BBC Imagines World War III

Believing their own propaganda about “Russian aggression,” Western leaders are building up NATO forces in the Baltic states, which treat ethnic Russians as second-class citizens, possibly provoking a nuclear showdown that no one wants and that a searing BBC documentary imagines, writes Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

The documentary film “World War Three: Inside the War Room was described in advance by the BBC as a “war game” detailing the minute-by-minute deliberations of the country’s highest former defense and security officials facing an evolving crisis involving Russia.

What gave unusual realism and relevance to their participation is that they were speaking their own thoughts, producing their own argumentation, not reading out lines handed to them by television script writers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Austria on June 24, 2014. (Official Russian government photo)

The mock crisis to which they were reacting occurs in Latvia as the Kremlin’s intervention on behalf of Russian speakers in the south of this Baltic country develops along lines of events in the Donbas as from summer 2014. When the provincial capital of Daugavpils and more than 20 towns in the surrounding region bordering Russia are taken by pro-Russian separatists, the United States calls upon its NATO allies to deliver an ultimatum to the Russians to pull back their troops within 72 hours or be pushed out by force.

This coalition of the willing only attracts the British. After the deadline passes, the Russians “accidentally” launch a tactical nuclear strike against British and American vessels in the Baltic Sea, destroying two ships with the loss of 1,200 Marines and crew on the British side. Washington then calls for like-for-like nuclear attack on a military installation in Russia, which, as we understand, leads to full nuclear war.

The show was aired on Feb. 3 by BBC Two, meaning it was directed at a domestic audience, not the wider world. However, in the days since its broadcast, it has attracted a great deal of attention outside the United Kingdom, more in fact than within Britain. The Russians, in particular, adopted a posture of indignation, calling the film a provocation.

In his widely watched weekend wrap-up of world news, Russia’s senior television journalist Dimitri Kiselev devoted close to ten minutes denouncing the BBC production. He cited one participant (former UK Ambassador to Russia Sir Tony Brenton) expressing pleasure at the idea of “killing tens of thousands of Russians.” This segment was later repeated on Vesti hourly news programs during the past week. Kiselev asked rhetorically how the British would react if Moscow produced a mirror image show from its War Room.

For its part, the world broadcaster Russia Today issued a harsh review which castigates the British broadcaster for presenting Russia as “Dr. Evil Incarnate, the villain that regularly plays opposite peace-loving NATO nations.” It saw the motivation of the producers as related to “the military-industrial shopping season.”

RT alleges the BBC was trying to drum up popular support for the modernization of Britain’s nuclear Trident submarines at a cost to taxpayers of some 100 billion pounds ($144.7 billion).

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it was low grade, translated by some as trash, and that he didn’t bother to watch it. If so, that is a pity for the reasons I will set out below.

The program also generated a great deal of emotion in Latvia, on both sides of the fundamental issue. The country’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics tweeted that he found parts of the program to be ‘’rubbish’’ while other parts had lessons to be studied. Public Broadcasting of Latvia was concerned over the scant support the country appears to enjoy in Britain and other NATO member states, judging by the deliberations in the War Room.

For their part, members of the Russian speaking community were deeply upset by the way the program provides grist to the mill of those who view them as a fifth column ready to be used by the Kremlin for its aggressive purposes.

Examination of the British print media’s reaction to World War Three results in a very different impression of the film. Reviews in the British press mostly directed attention to the program’s entertainment value. The Telegraph called the film “gripping and terrifying.”

The Independent reviewer tells us: “It started out as quite a dull discussion but as the hypothetical situation escalated and boy did it escalate quickly it fast became compelling, if not terrifying, viewing. It was a little clichéd the Russians were the bad guys, the UK set lots of deadlines but ultimately wouldn’t commit to any action and the US went in all guns (or nuclear weapons) blazing but then clichés are always clichés for a reason.”

In a reversal of roles, the tabloid Daily Mail ended up doing the heavy lifting for the British press with thoughtful in-depth reporting.

The Daily Mail expressed deep surprise at the way World War Three ends, with the War Room team voting overwhelmingly to order Trident submarine commanders not to fire even as Russian nuclear ICBMs have been launched and are on their way to targets in the West, including England. The paper noted, correctly I might add, that this puts in question the value of the Trident deterrent, which the Cameron government is planning to renew. The newspaper sent out its reporters to follow up on this stunning aspect of the BBC film.

The Daily Mail especially wanted elucidation of two remarks at the very end of the film, just prior to the final vote. One was by Sir Tony Brenton, UK Ambassador to Russia, 2004-2008, who says in the film: “Do we pointlessly kill millions of Russians or not? To me it’s a no-brainer we do not.”

