Is Ukraine War the Beginning of World War III? By Les Nemethy, CEO, Euro-Phoenix Financial Advisors Ltd., former World Banker

The conventional definition of World War is that it involves the participation of multiple major powers in a global conflict. Yet one increasingly hears that the Ukrainian Wars signals the outbreak of World War III.

Until recently, this seemed far-fetched. The war is asymmetric: if the US can wear down the Russian military machine by channeling roughly 10% of its defense budget into a proxy war — and does not even have to mobilize a single combat soldier — that doesn’t sound like a World War.

Recently, a French intellectual by the name of Emmanuel Todd came up with an interesting claim: the Ukrainian war is a World War because it is existential for both Russia and the US, hence neither side can back down. I believe it is self-evident that the war is existential for Russia. Hence I will focus whether on the war is existential for the US, and if so, whether it signals a World War.

Is the Ukraine War existential for the US?

Let us look at the evidence:

  • While NATO allies seem solidly behind the US, the developing world is not. Their response is much more ambiguous. Todd argues that if you take developing countries into account, roughly 70% of the world population is not on the US side. The war may serve to crystalize public opinion in the developing world against the US.
  • Of greatest importance is perhaps China, more on the Russian side of the Ukrainian conflict than the American. Russia and China share an interest in diminishing US hegemony. Should the two join forces, they would represent a formidable alliance. Once again, the Ukrainian war has the potential to catalyze this process of Russia and China forming a tighter alliance.
  • A Russian success in Ukraine may embolden China to attempt to take Taiwan, and may embolden other potential aggressors in the world, putting further pressure on American hegemony. It would send a message that American hegemony is waning.
  • India has continued to purchase large amounts of Russian oil despite thee American-imposed embargo, which demonstrates that soon-to-be-most-populous-country-of-the world is at best an ambivalent US ally.

Today, there are so many more dimensions of war than purely military. Military experts call it hybrid warfare—which includes:

  • security hacks, cyberattacks, etc.
  • misinformation (used for example to rig elections),
  • kompromat (obtaining compromising information to blackmail a politician or other influential figure),
  • trade war (embargo on products crossing borders), and
  • financial warfare (freezing reserves, blocking access to platforms such as SWIFT. Or even something seemingly innocuous as taking payment for oil in yuan or gold. This diminishes the US Dollar as world reserve currency, which has allowed the US its “exorbitant privilege” of printing trillions of dollars, where the world accepts paper in exchange for providing the US with goods. For example, Saudi Arabia recently agreed to sell oil to the Chinese in yuan, weakening the status of the US Dollar as global reserve currency.
In short, the Ukrainian war has unleashed a number of forces, which serve to diminish US global hegemony. A Russian victory– or even just Russia keeping one or more of the four oblasts it recently occupied in Ukraine — may serve to highlight the limits of American power, and send a message that aggression can be rewarded.

So Todd is right in the sense that the Ukraine war is existential to the US because it may reduce US global hegemony. However, if US territory itself is not under threat, how can this be an existential threat? As geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan argues, the US could retreat behind its own borders, and recreate “fortress America” — which would be a disaster for much of the world, but not for the US.

In conclusion, the Ukraine War is an existential threat to US global hegemony, but not to US territorial integrity.

Does the Ukrainian War signal the outbreak of World War III?

The other element of Todd’s thesis is that neither side can back down. While the Ukrainian war has the potential to escalate into a full-fledged nuclear Armageddon, so far all sides have shown remarkable adeptness at keeping a lid on the conflict, confining it to Ukraine. In my opinion, it is likelier that this war will continue for some time as a localized conflict. I do not rule out the addition of one or more similar conflicts of local nature.

The reality is that the world is becoming a much messier place. Combine the many facets of hybrid war (which do in fact touch US territory), and localized conflicts such as Ukriane—the likelier scenario is a continuation of this messy muddle–neither peace nor World War.

As one commentator aptly put it: if we are arguing about whether we are in World War III, then how can there be a World War? If there really were a World War, you’d probably know it!

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