How the War in Ukraine Could Trigger a Third World War
The war in Ukraine is escalating. Russian attempts to encircle Kyiv have failed due to fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops and civilian militias. Russian losses have been heavy too, with many Russian tanks and armoured fighting vehicles simply being abandoned. Most of them were manned by poorly trained conscripts.
The psychological effect of attacks on Russian armoured columns involving astoundingly effective anti-tank missiles like the Javelin, has caused many of the conscripts to simply flee rather than face certain death. Shortages of ammunition, fuel, water and rations aren’t helping matters any. It seems Putin wrongly believed the conscripts would encounter little or no resistance, or their sheer numbers would cause Kyiv to simply fold.
Despite the losses in Kyiv and areas to the northwest, Russia has made meaningful inroads in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which encompasses the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Crimea. These areas have been the main focus of the invasion, which aims to support and protect these large Russian ethnic enclaves. A secondary goal is the creation of a land bridge to Crimea, where the strategically vital Sevastopol naval base is situated. However, many analysts believe that the region may come under a massive Ukrainian counter-offensive in coming weeks. If successful, a counter-offensive could change the tide of the war.
In an attempt to break the ongoing stalemate that currently characterizes the Russo-Ukrainian war, the Russians are escalating by going after civilian centres despite previous attempts to minimize civilian casualties. They hope such attacks will finally force Ukraine's government to surrender. The city of Mariupol is one such centre that has been attacked and reduced to rubble. Parts of Kyiv are in a similar state. Tens of thousands of civilians in these and other areas are now without electricity, and supplies of food and water are running low.
Putin could trigger a global war over Ukraine, believing that he has the ability to win. Rumours suggest he will eventually use chemical weapons to win the war if all other methods fail. However, use of any weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, particularly if large-scale civilian casualties result, is something that the West will see as Russia crossing a red line. NATO would then be forced to respond, for humanitarian reasons and to prevent further attacks.
Further, Putin has threatened NATO by saying that any intervention on Ukraine’s behalf will be met with a nuclear response. The seriousness of the threats is underscored by reports of Russian cities running nuclear attack drills while Putin himself supposedly retreated to his own personal bunker with family members in tow. Putin may well be emboldened by the presence of thousands of civilian bomb shelters in Moscow and other major Russian cities, as they seem to suggest Russia could emerge from a nuclear exchange relatively unscathed, while its enemies, with few or no bomb shelters, are left in ruins.
The problem with Putin’s calculus, however, is the reality that a nuclear war would prevent him from capturing Ukraine and achieving his parallel goal of resurrecting the Soviet Union. The Russian people might survive a nuclear exchange in their bomb shelters, but their cities will still be in ruins. The need to rebuild would derail the pursuit of any other goals. Moreover, the anger the Russian people would feel towards Putin in the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration would be white-hot. If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t want to make any bets on him surviving long after the war ended.
NATO is taking Putin's nuclear threats seriously enough that it is deploying extra troops to Hungary's eastern border with Ukraine. Additionally, it is deploying CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) reconnaissance units to respond to chemical, nuclear or biological attacks that could directly or indirectly threaten neighbouring NATO countries.
The deployments aren’t being done casually, with the idea that they will function as ‘just-in-case’ measures. Such a major deployment involves great expense, considerable labour and allocation of resources. The upshot of this is that the CBRN units have been deployed because NATO believes that Russian use of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine is a realistic threat and possibly imminent.
If a chemical or nuclear attack on Ukraine results in fallout landing on a NATO country, NATO would necessarily declare that a state of war between Russia and NATO exists and invoke Article Five of the NATO treaty. In turn, all NATO member states would be required to respond, and a full-scale Third World War would ensue. Non-NATO states, including those that want to remain neutral, might join the battle in some capacity.
Russia might also unilaterally trigger a global war by choosing to attack the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, where some NATO troops are stationed. While these troops could mount a response, there are not enough of them to fully resist a Russian onslaught. Such an attack would draw NATO forces away from Ukraine and expose NATO’s vulnerable southern European flank.
Poland has been donating weapon systems to Ukraine as well as fuel, munitions and other supplies. It even offered to supply a few of its old Russian-built MiG-29 jet fighters. NATO promptly squashed the offer, for fear of causing a wider war. Potentially, Poland could be accidentally (or intentionally) drawn into the war while acting as a supply conduit. After all, Putin has said that Russian forces should consider all supplies of war materiel coming into Ukraine as ‘fair game’ for attack. As Poland is a member of NATO, being drawn into the war would mean all of NATO would be drawn in too.
Finally, a third world war over Ukraine could erupt simply as a result of miscalculation by one or both sides in the conflict.
As of this writing, efforts at setting up peace talks between Russia and Ukraine are underway. Some analysts think they may be more tactical in nature rather than sincere. Even if the talks turn out to be sincere, global war could still erupt. History is replete with examples of wars that broke out despite ongoing peace talks. Perhaps the best known is British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who proclaimed, " 'There shall be peace in our time' ", after he thought he had clinched a peace deal with Hitler. A little less than a year later, war with Nazi Germany had begun.