As of February of 2022, continually growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine have gathered global attention. Despite preemptive economic punishments from the international community, Russia continued to make threatening advances on Ukraine. Early Thursday morning on the 24th, Russia moved forward to invade Ukraine, effectively declaring war. The international community swiftly responded by strengthening the sanctions on Russian financial institutions and corporations, as well as imposing sanctions on Belarus for supporting Russia. These have devastated the Russian economy in the short period of time they have been in place, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping Russian advances.
The escalating conflict in Ukraine has caused nations and their leaders to take sides on the issue, contributing to public panic and the pressing question: is this the start of World War Three? With countries running to take sides, it may feel like it: but the short answer is no, probably not. Because Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the rest of the organization does not have to invoke the collective defense clause known as Article 5. This Article states that an armed attack against any NATO member will be treated as an attack against ALL 30 members- a quick path to a world war.
Many democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, and other members of NATO are siding with Ukraine, while the countries siding with Russia tend to be much more authoritarian. They tentatively include China, Myanmar, Venezuela, and others- although most nations that lean towards supporting Russia are hesitant to do so blatantly. They tend to blame NATO for allowing this to happen. It is a tricky balance for many of Russia’s allies to decide whether to join many of the western powers in fighting against the war or to face international consequences for defending an ally- hence many of the nations remaining on the fence.
This is a war of ideas. This is an attack not just on Ukraine, but on democracy. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has slowly but surely been moving towards a more liberal democracy structured government, while Russia has run rampant with corruption in its so-called “democratic” practices.
Some might argue that this attack was a violation of Democratic Peace Theory (DPT). This theory predicts that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other democracies. It typically holds true for a number of reasons, but the most prominent reason is that it tends to be more beneficial for the involved administrations to negotiate than to obtain support from the population and the rest of the government. Democratic institutions are a balancing act, while an authoritarian’s power is unchecked. Russia and Ukraine both identify themselves as democracies, so why did the institutions of democracy not prevent this attack from occurring?
The truth is that neither country is a full democracy, and therefore the social pressures of the theory do not apply. Ukraine did not conduct elections in many of their territories in 2020 and has also been criticized for cases of vote-buying. Yet as a whole, the country largely functions under democratic principles, which Russia has a blatant disregard for. Russia’s constitution declares itself to be a democratic republic, but in practice, it is quite the opposite. Russia performs a charade of the democratic process under the careful watch of its authoritarian figurehead. Freedom House awarded Russia 0 out of 12 points in the “Electoral Process.” category in their 2021 evaluation of political rights and civil liberties. In contrast, Ukraine earned 9 of 12 Electoral Process points.
So, what is the likelihood of a third world war happening because of this? Some think it is likely: US Representative Michael McCaul and the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have expressed that it is a possibility. But ultimately, the chances of this conflict going global are low. Unless Russia makes a direct attack against NATO, World War 3 is unlikely.
Nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence will play a large role in the declaration, or lack thereof, of a world war. Although the previously mentioned Article 5 of NATO has been invoked, it has never been invoked on a nuclear power before. Nuclear weapons were just beginning to be understood during World War 2; now having a handful of nuclear states changes the global dynamic. Nuclear weapons act as not only a deterrent to use other nuclear weapons, but they sometimes act as a deterrent to declaring war. Declaring war on a nuclear state such as Russia opens the door for the possibility of a nuclear strike, almost surely leading to nuclear retaliation. Putin has threatened that any country that interferes will face “consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” raising concern about nuclear weapons. But ultimately, as a rule of thumb, using nuclear weapons comes with stakes so high that the chances of going through with the strike tend to be extremely low. Nuclear deterrence may be democracy’s saving grace.