Opinions & Histories

Is World War III a Possible Outcome of the Ukrainian Crisis?

As violence, fear and uncertainty gripped the people of Ukraine, the rest of the world watched in horror as a major power invaded a European neighbour for the first time since World War II. For the European leaders, the invasion is a recollection of dark memories.

“Peace on our continent has been shattered. We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history”, stated the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, an ex-prime minister of Norway whose parents grew up in Nazi-occupied Germany.

On Thursday, Russian troops and tanks entered the country on three fronts, which according to the Pentagon, was the launch of a full-scale attack to topple the government in the capital Kyiv. As per officials, so far, at least 250 Ukrainians – mostly soldiers – have been killed.

“Horrific Russian rocket strikes on Kyiv. Last time our capital experienced this sort of attack was in 1941 when it was attacked by Nazi Germany,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to redraw the map of Europe could lead to the most devastating conflict on the continent since World War II. It could cost a large number of civilian lives and create lakhs of refugees fleeing the violence in Ukraine, which is the biggest country in Europe after Russia.

According to official estimates, around 3,00,000 Ukrainians have fled the country so far. On Sunday, Putin declared that he was ordering his military commanders to put the country’s nuclear force on high alert.

This being said, the world is far away from anything on the scale of World War II which extended throughout the globe, with combat on four continents, from Europe to North Africa and Japan, as well as fierce naval fights to control the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It has been estimated that around 70-85 million people, amounting to about 3% of the 1940 world population perished as a result of the clash at the global level.

Ethnic Conflict Prompts Comparisons between Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler:

Putin’s recognition of the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine – two-thirds of which are still under the control of Ukraine – has been compared to Hitler’s annexation of Austria and various parts of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and that of Poland in 1939, in the build-up to World War II. Hitler justified his aggression as part of an effort to reunite millions of ethnic Germans who found themselves living outside Germany at the end of World War I, due to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Ukrainian President Volodimir Zenlensky has alluded to the failure of the West to stand up to Hitler in 1938, and the policy of “appeasement” that allowed the Nazi dictator to grow even stronger. “Has the world forgotten the mistakes it committed in the 20th century?” Zelensky asked. “Where does appeasement policy usually lead us to?” he asked rhetorically.

Ironically, Putin claims that his invasion is fashioned to “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of Ukraine and that it aims at ending the “genocide” of ethnic Russians. Yet, there has seemingly been no genocide in Ukraine, and Zelensky is both an ethnic Russian and Jewish.

Putin waxes lyrical about the historical and ethnic connections between the two countries confronting, suggesting that Ukraine is not a country, but rather a part of the ‘Kievan Rus’, the historic heartland of the Russians. It is true that Kyiv, one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, was once the cultural jewel of the Russian empire.

Putin and His NATO Security Concerns:

Critics of the west’s policy of trying to keep Putin outside the box of the NATO military defence pact, say US and European leaders have seriously underestimated his security grievances, as well as his quest to “reunite” the Russian people.

Putin has said that Ukrainians and Russians “were once people – a single whole”, torn apart by the US and European forces after the disintegration of the USSR which once encompassed a large part of Eastern Europe, with influence extending as far as the Berlin Wall.

Besides accusations of despotism, some now toss questions on the mental state of Putin and wonder how far he is prepared to go in his “one people” policy. For example, how safe are the Baltic States such as Latvia which regained its independence from the former USSR in 1991 and has a population that is 25% Russian.

As of now, there is no proper evidence that Putin intends to take this path though he may have already released the demons which is enormously evident from the recent dire warning issued by the president of Belarus. Alexander Lukhashenko has on Sunday warned the western nations against imposing tough sanctions on Moscow, stating that such measures could push Russia into World War III.

“Now there is a lot of talk against the banking sector. Gas, oil, SWIFT. It’s worse than war. This is pushing Russia into a third world war,” Lukhashenko said further adding that a nuclear conflict could be the final outcome.

Putin and the Post-USSR Republics:

“Putin does not consider any of these (post-USSR) republics to be independent. He wants control over all of them,” said Erich de la Fuente, an expert on Ukraine at Florida International University (FIU), underling the recent deployment of Russian Special Forces to help put down the anti-government protests in Kazakhstan.

“This is a war to redraw the maps. It is a historic moment. If nobody comes to the rescue of Ukraine, that itself is a message. If this can happen in Europe, it can happen anywhere,” he added.

If Putin manages to achieve his objective in Ukraine, it could also inspire copy-cats across the world to attempt their land grabs, giving the same ethnic justifications. China has long had eyes on Taiwan; while North Korea continues to menace South Korea with missile tests.

Putin has also been accused of fuelling a wave of nationalistic spirit in the Balkans that very much threaten to undo peace in Bosnia after its 1992-95 war. That could reignite armed conflict over Kosovo.

Bosnia is also in the middle of a crisis, with the European Union discussing ways to ease tensions and prevent the possible division of the Balkan country. Bosnian Serbs, who are assisted by Serbia and Russia, are also threatening to split from the federation.

US officials are especially worried about a possible large-scale cyberattack by state-sponsored Russian hackers on western companies and key infrastructure.

The antipathy towards Putin in the US is bipartisan.

Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker of the Democratic Party, forcefully condemned Putin on Wednesday, calling his invasion “a very evil move” and a “total assault on democracy”, before comparing him to Hitler.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham warned that if Putin and China continue trying to attain their respective goals, the result will be World War III.

“He (Putin) is going to take the entire country over, and China is watching his acts,” he continued.

On the same day as the invasion, Taiwan’s air force claimed that it scrambled its fighter jets on Thursday to warn away 9 Chinese aircraft that transgressed its borders. Taiwan, which China claims to be its part, has complained of regular such missions by the Chinese air force over the last two years.

The fog of war:

The recent change in the geopolitical atmosphere of the world leaves it in a perilous and unpredictable moment. In this fast-moving conflict, mistakes can be made in the fog of war.

“War is always a risky and unpredictable affair, even when one side is far stronger than the other. Human beings as well as their machines make mistakes, sometimes leading to dire results,” stated Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College.

In the confusion that is prevailing all across the globe, the Russians mistakenly shoot at NATO aircraft or warships. A missile could go astray or Russian artillery might accidentally land on NATO troops.

In 2015, Turkey, a country affiliated with NATO, accidentally shot down a Russian Air Force jet that had strayed over the former’s border. Two years ago, during the Iran-US crisis, an error by the Iranian air defence system resulted in a Ukrainian airliner being taken down, claiming the lives of 176 people. In the year 2014, Russian-backed rebels also shot down a Malaysian commercial aircraft over Ukraine, though it denied the responsibility of its forces.

Thankfully, no country has used nuclear weapons since 1945, when President Harry Truman dropped atom bombs on Japan with the view to end World War II quickly. It did, but costing 2,00,000 lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Putin frequently refers to his huge nuclear arsenal and made a thinly veiled reference to them when he attacked Ukraine.

“Whoever would try to stop us should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to such consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any outcome,” he said.

NATO responded with similar language, stating: “We have increased the readiness of our forces to respond to all contingencies.”

But the invasion of Ukraine now leaves the NATO nations with a tough decision to make: how do they counter Putin without escalating the conflict.

Biden has said that US forces will not get involved in this issue. But, he added, the US and NATO have pledged to continue sending aid, including military assistance, to Ukraine.

“It’s easy to say it’s not our problem. Nobody wants war,” said de laFuente. “But there comes a point, if somebody wants to fight you, at some point, you have to fight them.”

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