Could Putin’s Recklessness Set Off World War III?

10_07_Russia_Turkey_01
A Russian naval landing ship sails in the Bosporus, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, in Istanbul on October 6. NATO has rejected Moscow's explanation that its warplanes violated the airspace of alliance member Turkey by mistake, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had reports of a substantial Russian military buildup in Syria, including ground troops and ships in the eastern Mediterranean. Murad Sezer/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned the Russians about their violation of Turkish airspace in ongoing Russian air operations over Syria. It was only the latest warning from NATO about Russian violations of various NATO nations’ airspace and assorted other antics.

But the October 5 incursion—which prompted a nasty threat from Turkey about what would happen if the Russians make the same mistake again—only underscores what a dangerous place the world has become since Barack Obama became president.

History teaches us that large wars begin for many complex reasons, and that notwithstanding our obsession with poor old Archduke Ferdinand, it was probably not simply his shooting that spawned World War I. But there are now so many global flashpoints that we cannot rule out the notion that a conflict between major powers could break out simply based on circumstance.

Consider:

  • NATO aircraft scrambled more than 500 times in 2014, with only a few exceptions, in reaction to Russian incursions into NATO members’ airspace. Russians planes reportedly often switch off transponders and fail to file flight plans, which has resulted in several near misses, including with a passenger plane. (Not to speak of the Russian shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet.)
  • In 2014, Japan scrambled aircraft almost 1,000 times, with all but a few of these incidents attributed to either Russian or Chinese warplanes.
  • Russian bombers entered U.S. airspace 10 times in 2014, double the previous average.
  • On July 4, as Americans celebrated Independence Day, the U.S. Air Force scrambled fighter jets to intercept two pairs of Russian bombers skirting U.S. airspace off the coast of California and Alaska.
  • The United States is reportedly preparing a show of force with “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, a reaction to increasingly aggressive land reclamation/military construction in disputed territory.
  • On the eve of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Washington, two Chinese fighters intercepted a U.S. Air Force surveillance plane over the Yellow Sea.
  • The U.S is planning on stepping up air operations over Syria at the same time that Russia advances its own war on Bashar al-Assad’s opponents. Washington and Moscow aim to “deconflict” (whatever that means).
  • Russia is consistently violating its obligations under the Minsk Accords and continues to make claims on Ukrainian territory. With Putin facing few consequences for his actions in Ukraine, there are fears that he may choose to move on NATO members Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia.

The world has always been a dangerous place, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons has only made it more so. But not since the Cold War have there been so many potential triggers for major power conflicts.

Will we get into a shooting war? Perhaps not, and almost not certainly with the current commander in chief. But each time there is a near miss without consequence, as most are, bad actors are encouraged to believe there will never be any consequence.

Still, notwithstanding Obama, the United States does have red lines, treaty obligations (to the Philippines, to Japan and to NATO allies) that could force us into conflict where none was planned.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice [resident, foreign and defense policy studies, at the American Enterprise Institute.