As bad as the war in Ukraine has already been, it may soon get a lot worse.
So far, the death and destruction has been confined to Ukraine itself. It’s a tragedy for the Ukrainian people but the conflict has at least been contained.
But what if it spills over into other parts of Europe, or turns into a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia? Or more directly, between the United States and Russia? That would be far more dangerous.
This is not idle speculation. As Ukrainians put up fierce resistance to the invaders, bolstered by political support and a flood of weaponry from the West , it looks like the war will drag on. The possibility of a deal to end the fighting, a lively possibility a few weeks ago, has faded.
And the longer the conflict lasts, the greater is the risk it will spread. Not necessarily because either side has a grand design for major conflict, but by a series of escalations and miscalculations. We know from Europe’s bloody history that this is how small wars become big ones.
Once again, the danger of escalation is coming mostly from Russia. This past week it cut off shipments of natural gas to Poland and Bulgaria and ramped up warnings about its nuclear capability.
It also looks like Moscow may be eyeing the tiny former Soviet republic of Moldova, squeezed between Ukraine and Romania, as its next target. Russia already has troops there, and a Russian general has publicly said his country intends to take over all of southern Ukraine and then link up with Moldova, the justification being to end “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.”
Behind all that, it seems, is deep frustration within the Russian military over its setbacks against Ukrainian forces and Vladimir Putin’s strategy of abandoning the goal of controlling the entire country in favour of a more limited campaign to dominate the east and south.
“Russia’s military believes that limiting the war’s initial goals is a serious error,” Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan write for the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. “They now argue that Russia is not fighting Ukraine, but NATO.”
All of which suggests that behind the facade of unity behind Putin, Russia’s military and security apparatus is seriously divided, with a powerful faction arguing in favour of expanding the war, not ending it. They’re pushing for even more aggressive action in Ukraine itself, as well as a push beyond its borders.
On the other side, western allies are escalating their support for Ukraine. More sanctions, more troops in the region (Britain announced 8,000 more last week), and more heavy weaponry.
Some have read much into the statement by U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that Washington wants “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
For them, that reveals a hidden “real reason” why the U.S. (and presumably Canada, France, Germany et al) are backing Ukraine. This, however, ignores the fact that Russia brought the alliance against it entirely on itself with its unprovoked aggression. And what decent person, in the end, doesn’t want to see Putin rendered incapable of inflicting similar violence on others?
Regardless of the rights and wrongs, the prospect of a wider war is horrifying. Right now there’s a consensus in the West around supporting Ukraine. But there’s no consensus around pursuing a broader campaign against Russia as such.
The danger, however, is that we may find ourselves on that road without quite realizing it. While there’s still time, the world needs to find a way to back away from the brink.
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