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The fighting is in Ukraine, but risk of World War III is real

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CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — So far, it is still Russia’s war against Ukraine. But World War III has never been closer.

As Russian forces pummel Kyiv and other cities, Western powers have maneuvered extremely carefully to avoid direct conflict with President Vladimir Putin, the man who controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and has shown no qualms in boasting about it.

Ukraine’s Western allies are supplying weapons and other materiel, but have ruled out the idea of imposing a no-fly zone. EU countries are providing air defense systems, but have balked at Ukraine’s request for fighter jets. No country has offered to send troops.

And yet, senior Western government officials, diplomats and military analysts acknowledge that there is now a grave danger that the United States and other NATO allies could be drawn into the war — at virtually any moment, as the result of any number of scenarios.

“One is a mistake,” said a Washington-based analyst whose work is partly financed by the U.S. government. “They lob a missile into Poland. That is not impossible and then it very quickly escalates. But we have to respond. We can’t not respond.”

“Or the outcry against the crimes against humanity is so strong that we feel compelled to take what we think is a limited and judicious action,” the analyst said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

“The enforcement of a no-fly zone means killing Russians,” the analyst said. “Anything that we do that results in killing Russians puts us into World War III.”

The shelling and a fire at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power plant in the early hours of Friday morning provided yet another frightening example of the type of emergency scenario that could ensnare a broader international coalition in Putin’s war: to urgently prevent a global catastrophe.

But other more mundane scenarios abound. Already, on Wednesday Russian planes violated Swedish air space multiple times. An Estonian cargo ship sunk off the coast of Odesa, apparently after hitting a mine. Any such incident could easily escalate.

U.S. President Joe Biden has been adamant about American forces not getting involved in the fighting. In his State of the Union speech this week, Biden described the war as Ukraine’s fight and said Washington would do what it could to help.

“We’ll continue to aid the Ukrainian people as they defend their country and help ease their suffering,” he said. “But let me be clear: Our forces are not engaged and will not engage in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine. Our forces are not going to Europe to fight [in] Ukraine but to defend our NATO Allies in the event that Putin decides to keep moving west.”

One European official privy to intelligence briefings provided to U.S. allies said analysts in Washington had reached a terrifying conclusion: “Russia is ready to use a thermonuclear bomb in Ukraine,” the official said.

The official said the war in Ukraine was far more dangerous than anything Europe has seen since the end of World War II, including the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

“As horrible as that was,” the official said, “this is worse, with the potential of getting a real European war, or a world war very quickly. This is just getting deeper and deeper, every day.”

On Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated the alliance’s wish to avoid conflict and unwillingness to impose a no-fly zone. “The only way to implement a no-fly zone is to send NATO planes — fighter planes — into Ukrainian airspace, and then impose that no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes,” Stoltenberg said following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. “If we did that, we’ll end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe involving many more countries and causing much more human suffering.” 

On a visit to Chişinău, the Moldovan capital which has been swamped by Ukrainian refugees, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he recognized the whole world has a stake in what’s happening in Ukraine.

“Today the problem is not only Donbass, the problem is not only Ukraine — what is at stake is the stability in Europe and the whole international order,” he said.

But asked if he would back a no-fly zone enforced by NATO allies, 21 of whom are EU members, Borrell said that was not a decision for him or the EU to take.

Proxy war

Officials and diplomats who are experts on Russia say the effort to portray the conflict as Ukraine’s war misses the key point: Putin has attacked Ukraine precisely because it chose a path toward the EU and NATO. Fighting Ukraine, they say, is a proxy for fighting the West.

Some believe the conflict can only be resolved if Putin’s complaints about the U.S. and NATO are resolved. Until then, he will continue the war, seeking to conquer or destroy the country, and making the peace negotiations with Ukrainian officials of little significance.

In other words, the West will end up even more directly involved, politically and perhaps militarily, than it is already. The precise nature of that greater role is a matter of debate but many believe it is coming, one way or another — and some argue that the sooner it happens, the quicker the war will end. That calculation, of course, presumes Putin choose self-preservation over nuclear Armageddon.

