Is the Russia-Ukraine war a prelude to World War III?

Is the Russia-Ukraine war a prelude to World War III?
The narrative battle between the pro-NATO and pro-Russia camps continues as the Russia-Ukraine war rages on. Each side argues that the other is being weakened, meanwhile any real solution feels very far away, writes Emad Moussa.
6 min read
26 May, 2022
Finland and Sweden's bids to join NATO are seen by some as a further blow to Putin. [GETTY]

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its fourth month, the horizon for a solution seems to be slipping further away. With rapidly changing dynamics on the ground and the emergence of new geopolitical realities, most of the original predictions about the war have now become obsolete.

It only takes a brief comparison between pro-NATO and pro-Russia media to see that the majority of speculations by officials and political commentators are partisan, mostly filtered through the inner desires and wishful thinking of each party.

The Eurocentric narrative of the war revolves around the notion that the Russian army is stumbling in Ukraine, thanks mainly to billions of dollars-worth of weapons and equipment to the Ukrainian army by NATO. Over 6000 sanctions on Russia, goes the argument, have foiled Putin’s plans and trapped the Russian troops in a costly attrition war. Finland and Sweden joining NATO is seen as yet another sign that Putin’s war has been a fiasco.

''There’s a fine line between rational and emotional reasoning, and in war, it is far too common for emotions to become information, and for the ‘information’ to be a catalyst to the decisions that are made.''

The Russian narrative on the other hand, is that the operation is going to plan. Russia has taken full control of Mariupol and created a vast land corridor between Donbas and Crimea, cutting Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov and strangling its economy. The sanctions are allegedly not working, the Ruble has recovered, and punishing Moscow economically has backfired for several EU countries dependent on Russian gas and raw materials, many of which have now agreed to pay in the Ruble.

Each argument has some merit, but none are mutually exclusive. Yet, this is precisely what signals a growingly dangerous impasse.

Impasses often lead to conflict intractability, which can be contained and, therefore, sustained for a long time without the menace of a global meltdown.

In the Russian-Ukraine war, however, the containment capacity is very limited. What is in question is less about regional geopolitics or imperialist greed, and more about the essence of the current world order  - with Ukraine being its main battleground and Ukrainians its fuel.   

Moscow was straightforward almost from the outset that Russia - and China - are seeking to change the world order.

“We…together with you, and with our sympathisers will move towards a multipolar, just, democratic world order,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov said ahead of a meeting with Chinese FM Wang Yi in March. 

The current “unipolarity” and “universality” have given the US too much power in world politics. Russia (and China) reimagine the new world order based on distinct spheres of influence. Within it, the US would accept Russian and Chinese dominance in their neighbourhoods and abandon its interventionism - via colour revolutions, military coups, or sanctions - to promote “freedom and democracy” that may disturb the “regional status quo.”

Such a worldview resonates deeply in the global south. The Eurocentric implementation of  human rights and selective wars of aggression, mainly by the US, have since World War II undermined international justice and planted seeds for more conflicts and destabilisation.  The consensus is that the world order since the end of the Cold War has been progressively running into the fundamental dilemma of justifying and sustaining a model of US-based  global economic and political hegemony. 

Russia has been trying to capitalise on this global grievance to build an international bloc against the US-helmed “liberal international order.”

For the US and its Western allies, rebalancing and repositioning power through Ukraine means losing the centuries-long Westphalian gains, which Henry Kissinger once described as “conducted without the involvement or even the awareness of most other continents or civilisations.”

For the US in particular, the loss of its global hegemony amounts to an existential threat. It will usher in an unfavourable geo-strategic and economic shift that could bring about seismic changes to the American way of life.

The pumping of billions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money into Ukraine - a step unprecedented since World War II and is currently, some fear, threatening to bankrupt the US economy - reflects precisely the gravity of the situation.

Russia, which declaredly invaded Ukraine over NATO expansion to the East, sees the knee-deep US involvement in the war as further confirmation of Moscow’s original fears; as such, deepening its existential anxieties and stiffening its posture.


NATO hoped that by sanctioning and boycotting Russia excessively and comprehensively, the Russian people would turn against their leadership. What the sanctions did instead, was elevate the Russian collective’s existential angst, effectively putting it on the same wavelength as the Kremlin and significantly boosting Putin’s popularity. 

When people are faced with an external threat, they tend to stick together and march behind their leaders, regardless of how righteous they may be. It becomes about self-preservation.

From this perspective, and especially as there are no signs that NATO is backing down, what is at stake for Putin is the fate of the entire Russian nation; ergo, Russia has absolutely no other option but to see the military campaign to its bitter end no matter the cost.

There need not be a world if Russia was not in it, a state TV presenter said hours after Putin put his nuclear arsenal on high alert. If Russia loses the war, “the whole world will turn into a large fire,” warned repeatedly philosopher Alexander Dugin, aka “Putin’s brain.”

Such statements could very well be tactical threats to instil fear into NATO countries, nevertheless Russia has put the nuclear option on the table, perhaps in the most prominent fashion since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

This is a very dangerous prospect, considering that each party views the conflict in zero-sum, existential terms. As such, even with the anti-proliferation treaties and hotlines to prevent the possibility of a nuclear escalation, an emotionally fuelled and desperate situation can render “human rationality”, less reliable.

After all, there’s a fine line between rational and emotional reasoning, and in war, it is far too common for emotions to become information, and for the ‘information’ to be a catalyst to the decisions that are made.

What is happening now is no more rational than what happened in 1939, and definitely not very different in geopolitical terms. Then, it took months after Germany had invaded Poland for the world to recognise the war was a global conflict, much like the hesitance today to term the Ukraine situation a global confrontation.

Things went out of control then, and the same can happen again today.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.