This quote deserves special attention because it was made by Brenton right after his widely cited and seemingly scandalous statement which has been taken out of context, namely that he wouldn’t mind killing tens of thousands of Russians in response to the destruction of the British vessel in the Baltic by Russia at the cost of 1,200 British lives.

The second remark from the end of the film cited by The Daily Mail which they in fact follow-up was more surprising still, coming as it did from a top military official, General Sir Richard Shirreff, who served as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, 2011-2014. Shirreff declared on camera: “I say do not fire.”
When asked about it, Shirreff gave the newspaper a still better sound bite that bears repeating in full: “At this point it was clear deterrence had failed. My feeling was it had become a moral issue that the use of force can only be justified to prevent a greater evil if the UK is going to be obliterated, what is going to be achieved if we obliterate half of Russia as well? It was going to create an even worse evil.”

It is a great pity that the Kremlin has chosen to vilify the BBC’s producers and overlook these extraordinary open text signals from the very top of the British political and defense elites.

If nothing else, The Daily Mail reporting knocks out the easy answers and compels us to ask anew what did the British broadcaster have in mind when it produced the pseudo-documentary World War Three. Moreover, why did top former British diplomats, military officials and politicians agree to participate in this film?

In one sense, this film is a collective selfie. It might be just another expression of our contemporary narcissism, when former top government officials publish their memoirs soon after leaving office and tell all. But several of the participants are not even former office holders. They continue to be active and visible.

One can name the Liberal Democrat Baroness Falkner, spokesperson for foreign policy. Also, Dr. Ian Kearns who remains very much in the news as the director of the European Leadership Network, partner to the leadership of the Munich Security Conference and a member of teams that are invited to Moscow from time to time to talk international security issues with the Russians. Surely these VIP participants in the film had no intension of cutting off contacts by antagonizing the Kremlin. So there is something else going on.

What that something else might be can be teased out if we pay close attention to their deliberations on screen. I believe they earnestly sought to share with the British public the burden of moral and security decision-making, to present themselves as reasonable people operating to the best of their knowledge and with all due respect for contrary opinions to reach the best possible recommendations for action in the national interest.

In the War Room, we are presented with two very confident hardliners, General Richard Shirreff, mentioned above, and Admiral Lord West, former Chief of Naval Staff; and with two very confident soft-liners, Baronness Falkner, the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesman, and Sir Tony Brenton. The others seated at the table do not have firm views and are open to persuasion.

It is noteworthy that argumentation is concise and apart from the occasional facial expression showing exasperation with opponents, there is a high level of purely intellectual debate throughout. Though one of the reviewers in the British press calls Falkner a “peacenik” in what is not meant as a compliment, no such compartmentalizing of thinking appears in the video. And the counter arguments are set out in some detail.

The voting at turning points in the developing scenario of confrontation with Russia is open. When the participants consider Britain joining the United States-led coalition of the willing ready to use force to eject the Russians from Latvia, they insist they will not be passive in the relationship, will not be Washington’s “poodle.” This is in clear reference to criticism of the Blair government’s joining the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Baroness Falkner is allowed to question the very logic of NATO. She calls the early decisions taken by the majority of her colleagues “sleepwalking,” an allusion to the group think that brought all of Europe into the suicidal First World War. With further reference to WWI, she says that the British government must look after the security of its people and not blindly submit to the wishes of an Alliance when that spells doom, such as happened in 1914.

At each turn of the voting on what to do next until the very last, the hardliners win out. But positions can and ultimately do flip-flop. In the end the overwhelming majority around the table decides not to press the button.
However, if the participants want to show themselves as open-minded and sincere, that does mean that the facts they work from are objective and equally well vetted. Here we come to a crucial problem of the video: Narration of the pre-history to the crisis over the Baltics, namely the archival footage on the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, the Russian “annexation” of Crimea and the Russian “intervention” in Donbass, is an unqualified presentation of the narrative from Washington and London, with Russia as “aggressor.” The narration of the crisis events as they unfold is also the unqualified, unchallenged view from the Foreign Office.

The pseudo-reporting on the ground in Daugavpils which is the epicenter of the crisis gives viewers part of the reason for the fictional Russian intervention, but only a small part. One Russian speaker tells the reporter that she is there in the demonstration because Russian-speakers have been deprived of citizenship since the independence of Latvia and this cannot continue.

But we are not told what the former diplomats in the War Room surely know: that Britain was complicit in this situation. In fact, the British knew perfectly well from before the vote on accession of the Baltic states to the European Union in 2004 that Latvia and Estonia were in violation of the rules on minorities of European conventions.

