How Close Are We to World War III?
One month since Russia invaded Ukraine, the war has reached a stalemate, raising concerns about whether fighting could spill over into neighboring countries. Are we on the verge of another world war? To understand the current situation, we spoke with Joshua Shifrinson, a BU Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies associate professor of international relations.
- We are now closer to World War III than we were last year, Shifrinson says, but are still “several steps away from a conflict akin to World Wars I and II.”
- “Economic sanctions are a really poor tool for coercing other countries,” he says. The United States had tried to deter Russia with the threat of sanctions, but Putin still decided the stakes were worth invading Ukraine.
- “I think calls for a no-fly zone are an understandable response to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding [in Ukraine],” says Shifrinson, “but at the same time, I think people have not fully thought through the dangers involved.”
Dana Ferrante: This is Question of the Week from BU Today. How close are we to World War III? After US officials warned for several weeks of a potential Russian invasion, on February 24, Russian forces began to pour into Ukraine, launching rocket attacks on major cities, including the capital, Kyiv.
Now more than a month later, hundreds of civilians and thousands of soldiers have been killed and roughly 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the conflict. As Russia turns to more devastating tactics and Ukrainian calls for NATO to establish a no-fly zone go unmet, the war has reached a stalemate, raising concerns about whether fighting could spill over into neighboring countries.
More than 75 years after World War II ended, are we on the verge of another world war? To understand the current situation and how it compares to the wars of the first half of the 20th century, Doug Most, BU Today executive editor, spoke with Joshua Shifrinson, a BU Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies associate professor of international relations.
Doug Most: Joshua, thanks for joining us.
Joshua Shifrinson: Thanks for having me, Doug, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Most: So let’s get right at it. The question that seems to be on a lot of people’s minds right now is: how close are we to World War III? Can you talk to us about that?
Shifrinson: Sure. So obviously we’re a bit closer to World War III than we were back in December before Russia invaded Ukraine. And I still think we’re still several steps away from something akin to World War I or World War II.
Right now, Russia has obviously invaded Ukraine, and Russian and Ukrainian forces are obviously engaged in some really brutal, thuggish combat. And the United States and its NATO allies are obviously aiding the Ukrainians, though trying to stay out of the fight directly, just as Russia is trying to draw upon Chinese support indirectly for its efforts in Ukraine.
So right now, we have what could be considered an internationalized conflict. We have a conflict between two different states that is drawing more and more attention from external actors. Really, some of the most intense attention to such issues that we’ve seen since the end of World War II.
So I can understand why people feel we might be on the verge of World War III. But we’re still several steps away: the United States is not actively involved, China’s not actively involved. And right now the conflict, at least is confined to Ukraine.
Most: Will it be World War III if the United States is not involved, or does it take the US involvement actively and militarily for that to be a World War III?
Shifrinson: It’s a really good question. I think it’s important to remember that things like the First World War and Second World War actually began with localized conflicts between regional major powers and minor powers. World War I began because of a fight between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire that then drew in other countries.
World War II arguably began when Germany invaded Poland and other countries came to Poland’s defense. So what does this all mean for the current situation? I don’t think necessarily to get a world war you need the United States per se involved, but world wars are defined by their broad scope, by the sheer number of countries involved.
And so, even if the United States stays on the sidelines, there is some potential for escalation, some potential for World War III. But at the same time, the United States and China and several other countries are obviously trying to hang back and trying to urge restraint, which at least bodes well, I think, for the prospects of avoiding a World War III.
Most: You mentioned China, which is interesting, and I wanted to ask you about that. China seems to be trying to straddle a line here where they are not necessarily picking a side and trying to figure out a way to stay out of this. But I think everyone is wondering and worried that if China does get involved, how quickly could that escalate things?
What do you think China is trying to do and where do you see them going?
Shifrinson: You hit on one of the million-dollar questions. There are several million-dollar questions here, so people can make a lot of money off this conflict. But China is at least trying to straddle the line, right?
It’s trying to maintain its good economic relationship with the United States and other countries at a time when we’re already talking about decoupling the western economies from the Chinese market. China is also trying to avoid the kind of international isolation that Russia has subjected itself to. At the same time, Russia is certainly a partner of China and there’s been burgeoning defense ties between the two countries over many, many years.
So China can’t afford to distance itself too much from Russia. So I really see China not so much trying to play both sides, that’s a little too uncharitable, but really trying to just hang back and let the situation evolve without tying its hands one way or another. Now you asked the question, what might happen if China does decide to get involved?
I think what we can see happening there is China playing the role like the United States has been playing with Ukraine—supplying arms, providing diplomatic supports, providing economic assistance. I don’t think China is near going in that direction Russia has called upon China to go; I don’t think China has made that decision at all.
