Tensions between NATO and Russia have escalated in recent days amid stark warnings from top NATO officials about the potential for a large-scale war with Russia within the next 20 years. While the war in Ukraine continues, both sides seem to be bracing for a potential expansion or escalation of the conflict.
NATO Admiral Warns of “All-Out War” With Russia
On Tuesday, British Royal Navy Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of NATO’s military committee, gave a bleak assessment about the chances for peace with Russia in the coming decades. Speaking at a panel at the Atlantic Council think tank, Radakin warned that Russia currently poses an “acute threat” and that the West needs to prepare for the possibility of “all-out war” with Russia at some point in the next 20 years.
“There is a genuine risk that we are sleepwalking into that ever greater crisis and that ever greater tragedy,” Radakin said. “It may not happen next week, it may not happen next month, but when the tectonic plates of world power are shifting as dramatically as they are, that brings genuine threat.”
Radakin called on Western civilian and military leaders to “make sure we’re ready for that high-intensity warfight” through new technology, modernized NATO military structures, increased defense spending, and improved supply chains and infrastructure. He said NATO needs a “radically different” deterrent posture toward Russia, moving from “assurance to deterrence.”
“What you see with Russia is this sense of constant competition and they’ve showed that they’re prepared to use military force,” he said. “If you extrapolate from that, what does the Russia of 2030 and 2040 look like? What are the technological capabilities it has at its fingertips, both the conventional and unconventional?”
Radakin’s stark warning comes as NATO undertakes its annual “Steadfast Defender” military exercises in Eastern Europe, which are focused on training for a major inter-state conflict. About 20,000 troops from 20 nations are involved in exercises taking place in Germany, Romania, and the Baltic Sea.
Meanwhile, Russia is also conducting a series of annual strategic military exercises, with 300,000 Russian troops participating in exercises spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Russian Far East. Russia has also sent a fleet of 14 warships sailing around Europe in recent weeks.
NATO Boosting Support for Ukraine Amid Renewed Russian Offensive
Radakin’s warning about future conflict with Russia also comes as NATO seeks to boost military support for Ukraine to push back against Russia’s renewed offensive in the eastern Donbas region.
After Ukrainian forces made significant territorial gains in the second half of 2022, Russia has refocused its efforts on capturing the remaining Ukrainian-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which make up the contested Donbas region.
The fighting has been centered around the key city of Bakhmut in Donetsk. While Ukrainian forces have slowed and bloodied advancing Russian troops with staunch defenses, Russia continues to make slow progress, according to NATO officials.
At a press conference on Wednesday, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana praised Ukraine’s battlefield achievements but said Russia is now mobilizing more forces for a spring offensive.
“Russia is now trying to regain momentum,” Geoana said. “We know that the Spring may bring extra challenges with a possible Russian offensive.”
| NATO Military Aid Commitments to Ukraine |
| ————- |
| United States| $27.4 billion|
|European Union| $14.5 billion|
|United Kingdom| $4.0 billion|
| Germany| $2.7 billion |
|Poland | $1.8 billion|
Geoana said Ukraine remains a top priority for NATO, and the alliance is providing unprecedented levels of military assistance. At a summit in Vilnius next July, NATO leaders will discuss further aid commitments for Ukraine.
So far, NATO member countries have committed nearly $50 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began last February. The continued flow of advanced air defenses, armored vehicles, artillery systems and ammunition has been credited with blunting successive Russian offensives and allowing Ukrainian forces to reclaim occupied territory.
Tensions With Belarus Adding to Fears
In addition to the direct Russia-Ukraine conflict, fears have grown in recent weeks over increasing military cooperation between Russia and neighboring Belarus. Throughout the war, Belarus has served as a staging ground for Russian attacks into northern Ukraine.
On Thursday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced that Belarus will now host Russian fighter jets and bombers equipped with nuclear capabilities, as part of forming a new joint regional military group with Russia.
The move received swift condemnation from Ukraine and several NATO nations. “The nuclear blackmail, which was started by Putin, is now complemented by Lukashenka,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said America would respond “decisively” along with NATO allies if Belarus allowed Russia to station nuclear weapons on its soil.
The growing alignment between Russia and Belarus, along with Lukashenko’s increasing belligerent rhetoric toward Ukraine and the West, points to even higher tensions in the months ahead.
Preparing for New Realities
While total war between NATO and Russia is still seen as a remote possibility by many analysts, Radakin’s warning reflects growing concern within the alliance about Russia’s long-term intentions and capabilities.
His call for NATO to shift to a renewed deterrence posture, ready equipment and infrastructure for high-tech “hybrid” conflicts, and prepare civilian populations for crises points to a alliance bracing for potential larger conflicts down the road – whether directly with Russia or its allies.
For NATO civilians and member state governments, that may mean boosting societal resilience programs, critical infrastructure protections, supply stockpiles, and civil defense capabilities. For NATO military leaders, it likely signals deeper cooperation and integration between allied forces and capabilities.
As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues with no end in sight, events seem to be drawing NATO and Russia into deeper opposition and competition. And now the specter of a much wider conflict in the decades ahead looms over European security. Whether peace ultimately prevails likely depends on steps taken by leaders on both sides today.
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