The last war: How a US-Russia conflict would play out
Hundreds of formidable tanks rolling down hills, thousands of high-caliber guns unleashing devastating artillery barrages, apocalyptic nuclear explosions, millions of deaths and indescribable suffering: that would be how any potential military conflict between US and Russia would play out.
RT explains why direct military confrontation between the two countries would not help solve a conflict, but instead be likely a world-ending catastrophe.
From escalation to détente
A Ukrainian drone hits targets in Donbass, the part of eastern Ukraine under the control of breakaway rebels. In an unexpected turn, the local Moscow-backed militias retaliate with greater force than usual, and Kiev's forces suffer heavy losses. This inspires Ukraine to launch a large-scale military offensive. After the first major air strike, Russian troops cross the eastern border, ostensibly to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Dozens of videos showing military hardware moving through cities and villages turn up on social media.
An American military instructor is killed by Russian artillery fire near Debaltseve, and the ‘cold war’ between NATO and Russia is quickly sliding into a hot one. The world is spiraling into chaos, as two massive military forces are getting ready for a long-feared confrontation...
This is, more or less, the picture that has gripped the imaginations of some of the more extreme people braying for a Moscow-Washington showdown.
For several years now, relations between Russia and the United States have left much to be desired, and warnings a potential military confrontation between the two most powerful militaries on the planet have been popping up with increasing regularity. Another surge started in November this year, when Bloomberg alleged that Russia may be preparing to invade Ukraine.
The narrative was quickly picked up by The New York Times, CBS News, and other major outlets. They talked about the threat of military action growing with the coming of the cold season; the US discussing potential response to a military conflict with its allies; and even the potential involvement of NATO member-states.
Russian officials have repeatedly denied any hostile intentions on the part of Moscow, but that did not help defuse the situation. In fact, as the war narrative spread across the information space, politicians started to sound more and more alarmed – one even went as far as to urge President Joe Biden to consider the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the enemy.
Military action could mean that we stand off with our ships in the Black Sea... It could mean that we participate, and I would not rule that out, I would not rule out American troops on the ground. We don’t rule out first use nuclear action
The online meeting between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden on December 7 relieved some of the tension. At the very least, the parties agreed to continue the dialogue. A week later, Moscow contacted the US side through official channels, presenting draft agreements with US and NATO on mutual security guarantees, which were soon made public.
Washington's reaction has been a diplomatic one. First, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that the United States will discuss Europe’s security issues with its allies. Then, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that Washington is open to dialogue.
“We are fundamentally prepared for dialogue. Russia has now put on the table its concerns with American and NATO activities; we’re going to put on the table our concerns [with Russia]”, he said at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Equally important, Sullivan stressed that, at the moment, the US government assumes that Russia has not made any major decisions regarding Ukraine.
Why did the US turn to dialogue with Russia?
“The shift to constructive dialogue comes from the fact that Moscow and Washington are well aware of the consequences of a potential military clash between the two countries,” explains Russian military observer and retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok.
Russia’s Armed Forces are considered one of the world’s strongest. In the annual Global Firepower report, which ranks the military power of 140 countries across the globe, Russia regularly ranks second, surpassed only by the US military.
In some areas, Moscow is well ahead of the competition. For example, the Russian Armed Forces have 13,000 tanks, which is more than twice as many as the US military (6,100). Most of them are Soviet-era antiques, but the backbone of the tank fleet consists of T-72, T-80, and T-90 tanks, which are perfectly capable machines. Modifications of the latter, according to Mikhail Khodarenok, “are very much on par with the latest versions of the M1 Abrams.”
The same applies to self-propelled artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems – in terms of their numbers, Russia leaves its competitors far behind.
However, military experts warn against making claims about military parity between Russia and the United States.
“The issue is, clearly, not that the Russian Army poses any serious threat to the United States. They have advanced so far technologically that, should they conduct warfare by conventional means, the US would overwhelm and defeat any adversary. They would raze it all to the ground,” Mikhail Khodarenok told RT.
Dmitry Stefanovich, Research fellow at the Center for international security at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO RAS), does not believe that the situation for the Russian military is entirely hopeless. In an interview with RT, he suggested that on a regional or even sub-regional level, Russia could achieve parity with the United States “or even a certain degree of superiority for a short period of time.” However, he added, in the event of a full-scale conflict, this temporary advantage would not be a decisive one.
“In principle, our ground troops could, in certain aspects, especially in missile forces, artillery, and air defense, surpass the Americans, but since the enemy would have an overwhelming advantage on sea and in the air, this wouldn’t be enough to achieve strategic objectives,” Stefanovich noted.
A battle of titans
In fact, all the strengths of the Russian Army are offset by multiple other factors, the most obvious of which is funding. US military spending is 17 times higher than that of Russia, in raw dollar terms. Moreover, every year the US spends more on defense, breaking records every time: in 2019-2021, the numbers were $685 billion, $738 billion, and $741 billion, respectively.
