Anatol Lieven is the Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London. He is also a member of the advisory committee of the South Asia Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The author thinks that it is extremely irresponsible for the Washington foreign policy elites to suggest that Russia is a universal threat that requires our “absolute victory over evil“. In this article, Lieven states that “Susan Glasser of the New Yorker, and Fiona Hill, late of President Trump’s National Security Council, believe that “we’re already fighting the Third World War with Russia.” This is folly as Daniel Larison has remarked, if we’re fighting World War III – we are probably be dead already. In the present case, America is merely fighting a proxy war with Russia over Ukraine.
During the Cold War (1947-1991) both Soviet and American leaders were extremely careful to prevent such proxy wars from escalating into direct war between the superpowers. They did this in part to avoid proxy warfare on the continent of Europe, where the boundary and vital interests of the superpowers are adjacent to each other in a way that was not true in most of Asia. On the two occasions in which the United States was closed to using nuclear weapon (during the Korea war and during the Cuban Missile Crisis), the US was directly affected by the outcome of the conflict. This is not the case in the present situation in Ukraine.
“Fortunately, the Biden administration does appear to understand the difference, and has taken a good deal of care to avoid direct clashes with Russia.” The problem is that while Washington has given massive support to Ukraine, it has not established any goals or limits on how far Ukraine should go in defeating Russia. If Ukraine goes on to try to reconquer Crimea (which the overwhelming majority of Russians regard as Russian territory), the “chances of an escalation to nuclear war become extremely high.”
This points to another danger of using the “World War III” rhetoric which suggests a universal threat, and the need for absolute victory over absolute evil.
The war in Ukraine is nothing like that. It has become a post-colonial struggle over local ethnic borders, of which there are many precedents (often waged by U.S. allies) since the fall of the Ottoman, British, French, and Soviet empires.” We must not let our rhetorics get ahead and control us and escalate the precent Ukraine conflict to WWWIII.