Home / Opinion / Columns /  The West has overplayed its hand in cornering Russia

Are we heading for World War III? On Thursday, a Russian official actually used that term. Alexander Venediktov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, told the state-owned TASS news agency: “Kyiv is well aware that (Ukraine joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or Nato) would mean a guaranteed escalation to a World War III."

It is nearly impossible to gauge exactly what the situation on the ground is in Ukraine. However, we do know a few facts. The war has certainly not gone as per Moscow’s original expectations. But Russia has still managed to seize the territory it wanted, which is about 20% of Ukrainian land, in spite of all the setbacks and even though fierce battles are still underway.

The war has escalated sharply in the last fortnight, after Nordstream gas pipelines were sabotaged and the bridge that connects Russia to the Crimean peninsula was attacked. Now the gloves are off. Russia has started raining missiles on Ukraine’s civilian areas and critical infrastructure.

Let’s run through the rhetoric. On 30 September, Putin said that he would use “all the powers and means at our disposal" to defend Russia. This was a clear nuclear threat, since he added that the US had set “a precedent" when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Armed with the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal, Russia has 1,458 strategic warheads deployed—ready to fire, that is, on the tips of intercontinental ballistic missiles and other missiles that can be launched from submarines and strategic bombers.

A week later, US President Joe Biden said the world is closer to a nuclear catastrophe than anytime since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. This week, Nato air forces will conduct Steadfast Noon, their annual exercise of how to use US nuclear bombs based in Europe.

None of this is good news for anyone. Matters have spun out of control and both sides have committed themselves so deeply to their stated causes that a negotiated settlement seems remote right now. Putin cannot withdraw his forces from Ukraine; it would be a personal humiliation and will almost certainly lead to him being deposed. The other side will also find it extremely difficult to work out a face-saving solution.

So, are we looking at World War III? Unlikely, but we may definitely be looking at a changed world order in many ways.

The US may have overplayed its hand. Last week, when OPEC+ (Organization of Oil Producing Countries plus Russia and others) sided with Putin and announced that it would cut production by 2 million barrels a day, Biden said there would be “consequences" for Saudi Arabia, which leads the OPEC and has long been viewed by the US as an ally. But what consequences?

The major sufferer is Europe, which depends on fossil fuels from Russia to power its industry and keep its homes warm. According to a survey by the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, one in six German firms is decreasing or ceasing production due to energy prices shooting up because of Putin cutting oil and gas supplies in response to the sanctions imposed on Russia. And Germany is Europe’s most prosperous economy.

Power cuts have already begun—even the lights on the Eiffel Tower are being switched off an hour earlier every night. There have been large protests in several European countries against rising fuel prices. At a meeting of European Union (EU) ambassadors last week, Josep Borell, the EU’s foreign policy head, spoke about how this war has exposed how dependent Europe has become on foreign actors: “The United States takes care of our security. China and Russia provided the basis of our prosperity. This is a world that is no longer there."

The entire West is now staring at an economic recession. And the rest of the world has been shaken by the extent of sanctions imposed on Russia—sovereign funds frozen, the country has been taken off a global banking network, assets of private citizens seized. Is this really a rules-based international order? How do some 30 countries out of 195 unilaterally decide to play judge, jury and executioner? The Ukraine war could lead to a more multipolar world. And that is a good thing.

Most of the countries facing off with Putin have some common characteristics. One, they are well-off economies with their people used to a comfortable life. Two, they are electoral democracies. Three, they have no desire to send their own men and women to war and possible death.

So it is very likely that protests about economic conditions will spread across the West. Almost every political party which is in power in these countries may lose in the next elections. And even if Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, there could be little support from people in the West for going into a direct war with Russia, let alone retaliating with nuclear missiles.

History tells us that it is never a very good idea to push an opponent so far against the wall that the adversary has nothing left to lose. Such an opponent will fight back with extreme ferocity. This is what the West has done to Putin. And he does not have to worry about election results.

Last week, Putin appointed General Sergey Surovikin, head of Russia’s aerospace forces, as the new commander-in-chief of Russia’s war effort, with carte blanche power. Surovikin is a widely feared soldier; his nickname is ‘General Armageddon’. Some others call him ‘Cannibal’. The war—and the world—is entering a new phase.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines 

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