What if We're Already Fighting the Third World War With Russia?

Susan B. Glasser / The New Yorker
What if We're Already Fighting the Third World War With Russia? 'The problem is, of course, us misreading him, but also him misreading us,' a Russia expert said about Vladimir Putin. (photo: Pavel Bednyakov/Getty)

Putin’s latest provocations once again put Washington in an awful bind.

Nuclear blackmail, illegal annexation of territory, hundreds of thousands of Russian men rounded up and sent to the front lines in Ukraine, undersea gas pipelines to Europe mysteriously blowing up. After endless speculation, we can now say it for sure: this is how Vladimir Putin responds when he is backed into a corner.

Throughout seven awful months of war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden has held to a steadfast line when it comes to the Russian invasion: his goal is to help Ukraine win while also insuring that victory does not trigger a Third World War. But as Russian forces have experienced U.S.-aided battlefield setbacks in recent days, Putin has reacted by ratcheting up the pressure. It’s far from clear how Washington will be able to continue to pursue both goals simultaneously, given that Putin is holding Ukraine—and the rest of the world—hostage to his demands. On Friday, Putin plans to affirm the results of what the Biden Administration has sternly termed “sham ‘referenda’ ” as a pretext to declare Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine part of the Russian state. How could Biden, or the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or anyone else who believes in international order agree to that?

And yet Donald Trump and the growing faction of pro-Putin cheerleaders in the conservative media—Tucker Carlson, I’m thinking of you—are demanding still more concessions to Russia in response to Putin’s escalating threats. The other night, Carlson, citing no evidence, blamed the United States for somehow playing a role in attacks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines. Charlie Kirk, one of the most outrageous of the junior Trumpists, speculated that it was “a potential midterm election operation” and that U.S. intelligence agencies should be considered “guilty until proven innocent”—an appalling smear gleefully parroted on Russian state TV. The ex-President—who during his time in office did so much to weaken NATO and undermine American allies while also praising Putin—even offered himself up as a mediator. On Wednesday, in a post on Truth Social, his Orwellian-named social-media platform, he insisted, “get a negotiated deal done NOW.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Putin wants Trump to say. After a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the eastern Kharkiv region this month pushed Russian forces back to their own border, Putin responded with new provocations designed to force the West to the bargaining table, since his exceptionally brutal yet inept application of military force failed to do so. That, at least, is the consensus view of many of America’s smartest Kremlin watchers.

As Alexander Vershbow, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow during my tenure there as a correspondent for the Washington Post, put it to me: “Having failed to stop the Ukrainians on the battlefield, Putin is trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by political means.” Russia’s leader, Vershbow added, hopes that “he can weaken the Alliance consensus and scare the West into scaling back its military support for Kyiv for fear of precipitating Russian use of nuclear weapons to defend the ‘homeland.’ The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines further reinforces the image of Putin as madman, which might persuade some allies to push for a ceasefire and negotiations that would inevitably mean Ukraine giving up significant amounts of territory.” Talk about a bad deal.

It seems clear that negotiating now would be an extraordinary concession in and of itself to Putin’s barbarism and willingness to threaten nuclear conflict. Yet it’s not just Trumpists who have been calling with more urgency for a negotiated peace ever since Putin vowed, in early September, to “make use of all weapons systems available to us” and warned, “This is not a bluff.”

Or is it? Over the weekend, Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, promised a “catastrophic” response if Putin were to deploy battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine. American military officials have no doubt produced many serious options for the United States to consider in such a scenario, including directly entering the war on Ukraine’s side—just the Third World War scenario that Biden has been so determined to avoid.

Watching all of this, it’s hard not to think of how often over the past two decades the West has collectively failed to get Putin right—or to get him at all. Over the summer, the Aspen Strategy Group asked me to give a presentation about Russia at war, and what stood out to me in my research was the number of times, and variety of ways, in which the U.S. and its allies had missed the mark in understanding Putin at critical junctures in his long tenure as Russia’s modern tsar.

Again and again, Putin has profited from the application of military force to achieve otherwise unattainable political gains. He came to power by promoting war in the separatist Russian province of Chechnya. He sent Russian troops to Georgia and Syria and, in 2014, to Ukraine. Each time, there were endless rounds of speculation in Western capitals about how to create an “exit ramp” that would finally entice Putin to end his incursion. Putin just kept barrelling down the highway.

So, yes, I’m skeptical when I hear the latest round of “exit ramp” talk. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Putin all of this time, it’s that he is not one to walk away from a fight or back down while losing—escalation is his game, and by now he is very, very practiced at it. As the Moscow Times put it, in a fascinating piece of reporting from inside the Kremlin, “Putin always chooses escalation.”

On Thursday, I spoke with the Russia expert Fiona Hill. She told me she believes there’s an element of self-delusion to much of the current commentary about the possibility of Washington and the West continuing to back Ukraine while avoiding conflict with Putin—who, after all, launched his war against Ukraine not in February but eight years ago when he invaded the country and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula. As far as Hill is concerned, we are already fighting in the Third World War, whether we acknowledge it or not. “We’ve been in this for a long time, and we’ve failed to recognize it,” she said.

Her chilling thought raises a searing question about U.S. policy: If the goal is to avoid a conflict in which we are already fighting, then does the rest of Washington’s approach to Russian aggression need to be reconsidered? Hill’s line of thinking is one reason why there are increased calls from many Russia watchers not to kowtow to Putin’s demands at a moment when both his weaknesses and those of his system have been so clearly revealed.

There is also the matter of Putin getting the West wrong. We in Washington hardly have a monopoly on misguided assumptions being a driving factor in international affairs. Many indicators suggest, in fact, that they were a major reason why this war happened. Putin not only failed to understand that Ukrainians would stand and fight against his aggression; he also failed to foresee the U.S. and its NATO allies remaining united and funding the Ukrainian resistance. Moscow’s bogus annexations of more Ukrainian territory seems likely to produce only more Western sanctions—and the possible extension of the war that Putin looks increasingly like he is losing. “The problem is, of course, us misreading him, but also him misreading us,” Hill observed.

Nuclear brinksmanship between a wounded, sulking Russian dictator and an increasingly alarmed NATO alliance—with Ukraine trapped in the middle—is just about a worst-case scenario for a world that hardly needs another crisis. Will Washington stay the course?

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