Looking at February 24, 2022 in the future, historians will be able to say that not only the invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russian troops began there, but also the Third World War, argues political scientist Paul Poast.
A professor at the University of Chicago and a student of how financial power is central to war efforts, Poast argues that active participation in warfare goes far beyond sending troops to the battlefield.
For him, arming or financing one of the sides of a conflict is also actively participating in it.
That is why both the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – which in recent weeks have sent billions of dollars in aid to the Ukrainians and applied the largest economic sanctions in history against Vladimir Putin’s Russia — could be considered participants in the current war.
Thus, according to this interpretation, in practice the world’s greatest economic and military powers (Russia, the United States and Western Europe) would already be in direct confrontation and we would be experiencing the beginning of the Third World War.
There are historical precedents to support Poast’s interpretation. The main one, according to the political scientist, would be the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an act that dragged the Americans to the battlefields of World War II.
By the same token, Poast believes it is only a matter of time—as well as organizational capacity and military strength—for Russia to attack Poland, where most US and NATO aid convoys flow to Ukraine.
This, however, would lead to a significant escalation of the war, since Poland is a member of NATO, which would imply that the other countries of the alliance would go to help it on the battlefields.
Below are the main excerpts from Poast’s interview with BBC News Brazil.
Are we living a world war without fully understanding it?
We have heard from the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky that we are already in the Third World War. Other leaders and thinkers have said similar things.
My answer is that it depends on how you define a war. Some people use the expression World War III to refer to a conflict in which nuclear weapons are used, which would actually be a very short war because it would be nuclear annihilation.
Others will say that a world war has to take place in multiple places in the world at the same time. In other words, it cannot be like the current war, only in Ukraine, but it would have to include two or three continents. But in my opinion it is not necessary to go that far.
The key to defining whether something is a world war is to think about the extent to which different countries are participating in the conflict. And this is very much related to another concept that many politicians and academics use, which is the notion of a war between great powers, something that many argue has not happened since the Second World War.
So my answer is that I think we may be in the early stages of what historians will later say was the start of a world war, even if nuclear weapons were never used.
Why do you think that?
First, because there is already a great power directly involved: Russia. Second, although other great powers like the US do not fight the war directly, we are very close to that.
The US is openly supplying Ukraine with all kinds of weapons to fight Russia. And the fact that they don’t do it in secret, like in Afghanistan when it was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1989, is something that really differentiates today’s war from the more traditional so-called proxy wars, when the powers covertly support one side. without revealing it openly.
Yemen is a great example of a proxy war between, say, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been living in a kind of cold war for decades, where they have tried to avoid direct military conflict with each other but invested in many indirect military conflicts in Yemen. .
In the Ukraine conflict the parties are very clear. On the one hand we have Russia with some help from Belarus and seeking help from other countries like China. On the other hand, Ukraine with NATO, the US and several other countries of the so-called West that support them.
So in that sense the sides and the battlefield are very clear. There are many characteristics of things that you would look for when trying to say that something is a war between great powers, and depending on how many great powers are involved, you can say that it really is a world war.
The only thing that would lead someone to say that we are not in a world war is that we do not yet have that direct military confrontation between, say, NATO or US forces against Russia.
But if you look at the comments by Zelensky and others, there is a tone that this will inevitably happen, and when historians look back on that period, they will say that in February 2022, when the war started, the sides were already receiving help from other countries. , and that this gradually fueled direct military confrontation.
That’s the only thing we haven’t seen yet. It is something important, of course, but the rest of the factors point to a world war.
US President Joe Biden has said he will not send American fighters to fight the Russians on Ukrainian soil, but he does not seem to see sending weapons and financial resources as part of the war. However, the participation of the Americans in the two world wars began precisely with the economic and armament aid that they sent to their allies. So how to explain this line of non-participation that seems quite artificial?
I think artificial is the right word. A big area of my research is what I call the political economy of war, so I take very seriously the idea of providing funds, supplies, resources and how that is so vital to war.
To me, if you’re the essential funder/provider, you’re a key contributor to the war effort. That is why it is difficult to say that you are not a participant in that war.
The word artificial is very important, because if you look at the US involvement in WWII in particular, the Americans were instrumental in supplying the allies years before they got directly involved in the conflicts.
Although the US does not officially send troops to the war until 1942, between 1940 and 1941 they are already supplying the weapons and, from the point of view of Germany, of Hitler, they are already involved in the conflict and are already seen as a great threat.
Therefore, from the enemy’s perspective, it doesn’t matter much whether you declare war or recognize yourself as part of the war if by financing or arming one side you make yourself the main reason the enemy is losing this war or it becomes more difficult for him to beat her.
It can be seen that Putin operates with this logic of understanding aid to Ukraine from the West, from NATO and the US, as part of the conflict. Even he made statements about how these sanctions are already an economic war.
From Putin’s perspective, he is already at war with the West, with the US, and he doesn’t care that US troops haven’t been used yet.
Of course, it can be said that it matters, since the presence of the US military would be a key point of escalation in the conflict. But if Putin continues to see his military progress in Ukraine frustrated, he will say that the cause of this is the assistance that the US, NATO is providing.
And, according to his reasoning, Putin is not wrong to think so.
Yes. There are those who question this reasoning saying: “Putin has not yet attacked a NATO country, if he really thinks he is at war with NATO, wouldn’t he have already attacked Poland?”
And the answer may be: “Time will tell.” It may be that in the next few weeks it will attack Poland. And it may be that it has not yet done so because it does not have the capacity to open a new military front due to the great difficulties in Ukraine.
