A few months ago, I wrote for Providence about the need for new paradigms of war. A decades-long tendency to reduce every new conflict to either an existential fight against totalitarianism or the next Vietnam led to errors of judgment, sometimes disastrously.
I did not know then how soon Vladimir Putin would launch a textbook case of an unjust war (ironically, justifying it with allusions to “de-Nazification”), making comparisons to World War II more apt than at any time since 1945.
In its brazenness and obvious injustice; in Russia’s autocratic, one-man rule and the ideological and imperial inflection of the conflict; in its Eastern European location; and in the risks of escalation whether the former Allied powers do either too little or too much in response, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine resembles Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
But it is also unlike that earlier conflict in significant ways. Russia is a nuclear state in possession of large numbers of nuclear warheads and effective delivery systems for those payloads. Threaten Putin too much, and Western democracies risk not just a larger conventional war, but the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons (or worse). This is Putin’s trump card and may yet immunize him against full-scale countermeasures.
Western nations have also lost some room to maneuver due to Article 5 of the NATO compact. If Russia or one of its European client states attacks Poland, Lithuania, or any other NATO member state, all of NATO will be bound to defend them militarily. The war then immediately engulfs not just most of the European continent, but North America as well.
An attack on a NATO member state certainly means that a conflict currently restricted to a few states suddenly spans the Atlantic. However, a global battle of the scale of World War II—which included Asia, Oceana, and Africa—is not a foregone conclusion. In 1945, large parts of the globe were still under European rule and automatically drafted into the Allied or Axis cause. Since then, these empires have largely dissolved or survive primarily in loose ceremonial-historical networks. Evidence suggests that these former colonies have little appetite for involvement in a NATO-Russia war.
Nor are there signals (yet) that China, the other regional hegemon, has much interest in involving itself in Putin’s imperial military misadventures, however friendly Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have been. Both of these factors suggest that even if the conflict escalates, World War III is not inevitable. However, that judgment also relies on the knowledge of facts not yet in evidence. For instance, it assumes that other autocratically inclined leaders will not see a broader European war as an opportunity to launch a regional military campaign of their own, while NATO is occupied fighting a hot war against a nuclear foe.
So why do these distinctions matter to most of us, who have little influence on national policy? This exercise is helpful for at least three reasons. First, it encourages nuanced thinking, reminding us not to be caught up in either pro-intervention or anti-war fervor. Second, it pushes us to consider outcomes we might rather avoid contemplating—that is, to be realistic in our assessments of likely consequences. Third, it can be a reason for hope: things are bad, and may get worse—but that does not mean the worst outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Having seen and heard stories of the horrors of total war and genocide from the past century of conflict, many people of good will now feel helpless in the face of Russia’s unjust aggression. As individuals, we should do what we can to aid Ukraine and the Ukrainian victims of Putin’s war. We can donate to relief and refugee causes. We can pray. But we can also discipline ourselves to turn away from sensationalism and fortify our moral sensibilities so that whatever the future holds, we can act wisely and well, and encourage others to do the same. Hard days may be ahead.