Since the start of the Ukraine war in February of last year, there has been a regular current of alarmism and exaggeration among observers in the West.
We have heard repeatedly that Ukraine is leading us into a massive conflict, one that might even end with a nuclear exchange between NATO and Russia. The Ukraine war, in this reading, is a great-power war.
Russia is fighting not just Ukraine, but the whole West.
It is similar to World War I, a general conflict during which all of Europe’s major powers lined up on one side or the other in a war of attrition.
The implication of this analogy is its great danger in the nuclear age. A full-scale great power war, however terrible, did not create an existential risk in the pre-nuclear era. Even though Germany was defeated in World War I, it was not annihilated, nor could it annihilate its opponents.
Russia today, by contrast, has a nuclear arsenal, and if the Ukraine war is similar to World War I, then we are on the cusp of World War III with a nuclear adversary.
This alarming interpretation appears routinely in the Western debate. If Russia believes it is facing all of NATO, we hear – or if it sits on the edge of a catastrophic defeat – it could go nuclear.
Ukraine War Is a Quagmire, Not a General War
A general war between Russia and NATO is highly unlikely, but it is certainly more conceivable than it was before the Ukraine war began.
And such a war could indeed escalate toward a nuclear exchange. Any conflict involving a nuclear-armed great power automatically entails escalation risks, especially if that great power fails to achieve victory. Instinctively, large powers expect military victory.
Their elites and the public will feel frustrated and cheated if a much smaller power somehow thwarts the expected triumph. Putin has groomed this resentment in Russia with years of chest-thumping about Russia’s status and its great-power role.
We saw such frustration in France’s defeat in Vietnam, the American stalemate in Korea and its own defeat in Vietnam, and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. The brief consideration of nuclear weapons in these cases mostly reflected elite frustration at the inability to win. But the geopolitical risks of nukes vastly exceeded the costs of stalemate or defeat. In each case, the expected winner found it cheaper to lose and simply exit the field.
This is a more realistic analogy for the contemporary Russian experience in Ukraine. Russia is not so much locked in a large war with the West as it is bogging down in a “small war” with Ukraine. The model most obvious to American readers here is the Vietnam War. The U.S. backed its way into a war that ended up surprising Americans with its scale and ferocity. Washington responded with escalation and growing frustration, yet no amount of conventional force seemed to bring victory closer. Vietnam became a quagmire, a constant, infuriating stalemate drifting toward defeat. This, rather than Russia’s crushing defeat in World War I, captures the dynamic of Russia’s dilemma in Ukraine.
NATO and Russia Will Not Somehow Tumble Into a War
Analogies to a world war require significant extrapolation.
Right now, NATO and Russian forces are not, in fact, exchanging fire. NATO troops are not in Ukraine. NATO support is limited to aid, which is something we have seen in proxy wars for decades. The two most famous examples are Soviet and Chinese support for Vietnam against the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, and U.S. support for Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Neither of these escalated into World War III. None of the Cold War proxy conflicts did.
Analysts pushing World War III scenarios need to explain how NATO and Russia would slide from today’s geographically contained conflict into a general contest – especially when all players are acutely aware of the nuclear risks such an escalation would carry.
Indeed, we have learned that the U.S. and Russia have been speaking behind the scenes to prevent such escalation, while China appears to be signaling with increasing intent that Russia should not use nuclear weapons. This sort of diplomacy is precisely what you would expect given Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and it strongly mitigates the ill-defined risk of a tumble into nuclear war. Russia itself knows the risks of a nuclear exchange, and Russian President Vladimir Putin had to back down after much of the world rejected his recent nuclear bluffing.
Explain Instead that the War has Noticeably NOT Escalated
Indeed, the war has notably not escalated. For sometime, we have heard it will spin out of control, but that is very obviously not happening. Instead, the war remains limited, even as Russia is losing. That empirical reality is far more interesting than constant, inaccurate World War III scenarios.