However, in the back-room negotiations which led to the final determination of the list of new Member States, the British chose to ignore the Latvian violations, which should have held up admission, for the sake of getting support from other Member States for extending E.U. membership to Cyprus.

The unfolding scenario of Russian actions and Western reactions does not attempt to penetrate Russian thinking in any depth. We are given the usual generalizations about the personality of Vladimir Putin. The most profound observation we are offered is that Russian elites only understand strength and would not allow Putin to back down, so he must be offered face-saving gestures even as his aggression is foiled.

The objectives of Russian moves on the geopolitical chessboard are not debated. The question of how the Baltics and Ukraine are similar or different for Russian national interest is hardly explored. Simply put, as the British press reviews understood, the Russians are “bad guys.”

Moreover, the authors of this war game assume that the past is a good guide to the future, which in warfare of all kinds is very often a fallacious and dangerous assumption. There is no reason to believe that the Russian “hybrid warfare” used in the Crimea and Donbass would be applied to the Baltics, or that escalation would be gradual.

Given the much smaller scale of the Baltic states, each with two million or fewer inhabitants, and the short logistical lines, it might be more reasonable to consider the Russians moving in and occupying the capitals in one fell swoop if they had reason to do so.

At present, they do not. But if the build-up of NATO troops and materiel along the Western frontiers of Russia and in the Baltic Sea continues as projected in President Obama’s latest appropriations for that purpose, reason for Russian action might well appear.

In this case, the confrontation might proceed straight to red alert on strategic nuclear forces without any intermediary pinpricks that this film details, much as happened back in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The British, as well as other NATO countries would then be totally sidelined as talks went on directly between Moscow and Washington.

The tragedy in our times of “information warfare” is that well-educated and sincere citizens are blind-sighted. We have an old maxim that when you cannot persuade, confuse. The fatal flaw comes when you start to believe your own propaganda.

If nothing else, the BBC documentary demonstrates that for Western elites this is what has happened. The reaction to the film from the Kremlin, suggests the same has happened to Eastern elites.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to [email protected]  © Gilbert Doctorow

16 comments for “BBC Imagines World War III

  1. john edward driessler
    February 16, 2016 at 04:15

    The United States currently has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world one-hundred times over. President Obama wants the United States to spend one trillion dollars during the course of the next twenty years to “modernize” and miniaturize nuclear weapons. He among all the world leaders is reckless and immoral to do this. Shame on England for blindly following America’s dictates.
    I am an American and deplore the existance of all nuclear weapons. I saw heavy combat in Vietnam during the worst year of the that debacle in 1968. My platoon saw forty replacements
    come and go during that year. We also lost “old timers” and that really hurt.
    Ban nuclear weapons because there won’t be 90% casualties but the ending of mankind.
    There will be a nuclear winter and that will kill the crops and all the livestock. I will gurantee you that the survivors will envy the dead.

  2. Dave
    February 13, 2016 at 19:29

    If Trident is targeted on military installations only, would it not be fair to assume the Russian missiles coming in would be targeted on military sites only in this country?.

  3. Barry
    February 13, 2016 at 11:06

    Also worth mentioning that it was made clear in the film, and was an important factor in their decision-making, that Britain’s nuclear weapons are targeted at military targets only, and not civilian.

  4. Barry
    February 13, 2016 at 10:59

    I found the film gripping myself, and thought it gave a fascinating insight. I don’t think those in the war room believed their own ‘propaganda’, they believed it because it’s real – Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine – maybe you didn’t notice the annexation of Crimea and the 8,000 dead in eastern Ukraine?

    I’m also surprised by the media’s reaction to the panel’s decision not to launch nuclear weapons. A crucial point seems to have been missed. The majority decided there was no point launching a retaliatory strike at THAT point – while Russian missiles were in the air – that launching would not save those British citizens, and not affect Britain’s ability to launch. They were willing to wait to see if the Russian missiles struck before responding. But there was unanimity that they would launch if or when the Russian missiles landed.

  5. February 13, 2016 at 03:35

    The War Room consists of a majority that can only be described as complete idiots. They operate with macho tactical doctrine based on totally unexamined evidence. At one point, one of them talks of flimsy proof. The others don’t insist on examining the “proof” and off we go to nuclear conflagration.

    I’m also appalled (while agreeing with the caricature) at the US spokesperson. It is simply unbearable to hear another minion from the White House talk about “this president.” The targeting of a site in Russia as the Obama administration response is probably accurate. “This president” stacked the deck with neocons who probably stay up late at night reading “Thinking the Unthinkable.”