Russia has also increased its military budget over recent years, but not on the same scale as the US. In 2019, Moscow spent 3 trillion rubles on defense, another 3.09 trillion rubles in 2020, and 3.2 trillion rubles in 2021 (more than $40.77 billion, $41.99 billion, and $43.48 billion in dollar terms). However, because of the ruble’s volatility, the size of the Russian military budget in US dollar equivalents has not increased and is, in fact, falling (by about $200 million each year). In 2021, Russia’s defense budget was only $43 billion (more than 3.16 trillion rubles).
The difference in spending affects the strength of the two countries’ armed forces. According to The Military Balance 2021, the United States has just under 1.4 million active military personnel, while Russia has about 900,000. As for the individual branches of the armed forces, the difference between the two powers can sometimes be more than double: the US Navy has 346,000 servicemen, while the Russian Navy only has 145,000. Similarly, the US Air Force has a strength of 331,400 compared to the Russian Air Force, which is 165,000 strong; in terms of ground troops, the numbers are 485,400 and 280,000, respectively.
“In terms of hardware, the US Air Force and Navy are far ahead of Russia – Washington has ensured its lead in this area for years to come. Consider the Navy alone: the US has 11 aircraft carriers – we have one,” said Khodarenok.
He also reminded that alliances should not be taken out of the equation. In that respect, Russia’s chances don’t look too good, either. The US is part of NATO, a bloc of 30 countries. Russia, in turn, is one of just seven members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), others being Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
America has allies outside NATO, while Russia has none. Even Beijing, described by US journalists as an adversary that could team up with Russia in a potential World War III, has no binding ties with Moscow.
Finally, Russia, unlike the US, has its military presence in a limited number of territories: mainly in the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in unrecognized Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, as well as Syria. Belarus and Kazakhstan host Russian radar stations, and there are plans to open a Russian naval base in Sudan. With a network of allies that small, Moscow can hardly pose any threat to Washington.
“There is no parity between Russia and the US in terms of conventional warfare, and there can hardly be any global parity, given the difference in economic weight, scientific and technical potential and the size and structure of respective alliances,” said Stefanovich.
In what way, then, could Russia threaten the US?
“In theory, Russia could sink carriers or strike American bases in Europe, the Middle East or Asia with high-precision long-range conventional arms,” Stefanovich noted.
He also believes that, in a hypothetical conflict, Washington is unlikely to view such losses as unacceptable.
“The enemy’s retaliation would be much more destructive, even in the case of a reciprocal response. Annihilating Russian bases in Syria or sinking Russian ships outside our territorial waters would be a trivial task for the US Navy and Air Force. Going back to conventional arms, striking American critical infrastructure using non-nuclear weapons would not achieve any strategic goals, and the US ability to respond is insurmountably bigger. It would also be shortsighted and unprofessional to hope that they wouldn’t retaliate,” Stefanovich added.
All of the arguments outlined above are often brought up by the Western media when talking about a potential conflict between Russia and NATO. However, this is only true if we consider conventional arms, which exclude weapons of mass destruction. And it is Russia’s nuclear capabilities that make it the world’s second military power. According to SIPRI, Moscow has 6,255 nuclear warheads, while the US has 5,550. Needless to say, Russian warheads are many times more destructive than Little Boy and Fat Man, which were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the final weeks of World War II.
Hypothetical conflict scenarios spell swift defeat to Russia; so, according to Khodarenok, any armed confrontation between the two powers “could easily escalate to an exchange of nuclear strikes.”
“That’s the only way. First off, the US wouldn’t confront Russia alone; there will surely be a coalition with the European Union, and the military superiority of US and NATO would make nuclear weapons the only means for Russia to defend itself. But that could hardly be called a war,” said Khodarenok.
Both governments are fully aware of this and probably don’t want to bring things to the boiling point. As the well-known quote by Albert Einstein goes, no matter what weapons World War III is fought with, World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. Russian military analysts are even more specific, saying that “a nuclear war with a country like Russia will be the last in human history.”
That said, it’s very likely that humankind doesn’t entirely comprehend the fallout from a potential nuclear war. In October 2021, the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres published an article by US researchers explaining that a nuclear war would be much more devastating than anyone previously believed.
They estimate that a potential nuclear conflict between Russia and the US will not only result in millions of deaths, but also lead to catastrophic environmental changes across the globe. Nuclear strikes will inject 150 megatons of soot into the atmosphere, causing global fires and eventually a nuclear winter. Moreover, UV Index values will become extreme, reducing the ozone layer by as much as 75% globally.
“A war between Russia and the US might happen only if one or both countries continuously misinterpret the intent of their respective opponent and misjudge their own ability to control the escalation. Still, I’m pretty much positive that even if there are incidents resulting in deaths of Russian or US soldiers or destruction of ships or planes, Moscow and Washington will do everything in their power to prevent the situation from escalating any further,” Stefanovich said.
Although experts don’t believe there could really be a war between Russia and the US, speculation on the subject is unlikely to cease unless there is some kind of détente. Washington and NATO allies agreed to discuss Moscow’s proposals on mutual security guarantees: first round of negotiations will happen in Geneva in January. "We hope that no one else views conflicts as a desirable scenario. We will toughly ensure our security by those means that we deem appropriate," said Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, summing up Moscow's view on the subject.