Could there be war between Russia and the West?

When relations between the West and Russia were bad, but not so bad: Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for the U.S. - Russia Summit in 2021 in Switzerland. Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The saber-rattling and rhetoric between Moscow and the West have become notably more aggressive this week, prompting concerns that a direct confrontation between the two power blocs could be more likely.

In the last few days alone, for example, Russia stopped gas supplies to two European countries and has warned the West several times that the risk of a nuclear war is very “real.”

In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that any foreign intervention in Ukraine would provoke what he called a “lightning fast” response from Moscow, while his Foreign Ministry warned NATO not to test its patience.

For their part, Western officials have dismissed Russia’s “bravado” and “dangerous” nuclear war rhetoric, with the U.K. calling on Western allies to “double down” on their support for Ukraine.

At the start of the week, Russia’s foreign minister warned that the threat of a nuclear war “cannot be underestimated” and said NATO’s supply of weapons to Ukraine was tantamount to the military alliance engaging in a proxy war with Russia. 

Putin doubled down on the bellicose rhetoric Wednesday, threatening a “lightning fast” retaliation against any country intervening in the Ukraine war and creating what he called “strategic threats for Russia.”

He then appeared to allude to Russia’s arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons when he warned that Russia has the “tools” for a retaliatory response “that no one else can boast of having now … we will use them if necessary.”

But strategists told CNBC that Putin is playing on risk aversion in the West and that the chances of a nuclear war are remote.

“I think it’s outside the realm of possibility right now that there’s going to be a nuclear war or World War III that really spills over that far beyond Ukraine’s borders,” Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told CNBC.

“If there’s a border spillover right now, we’re still probably most likely looking at something like Moldova being vulnerable to an invasion,” he said.

He noted that Russia has a long history of using “nuclear brinkmanship” as a way of preventing the West from pursuing security policies that it doesn’t like, with the escalation in hostile rhetoric aimed at deterring NATO members from making heavy arms deliveries to Ukraine.

While NATO has shied away from providing any aid to Ukraine that could be misconstrued as a direct attack on Russia, Western allies continue to pile on the pressure on Moscow.

Indeed, the economic punishment on Russia has been increasing by the day, in the form of more sanctions on its businesses, key sectors and officials close to or within Putin’s regime. Russia’s own Economy Ministry expects the economy to contract as a result, by 8.8% in 2022 in its base-case scenario, or by 12.4% in a more conservative scenario, Reuters reported.

For its part, Russia has sought to inflict its own pain on European countries that are, awkwardly, heavily reliant on Russian natural gas imports. This week it suspended supplies to Poland and Bulgaria because they refused to pay for the gas in rubles. Russia’s move was branded as “blackmail” by the EU but defended by Moscow.

While a direct confrontation between Russia and the West remains unlikely, one close Russia watcher said Western governments need to imbue their populations with a “war mentality” to prepare them for the hardships they could face as the economic fallout from the war continues. Those include rising energy costs and disrupted supply chains and goods from Russia and Ukraine, among the world’s biggest “bread baskets.”


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