The election is growing increasingly one-sided in the final weeks, and Hillary Clinton looks set to win a pretty substantial victory over Trump. That means that it’s probably time to stop speculating about who is going to win and start considering what sort of President Hillary Clinton would be. Part of the reason this election has been between two of the least popular candidates in history is that Clinton faces a lot of criticism among traditionally democratic voters for her hawkish stance on foreign intervention.
Clinton has a long history of advocating for the use of force to support foreign policy goals, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that she intends to bring this attitude to the White House. And this is particularly troubling due to the fact that world tensions are at an all-time high. Clinton’s stated intention of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria threatens to set off a conflict in a region that has the serious potential to destabilize internal relations between America and Russia, both of which have conflicting policy agendas regarding the Assad Regime.
And Clinton’s repeatedly hawkish rhetoric has worried officials on both sides. So with the potential for conflict with Russia at the highest it’s been since the end of the cold war, it’s worth examining what the reality of a conflict like that would be. Put simply, what would a war with Russia look like?
To begin with, we need to look at the military force that each side would be bringing to the table. The United States has built up a global military force since the end of the last war which dwarfs that of most other nations. That’s mostly because our assumed role as the sole global superpower has required a military force that is able to project power anywhere. In terms of sheer manpower, the million-plus soldiers in America’s army outnumber even China’s military. In fact, the only country that has more soldiers in arms is North Korea.
But that fact alone demonstrates why the total number of soldiers is a poor metric for comparing military strength. Firepower, measured in the number of tanks, ships, missiles, and aircraft is a much more effective way to gauge the fighting ability of one military over another. Though even by that set of criteria, the US outclasses Russia’s military by quite a bit.
But it’s important to remember that war rarely plays out according to how it should on paper. So what would happen if Russia were to suddenly invade the baltic NATO countries like Latvia and Estonia for instance, an act that would almost certainly lead to open war between Russia and the rest of NATO. In the first few hours, the fact of the matter is that as things stand now, they would face little serious resistance. While America has a much stronger military than Russia, little of it would actually be in a position to act.
The majority of US forces are spread out all over the world, meaning that the tank divisions in Russia would quickly roll through Eastern Europe, supported by the near entirety of the locally-based Russian military. What forces NATO could raise to stop them would be lightly armed and equipped. The first 48 hours would be a contest between NATO soldiers and Russian tanks and aircraft. Within that space of time, while America scrambled to mobilize every available asset to the continent, more Americans would likely die than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, not to mention the number of allied soldiers who would perish. We would lose more jets and military hardware than we have since Vietnam.
Yet the steady stream of redirected air power and tank divisions from allied countries and the US would quickly push Russian troops out of the Baltic States with heavy losses.
The danger in this scenario is not that America would lose a WWII style total war with Russia. The huge advantages that America has in industrial capacity, financial resources and available manpower make that a vanishingly small possibility. The danger is the obvious chance of escalation to nuclear war.
The US and Russia retain much of the cold war stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and the chance of mutually assured nuclear destruction would be as real as it ever was during the height of the Cuban Missle Crisis. This alone makes the chance of an actual shooting war with Russia unlikely. Assuming that both sides were negotiating rationally, the threat of nuclear war would compel both American and Russian officials to make the necessary concessions to avoid war over nearly any conflict.
And there’s an economic reason that neither side wants to see war. The economy of Western Europe depends heavily on the Nord Stream Pipeline, which moves most of the oil used by European industry from Russia’s oil fields. Similarly, Russia’s economy depends on this steady flow of cash from oil sales to keep it afloat.
Finally, a shrewd politician like Putin is unlikely to take a risk on open warfare, when the short and long term tactical reality means that he probably would stand to gain little from it.
The real trigger of open conflict is more likely to be uncontrolled, irrational escalation. The greatest real world example would be World War One, where a system of entangling alliances escalated a simple assassination of a second rate monarch into a world burning conflagration before anyone could stop it.
You might recognize that as similar to the current situation we have now with NATO. In the event of open hostilities, a destructive, yet limited conventional war would be the best case scenario.
Ultimately, if everyone involved is able to keep a clear head, war is unlikely. But history shows that this is a pretty big if.