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Could Ukraine Spark a Third World War?

Ukraine Third World War
Russian tank near the borders with Ukraine. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew warned last week that the crisis in Ukraine could escalate into a third world war. How likely is this frightening scenario?

In an interview with Greek Reporter John Sitilides, a government affairs and geopolitical risk specialist, says that a third world war is highly unlikely, but not impossible.

He also explains why a direct NATO military response to Russian operations in Ukraine is also highly unlikely.

“Vladimir Putin has no interest in unnecessarily provoking a united and direct trans-Atlantic response that could escalate to an all-out war when his objectives remain focused on neutralizing Ukraine as a potentially hostile power or as an attractive political model for Russian pro-democracy forces”, the Greek-American specialist says.

Sitilides notes that the current level and position of 130,000 Russian troops and armor surrounding Ukraine in Russia and Belarus are “insufficient for a massive invasion across the country.”

Russia to most likely undertake low-level military operations in Ukraine

President Joe Biden said Friday that the United States believes that Russia has decided to launch an invasion of Ukraine “in the coming days.”

“We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days,” Biden said in remarks at the White House.

Sytilides believes that Russia would most likely undertake low-level military operations that incrementally undermine Ukrainian sovereignty at a threshold that avoids triggering a NATO military response.

According to the Greek-American analyst a likely scenario involves Russian-directed grey-zone hybrid war strategy consisting of cyberattacks to spread panic among the population and relentlessly government authorities.

John Sitilides
John Sitilides. Photo provided

“Russia could target critical infrastructure such as power plants, mobile communications, internet, government communications, and transportation systems, to further destabilize and demoralize Ukrainian society and psychologically exhaust the military and law enforcement under constant high threat level, without crossing a NATO military response tripwire.”

Russian low-level military operations would drive a deeper wedge between the NATO allies, Sytilides says.

“The U.S., U.K., and Poland on one side are more supportive of Kyiv, and NATO members such as Germany and France seek a more diplomatic approach to Russian adventurism in Europe, especially given their growing energy and trade relations with Russia.”

For Sitilides another plausible scenario involves a Russian naval takeover of Ukraine’s tiny but strategically located Snake Island in the Black Sea.

“This will effectively take control of the Ukrainian economy by restricting access to its Black Sea shipping corridors.”

Rolling operations by Russia to start and stop at any time of its own choosing

Russia has expressed its strategic concerns about NATO’s eastern expansion over the past quarter-century, and now seeks to re-establish Ukraine as a massive land buffer between alliance members and its own western borders, Sitilides says.

As a result, he explains, Russia and NATO are bracing for possible military operations inside Europe that may permanently reshape the security framework of the continent, especially as Germany’s alliance and trade ties with the U.S. are increasingly strained.

“With the Beijing Olympics have concluded, Moscow may soon begin conducting a series of rolling operations it can start and stop at any time of its own choosing, on land and at sea, depending on U.S., European and international reaction.”

Don’t forget China

Sitilides warns that as the U.S. media and political leaders seem single-mindedly concerned about Russia China continues to intimidate Taiwan into eventual surrender to Chinese Communist Party rule.

“Given Taiwan’s inordinate strategic importance as the leading manufacturer of advanced semiconductors vital to the U.S. and global economies, as well as a key maritime partner constraining China’s increasingly aggressive navy, any forcible takeover of Taiwan by China could be viewed as a direct attack on the vital national security interests of the United States and trigger a major Pacific war,” Sitilides says.

He notes that at the same time, Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons with which to threaten and dominate the entire Middle East and its hydrocarbon supply lines to Europe and Asia.

“A third world war is highly unlikely, but not impossible,” Sitilides concludes.

John Sitilides is a government affairs and geopolitical risk specialist, and diplomacy consultant under contract to the U.S. State Department. As Southern Europe Regional Coordinator at the Foreign Service Institute, the department’s diplomacy academy, he organizes and directs professional development training programs for American diplomats stationed in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.

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