refuses to back off and is shot down by a US F-18 Hornet. In retaliation, Russia fires half a dozen Kinzhal hypersonic missiles into the airbase in Estonia where NATO fighters are based. Estonia is a NATO ally and as per Article 5 of the NATO charter, an attack on any member is considered as an attack on all. The die is cast for NATO to enter the fray, and its forces begin mobilizing. Russia calls for general mobilization, in the face of “unprovoked Western aggression”. Its divisions on the Siberian frontier in the east are pulled back to the European front, and its nuclear forces are placed on the highest state of readiness.
But even at this juncture, NATO does not put “boots-on-ground” in Ukraine, but merely maintains a defensive posture. But Russia has its back to the wall. It knows it cannot win against the combined force of NATO, and stands alone, except for its unwilling ally Belarus, which too is sucked into the war. Putin reinforces his threat of using strategic nuclear weapons, if NATO enters, knowing that his “Armageddon Option” would be a good deterrent.
As this tense stand-off continues, the war still rages, but fortunately does not escalate. NATO does not enter Ukrainian soil, not yet. China, watching from the sidelines, makes the mandatory calls for peace, but seizes the moment. Xi Jinping, in his third term in power, is more powerful than any Chinese leader before him, and all set to consolidate his vision of “Greater China”. The once-in-a-lifetime moment to re-unify all areas that are “historically Chinese” has arrived. Seeing the pre-occupation of the US and the western countries in Europe, he gambles that they would not want to get involved in another war in the East. Its naval, land and air forces, which had been practising amphibious operations for months now, are given the go-ahead and the well-rehearsed drills for an assault on Taiwan are put in place. A spate of cyber-attacks hit Taiwan, bringing down their internet services, communication networks, and even financial and banking networks. Its air defence and early warning radars which had already given away their frequencies by being activated each time Chinese fighters violated their air space were jammed and rendered inoperable. Chinese fighters attacked Taiwanese airfields, ports and shore fortifications. While the navy established a blockade over the Taiwan straits, a flotilla of over 100 landing ships crossed the 180-kilometer-wide straits for an amphibious assault on Taiwan’s northern and southern coasts. Its carrier force, led by the LIONING, formed a defensive line on the perimeter of the First Island Chain. At the same time the deadly “carrier killer” YJ-21 hypersonic missiles—which can sink a carrier at 3,000 kilometers—are activated to engage any US naval force moving into Indo-Pacific region.
As China launches its three-pronged invasion, Taiwanese air and naval forces inflict heavy damage on the invading force and hold it back, temporarily. They could hold on for maybe a month or so, but unless the US comes to their rescue, their defences would soon be swamped. Almost simultaneously Russia launches another offensive in Northern Ukraine, towards Kyiv (obviously pre-planned with China’s actions). It warns that any western interference would be considered as an “existentialist threat” and leave it free to use its entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. The US President, who has watched Europe and Asia erupt, is in a quandary. The US has a treaty to defend Taiwan, but the US public and most Congressmen are strongly against a war so far from its own shores. His admirals warn him that in a possible intervention, there would be very heavy losses and the US navy could even lose. Should they focus towards the Russian threat in Europe? Do they get diverted towards the Indo-Pacific? Or do they do neither and refuse to get involved in another continent’s war? Worst of all, how do they react to the nuclear threat, without further escalation?
The grim scenario could be the hypothetical start to World War III. It already has a lot of commonalities with the events leading to World War II. Could it come about? At this stage it seems unlikely, but unfortunately, the groundwork is in place for a series of events to just trigger it off. The longer the war continues, the greater are the dangers of it happening. Whether China exploits the situation remains to be seen. Taiwan is a core interest, as is Ladakh in India, but will they take the gamble to decide the issue by force? Also, how far would Russia go, and how much would China be willing to support it? A lot would depend on how the Ukraine war pans out. Should Russia attain success, it could embolden China to embark on its own adventurism. Should Ukraine hold strong, it would be a deterrent to China as well. The stage is in place, and the world actors are playing their parts. It just remains to be seen how the scene pans out.
Ajay Singh is the award-winning author of five books and over 200 articles. This has been excerpted from his latest book, “The War in Ukraine: The Conflict and its Global Outcome”.

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