But if it did, we can imagine the Russian-Ukraine conflict becoming a kind of proxy conflict between the United States and China in Ukraine. And so that would actually draw out the conflict quite a bit longer, as Russia and Ukraine can each draw upon a major power backer.
Most: In comparing this conflict to previous world war conflicts, one comparison that’s come up is this question: is Putin sort of this generation’s Hitler? Do you have any thoughts on that? How does Putin compare to what Hitler did, was doing? And do you think there is some element of legitimate comparison?
Shifrinson: No, I really think it’s a bad comparison. I know a lot of people make it. I actually haven’t heard many people around BU making it, but it’s certainly in the media. I think it’s a really bad comparison in a couple of ways. Hitler was many things, he was a gambler above all, right?
He was really willing to roll the iron dice, risk war against many, many countries for the sake of creating the German Empire. Putin, for all his thuggish behavior and Russia’s thuggish behavior in Ukraine and Georgia, has demonstrated no inclination to be a real risk-accepting, real gambling kind of country, real gambling kind of leader.
He’s being very cautious. He went into Georgia under conditions when it wasn’t likely the West was going to get involved. He went into Ukraine only after negotiations with the Ukrainian government had failed, and pressure upon the West had really failed. I see very little evidence that up to this point in his very long tenure as Russia’s leader that he really is willing to gamble Russia’s future on direct confrontation.
And even amidst this conflict, Russia has been cooperative on things like the second round of the Iran nuclear deal. So Russia is obviously not seeking to break with the West entirely, which is very different than what Adolf Hitler wanted; he wanted to overturn the whole status quo in the world.
And I’m not even talking, by the way, about the poor comparison between the human rights abuses that the Nazi regime engaged in and the Putin regime is engaged in. Now obviously, Putin has been horrible for Russian human rights, Russian civil liberties, but we’re not talking about genocide, we’re not talking about the ethnic categorizations in Nazi Germany.
So I understand the desire to compare Putin to Hitler. It seems the same, the kind of this strong man heading a weird-looking state coming out of the east and autocracy. I kind of get it, but it’s a really bad comparison. People should stop doing it.
Most: The economic sanctions, and all of the things that the United States and President Biden are putting on Russia, do you think they are making a difference?
Can you just win this—maybe win this is the wrong phrasing—but can you succeed in putting Russia back in its place with just economic sanctions? The numbers being thrown around, of course, are huge and they sound enormous. But I think some people are sort of skeptical and questioning: will that really make the dent and make things as difficult on Russia as we’re hoping?
Shifrinson: I would argue that it’s not so much a question of the sanctions making a dent upon Russia as it is kind of the stakes of the game. Sanctions are a really poor tool for coercing other countries, and this is what we’re talking about today. Before the conflict began, the United States was trying to use the threat of sanctions to deter Russia, warning Russia that if it invades Ukraine, then the West will impose these draconian measures upon Russia and it will suffer consequences.
Now that Russia is in Ukraine, we’re talking about a coercion scenario, right? Where we’re trying to use sanctions to get Russia to pull back. And unfortunately, sanctions are a really poor tool for that because the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t really cut in the international community’s favor, point number one. Point number two: countries have shown a remarkable ability to accommodate themselves to sanctions over time, find workarounds, or just bear the costs over time.
And then finally, number three: by saying ahead of the conflict, “Hey, I’m going to impose the following sanctions upon you if you invade.” If Putin then invades, he’s kind of said implicitly, “Well, I heard what’s going to happen, I’ve decided the stakes of the game are worth it, so them’s the breaks, I’m going to go forward.” Plus I also expect, and this is my last point, I also expect that over time, the Western sanctions regime is going to break down a little bit.
Sanctions tend to fray over time, we saw them break down when it came to Iraq in the 1990s. We saw the breakdown when it came to the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. So sanctions do tend to wane over time. And I would be very surprised if Putin isn’t thinking that through as well.
Most: There have been a lot of controversial things that have been said out there in the last week or two about Putin. Questions of: does something like this ever get resolved as long as Putin is in power? Are there ways to have him removed from power? And do you see this not ever getting truly resolved as long as Putin is in power in Russia—whether it’s through the sanctions or militarily or whatever, as long as he’s in power—that this is just inevitably going to drag out?
Shifrinson: So there’s obviously a very big debate right now about what Russia is after. For people who think this is Vladimir Putin driving Russia to a war because Putin wants to re-establish the Russian Empire or the former Soviet Union, obviously, in that case, the answer is no. You probably can’t cheat this unless you have a new set of leaders who aren’t committed to using force of arms to change the European security system.
On the other hand, there are people, and I guess I would count myself among them, who see Russia as having somewhat more finite objectives. [They’re] really much more worried about what Ukraine’s relationship is with the West and Ukraine’s relative support for Russian objectives in Eastern Europe as well.