But all signs suggest the situation in Ukraine will get far worse in the coming days, a point French President Emmanuel Macron warned about on Thursday.

As Putin realizes that fury among the Ukrainian population means he will lose politically, no matter the military outcome, there is a heightened risk he will simply seek to destroy Ukraine, flattening its cities and towns just as Russian forces obliterated the Chechen capital of Grozny. 

And the devastating barrage of severe sanctions that are punishing the Russian economy will almost certainly remain in place, giving Putin little incentive to back away from his goal of conquering Ukraine and toppling its government. Putin chose war fully knowing there would be severe economic consequences — a calculation he made previously with the invasion and annexation of Crimea, which led to sanctions and steep absorption costs.

One senior EU official said that Ukrainians would pay a terrible price as a result of the West insisting it is not in the fight, and delaying its direct involvement. “They will try to pretend for a while longer, and many more Ukrainians will have to die,” the senior official said, adding that there was a need for the West to recognize that it was Putin’s primary target.

“Even if they would [impose] the damn no-fly zone, that wouldn’t change the dynamics,” the senior official added. “It’s still taken as somebody else’s war.”

A second senior EU official said that EU member countries had taken care to be sure that the weapons and other aid they are supplying to Ukraine were in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, regarding a country’s right to self-defense, and that it should not be seen in any way by Moscow or anyone else as EU states directly entering the conflict with Russia.

“The Union is not at war with Russia,” the second official said. “We are in line with the U.N. Charter.” The second official added: “But we need to help Ukraine because Ukraine is being attacked and has the right to self-defense.”

Molly McKew, an independent security analyst based in Washington who publishes a newsletter called Great Power, said by denying their centrality in the dispute, Western powers were failing to seize on an opportunity to unite the three Slavic nations that Putin often talks about — Ukraine, Russia and Belarus — but against the Russian autocrat, in support of democracy.

“It’s like we’re not understanding that we’re a participant in this war already — not because we put ourselves there, not because we were looking for this war, not because of any decision that NATO made or any individual bilateral partners of Ukraine made, but because Vladimir Putin is fighting a war against us,” McKew said. “And if we show up to the war, it will end sooner and faster with less people dead, and that’s really the decision we have to make now.”

She said that there was a chance Putin would decide to broaden the conflict even as Western countries continued to try to walk a legal tightrope. “I think right now there’s extremely cautious legal microanalysis happening — Is a fighter jet too much? Is that NATO participating in a war? Is the drones too much? Is that NATO arming Ukraine in the war? — You know what? Vladimir Putin doesn’t care about your 40-page legal microanalysis that you just sent to the National Security Council.”

Putin’s ‘Gaddafi mindset’

Increasing talk about the need to kill or depose Putin could also transform the fight in Ukraine into a world war, experts say, as the Russian leader concludes that he is not only engaged in regime preservation but literally in self-preservation.

Many Western officials and diplomats aren’t whispering these days when they express hopes that a Russian oligarch or someone else close to Putin will kill him. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham on Thursday publicly suggested Putin should be assassinated, saying: “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military?” Graham was referring in the first instance to the Roman politician who was among the assassins of Julius Caesar, and in the second to the German army officer who failed to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Putin is known to harbor deep anger over the death of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, who was taken prisoner, humiliated, beaten and killed while begging his captors for mercy. The scenes were filmed on a mobile phone.

The Washington-based analyst said the Russian president would go to any lengths to avoid Gaddafi’s fate, and that suggestions Putin should be tried as a war criminal could trigger him.

“Even scarier” than other scenarios that would draw NATO into the conflict “is the talk about trying him before the International Criminal Court,” the analyst said. “That’s kind of Gaddafi territory. You have to be real careful about putting a dictator who still has his finger on a nuclear button in a Gaddafi mindset.”

Overall, the analyst said, Western officials including Biden were not recognizing the acute danger of a world war. “Everybody is doing what they have done all along, except something fundamental has changed,” the analyst said.

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