How did the threat of World War III evolve?

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is, after a series of strategic missteps by Vladamir Putin, becoming what many experts call a “war of attrition.”

The term describes warfare characterized by the “sustained process of exhausting an adversary so as to force his physical collapse through continued losses of personnel, equipment, and supplies or exhaust him to such an extent that his will to fight collapses,” according to the International Encyclopedia of World War I.

It’s a development that experts have long predicted after reports of Russian military failures revealed how Putin’s army was under-resourced and unprepared for a ground war in Ukraine, as well as the strength of the Ukrainian resistance.

Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But when the conflict began in late February, observers feared it could escalate into a wider global war between NATO and Russia.

[email protected] spoke with Stephen Flynn, Founding Director of Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute, about developments in Ukraine, their connection to the broader geopolitical landscape emerging in response to the war, and the current threat level for nuclear conflicts . and World War III. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Military activity in Ukraine has, according to reports, really begun to take root, suggesting a long-term war of attrition. From a national security perspective, how does this change the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in Ukraine or a wider conflict involving NATO breaking out?

We have this conversation in the context that, of course, there are still many nuclear weapons on the planet. We still face the risk that some of these weapons will be used or that they will end up in the wrong hands. In the general context, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised the geostrategic risk of miscalculation and, while NATO tries to implement sanctions without pushing Russia too far, this risk is always the.

But [the war] also strips Russia of the role it played at the end of the Cold War as a co-partner in counter-proliferation efforts. If you look at virtually every deal that has been made over the years, it was about partnerships between the United States and Russia to both reduce the arsenal…and engage in broader efforts to contain countries like Iran.

We are still in an environment where this risk of miscalculation that I mentioned has not gone away; but we are in a kind of lull. That could change over the winter when Europe’s energy needs increase significantly and if Russia potentially decides to play the energy card. We are literally talking about not having enough gas for European countries to warm up. This could increase the risk there.

Besides energy concerns, are there other consequences of the war that could put pressure on the international order in a way that could exacerbate tensions?

As many know, there is also an ongoing food shortage – and that is not going to be resolved soon. Food insecurity is fueling civil unrest, and in places already experiencing civil unrest, such as the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, things could get worse. So there is still a geopolitical environment where there is less trust, where there is more risk of miscalculation, because Russia and Ukraine are still at war, and NATO stands edge without going to war over it; but also because of the continuing concerns about proliferation more broadly, particularly with regard to Iran and, of course, North Korea, we could find ourselves in a situation where more of these deadly weapons become available over time. time.

Did the invasion inspire other major powers, such as China, to respond militarily in their own spheres?

One of the almost surprising results is the extent to which the invasion led to the merger of NATO at a time when many people saw [the Western alliance] as moribund and permanently frayed the edges. Of course, NATO has recently expanded to include Finland and Sweden. The strength of this decision is almost certainly a message that China received. The idea that the West is disintegrating and therefore can really push hard to achieve its goals – well, there is now evidence to the contrary in terms of the West’s response to Russia. There is, of course, the risk of China invading Taiwan and China expanding into the Asia-Pacific in a bid to grow from a regional powerhouse to a global powerhouse. This tension also exists.

Overall, we’re in a very different strategic location from a security perspective than two years ago, and it’s a messy place. And we’re still in the nuclear age and so the risk is, I would say, higher than it was – certainly before February 20th. [2022]. But it’s not as clear and present as it might have seemed when Russia was pouring into Ukraine and the West was forced to respond. Any unintended consequences that might have arisen were handled quite well, overall. That trigger source is still there, but not as important.

It is also worth considering the meeting between Iran and Russia, with Turkey playing the role of mediator. Russia has always been suspicious of Iran, and Iran obviously continues to have that rogue status in the world today. So to the extent that Iran and Russia begin to work more closely together, only time will tell. But this is not a positive development compared to efforts that were in place previously to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions – an effort in which Russia participated. It is therefore a worrying sign.

At the same time, Russia is now signaling that it will go a step further than the eastern part of Ukraine, now that it is settling into a protracted conflict after the Blitzkrieg-style approach did not so worked well. So now they’re here for the long haul. Another variable is that they’ve also demonstrated to the world that their traditional military prowess isn’t all that impressive. But they still have nuclear prowess.

[Russia’s] role in proliferation has now changed. All this to say that when we think of the threat of nuclear war, it is both the means carry out the threat and intention behind. What we can say here is that we are more and more at a point where the means for a nuclear conflict are there, and the intention, although we hope it is somewhat contained, well, we we still have a war going on.

For me, what you have to keep an eye on is how the energy demands manifest. Because that shoe hasn’t dropped yet.

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