Has World War III already begun?

Has World War III already begun?
Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2021, Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has set the entire world on edge. His threats to use nuclear weapons have prompted widespread fears – and speculation – about the possibility of World War III erupting in Europe.

The historical parallels between today's crises and those that sparked World War II are hard to ignore, columnist Bret Stephens wrote in Tuesday's The New York Times:

The usual date given for the start of World War II is Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. But that was just one in a series of events that at the time could have seemed disconnected.

Among them: Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. The remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 and the Spanish Civil War, which started the same year. Anschluss with Austria and the Sudeten crisis of 1938. The Soviet invasion of Poland weeks after the German one and Germany’s western invasions the following year. Operation Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The point is, World War II didn’t so much begin as it gathered, like water rising until it breaches a dam. We, too, have been living through years of rising waters, though it took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for much of the world to notice.

Russia's actions under Putin's rule underscore these similarities, Stephens pointed out:

Before the invasion, we had the Russian invasions of Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine; the Russian carpet bombing of Aleppo; the use of exotic radioactive and chemical agents against Russian dissidents on British soil; Russian interference in U.S. elections and massive hacks of our computer networks; the murder of Boris Nemtsov and the blatant poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny.

Were any of these sovereignty violations, legal violations, treaty violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity met with a strong, united, punitive response that could have averted the next round of outrages? Did Western responses to other violations of global norms — Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, Beijing’s eradication of Hong Kong’s autonomy, Iran’s war by proxy against its neighbors — give Vladimir Putin pause?

In short, did Putin have any reason to think, before Feb. 24, that he wouldn’t be able to get away with his invasion?

He didn't.

The dark prospect of a thermonuclear holocaust serves as the foundation for the West's multi-thronged response to Putin's aggression. Ukraine has been able to significantly slow Russia's advance through their territory thanks to strategic support from the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the European Union. Unprecedented sanctions have crippled the Russian economy. But Russia's mounting losses, simmering economic pain, and growing unrest have boxed Putin into a corner, leaving many wondering how far Putin will go to avoid a humiliating surrender.

"Sanctions work, but they have not stopped Putin’s rockets falling from the skies," Ukrainian journalist Veronika Melkozerova wrote in The Atlantic on Monday.

The most likely catalyst for World War III is a direct confrontation between Russia and the US and/or the NATO. A miscalculation, one side misreading the other, or an accidental breach of NATO territory by Russia could quickly trigger an irreversible cascade of horrors.

That is why the West has so far refused to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, despite the pleas of its government. Violations of forbidden Ukrainian airspace by Russian fighter jets would force dogfights with NATO. Thus, Putin's unpredictable volatility means that this is a gamble that the alliance is reluctant to make.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the potential for Russia's attack on his country to spiral out of control in a virtual address to the United States Congress:

Nobody knows whether it may have already started. And what is the possibility of this war if Ukraine will fall, in case Ukraine will? It's very hard to say. And we've seen this 80 years ago, when the second world war had started ... nobody would be able to predict when the full-scale war would start.

He added that humanity's "whole civilization [is] at stake."

Indeed. Yet the primary problem the Western defensive partnership faces, Stephens explained, is that "the West has mainly spent 22 years placating Putin through a long cycle of resets and wrist slaps. The devastation of Ukraine is the fruit of this appeasement." This has emboldened Putin – despite his setbacks – to act increasingly brashly, straining international tensions to their breaking points.

"Frequent suggestions that Putin has already lost the war or that he can’t possibly win when Ukrainians are united in their hatred for him or that he’s looking for an offramp — and that we should be thinking up ingenious ways to provide him with one — may turn out to be right. But they are grossly premature," wrote Stephens. "This war is only in its third week; it took the Nazis longer to conquer Poland. The ability to subdue a restive population is chiefly a function of the pain an occupier is willing to inflict. For a primer on that, look at what Putin did to Grozny in his first year in office."

Even so, Stephens disagrees with the West's assessment that challenging Putin's bluster is guaranteed to lead to catastrophe.

"Refusing to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine may be justified because it exceeds the risks NATO countries are prepared to tolerate. But the idea that doing so could start World War III ignores history and telegraphs weakness. Americans squared off with Soviet pilots operating under Chinese or North Korean cover in the Korean War without blowing up the world. And our vocal aversion to confrontation is an invitation, not a deterrent, to Russian escalation," he opined.

Stephens noted, however, that "there is now a serious risk that these illusions could collapse very suddenly. There’s little evidence so far that Putin is eager to cut his losses; on the contrary, to do so now — after incurring the economic price of sanctions but without achieving a clear victory — would jeopardize his grip on power."

Putin, Stephens continued, "terrifies the West. He consolidates power. He suffers consequences only marginally graver than the ones already inflicted."

Concluding his editorial, Stephens predicted that if World War III is on the horizon, it would start "the same way the last one did."

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