THE world is already at war and Europe and Britain aren’t exempt.

The metaphorical tocsin is already sounding.

Last week we had German defence minister Boris Pistorius warn that Vladimir Putin could attack Nato in the next five to eight years. UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps happily backed up this claim. Their words were more than sabre-rattling.

This week will see the start of Steadfast Defender, Nato’s biggest military exercise since the end of the Cold War 35 years ago. A record number of US, British and other troops from the alliance, plus air and naval forces, will hold war games premised on combating a Russian invasion of a Nato country – think one of the Baltic states.

According to the US Army’s General Christopher Cavoli, Nato’s supreme allied commander Europe, some 90,000 troops are slated to take part in Steadfast Defender, which would make it the largest gathering of troops for an exercise on the continent in decades.

Britain is supplying 20,000 military personnel, which is a lot given the Tories have reduced the army to a paltry 100,000 – two-thirds of what it was when the Berlin Wall came down. We’re also down to around 150 operational main battle tanks, which is fewer than Bahrain, Chile, or Cyprus.

Helpfully, Cavoli announced that a “whole-of-society” effort is needed to prepare for a conflict with Russia.

READ MORE: Ex-Labour MP labels Keir Starmer 'shameful' over Gaza ceasefire stance

Cavoli’s university dissertation was entitled The Effect of Earthworms on the Vertical Distribution of Slime Molds in the Soil. This makes him eminently qualified to suggest every man woman and child in Europe is preparing to meet advancing Russian tanks with whatever sticks and stones come to hand. Or at least that Britain should fork out for a few more tanks.

It is tempting to be facetious when faced with this bombastic rhetoric. But both the military brass and the politicians are ramping up talk of war with assorted potential enemies – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran. The problem is that bombastic rhetoric can easily end up as a shooting war.

Take, for instance, the recent utterances of Admiral Rob Bauer, a Dutch naval officer and head of Nato’s Military Committee. Right: you have no idea who Bauer is or what the Military Committee does. Well, it is composed of the heads of all the individual Nato forces. This is the big brass of the big brass.

The committee’s role is to advise the politicians on military policy and strategy; ie how to fight the next war. Here is what Bauer said last week: “We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [Nato forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia.”

He went on: “But the discussion is much wider … the people have to understand they play a role.”

In other words, the true reason for the Steadfast Defender exercise is less to deter Moscow – which has its hands full in Ukraine – and more to soften up the electorates of Europe to accept more defence spending and more military action around the globe by the West, such as the recent missile strikes against the Houthis.

The National: Vladimir Putin

Put another way – the generals, admirals and politicians are bent on scaring us all out of our collective wits. And that way madness lies, in the shape of a Third World War.

The countdown has already started. Since the Hamas incursions into Israel on October 7, a network of distinct local conflicts in the Middle and Near East have started to coalesce into something interconnected and therefore potentially globally cataclysmic.

In Gaza, despite sustained bombing, Hamas seems able to maintain a stout resistance to the Israeli military.

This in turn is tempting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a tainted figure desperate to prolong the conflict so as to avoid a day of reckoning with his country’s electorate – to up the military ante by attacking Iranian assets across the region.

Meanwhile, the longer Hamas holds out in Gaza, the more Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Tehran itself, are forced to expand military strikes against Israel and the West, rather than lose face.

The war is spreading into sad, unstable Iraq – with Iran, Iranian proxies, Israel and the US all launching strikes against each other’s local bases. US and British air attacks against the Houthis have led to increased missile attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, further disrupting world trade.

READ MORE: Netanyahu 'will not compromise on full Israeli control' over Gaza

The recent flare-up on the Iran-Pakistan border is also proof that the encroachment of the general conflict is exacerbating internal ethnic and religious tensions across the region.

None of this means that Messers Shapps, Pistorius, Cavoli and Bauer are correct in predicting a wider, globalised conflict. That could happen but only if we talk ourselves into it. The weakness in the belligerent “warnings” now coming from Western politicians and military bosses is that they are trapped in a time warp that wants to re-run the Cold War.

But the Nato-Soviet confrontation explicitly assumed that mutually assured destruction (“Mad”) would forestall the use of nuclear weapons by either side. That calculation displaced confrontation towards conventional, economic and diplomatic warfare.

However, with nuclear proliferation and the advent of an unstable, multi-polar world – rather than the more predictable Cold War, bi-polar system – we live in a different world.

Nuclear war is no longer unthinkable or even untenable. Putin is calculating that his nuclear shield gives him free rein to use physical and electronic force against neighbouring states, including the Baltics. The Steadfast Defender exercise will not change his mind.

He is perfectly capable of using tactical nukes.

Meanwhile, the millenarian political movements now endemic in the Middle and Near East (following disappointment with old-style socialist and nationalist ideas) might conceivably welcome nuclear Armageddon, if it destroys the West.

We will not maintain political and military stability through an arms race or by playing a new game of international chicken using super nukes. The world craves a new political and economic dispensation. Relying simply on constructing a fresh balance of terror risks the house of cards toppling into a nuclear conflagration. The Gaza conflict proves that.

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This is where small, independent countries come in. An indispensable but now forgotten part of the Cold War system was the moderating role played by the non-aligned movement of nations lying outside the set of forced alliances created by West and East.

This grouping centred on the post-colonial states in Africa and Asia. Certainly, there was a lot of posturing involved. Yet the non-aligned movement played an indispensable role in blunting East-West political competition and accelerating decolonialisation.

One of the many missed opportunities arising from the No vote of a decade ago is that an independent Scotland is not on the world stage at this perilous juncture.

I’m not suggesting indy Scotland would change things on its own.

But potentially we could act as a lever to promote a new, saner group of small nations that might act as a brake on the big powers. Who would listen to Scotland, our Unionist critics will chorus.

These are the same folk who are outraged because the FM invited Turkey’s President Erdogan to Scotland.