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Ukraine Is Not World War III
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Ukraine Is Not World War III

To act as though it is could trigger the very war we should most want to avoid.

War gets the blood up. Gary Kasparov—former world chess champion turned dissident against Putin’s Russia—claimed on March 3 that “this is already World War III.”

“Putin started it long ago & Ukraine is only the current front,” Kasparov argued. He will escalate anyway, and it’s even more likely if he succeeds in destroying Ukraine because you have again convinced him you won’t stop him even though you could.”

Kasparov has warned about Putin’s aggression for years, and his book Winter Is Coming largely predicted what we’re witnessing today. But sayijeng we are already fighting World War III is the classic never-appease-aggressors logic by which any authoritarian is likened to Hitler in 1939: if we don’t stop him now, he will only be emboldened to invade the next country, and the next, until he is knocking on our front door with an armored division or two. Better to accept reality and start World War III now than wait for Putin to initiate it and force us to fight it on his terms.

The logic is familiar and the danger is plain, which is why some people seem more willing to risk general war against Russia in an all-out effort to stop Putin now, before he invades the next country. Kasparov’s argument has been echoed by other commentators who warn Putin will not stop at Ukraine, or who insist the U.S. and NATO must militarily intervene in the war in Ukraine. The head of the European Council on Foreign Relations openly called for regime change in Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, an idea former National Security Adviser John Bolton partially endorsed. A no-fly zone, of course, would involve NATO aircraft shooting down Russian warplanes over Ukrainian skies. To put it plainly: A no-fly zone is a declaration of war against Russia and the first step on a path that would lead to general war.

The war in Ukraine is not yet World War III. To act as if it were by proactively escalating or expanding the war is both strategically unnecessary and immoral. It would be to trigger the very war we should most want to avoid. The war in Ukraine is an extremely dangerous development for world order, the only thing more dangerous than which would be to overreact and recklessly expand the war.

Prelude to a conflict.

Treating the war as if it were already World War III, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a prelude to general European conflict, is unnecessary because Russia cannot and will not expand the war beyond Ukraine. The historical analogy—Putin as Hitler hellbent on continental conquest—is flawed. While Putin may have boundless ambition, his actual capabilities are severely bounded by reality. 

The German military in 1940, as its blitzkrieg swept across Europe, numbered some 6 million soldiers in all branches. Over the course of the war, some 18 million Germans served in uniform, approaching one-third of its total population. Germany was the economic powerhouse of Europe in 1940 and could outproduce any European competitor in military equipment and supplies. 

At the start of the war, the Germans arguably had the best tank (the Panzer) and the best fighter plane (the Messerschmitt). The German scientific and industrial base was among the best in Europe and had a head start in its focus on military technology. German military scientists invented the jet, rocket, cruise missile, and helicopter before any of the Allies. And the German military was infamous—again, at the beginning of the war—for its extraordinary training, discipline, and cohesion.

None of that is true of Russia or the Russian military today. The Russian military has about 1 million active-duty soldiers, a fraction of what Germany had at the beginning of its conquests. Russia could call up vast reserves, but it would take years to turn them into a trained and capable fighting force. Russian tanks and jets are better than Germany’s of 1940—but not better than NATO’s in 2022. Over the past week, the Russian military has proven inadequate in basic tasks like vehicle maintenance, let alone operational planning, combined arms operations, air assault, and air defense. 

The 21s century Russian military overwhelmed smaller opponents in Chechnya and Syria through sheer force of numbers and utter disregard for the laws of armed conflict. But it has clearly struggled when faced with a moderately larger and more challenging opponent in Ukraine. The Russian army is hardly ready to invade the next country over, or the one after that. No Russian blitzkrieg is in the offing. It is materially incapable of doing so. Hitler spent the better part of a decade rearming and preparing for his war (and still lost). 

And Russia is utterly incapable of waging a prolonged war. Even before global economic sanctions cratered the Russian economy last week, it was smaller than Italy’s. The GDP of the United States and European Union combined account for about 42 percent of the world’s wealth; Russia about 3 percent (and shrinking). Russia does have an advanced scientific and knowledge base, but because of its economic woes struggles to translate its knowledge into superior weaponry that it can produce at scale. If the Russians tried today, the Polish army backed by the American Air Force would win a decisive and rapid victory.

The nuclear question.