    I must say that the fact that we have not blown ourselves off the planet by now given the insane system and progressively more idiotic rulers is a strong argument for an interventionist deity. How else can we explain our ongoing presence?

  6. Oleg
    February 12, 2016 at 15:19

    I feel we should separate two different issues here. One is the existential threat of the nuclear war. It is really very sad that nuclear weapons are now considered again as potentially useful in actual conflicts. For a long time, their role was to prevent any conflicts from the start as an ultimate deterrent. Such films, along with other similar subtle things that have been happening recently, serve to change the public opinion to the effect that nuclear weapons can sometime be used. Add to that the US development of missile defense and its deployment in various parts of the world. This trend is very serious and should not be neglected. Old people like me know what a terrible thing nuclear weapons are. Young people more and more think of them as computer games.

    The other issue is the portrayal, as usual, of Russians as ultimate ruthless aggressors set to invade first their neighbors and then “the free world” without any real reason. The Evil Empire no. 2. This is in part being done indeed to justify the hike in military spending, but I would not dismiss this idea so lightly. The myths of THE Evil Empire, of Them being our existential enemies, set to destroy US, eventually start their own lives in human psyche, and it is very difficult to subdue afterwards. The myth of the Evil Empire no. 1 is one of the reasons that the Russian-US relations are so difficult now. I was told by many older Americans and Europeans that they still remember the fear of the Soviet Union nuclear attack from their young days and I think this is likely to still play a role in their attitude towards Russia, perhaps on a subconscious level. If we want to live in peace and accord on our planet, we should not be playing such games, and that’s why I think that this BBC film was a really bad and ill-conceived idea.

    • Oleg
      February 12, 2016 at 15:46

      Further to the last point here. As was pointed our by some Russian authors in response to this film, it took the threat of Hitler’s invasion to persuade Stalin to annex the Baltic states and start a war with Finland, another former part of Russian empire. Incidentally, the goal of Stalin in this war was not to conquer Finland but to regain control of the lands adjacent to St. Petersburg-Leningrad that belonged first to Novgorod and then became part of so called old Finland according to the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. In a sense, the history of these lands was similar to the modern history of Crimea, then Russian tsar Alexander I decided to grant these lands to Finland in 1811, and then they became part of independent Finland after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

      I do not think that what Stalin did was good and proper but is is absolutely clear that nothing of this would have been necessary if not for very clear threats of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. We would never know but it is likely Stalin was right and these territorial gains saved Russia and they definitely saved St. Petersburg-Leningrad in the World War II.

      And it was indeed Georgia and not Russia who started the war in 2008.

      The bottom line is: Thinking of Russia invading Latvia is ridiculous – unless you want to start threatening Russia as Hitler did. And – what a coincidence – hasn’t NATO just decided to deploy much more forces in the very same Baltic countries?

  7. Etiene Y Lee
    February 12, 2016 at 14:18

    I watched this BBC program & couldn’t believe the absurdity in several of the military responses. (I watched this in the USA & I am a US citizen).

    First, the mention of RF invading Georgia is mentioned as one instance of a menacing RF threat, which completely ignores the OSCE finding that Georgia started the conflict by shelling RF peace keeping troops in South Ossetia. I was flabbergasted.

    Secondly, I strongly doubt that RF under Putin would unilaterally have the RF militarily invade across the border of a NATO country. He’s smarter than engaging in such a dumb maneuver.

    I laughed out loud at the notion that a S-400 missile launched from RF territory would be used to shoot down a Latvian military transport helicopter. This is the RF military’s most expensive & sophisticated SAM system that’s intended to shoot down high speed high altitude military jets & terrain following cruise missiles. If they wanted to shoot it down I think a less expensive MANPADS launched from the territory of ethnic Russians in Latvia would have sufficed.

    The idea that a rogue RF military commander would launch two nuclear armed Iskander missiles at UK/USA ships in the Baltic Sea from Kaliningrad is equally ridiculous. The RF military has conventional weapon systems that are more than capable of sinking these ships & also has electronic warfare capability to incapacitate these ships.

    Lastly, the idea that RF would go to full readiness status with it’s entire nuclear force & the UK would sit on it’s hands waiting for a nuclear detonation is equally ridiculous. Once RF ICBM’s & IRBM’s are launched then I can guarantee that the USA would launch it’s nuclear force without hesitation.

    The scenario presented in this BBC program was just bizarre.

