As the Russia-Ukraine conflict rages on in Eastern Europe, there has been much speculation that this conflict may lead to a larger world war. With 20th-century history in mind (specifically the Balkan Crisis of 1914), many have pointed to “Putin’s war” as a possible powderkeg which may yet again plunge the world into large-scale war.
When the invasion occurred, The Collegiate reported on the odd implications that this new war brought with it.
Keith St. Clair, a political science professor here at Grand Rapids Community College shared this sentiment.
“Russia has chosen war on a neighboring democracy with the intent of wiping Ukraine off the map,” St. Clair said. “It promises to be the largest land war in Europe since the Second World War. And if Vladimir Putin is successful, it will be the start of a Third World War, because there is no appeasing this aggression, and others will be watching…and learning.”
When citing his reasons for the invasion, Putin echoed the existential threat that is often common when trying to unite your population towards an invasion of a neighboring country.
In the early hours prior to the invasion on Feb. 24, Putin said that Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist” as long as Ukraine was on their western border.
St. Clair regards these types of annexations and invasions as a slippery slope towards global war.
“Once a state’s annexation of another state becomes an acceptable norm, there will be no end to it,” St. Clair said. “It is why the U.S. could not allow Iraq to annex Kuwait in 1991. Many don’t realize it now, but this is, in effect, a war with the United States. Perhaps not a shooting war at first, but a new cold war.”
It is hard to find a way in which this provocation from Russia isn’t an aggressive challenge to NATO’s hegemony in the region. Indeed, it was Ukraine’s efforts to get into the U.S.-backed treaty organization that spurred Russia’s violent actions towards the state.
It’s not like the U.S. hasn’t anticipated this Russian aggression though. In early February of this year, President Joe Biden ordered nearly 3,000 troops to be stationed in Poland, with the anticipation that they would be needed to receive the refugees from neighboring Ukraine.
According to the Wall Street Journal, this refugee crisis is one of the most pressing matters for countries that are not yet involved militarily in the conflict, with “two Ukrainian refugees entering Poland every three seconds.”
Poland, which is a NATO member, was one place that Biden wanted to fortify prior to the invasion. “As long as he is acting aggressively we’re going to make sure we can reassure our NATO allies and Eastern Europe that we’re there,” Biden said.
St. Clair regards the Munich Crisis as a parallel which the U.S. must draw from when observing Russian aggression. “World Wars start incrementally,” St. Clair said. “Many were in denial that Hitler’s invasion of Austria would lead him to invade Czechoslovakia. Many thought that he would be appeased and not try further for Poland. But appeasement never works. And it is why the United States must reverse this tragedy in Ukraine if it takes us 50 years.”
While the war rages on between Russia and Ukraine, Putin ordered the military to continue the assault on the capital city of Kyiv. Russia had previously been forced to suspend their assault on the capital due to an effective defense by Ukraine.
According to Ukrainian intelligence gathered on Tuesday, five Russian battalions attacked the town of Bucha, just 15 miles northwest of Kyiv. As of March 10, Russia is besieging five cities, including Chernihiv, Sumy, Konotop, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
While the U.S. has yet to respond with military action, there have been excessive plans laid out for the potential of cyberattacks against Russia. Biden has been made aware of such plans, which would effectively destroy Russia’s ability to communicate effectively with the outside world.
For now, time will tell as far as U.S. retaliation goes. St. Clair recognizes the potential for cyber warfare to be the first field of battle between the two Cold War foes as well.
“(This conflict) will witness continual cyberattacks on the United States,” St. Clair said. “It will be a proxy war in Europe between Russia and NATO with the U.S. supporting an insurgency against an occupying Russian army.”
With this in mind, and the recent buildup of U.S. troops in Poland, it seems likely that a proxy war would occur before any direct military conflict. The U.S. has not participated in military action against any Russian state in almost 100 years, when they formed part of a WWI-era coalition to fight the newly-formed Soviet Union.
Still, St. Clair recognizes that while U.S. foreign policy has changed since that era, he said one thing remains the same: the U.S. must respond.
“Vladimir Putin has obviously calculated that the United States is too weak to disrupt his plans, reading into the attempted overthrow of its government last year,” St. Clair said. “Let us hope that the U.S. does not falter in this international test. Because if the U.S. should return to isolationism, it will be repeating the mistake which nearly cost democracy the first and second World Wars.”
If Russia feels emboldened by the U.S.’s lack of military response, it could mean that the future of Europe lies on a dark horizon, one which will likely result in a large-scale military conflict which involves major powers in our modern world.