But what about nuclear weapons? Putin placed his nuclear forces on heightened alert and made clear nuclear threats against anyone interfering in the invasion. Does that mean Putin is ready to brandish his nuclear weapons in an impending invasion of Europe? No, for the simple reason that NATO has nuclear weapons too—and, in fact, the presence of nuclear weapons is what makes the war in Ukraine highly unlikely to escalate into World War III. 

If Putin used tactical nuclear weapons against NATO targets to pave the way for an invasion—taking out forward bases, armored formations, the NATO reaction force, maybe NATO headquarters in Brussels—he knows that would only provoke an inevitable and overwhelming nuclear response that would destroy the Russian military and catalyze the collapse of Putin’s government. Putin’s only real nuclear option is to go immediately to the extreme option, using strategic nuclear weapons against American and European capitals and against American nuclear forces, hoping to wipe out allied leadership and nuclear missiles before anyone could respond. 

But Putin cannot do that either because, even if the Russian military obeyed such an order (an open question) the United States has a second-strike capability: That is, we have enough redundancy and enough nuclear weapons (including submarines armed with nuclear missiles) to withstand a first strike and still respond in kind. (This is a good argument for modernizing and upgrading our nuclear arsenal, by the way.) Russia simply lacks the capability to launch a successful nuclear war and follow it up with a successful invasion, conquest, and occupation of Europe. And Putin knows all this, which is why he will not deliberately expand the war, invade Poland, bomb Lithuania, or nuke London. 

But what if Putin is just plain crazy? Some observers have wondered if the invasion of Ukraine suggests that Putin has lost his mental stability and is no longer acting rationally, and might therefore escalate despite the clear reasons not to. I doubt that. Putin is acting on his belief that he won his last five campaigns (Chechnya from 1999-2008, a cyberattack on Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and Syria in 2015) with little pushback from the international community. He is the elder statesman among global leaders, being the longest-serving head of state of any major nation in the world today. He feels disrespected and ignored. And he wants to leave a legacy of restoring Russian arms and glory in his advancing years. He has clearly miscalculated in Ukraine, but he is not insane. 

All this talk about nuclear war is a good reminder of why it would be grossly irresponsible and immoral to intervene directly against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. If Putin is deterred from expanding the war because of NATO’s nuclear forces, we should recognize the same logic applies to us. Bolton insisted that we should recognize the distinction between “some use of force and all-out nuclear warfare.” When it comes to using military force against a nuclear power, Bolton is wrong. We have no realistic military options that would not lead to nuclear war. If we intervene, we are likely to defeat the Russian military in conventional combat. As soon as Putin sees imminent defeat, he will escalate and use nuclear weapons as a last-ditch effort to save his regime and his life, and we will be forced to respond in kind. Insisting that we can fight without going nuclear is a bit like juggling lit dynamite while telling us to relax because you have a plan: tempting, but unpersuasive.

And as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev rightly agreed in their 1985 Geneva summit, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” What I fear most about the commentary I have seen over the past week is that many people have forgotten the Reagan-Gorbachev axiom. I am just old enough to have a living memory of the Cold War. I was maybe seven or eight years old when I came to some vague understanding of what nuclear war meant, and I was terrified and heartsick. I was a teenager when the Soviet Union fell and I vividly recall watching the news and sharing the sense of elation that swept the globe as we realized that the threat of global nuclear annihilation was—we thought—over at last. 

Now people are talking as if going to war against Russia is a viable option with reasonable pros and cons that we should weigh. So, let me weigh them for you. On the one hand, intervening militarily against Russia in Ukraine might demonstrate resolve and show the world that we care about Ukrainian sovereignty. On the other hand, two or three billion people would die, human civilization would be set back several hundred—possibly several thousand—years, and Ukraine would cease to exist other than as a radioactive wasteland.

There is no reasonable moral calculus here. Even considering such a war is an unserious, historically illiterate, morally callous act. General nuclear war is genocidal, barbaric, and inhumane—which means initiating a war against Russia would be a reckless, foolish, immoral choice. The only reason to go to war against Russia is if Russia first attacks us or our treaty allies—which Putin has not done, lacks the capability to do, and almost certainly will not do because he is already bogged down in one war. We have many policy options for responding to Russia’s aggression—including sanctions, weapons transfers, sharing intelligence, and more. Declaring war on Russia or intervening directly in the conflict—doing anything that involves NATO troops shooting at or bombing Russia soldiers—is not one of them.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University.