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Russia has been at war in Ukraine for more than a year. Officially calling what is happening a war is still prohibited – but not for everyone. For example, Olga Skabeeva, host of the program “60 Minutes” on the TV channel “Russia 1”, suggested back in May that it be acknowledged that the third world war had begun, in which Russia is engaged in the “demilitarization of the entire North Atlantic alliance.”
Of course, one can view the propaganda as white noise. However, Russia and Ukraine are not fighting one-on-one. More than 30 countries are providing military assistance to Kyiv, and Ukraine is urging NATO to increase its support. The country insists that without it, they will not be able to withstand the next targets of the Kremlin, which will be the members of the alliance themselves.
NATO acknowledges the risks. In its updated strategy, it explicitly states that Russia is now the most serious threat. Does this mean that a local war between two states will turn into a global conflict? Is a world war a real threat and not just a propaganda label?
In our today’s text, we will examine this in detail – with the help of international lawyers, political scientists, a military expert and even one philosopher.
It may sound paradoxical, but even after experiencing two world wars, humanity has not completely understood what to consider a war. Especially with regard to international law, which has literally deprived the states of the planet of the right to war.
Yes, people have been fighting each other for as long as they have existed. But the norms and customs of war that are used today are a relatively new thing (we wrote about this in detail here). The Hague Conventions, adopted in 1907, explained how wars should be started – at that time, they set the laws of armed conflicts. A country that was preparing to attack had to either warn about it or declare some kind of ultimatum to its opponent first.
This concept remained in the past along with the old world order. Starting from the second half of the 20th century, countries are prohibited from declaring war on each other. This right was taken away from them by the UN Charter, signed in June 1945 – at the very end of World War II.
According to the Charter, the use of armed force against other states on the planet is fundamentally prohibited. The document explicitly states that all UN members “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other way.”
Today there are 193 countries in the UN – all of them have adopted the organization’s charter and agreed not to use force against each other. After all, the fundamental function of the UN is to maintain peace.
But losing the right to fight, states certainly did not stop doing so. Wars are simply now often called operations – special, military or peacekeeping. Such were “Enduring Freedom” (US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001), “Shock and Awe” (US invasion of Iraq in 2003), “enforcement to peace” in Georgia (better known as the “five-day war” of 2008). And of course, the current “special operation for demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine”.
Does this mean that legally there is no war in Ukraine? It does not mean that, and it does not matter that Russia has not officially declared war. International humanitarian law regulates a whole range of different documents. This includes, for example, the Geneva Conventions. The main criterion that determines whether a state is at war or not is specified there. Here it is: the direct use of armed force by one country against another or the occupation of part of its territory.
Another definition of military aggression is given by the UN General Assembly resolution of 1974. According to the document, it is not only invasion, bombing, and occupation. Aggressive war also includes the blockade of ports and coasts, providing one’s territory for attack, and sending armed groups to participate in the conflict. Moreover, this list is not exhaustive, as stated in the resolution. If necessary, the UN Security Council – the only authority authorized to intervene in conflicts on behalf of the international community – may consider something else as aggression.
In general, there is no doubt that Russia is waging a war against Ukraine not only de facto, but also de jure. There is a more complicated question: are other countries involved in this war? For example, active deliveries of weapons and intelligence data to Ukraine, organizing training for the Ukrainian army – does all of this make the war global?
From the standpoint of international law, the answer is no. Simply because the supply of weapons, provision of intelligence data, and military training are not included in the signs of military aggression.
But in practice, it’s not so simple.
Can we avoid escalation of war by supplying weapons?
Yes, if you don’t cross the “red lines”
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Kyiv is not receiving as much weaponry from the West as it is requesting.
In mid-June, Mikhail Podolyak, an advisor to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, stated that 1000 howitzers, 500 tanks, and 300 multiple-launch rocket systems would help end the conflict in Ukraine. However, as calculated by the British newspaper Financial Times, Kyiv has received much less: about 250 howitzers and 270 tanks, and just over 50 multiple-launch rocket systems.
But that’s not all. Rob Lee, a senior staff member at the US Institute of Foreign Policy Research, reminds Kit that Ukraine also requested F-16 fighters, but has yet to receive them. Additionally, the US provided Kiev with HIMARS systems with GMLRS missiles, which have a firing range of 70 kilometers—not ATACMS, whose range is several times greater and reaches 300 kilometers.
The point here, of course, is not only in the limited capabilities of the allies. NATO is seriously concerned about the escalation of the conflict that such military aid could lead to. Rob Lee points out: “The current volume of supplied weapons may be enough to prevent Ukraine from losing even more territory. But not to return it to the borders before February 24th.”
In practice, too much military support for third countries can indeed turn a local conflict into a global one. However, even moderate arms supplies increase risks. For example, NATO does not want its weapons to be used to attack targets in Russia. “If Ukraine starts using American salvo fire systems to strike Russian territory, this is already a different story,” says political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov (he holds the position of Director of Research at the Valdai Club).
