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World War III: is that a possible outcome of the Ukrainian crisis?

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, the conversation has inevitably turned to a possible escalation that could potentially spark World War III. How great is the risk? (Leer en español)
Publicado 27 Feb 2022 – 10:46 AM EST | Actualizado 27 Feb 2022 – 03:53 PM EST
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A demonstrator holds a sign depicting the Russian president as Adolf Hitler and reading "Stop Putin" during a protest against Russia's military operation in Ukraine, in Barcelona on February 26, 2022. Crédito: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

As fear and uncertainty gripped the people of Ukraine this week, the rest of the world watched in horror as a major power invaded a European neighbor for the first time since World War Two.

For Europe's leaders the invasion has brought back 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 NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister whose parents grew up under occupation by Nazi Germany.

On Thursday, Russian troops and tanks entered the country on three fronts, in what the Pentagon said was the launch of a full-scale assault to topple the government in the capital Kyiv. At least 240 Ukrainians - mostly soldiers - have been killed so far, according to officials.

"Horrific Russian rocket strikes on Kyiv. Last time our capital experienced anything like this was in 1941 when it was attacked by Nazi Germany," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

To be sure, 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 thousands of civilian lives and create hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Ukraine, which is the biggest country in Europe, barring Russia.

About 300,000 Ukrainians have fled so far, according to official estimates. On Sunday, Putin declared he was ordering his military chiefs to put the country's nuclear forces on high alert.

That said, the world is still a long way away from anything on the scale of World War II which extended across the globe, with combat on four continents, from Europe to North Africa and Japan, as well as fierce naval contests to control the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. An estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, or about 3% of the 1940 world population. That included almost 300,000 American troops.

Ethnic conflict prompts comparisons between Putin and Hitler

Putin's recognition this week of the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine — two thirds of which are still controlled by Ukraine — has been compared to Adolf Hitler's annexation of Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1938 and 1939, in the build up to World War II. Hitler justified his aggression as part of a policy to reunify millions of ethnic Germans who found themselves living outside Germany at the end of World War I, as a result of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Ukrainian president Volodimir Zelensky has alluded to the failure of western leaders to stand up to Hitler in 1938, and a policy of “appeasement” that allowed the Nazi leader to grow even stronger.

" Has the world forgotten its mistakes of the 20th century?" Zelensky asked. "Where does appeasement policy usually lead to?" he asked rhetorically.

Ironically, Putin claims his invasion is designed to “demilitarization and de-Nazification” of Ukraine to end the “genocide” of ethnic Russians. Yet, there has been no genocide in Ukraine, and its president, Zelensky is both an ethnic Russian and Jewish.

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

Putin and his NATO security concerns

Critics of the west’s policy of trying to contain Putin behind the wall of the NATO military defense pact, say U.S. and European leaders have seriously underestimated his security grievances, as well as his ethnic quest to “reunite” the Russian people.

Putin has said Ukrainians and Russians “were one people — a single whole,” torn apart by the U.S. and European interference in its backyard after the breakup of the former Soviet Union which once encompassed a large part of eastern Europe, with influence extending as far as the Berlin Wall that divided West and East Germany.

Besides accusations of despotism, some now question Putin’s mental state and wonder how far he is prepared to go in his “one people” policy. How safe are Baltic states like Latvia, for example, which regained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and has a population that is 25% Russian.

For now, there is no evidence that Putin intends to take this path though he may have already let out the demons.

Putin and the post-Soviet Republics

“Putin does not consider any of these (post-Soviet Union) 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), noting the recent deployment of Russian Special Forces to help put down anti-government protests in Kazakhstan.

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

If Putin achieves his objective in Ukraine it could also inspire copy-cats around the world to make their own land grabs, claiming the same ethnic justifications as Putin to “reunify” the Russian people. China has long had designs on Taiwan; while North Korea continues to menace its neighbor, democratic South Korea, with missiles test.

Putin has also been accused of fueling a wave of nationalism in the Balkans that threaten to undo peace in Bosnia after its savage 1992-95 war. That could reignite armed conflict over Kosovo which split from Serbia in 2008.

Bosnia is also in the middle of a political crisis, with the European Union discussing ways to ease tensions and prevent the possible breakup of the ethnically divided Balkan country. Bosnian Serbs, who have the support of Serbia and Russia, are also threatening to split from the federation.

U.S. officials are especially concerned about a possible massive scale cyberattack by state-sponsored Russian hackers on western companies and critical infrastructure.

The antipathy towards Putin in the United States is bipartisan.

The Democratic party’s House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forcefully condemned Putin on Wednesday, calling his invasion of Ukraine "a very evil move" and a "total assault on democracy”, before implicitly comparing him to Hitler.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warned that if Putin and China "get away with" their respective goals the result will be World War III.

"He's going to take the entire country over, and China is watching what he's doing," he continued.

On the same day as the invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan's air force said it scrambled it fighter jets on Thursday to warn away nine Chinese aircraft that entered its air defense zone. Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, has complained of regular such missions by the Chinese air force over the last two years.

The fog of war

All this leaves the world in a perilous and unpredictable moment. In a fast-moving conflict like the one being witnessed in Ukraine, 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 and their machines make mistakes, sometimes with dire results,” noted Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, writing in The Atlantic magazine this week.

In the confusion, the Russians might mistakenly shoot at NATO aircraft or warships. A missile could go astray or Russian artillery might accidentally land on NATO soldiers.

In 2015, Turkey, a NATO nation, accidentally shot down a Russian Air Force jet that had strayed over the Turkish border. Two years ago, during the crisis between Iran and the United States, an error by Iranian air defense systems resulted in a Ukrainian airliner being shot down, killing 176 people. In 2014 Russian-backed rebels also shot down a Malaysian commercial airliner over Ukraine, though it denied its forces were responsible.

Thankfully, no country has used nuclear weapons since 1945, when President Harry Truman dropped bombs on Japan in the belief that it would end World War II quickly. It did, but at a loss of about 200,000 mostly civilian lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Putin frequently refers to that his huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, and made a thinly veiled reference to them when he launched the war on Ukraine.

“Whoever would try to stop us and further create threats to our country, to our people, 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 open-ended language, saying: “We have increased the readiness of our forces to respond to all contingencies.”

But the Ukraine invasion now leaves the NATO members with a tough decision to make: how do they respond to Putin without escalating the conflict?

President Joe Biden has said U.S. troops will not get involved and he as reverted to the safe course of economic sanctions. But the U.S. 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 la Fuente. “But there comes a point, if somebody want to fight you, at some point you have to fight them.”

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