No, we’re not already in World War III
Ukraine’s string of battlefield victories, and the Russian partial mobilization that followed, have rightly raised Western fears of nuclear escalation. While some experts and scholars have counseled caution and prudence, urging the Biden administration to be careful as it negotiates a moment of increasing peril, others have dialed up the rhetoric and prescriptions. Forget the rote invocation of Munich and appeasement; according to at least one prominent Washington journalist, we may already be in World War III.
Such a framing is dangerously at odds with reality. Yes, Russia, the largest country on earth, stretches across 11 time zones. Its shores touch a dozen seas and a pair of oceans. But in this war the fighting is confined to one small (in relative terms) corner of Russia’s massive perimeter. Not one bomb or bullet has landed outside the territory of Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine has received enormous support from the United States and NATO — more than $30 billion in military aid to date. But no member of the alliance is engaged in active hostilities, a “red line” not to cross, loudly announced and scrupulously observed by President Biden. The United States is clearly not a neutral nation in this conflict, but there is still a critical line between being in a shooting war and not. The American people, who oppose putting U.S. troops in Ukraine, understand this basic fact, even if some purported “experts” may not.
Russia lacks any meaningful allies at all. Belarus permitted Russian troops to invade from its territory but has yet to contribute any of its own men to the war. Iran has supplied a few hundred loitering munitions, or “suicide drones.” Chinese aid has been almost wholly symbolic; the People’s Republic has provided little, if any, direct material support to Russia.
During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union fought repeated proxy wars against each other and routinely engaged in spying, subversion and brinkmanship. Russian rifles killed Americans in Vietnam; American Stinger missiles downed Russian helicopters in Afghanistan. But leaders and the general public in both countries understood that a superpower war was to be avoided at almost any cost. The risk of nuclear war was always present, even during lulls in the struggle.
Russia’s recent attempts to influence U.S. domestic politics, largely through “troll farms” and other online means of misinformation, also are part of a long tradition. These active measures may have muddied the waters and increased fear and distrust on the margins of America’s polarized polity, but the discontents of our democracy are mostly self-inflicted — the result of decades of poor policy and elite insulation. Email hacks and Facebook ads, however disruptive, are not the handmaidens of world war.
Today, many influential voices in Washington have forgotten how narrowly the apocalypse was averted in the last century — multiple times. Former senior government officials, ensconced in the most bellicose corners of Washington’s think tank ecosystem, propose policies that would have been regarded as extremely reckless even at the height of the Cold War: decapitation strikes against Russian leaders, or adding Ukraine to NATO after it has been hit with a Russian nuke.
The World War III rhetoric, even if deployed cynically, heightens the odds that some of these dangerous suggestions will get an undeserved hearing. If we are already at war — a world war no less — then the stakes are existential. No tactic can be dismissed and no weapon kept in its sheath.
The United States has done the right thing, tactically and morally, in becoming Ukraine’s arsenal and adviser. American and NATO support has been critical in ensuring Russia’s initial repulse and the ensuing victories that have preserved the Ukrainian nation. But escalatory risk has been managed thus far because Ukraine has remained a bounded conflict, fed but not fought by the West.
We have had world wars that weren’t before: prominent neoconservatives warned of a stealth World War III in the 80s and then a World War IV (!) against Islamofascism. Thankfully, somewhat saner minds and hands were steering the American ship of state, even during the depths of the Iraq War. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is a brutal but limited war, and one that the aggressor is steadily losing. Pretending this is World War III might just make it so.
Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and senior research fellow at Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. From 2009 to 2016 he served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan twice, to Guantanamo Bay, and to the Persian Gulf.