Third World War talk that could be hyperbole

Apart from the grave consequences in an unlikely West versus Russia nuclear stand-off, there are other inhibiting factors

Updated - May 02, 2022 10:58 am IST

Published - May 02, 2022 12:10 am IST

‘Not all countries are in agreement with the West about the extent of Russian perfidy in the context of Ukraine’

‘Not all countries are in agreement with the West about the extent of Russian perfidy in the context of Ukraine’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Amidst signs of a further escalation in conflict levels, vis-à-visthe ongoing Russia-Ukraine war — and accompanying new rhetoric of an even wider conflagration in the offing — concerns about the possibility of a Third World War have gone up by several notches. During the past few days what is further evident is that both sides seem intent on enlarging the scale of the conflict, rather than trying to end it.

Battle cry and response

This past week, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), buoyed by the perceived success of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s aggression, have further raised the stakes by pledging additional packages of lethal weapons to Ukraine (amounting to several millions of dollars), which the West had, till now, refrained from supplying Ukraine.

Again, in what can only be perceived as a battle cry, the U.S. Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, at a meeting of 43 NATO and other countries (held at the Headquarters of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe) declared that what had transpired was a demonstration of the resolve of nations from around the world to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s aggression.

Russia’s response has been equally threatening. When asked about the prospect of a Third World War, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, is on record that the risk, including the possibility of nuclear war, was not inconsiderable and that the situation must not be underestimated. Mr. Lavrov added, “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through its proxy, and is arming that proxy.”. He further added that “war means war”.

The implicit threat by Russia of using nuclear weapons cannot be disregarded. Mr. Lavrov is not the only one to talk of nuclear weapons, for former Russian President, and currently Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev similarly warned Sweden and Finland (which are currently not members of NATO) that if they decide to join the U.S.-led military alliance, Russia would not hesitate to deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to meet the threat this posed. He ominously added that in such an eventuality, there would be ‘no more talk of a nuclear free Baltic’.

Nuclear weapon use is taboo

All the signs are, hence, far from reassuring, and concerns about a nuclear holocaust appear real. Yet, it would be premature to arrive at the conclusion that a Third World War, accompanied by the use of nuclear weapons, is around the corner. One fact stands out loud and clear, viz., that since 1945, and despite occasional ‘nuclear sabre rattling’ by the nuclear weapon powers, the use of nuclear weapons has remained taboo.

Since the first two atom bombs were dropped on Japan, the destructive potential of nuclear weapons has only increased multi-fold. Nuclear weapons are also no longer the monopoly of any one single power. A nuclear attack by any one of the major nuclear powers — Russia, the United States or China — would bring instant retaliation. Again, the nuclear balance today is unfavourable to the West, for Russia and China, between them, have a combined strength of nuclear weapons which is bigger than that of the West. More to the point; if the two sides were to engage in a nuclear conflict, there would be no victors, and it could only result in a nuclear armageddon.

Apart from grave consequences in the event of a nuclear stand-off, there are other inhibiting factors that make a Third World War an unlikely prospect. One current reality is that there are many degrees of separation as regards the Ukraine-Russia conflict, between the views held by the West and quite a few other countries across the world. Not all countries again are in agreement with the West about the extent of Russian perfidy in the context of Ukraine, and this segment includes sizeable sections of the emerging world. Even some countries in Europe not affiliated to NATO remain sceptical about the reasons adduced for U.S. support to Ukraine, and hew to the view that the ulterior objective is to restore global belief and faith in U.S. authority and power, and make ‘America great again’. There is even less support to the hackneyed theme that Russia today represents ‘the Empire of Evil’. A latent fear among such uncommitted countries is that all-out support to the West, and allowing it to act as judge, jury and executioner, could create problems for many of them in the future.

Europe’s real concern

Countries across Europe are also concerned about the costs of the war, more specifically, the cost of rebuilding Ukraine after the conflict. There are many little known facts in this context on what a prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict could mean for both Europe and the world that are worth mentioning. For instance, Ukraine and Russia are generally referred to as the ‘bread basket’ of Europe. A prolonged conflict would have serious consequences for Europe as far as food security is concerned. Furthermore, Europe is still to recover from the adverse impacts of a prolonged novel coronavirus pandemic, and an extended war could damage the economies there even further. As it is, the WTO has downgraded Europe’s trade forecast to 3% from 4.7% for this year. Again, just two companies in Ukraine produce around 50% of the global total neon output — it is a critical gas required for the lasers used in a chip production process known as lithography, ‘where machines carve patterns onto tiny pieces of silicon’. Chip shortages are expected to cause production cuts in the audio, computer and electronic industries. Given all this, a Third World War is hardly the preferred choice of most people, more so in Europe.

Signs of a Russian restraint

There is little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foray into Ukraine was a serious blunder — a point made by many western leaders, and quite a few others as well. Nevertheless, Russia has not since displayed the same degree of ‘foolhardiness’ that could provoke a wider conflagration. One instance of this that could be mentioned, and which might have led to a serious situation, is Russia’s restraint in the wake of its biggest war-time loss of a battle ship since the Second World War (in which one sailor died and 27 are reportedly missing). That Russia demonstrated restraint even after it became known to the world at large that the missile cruiser was hit by a Ukrainian anti-ship missile speaks volumes. To much of Europe and the West, Russia’s response seemed unexpectedly low key. Whether such restraint would continue is a matter for conjecture, but for the present it is indicative of Russia’s unwillingness to enlarge both the area and the intensity of the conflict.

As of now, Russia is concentrating — or at least seems more interested — in dismembering Ukraine, now that Ukraine’s membership of NATO has been put on the backburner. Moscow is currently eyeing large segments of Ukraine’s East and South, and seems to have given up plans for the present to ‘conquer’ the whole of Ukraine and make it a part of Russia. If Russia persists with its current thinking, then it would denote that Russia is not interested in getting embroiled in a Third World War. For their part, most countries of Europe — unlike NATO and possibly the U.S. — believe that they can continue to live with the new order of things.

The problem with this latter objective is that it conflicts with the desire of both the U.S. and NATO to exploit the current war situation in Europe to weaken Russia militarily and politically, and incidentally decapitate Mr. Putin politically by undermining his authority and position. This explains the intensity with which the U.S. has mustered its — and NATO’s — capabilities to resist Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and inflict permanent economic and political damage on Russia, and diminish it militarily. That would meet at least two principal objectives that dominate U.S. thinking at present — revitalising the U.S.-NATO partnership to make it the bulwark of European security and restoring U.S. image in Europe as also across the world.

It is ‘sober and being softer’

The current thinking in Europe appears more in line with a softer approach. The re-election of France President Emmanuel Macron was a matter of relief and satisfaction for the U.S. and Europe, but the display of strength by the Far Right is inducing a great deal of rethinking in ruling circles in Europe and underscoring the importance of taking a sober approach to policy issues, avoiding all or any kind of intemperate move. Yet, there are many unknowns that will still need to be dealt with. The West, and specially, the U.S., remains intent on enlarging NATO, and notwithstanding the current Ukraine war, is also probably complicit in the recent announcement by Sweden and Finland of their willingness to join NATO. Being well aware of Mr. Putin’s mind set, it is almost as if the West is daring Russia to react.

The West and Russia both need to be careful and take due care to negotiate the many minefields that abound. The West should be thankful that Mr. Putin has not yet emerged as a Joseph Stalin, but at the same time they should realise that there are no Churchills, De Gaulles and FDRs [Franklin D. Roosevelt] on their side.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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