“How did we just kill a billion people?”
Over just three days, as I have done countless times over the last several years, a group of past and present senior U.S. government officials from both sides of the aisle gathered to wage a NATO-Russia war in a simulation at the end of 2019. In the course of what we called the NATO-Russia War of 2019, we estimated one billion people died. And if we aren’t careful, what happened in a simulation could happen if a NATO-Russia war erupts over Ukraine.
In fact, in the simulation I mentioned above from 2019, in which Russia invades Ukraine in a similar way as it did over the last week or so, not only does NATO get sucked in unintentionally, but Russia eventually releases nuclear weapons in its desperation. The result is an eventual escalation of bigger and more dangerous nuclear weapons whereby over one billion lives are lost.
But before we start staring into the abyss, allow me to explain the goal of such simulations. NATO clearly would have a massive conventional advantage in any war with Moscow, ensuring that in a straight-up fight Putin would lose. However, Russia has stated time and time again it will use nuclear weapons to defend its territory and its regime if it feels mortally threatened. Our simulation always seems to ask: Can we ever defeat Russian President Vladamir Putin in an armed conflict over Ukraine or the Baltics and not start a nuclear war in the process?
So far, over at least several years, and with at least 100 different participants that all held different ideas about war and political allegiances, the answer is a flat out no.
Setting the Scene for War
The scenario the group decided to test back in late 2019 was similar to today: Russia decided to invade Ukraine under the excuse that it is must defend Russian-speaking peoples that are being “oppressed” by Ukraine’s fascist government. In our scenario, we assumed Russia performs far more admirably than it does today but has more limited objectives, in that Moscow wants to connect Crimea to separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine that are under its effective control. We assumed that Russia does that quickly, achieving most of its military objectives in roughly four days.
But Ukraine does not give up so easily, just like in real life today. Ukrainian forces, after taking heavy losses, mount an impressive counterattack, whereby Russia loses over 100 tanks and over 2,500 soldiers. Images on social media show Russian armor ablaze, elite Su-35 fighter jets are shut down from the skies, and arms are now flowing in from the West in massive numbers.
Putin is outraged. He thought Ukraine would simply roll over, but he does not factor into his calculus the nearly decades-long training Kyiv received from the U.S. and NATO nor Ukraine’s military build-up for the last several years that was focused on this scenario.
Russia then decides that its limited military objectives were a mistake, and that all of Ukraine must be “demilitarized.” Moscow then launches a massive ballistic and cruise missile strike followed up by Russia’s air force launching its own shock and awe campaign, destroying a vast majority of Ukraine’s command and control structure, air force, air defense, and armored units in the process. At the same time, Russia starts surging troops to the borders of Ukraine in what looks like an imminent general invasion and occupation of the entire country.
Here is where things take a turn for the worst. A Russian ballistic missile’s guidance system fails and crash-lands into NATO member Poland, killing 34 civilians as it tragically lands into a populated village along the Polish-Ukraine border. While the missile was not directed at Poland intentionally, pictures on social media show children crying for their mothers and bodies left unrecognizable, and demands for justice and revenge mount.
To its credit, Poland, which has its own tortured history with the Soviet Union and Russia, does its best to show restraint. While not responding with its own military, it leads an effort to see that Moscow pays a steep price for its aggression in Ukraine and actions, even unintentional, in Poland. Warsaw leads a diplomatic and economic boycott of Moscow resulting in Russia being kicked out of SWIFT as well as direct sanctions on Russian banks, similar to what we are seeing today.
In our scenario, Russia’s reaction is also swift. Moscow decides to launch a massive cyber attack on Poland, having based cyber warriors all throughout NATO territory, using their geography and proxy servers to mask the origin of the attack. Russia, in just two hours, takes off-line Poland’s entire electrical grid, banking sector, energy plants, and more — essentially taking Poland back to the stone age.
And this is where the nightmare begins. Even though attribution is hard to achieve, Poland appeals to NATO and starts to privately share its desire to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter, declaring that an attack on one is an attack on the entire alliance. NATO is worried, as there is debate on how far to punish Russia while also feeling as if they do not have a clear military objective amongst the member states as some want to respond to what happened to Poland while others feel they must intervene militarily in Ukraine.
Here is where NATO surprises everyone. The alliance decides to set up a limited no-fly zone around the Ukrainian city of Lviv to protect innocent civilians and refugees that are trapped and have nowhere to go. Russia is warned: NATO is not intervening in the conflict, but will ensure that its planes and the airspace around Lviv are protected. NATO does make clear its jets will be in the skies above Ukraine, but will not operate from Ukrainian territory.
In Moscow, Putin now gets a sense that NATO is destined to intervene on Ukraine’s side. Russia fears NATO will use this protected corridor as a base of operations to send ever more sophisticated weapons. And with its economy now in a tailspin due to sanctions, Putin feels the walls closing in him. Before NATO can impose its no-fly zone, Putin orders strikes on any remaining airfields and military assets around Lviv.
But here is where Putin miscalculates and sets the stage for a NATO-Russia war. Putin orders another massive cyber attack on the Baltic states’ military infrastructure, thinking that NATO will use the Baltics to stage an invasion of Russia.
This ends up being the last straw for NATO, which then decides direct intervention in Ukraine is necessary to push back against Russian aggression. Before even an announcement is made, Russian intelligence sees missile and troop movements that indicate an impending NATO attack and decide to strike first — with tactical nuclear weapons. NATO decides to respond in kind.
Russia then targets European cities with nuclear weapons, with NATO and America also responding in kind. What is left is nothing short of an apocalypse, with what we estimate is billion people dead.
No War Goes As Planned
In every scenario I have been a part of there is one common theme to all of them: When Vladimir Putin feels boxed in and feels Russia is directly threatened, usually from a mistake he makes on the battlefield, he decides to use whatever escalatory step he desires to try and make up for it.
While we may well soon see Ukraine and Russia find a diplomatic path out of this brutal war, both sides seem dug in. That means the chances for escalation like the above are high. And if Russia and NATO do become involved in direct conflict, Putin knows that in a conventional fight his regime would be defeated. That means Russia will choose nuclear war.
The only question in a NATO-Russia war seems obvious: how many millions or billions of people would die?