Actually, it might be someone rational enough to say, “I don’t want to go off a nuke because I’m not desperate enough to do it yet.”
But I think that if I had a little better military conditions, I would have already expanded this war.
At the beginning of the war I talked about how, depending on how easy it was to conquer Ukraine – which, of course, turned out to be quite difficult – Putin would seek to expand the conflict to neighboring countries, so I think the only reason why has not yet attacked other points in Europe is that it has not yet managed to win in Ukraine, so it has no way of redirecting forces.
But this would be a scenario in which Putin’s intentions go far beyond Ukraine. In his opinion, what does Putin want with his military offensive?
I think his ultimate goal was to recreate at least part of the Empire of the Soviet Union, possibly even the Russian Empire.
This can be seen in their rhetoric before the invasion. And if it had been easy, I think he would have sought the complete annexation of Ukraine to make Ukraine not just an independent state subservient to Russia, but part of Russia.
If he succeeded, I think he would have targeted other former Soviet republics that are not fully aligned with Russia, like Moldova or Georgia itself. And if that was easy enough, I would look at the Baltic states, although of course they are a totally different scenario because they are in NATO.
Now, in my opinion, he had to adjust his aim. I think he still hopes to bring about regime change in Ukraine. The scenario, however, is that he could end up in a quagmire in the Ukraine that he doesn’t want to back out of, but also can’t move toward his ultimate goal.
Before the invasion, Biden made it clear that NATO or US forces would not fight directly in Ukraine, but he did not announce any restrictions in terms of financial or weapons support for Zelensky. Recently, however, the Americans and their allies have ruled out sending warplanes to Ukraine. Why stop sending planes if they are already sending anti-aircraft drones?
The sending of planes would be a formula to escalate the conflict. This is because sending the planes overland to a war zone would be a huge logistical challenge. So the planes would have to take off from some NATO territory, conduct military operations, and then return to base.
For this reason, the initial idea was that the planes would leave from a base in Germany and not in Poland, since from the Polish air base near the border with Ukraine the planes and the air base itself would be easy targets for the Russians.
But the problem is not only that. Even if the pilots were Ukrainian, they would be Polish planes, leaving a US base in Germany to attack Ukrainian territory and then returning to the base. The Russians would evidently see this as an escalation in the involvement of the US and NATO allies.
But the US and its allies are constantly sending weapons to the Ukrainians and these weapons usually pass through the Polish-Ukrainian border. So what is the difference between sending planes or other weapons from Polish territory?
Yes, and that’s why one of the biggest concerns right now is the possibility of Russia targeting these resource and supply convoys crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border.
That is why I believe that if there is any NATO member most likely to be attacked by the Russians today, it is Poland.
It is true that Putin has territorial interests in the Balkans that before would have been a more obvious target, but now Poland is the one that offers the most direct help to Ukraine, and it is easy for the Russians to say that Poland is an arms channel for the Ukrainians, as well as being where most of the refugees go.
So this could be precisely Russia’s argument for attacking a NATO country accusing it of having attacked first, of being a farce the argument of US political leaders that there is a distinction between supplying weapons and operating them directly in a war
Is there any historical precedent for a situation like this?
The best historical example is the US in World War II.
In 1937, Japan got involved in a war on China and so the US ended up imposing an oil embargo on it.
China then benefited from Lend-Lease supplies (a program by US President Franklin Roosevelt to finance, through loans, arms and resources for allied countries).
This led Japan to realize that it could not win the war in China given US support and to make the decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
Basically, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was aimed at stopping war aid to China, even though the Americans had no troops on Chinese soil. This is a classic case where the US tried to avoid becoming effectively involved in the conflict, but was perceived as such a significant threat that it ended up being attacked and brought into the conflict directly.
China is central to the fate of the conflict in Ukraine and has so far maintained an ambiguous stance. Last week, its leader Xi Jinping and President Biden spoke for almost two hours about the situation. The Americans have accused the Chinese of considering funding the Russians, which Beijing denies. After the conversation, Xi said that the countries should not clash on the battlefields. How do you see the Chinese situation?
China’s position throughout this crisis has been one of ambiguity, they have not made strong statements for or against Russia.
What seems to emerge from this conversation between the US and China, in the sense of avoiding direct confrontation in Ukraine, can be read in various ways.
It does not mean that China will not support Russia. It simply means that, like Biden, Xi has no intention of sending Chinese troops directly to Ukraine.
Neither country wants a possible proxy war between them to turn into a direct war between the US and China. And it’s worth remembering that the two countries were already on opposite sides of conflicts after World War II: Vietnam is the best example of this.
But even if a direct confrontation between the countries is not expected, it is still on the table that China provides some kind of direct assistance to Russia. And certainly the threat of economic sanctions (by the US) is not enough to prevent China from doing what it believes to be in its overriding strategic interest.
People point to the huge trade between the US and China to say that a war between the two countries is unlikely because of the economic cost to both and the world.
But in 2017, when the North Korean missile crisis hit, China defused the crisis by making it clear that if the US attacked North Korea, the Chinese would defend the country, although they would remain neutral if a US attack were to be successful. motivated by a North Korean provocation.
And assistance to Russia follows the same logic. Putin and Xi recently signed a friendship agreement, they see themselves as part of this new international order that they want to lead.
That is why this is one of the greatest implications of this conflict, which goes far beyond the horrible scenarios of attacks on civilians and the destruction of a country.
If China were to go into an alliance with Russia to try to create an alternative international order to the West, this would have huge implications basically for the rest of the 21st century.
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