Since the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, the third war by major Western powers against defenseless nations that had not threatened any other country (Yugoslavia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 being the previous examples) in a four year span, speculation has been rife as to which country would be the next target of military attack and where the next war would ensue.
So accustomed has the world become to expecting, if not accepting, wars, serial and gratuitous, to occur in the natural order of things, the discussion has centered not so much on whether war should be waged or whether it will be but solely on which nation or nations will be the next victim or victims of an unprovoked military onslaught.
In such an environment of international lawlessness and heightened alarm over military threats, otherwise minor contretemps and even fears of a neighbor's and potential adversary's intents can spark a conflict - and a conflagration.
The world has been on edge for a decade now and a form of numbing has set in with many of its inhabitants; a permanent condition of war apprehension and alert has settled over others, particularly those in areas likely to be directly affected. Over the past six years the worst and most immediate fears have centered on the prospects of three major regional conflicts, all of which are fraught with the danger of eventual escalation into nuclear exchanges.
The three are a renewed and intensified Indian-Pakistani conflict, an outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula and an attack by the US, Israel or both in unison against Iran.
The first would affect neighbors both in possession of nuclear weapons and a combined population of 1,320,000,000.
The second could set Northeast Asia afire with China and Russia, both having borders with North Korea, inevitably being pulled into the vortex.
The last could lead to an explosion in the Persian Gulf and throughout the Middle East, with the potential of spilling over into the Caspian Sea Basin, Central and South Asia, the Caucasus and even the Balkans, as the US and NATO have strategic air bases in Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and, at least for the time being, Kyrgyzstan that would be employed in any major assault on Iran and the latter would retaliate against both land- and sea-based threats as best it could.
In the event that any of the three scenarios reached the level of what in a humane and sensible world would be considered the unthinkable - the use of nuclear weapons - the cataclysmic consequences both for the respective regions involved and for the world would be incalculable.
Theoretically, though, all three nightmare models could be geographically contained.
There is a fourth spot on the map, however, where most any spark could ignite a powder keg that would draw in and pit against each other the world's two major nuclear powers and immediately and ipso facto develop into a world conflict. That area is the Baltic Sea region.
In 2003, months before NATO would grant full membership to the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Russian Defense Minister at the time, Sergei Ivanov, warned that such a development would entail the deployment of NATO, including US, warplanes "a three-minute flight away from St. Petersburg," Russia's second largest city.
And just that occurred. NATO air patrols began in 2004 on a three month rotational basis and US warplanes just completed their second deployment on January 4 of this year.
Had history occurred otherwise and Soviet warplanes alternated with those of fellow Warsaw Pact nations in patrolling over, say, the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Atlantic Coast off Nova Scotia, official Washington's response wouldn't be hard to imagine or long in coming.
A 2005 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council confirmed that the US maintained 480 nuclear bombs in Europe, hosted by six NATO allies, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey.
More recent estimates indicate that over 350 American nuclear weapons remain in Europe to the present time.
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