  8. Gilbert Doctorow
    February 12, 2016 at 06:10

    Dear Kiza
    I write not to defend the interpretation set out in my article, but to build on something noted above by Willem.
    Put away the rubbish issues from the film of Russians invading Latvia. Put away thoughts that the Brits only wanted to make themselves look good and the Russians look bad. The point is that even intelligent and well-meaning and decent people in that War Room are heading us all into Armageddon, that this can and will happen unless something changes.

    Willemnoted that the last time the BBC made a film on the start of nuclear war, back in 1965, it was shelved for 20 years because the big bosses decided it would be too frightening for the general public.

    The producers of this film are following the tradition of American sci-fi films of the 50s-70s about end of the world scenarios. Those films were all made by peace-niks, not war mongers.

    The broadcast of this film provides the Kremlin with a splendid opportunity to be big, not small: to invite the participants of this film to come to Moscow to continue their deliberations and address the basic questions of our all being better Red than Dead.
    In the days ahead we shall see if they seize this opportunity.

    • Kiza
      February 12, 2016 at 15:28

      Dear Mr Doctorow, the good side of your article is that you have shared your own depth of thought with us. It appears that even a piece of garbage propaganda can initiate a positive thought process in some people. I sincerely enjoyed that part of your article. Also, you appear to be an idealist and a person sensitive to injustice. There is not a grain of propaganda in your article, that is your heart is in the right place (even if your mind may not be). But not many people can extract value out of garbage of the mind, that is propaganda. I would also question even the attempts to do so. This is because people who produce propaganda are professionals (psychologists, writers, spinners etc) within a powerful, well funded system, a machine, which we as individuals have no chance to resist. We are being influenced the most when we believe that we are free and making our own decisions. This is exactly why we in the West are constantly being told that we are free. The propaganda and the mass surveillance are both a bit like judo – they take our money (taxes) and turn it into a tool for controlling us.

      Therefore, let me share one of my personal insights, as you shared yours in the article. I do not consume propaganda! My thinking does not get stimulated by it. I have switched myself off TV and newspapers, even the online editions of the MSM. I only consume a select range of websites with comments sections, where there is a more balanced clash of opinions between individuals then in the one-way BBC “entertainment”.

    • Kiza
      February 12, 2016 at 15:46

      I forgot to acknowledge the excellent contribution of Willem, who provided two links definitely worth reading to anyone who may be interested in the genesis of the Western regime propaganda. BBC is one of the oldest and was one of the most reputable tools of the trade, but it has declined immensely over the years. If it were not producing in English language, whose speakers seldom speak any other language, it would have a negligible audience.

  9. Kiza
    February 12, 2016 at 04:02

    This is not a great article.

    Firstly, if we were to analyse every piece of garbage AngloZionist propaganda, we would spend a life on it. A lot of tax-payers money is invested into the The Lie Guardian, The Independent from the Truth, the Big Brother Corporation and so on, to produce such propaganda garbage referred to as entertainment.

    Secondly, the author is critical of the garbage but he also tries to criticize the Russians for getting sick of it. All he has to do is follow its own advice – imagine if the roles were reversed, would the British grace such Russian garbage with a thinking response? No, spit on it and then ignore it, as the Russians did.

    Thirdly, it is this attempt of the author to analyse the depth or the deeper meaning of propaganda which completely fails. Why? Because there is no depth in propaganda, there never was and there never will be.

    • February 12, 2016 at 11:04

      thumbs up to this comment.

  10. elmerfudzie
    February 12, 2016 at 02:08

    I have another film CONSORTIUMNEWS readers should watch tonight: Fail Safe with Actor Henry Fonda portraying the President of the United States. In particular, take a moment to review an eerie parallel to new electronic jamming (blinding) weapon used by the Russian (Su-24) jet which immobilized all communications and weapons systems aboard the US Naval vessel -the Donal Cook (April 2014) on patrol near the Crimean peninsula. This blinding was repeated in a more recent incident, above Syrian airspace, where two Israeli fighter jets lost weapons guidance and communications, caused by the same “Russian Jamming”, This hitherto unknown technological break through continues to confound Western Intel Agencies and the Pentagon. Unfortunately the Russian advantage may end with a repeat of the Fail Safe story; Using nukes that may precipitate WW III. For the last fifty years, both Hollywood and the Russians have tried, in vain, to warn us….

  11. Willem
    February 11, 2016 at 17:28

    And this is what the director (Peter Watkins) has to say about the BBC and their failure to air the documentary in 1965. See:

  12. Willem
    February 11, 2016 at 17:05

    If you want to know what WWIII really looks like, I would like to suggest to you to see the war game: a ‘documentary’ made for the BBC in 1965 depicting a nuclear war in Britain. The documentary was censored for 20 years by the BBC as it was considered to be too horrifying (read: too real) See

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