By strong and deep bipartisan agreement, America's national security community is now focused on the risks of war against Russia or China as the top priorities for defense policy and resource allocation. Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, this is a remarkable and sobering development, provoked by China's rise and Russia's revanchism.

But over what issues, and in what ways, could war pitting the United States and its allies against Russia or China really happen? To date, this question has been largely unaddressed. If we are to optimize defense investments, bolster deterrence and also figure out how to de-escalate any conflict that might happen despite our best efforts to prevent it, we need good answers.

The prospects of a head-on and large-scale Chinese assault on Japan or a Russian seizure of an entire Baltic state need to be considered — but do not seem particularly likely, either, given the inevitability of a major U.S. or NATO response to any such blatant attack on a treaty ally. More likely, it would seem, is a small-scale Russian or Chinese attack against a sliver of allied territory, designed less to seize land than to flex national muscles and challenge the U.S.-led global order in an attempt by Beijing or Moscow to weaken a major bilateral alliance or NATO.