Are we already in World War III? | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of something that most American and European governments have tried to avoid over the past 70 years: a wide-scale war in the heart of Europe. Could this conflict potentially turn into World War III? Or are the United States and its NATO allies essentially already there? The answer is — thankfully — we are not there yet, but the tipping point into such a conflict is not as remote as some might think.

First, the sheer number of countries involved in the Ukrainian conflict is significant. Those supporting Ukraine include the 30 member states of NATO, the European Union (including Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden which are not members of NATO), and countries outside of Europe, such as Japan and Australia. Those aligned with Russia are Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea. With so many countries involved in the conflict, and with their combined global economic power and military strength, there is always some concern that there could be a miscalculation, misinterpretation or deliberate action that could lead to an escalation of the conflict outside of Ukraine.

Second, the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be viewed within the context of what will likely be the major and long-term conflict of the 21st century: the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. During The Summit for Democracy in 2021, President Joe Biden pledged to “renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.” The Ukraine crisis has ended up being the first test of the American president’s commitment “to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” At the same time, Russia and China — the two largest authoritarian governments — cemented their alliance on the eve of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Their Friendship Agreement declared a “new era” in the global order that challenged the United States as a world power, and liberal democracy as a model for the world. It also stated that their cooperation was “without limits.” So far, China has not openly provided support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but that could change. The conflict in Ukraine, therefore, is the first battleground of this 21st century conflict.

There are also the “what if” factors that could raise the stakes of the conflict. One would be a cyber-attack launched by Russia on Ukraine’s communication or infrastructure network that could potentially spread to neighboring NATO countries. Or what if a significant cyber-attack was deliberately launched by Russia on a NATO country, such as the United States? How would the alliance respond?


There is also the concern of a Russian artillery strike straying into a NATO country. During Biden’s recent visit to Warsaw, Russia launched three missile strikes at Lviv which is only about 200 miles from the Polish capital. What if those missiles had accidentally gone into Polish territory, killing its citizens or U.S. military forces stationed there?

There is also the issue of chemical weapons. As the war turns into a protracted conflict, will Putin decide to use such weapons to turn the situation to his advantage? What would the response of NATO and the West be to the use of such weapons or if the chemical fallout spread to other countries?

Finally there is the nuclear component. Putin does have tactical nuclear weapons which he could use if he believes that Russia’s strategic advantage in the Donbas, for example, is threatened. In addition, there is the ongoing concern about Ukraine’s seven active nuclear reactors. We have already seen artillery strikes and seizure by Russian forces of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plants. What if a future strike hit the reactors, spewing a radioactive plume throughout the region?

So what can be done to minimize the chance of a “tipping point”? NATO and Western allies need to increase their military, financial, and intelligence assistance to Ukraine. It is particularly important to give Ukraine a stronger advantage while the Russian military is regrouping in the East. In addition, further sanctions must be imposed on Russia to squeeze its war-fighting economy. This is a battle about Ukraine’s sovereignty, as well as that of other countries in Europe, and Putin cannot be allowed to feel emboldened by gaining from his aggression.

World War I began with the assassination of Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, triggering various alliances and military guarantees that had been in place, and which no country thought would actually be acted upon. World War II started when Hitler decided to upend the Treaty of Versailles and the existing European order, and was repeatedly appeased by the Western powers. Will the crisis in Ukraine end in a similar way? We should do everything in our power to make sure that it does not.

Stamford resident Joanna M. Gwozdziowski, PhD, is senior program adviser for Network 20/20, a New York City-based nonprofit that bridges the gap between the private sector and foreign policy worlds. She was a board member of the World Affairs Forum for more than 10 years, including as chair of programs. She has a doctorate in International Relations from Oxford University, with a specialization in Russian and Central/East European affairs.



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