A Russian-made missile landed across the Ukraine border with Poland last week, killing two citizens of that NATO-member nation and igniting fresh fear that the U.S.-led alliance would be compelled to respond with retaliatory military action against Russia.
That treaty obligation to come to the defense of any of NATO’s 30 nations under attack could have been the long-feared spark for World War III, the latest incident of dangerous spillover from the Kremlin’s nine-month-old war against a sovereign neighbor.
The errant rocket that detonated Tuesday in the village of Przewodow, four miles inside Poland, was quickly determined to have been fired by Ukrainian forces trying to shoot down one of about 100 rockets and armed drones fired at them by Russian forces that day.
NATO and Western officials conceded Moscow had not fired the missile that inflicted casualties on alliance territory. But they claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin was nonetheless responsible for the cross-border casualties because of his barbaric shift in strategy after huge battlefield losses to wanton destruction of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.
World leaders and political analysts have been warning since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of the bitter conflict escalating into World War III – if Western armies set foot in Ukraine, if NATO imposes a no-fly zone, if the United States equips the defenders with sophisticated ground-to-air defenses or takes the provocative step of extending NATO membership to the embattled country.
“Kyiv is well aware that such a step would mean a guaranteed escalation to World War Three,” Alexander Venediktov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, was quoted as saying last month when the possibility of expedited inclusion in the Western alliance was discussed as a means of protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.
Regardless of NATO having dodged the bullet of compulsory defense of Ukraine this time, the world remains vulnerable to major escalation of the Ukraine war.
The tragedy in the Polish village of Przewodow didn’t meet the NATO treaty’s definition of when and why the alliance must come to a member nation’s defense. But the intensity of Russia’s aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s utility network and Ukrainian forces’ counterfire to take down missiles before they can destroy more vital infrastructure is likely to cause more unintended consequences.
Foreign support for Ukraine has outpaced that of Russia’s allies, with only Iran, North Korea and Syria overtly aiding Putin in his widely denounced disruption of the post-World War II order. Russian allies and trade partners China and India have refrained from condemning Putin’s imperialist ambitions but have kept their distance for reasons of self-interest, not moral support for Kremlin aggression.
Russia’s humiliating failures on Ukraine battlefields are unlikely to change the potential for escalation as more weaponry, volunteer fighters, humanitarian relief and financial aid pour in for the underdog Ukrainians.
“States at war typically escalate not because some critical threshold is breached by the other side or because they misread something the other side has done, but because they are losing,” Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard University professor of international relations wrote in Foreign Policy last week (italics the author’s).
Tatiana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, takes an even more dire view of the outlook for an all-out world war in the absence of any Russian proponents for compromise that could end the Ukraine war.
“They don’t believe that Moscow can end hostilities without risking losing Crimea,” she says in a commentary for Foreign Affairs on the elites of Russian politics and business who have potential influence with Putin and the war hawks but won’t use it. “In fact, they believe that if Russia withdrew its troops to where they were at the start of 2022 it would leave Russia itself vulnerable to collapse.”
Relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated to such a low point that no one at the Kremlin picked up or returned a phone call from the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the fatal cross-border incident in Poland. Army Gen. Mark Milley said his staff attempted to reach Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov with “no success.”
Indeed, hostility incubated by the war in Ukraine already appears to have returned the Cold War adversaries’ relations to a level below the tense 13-day standoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when communications between Moscow and Washington were maintained even at moments of intense peril.
Historian Timothy Naftali draws a contradiction between Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev’s moves to defuse the U.S.-Soviet confrontation over Moscow’s stationing of missiles in Cuba 60 years ago and Putin’s apparent focus on the Soviet leader’s fate after averting nuclear disaster in that fateful October.
“Americans tend to remember the peaceful outcome of this effort, but Russian leaders then, as now, understood the humiliation that backing down before the United States signified. In the end, Khrushchev’s efforts to repackage the events of October 1962 as some kind of victory failed,” Naftali writes in Foreign Affairs about Khrushchev’s ouster two years later for “incompetence” in handling that perilous threat of nuclear annihilation.
While no outside nation has deployed its forces to the Ukrainian battlefields, the world’s democracies and autocracies have poured in aid and armaments in triple-digit billions to their respective allies in Moscow and Kyiv.
The United States, the European Union, the Group of Seven industrialized states and non-NATO countries like Australia, Japan and Sweden have provided aid that has bolstered the fierce resistance of Ukrainians to protect their independence from Putin’s predatory objective of annexing Ukraine to a new Russian empire.
Forty countries have contributed more than $96 billion in military, humanitarian and direct financial aid to Ukraine this year, more than half of it from the United States, according to the Ukraine Support Tracker of Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy. That amounts to almost 10% of Ukraine’s 2021 national budget.
Much of the U.S. military aid has provided sophisticated air defense systems and mobile rocket launchers that have helped Ukrainian troops shoot down missiles and drones targeted on vital infrastructure and push out Russians from territory they’ve occupied but failed to control.
Russian forces have squandered much of their high-powered missile stockpile since their invasion began nine months ago. Periodic fusillades have rained hundreds of missiles over the length and breadth of Ukraine with no apparent strategy other than to terrorize Ukrainians with an unpredictable peril from the skies.
That depleted arsenal may soon be replenished by Iran, which according to the Washington Post has cut a deal with Moscow to export their kamikaze drone design and key components to Russia so the Kremlin can begin manufacturing hundreds of its own UAVS – unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Iranian drones, which are effective in targeting explosives at critical infrastructure, have allowed Russia to change course from taking territory from Ukraine to terrorizing its citizens with random explosions. The drones cost about $20,000 each, far more affordable than the millions spent on missiles.
Russia has also reportedly received shipments of missiles from North Korea for use in its Ukraine offensive, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters earlier this month. He described the greater significance of Russia’s reliance on Iran and North Korea as a sign of Russia’s isolation and economic woes.
“His own defense-industrial base can’t keep up with the pace at which he is using armaments in Ukraine,” Kirby said.
Putin has drawn a red line against what he sees as foreign interference in his domestic mission to reunite Mother Russia with historic territory lost in imperial clashes since the days of Peter the Great, most recently in the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Kremlin warnings that foreign interference would lead to World War III have deterred direct involvement and certain arms provision for Ukraine but not stopped 20,000 volunteer fighters from 52 countries making their way to Ukraine to join the resistance. Many of the foreigners are U.S. and British military veterans with combat experience, according to the Ukrainian government.
Russia’s stumbling ground offensive forced Putin to pull his forces from the strategically important city of Kherson this month, an embarrassing failure for the Kremlin as the river port to the Black Sea is a vital supply route and the main transport gateway to Russian-occupied Crimea.
Putin has masked the Russian retreat from the only major city his forces have taken since the war began by firing daily barrages of missiles and drones across Ukraine in a blatant attempt to break the will of Ukrainian resistance. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inspiring leadership of Ukrainian forces after Russia’s lightning invasion has shocked the world with its success in a David-versus-Goliath confrontation. Russia’s allegedly superior armed forces have turned out to be poorly commanded and ill-equipped.
The Russian retreats have allowed Ukrainian refugees to return to their liberated towns and villages, but with the prospect of heating, water and food shortages looming as the depths of winter approach.
World War III was averted last week. The circumstances threatening global conflict remain unchanged.