To continue to suggest that we are on the precipice of some epochal conflict – when we are not, even after this long – increasingly looks like a stratagem by those who want Russia to win the war. Framing the war in such terms is meant to scare the West into halting its aid for Ukraine. We should not succumb to such fear-mongering. Russia is losing a war of choice, and its looming defeat is not a national existential threat – Ukraine and NATO are not going to invade Russia after its loss. The easiest option for Russia will increasingly be to simply lose and go home – just as the Americans did from Vietnam, and the Soviets from Afghanistan.
Russia quitting to cut its losses is a far more likely end to this war than a general war – especially a nuclear conflict.
Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.
November 10, 2022 at 8:08 am
“our own defeat in Vietnam”. Is giving up a defeat?
That is an important question. As Putin said, the US has ADHD when it comes to warfare. Eventually we tire of it.
We tire of it UNLESS we are existentially challenged as we were in WWII.
Only when the people feel deeply threatened should we go to war. Only then will we have the will to persue victory.
Anything short of that commitment to victory means eventual defeat. And the useless sacrifice of our young people.
Of course entering into these conflicts does enrich the military industrial complex & thrills the warmongers in office and those who otherwise make their living off war.
November 10, 2022 at 10:22 am
Vietnam was only a quagmire because the US refused to “Go North” and finish the job.
November 10, 2022 at 11:01 am
I hope the author is right.
And his reasoning is hopefully persuasive to my sense of the situation in Ukraine.
Except that he failed to deal with or even mention all the nuclear loose talk coming out of President Zelensky and reverses what actually happened regarding the ‘great powers’.
Russia set out it’s nuclear Red Lines and in response the U. S. mischaracterized what Russia was saying. And Western talk went to “dirty bombs” and then counter accusations issued by both Russia and the U. S.
The issue of “dirty bombs” seems to be where any leak towards nuclear war could happen.
President Zelensky seems to realize this and his recent interview seemed to tamp down speculation of nuclear war — good for President Zelensky.
It lets the world breath a little easier.
November 10, 2022 at 11:08 am
Vietnam was a quagmire because a majority of Americans rejected the imperialist, militaristic, bloodthirsty, fantastic and stupid rationale for being there. Why should Americans have died for corrupt South Vietnamese dictators? The Viet Minh and Viet Cong were vile, but two wrongs did not make a right. History has shown that America was right to let Vietnam go free and follow its own independent path: Vietnam is now more aligned with American foreign policy and business than Communist China. We are the shining city on the hill when we forego stupid jingosim and racist colonialism.
November 10, 2022 at 11:24 am
The Vietnam war was lost due to political constraints on our military that prevented victory. The war was waged in the South, and the war was never brought home to the aggressors in the North.
A war waged on your own territory is a disaster, because your land suffers the destruction of economy and infrastructure and your people the terror of war, while the other side risks only a forward manpower element and the war material that is offensively deployed. This looks like the situation in the Ukraine. Its a formula for losing.
Ukraine must be given the means to strike effectively on the Russian homeland, by air. Strategic target selection is attainable with modern technology. Russian energy complexes, transportation networks, and production facilities must be targeted and destroyed.
Right now, Russian’s are feeling the negative social effects of a draft-based military logistic. This is significant, but is far less than the misery accompanying a war on your own land, where its your infrastructure that’s being destroyed and your economic well being that’s tubing, your shelves that are empty.
What’s happening now is analogous to a boxer being limited to ducking, weaving, blocking, but denied by rule any attempt to strike his opponent. The opponent is free to hit out at will. A boxing match by these rules can have only one outcome.
Ukraine must strike Russia, as hard and ruthlessly as Russia is striking Ukraine. As distasteful as it may seem, Russia’s terrorism on the civilian population of Ukraine must be answered in kind. Russia must be made to feel the sting of war exactly as Ukrainians are now feeling it.
November 10, 2022 at 11:37 am
It should be pointed out that the US was in Vietnam as part of its obligations under the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), in defense of it’s ally, South Vietnam. You can argue the value of that treaty, but you can’t deny it’s reality. A nation must honor its treaty obligations, or it will lose all credibility as an ally.
We still lost credibility, though, due to a failure to fully prosecute the war. The responsibility for this lies squarely on the fifth column of media, academe, and fellow-travellers in the US. We lost on Vietnam from within. AS we will likely lose all future efforts, unless we can clean out the cancer that saps our national will.