And in that case, I think it’s very possible you could get a diplomatic deal of some kind. I don’t really know what one would look like right now. But I think it’s very possible that you get a diplomatic deal of some kind with Putin in power, because it means that Putin himself isn’t really wedded to these exceptionally aggressive or exceptionally expansive goals.
It’s much more strategic in nature. And so I’m a little more optimistic that you can strike a deal with Putin than not. Whether we want to do that is a different question, but I think it’s possible to get one.
Most: I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the phrasing that everyone has become familiar with now, which is no-fly zone, right?
This is the question that everyone is weighing: would some sort of imposition of a no-fly zone truly escalate this in the ways that the United States fears? Do you have any thoughts on the no-fly zone? Do you think the United States is being overly cautious in sort of not going there? Or do you think they’re playing their cards right in saying that’s just a step too far?
Shifrinson: I believe that the United States is playing their cards right. I think calls for a no-fly zone are very risky. They’re almost immature and unprofessional when the people call for them. Because if you think about what a no-fly zone entails, it means flying American and NATO planes over Ukrainian territory and attacking any Russian airplanes that come up to challenge them.
Now maybe Russia blinks first and decides not to send the planes to challenge Western planes. But if they do, then either the United States shoots down Russian planes and kills Russian soldiers, Russian airmen, or vice versa. In which case we’re kind of off to a situation that tends to lead to war, that countries tend to go to war over.
Most: And if we don’t shoot those planes down, then the no-fly zone is not really a no-fly zone.
Shifrinson: That’s right. And then American credibility also takes a hit, right? So it’s a double whammy under those conditions. So I think calls for a no-fly zone are an understandable response to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding, to our sense that norms are being violated by Russia. But at the same time, I think people haven’t thought through fully what the dangers involved entail and asked the question: are the interests at stake worth the risks?
Most: So the last question I want to ask you has to do with the patience of Americans, all of us, as we’re watching this unfold and we’re seeing the economic impact on the world and on our own wallets, even.
I’m curious if you think that Americans will have patience for this conflict to play out, whether it means a few weeks or months? And how far do you think this can go before the patience of Americans, and then I guess if you want to be cynical, you could say American voters, will play out as the elections come in the fall?
Do you think that’s going to be a factor ultimately in the US decision-making? How much longer do you think this will play out?
Shifrinson: So, just to clarify, you’re asking whether I think the American people will kind of support remaining on the sidelines more or less indefinitely?
Most: Yeah, for how long, correct.
Shifrinson: So, I’m going to give an anecdote, and it’s always a bad way to give an anecdote, but I’ll try it anyway. I’m on leave this term and I happen to be in Washington [DC] at the moment. And I’ve made it my business every day to walk by the Russian Embassy to see if anyone’s protesting there.
And we’re talking about DC in the spring, right? These are nice conditions. And most days, there are almost no protesters. We don’t want to weigh too much on this, but I do think that tells you something: people vote with their feet. And if people aren’t willing to come out, stand in front of a Russian Embassy in the beautiful DC springtime to lament Russian behavior, I don’t think the American voter is going to decide that Ukraine is an issue that all of a sudden merits American involvement.
Or we kind of see the crisis being normalized. The markets respond, new supply chains are established for certain raw materials, the pocketbook issues get addressed over time or they get normalized over time. This could all change, obviously, if there were massacres in Ukraine or really much more escalatory Russian behavior.
But it’s also important to remember that over the last several election cycles, the American people have voted for candidates who don’t want an expansive American military role in the world. And who don’t want the United States to kind of serve as the world’s policeman. So given all this, I can tell a story, and I think it might be the right one, saying that the American patience for staying on the sidelines can last for a very long time.
You know, one thing we haven’t discussed is the humanitarian element in all of this. Kind of the bootstrapping that the American people are doing right now, the international community is doing right now. And we should be clear here. Just because I have said that the United States should not be going to war for Ukraine does not mean I believe that the United States should not be providing comfort to Ukrainians, should not be providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians, it should not be taking as many refugees as possible.
And I’m very pleased to see the American people, including some BU students and BU colleagues, really take steps to welcome Ukrainian refugees and try to ameliorate the problems on the ground. In addition to a geopolitical contest that could lead to World War III, this is a humanitarian tragedy the likes of which Europe has not seen for several decades.
And it really requires a collective response to address the human suffering that’s emerging separate from geopolitical risks that are involved. There’s a whole separate conversation to be had there.
Most: Certainly the images and videos are hard to watch, there’s no question.
Shifrinson: It’s a tragedy of almost unparalleled proportions in modern Europe.
Most: Yeah, it really is. Well, thank you for your time. Thank you for the conversation. We appreciate it.
Shifrinson: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
Ferrante: Thanks to Joshua Shifrinson for joining us on this episode of Question of the Week. This episode was hosted by BU Today executive editor, Doug Most, engineered by Andy Hallock, and produced by me, Dana Ferrante.
Thanks for listening and see you in two weeks.
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