In turn, Rob Lee notes that Ukraine is careful to adhere to this principle: in attacks on Russian territory, Kyiv only uses its own weapons, which it possessed even before the start of the war. At the same time, Russia itself, although expressing dissatisfaction with Western supplies, is also not in a hurry to escalate the conflict. “Moscow says: yes, we are unhappy that you are providing weapons, but it does not cross our ‘red lines’,” explains Lee’s logic.
According to him, the Kremlin is relatively calm about the training of Ukrainian military personnel on the territory of NATO countries – this is another important element of support for the Ukrainian army. “Volunteers from the territorial defense forces are not very well-trained military personnel. In Ukraine itself, there are no opportunities or specialists to train them. Therefore, it is much easier to send them for combat training to NATO countries,” he continues.
However, the Kremlin may reconsider its position. For example, if there are significantly more foreign troops in Ukraine who come to teach Ukrainians more intensively about military affairs, warns political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov from the “Valdai” club. Or if Ukraine becomes significantly more effective at defending itself with the help of Western weapons, the situation on the front line will begin to radically change and Putin will see this as a threat, says Rob Lee. He considers this scenario to be unlikely for now, but notes that much will depend on the role that HIMARS systems will play in combat operations.
Political scientist Evgeny Roshchin agrees with him. If the weapons supplied ultimately start playing an important role in the deployment of forces on the front line – roughly speaking, rocket artillery systems, howitzers, and something else will help the Ukrainians start a counterattack – it is not excluded that Russia will call it the involvement of external parties in the conflict and issue an ultimatum, he believes.
In general, the “red lines” could still be crossed hypothetically. However, Rob Lee says that NATO also has such “lines”, and there is also potential for escalation here. For example, the alliance may decide to provide additional weapons if Russian aggression increases and Ukraine loses its ability to defend itself against it. Or if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is overthrown during the war. Further strikes on peaceful targets in Ukrainian cities could also compel NATO to provide the country with more powerful weapons.
During the civil war in Syria, the US and UK identified the use of chemical weapons in the country as their “red line,” recalls political scientist Roshchin. “If such weapons begin to be used in Ukraine, a scenario for involving other countries in the conflict is also possible,” he is convinced.
This hypothesis is confirmed by statements at the highest level. For example, the US has already warned that if Russia uses chemical weapons, Washington will respond.
Under what conditions does military aid turn into military involvement?
No one can say for sure, here are several possible options.
At what point military assistance to a conflict participant turns into direct involvement is largely a “gray area”, experts whom Kit spoke with admit.
There are no clear criteria here, but there are opinions. For example, political scientist Evgeny Roshchin gives a simple answer. He believes that some third country will be considered a direct participant in the conflict only when it uses its regular military units (and it is precisely they) for direct combat clashes.
Lawyer Natalia Sekretareva, specializing in international humanitarian law, agrees, but believes that direct participation is not limited to this. She draws attention to the intelligence information that Ukraine receives from outside. If it does not cross the line of non-involvement, then it comes very close to it, says Sekretareva – and can be interpreted as involvement in the war.
“If we imagine that American special services constantly provide intelligence information and coordinate actions with the Ukrainian army, then we can say that the US is participating in the war,” believes Secretary. “But it’s a complicated thing because such support takes place behind closed doors and we simply do not know its volumes.”
Rob Lee considers the volumes significant – according to him, they are greater than in any other past conflicts. “10-20 years ago it was impossible to imagine that the US could determine the location of some Russian command post and then pass this information on to Ukraine for them to launch an artillery strike. It was technically impossible. Now we see that it is happening,” he emphasized.
But even here, Ukrainian allies try to limit themselves so as not to accidentally cross any “red lines.” The expert notes that it was the United States that helped Ukrainian military to locate the cruiser “Moscow,” after which the VSU struck it. However, Rob Lee believes that the States were unhappy with the consequences. After all, Washington’s policy regarding intelligence is the same as regarding weapons – he claims not to use them for strikes on Russian territory or military targets that are not directly involved in the conflict.
According to Lee, “The United States does not want to appear as a side in the conflict.” Like other Western countries, which are doing everything possible to prevent the transformation of the Russian-Ukrainian war into a global one, adds political scientist Roshchin. Nevertheless, the world is already dangerously balancing on this line. After all, Ukraine’s allies are paying the price of war from their own budgets and weapon stocks. That is, de jure they do not participate, but de facto – of course, yes.
At the same time, international lawyer Grigory Vaypan emphasizes: if the Kremlin believes that some country is supporting Ukraine too actively and needs to respond with force, it will violate the norms of international law, as any use of force is prohibited. According to all international rules, an attack on a too active ally of Ukraine will be considered not as actions within the framework of the current war, but as a new aggression.
The same also works the other way. Lawyer Natalya Sekretareva explains that if some state decides to actively support Ukraine and strike at Russian territory, this too will become a new aggression. International law norms will be violated and in this case, along with the existing one, another armed conflict with unpredictable consequences will arise.
So, when does a war turn into a world one after all?
Political scientists and philosophers respond.
Amazingly, but it’s a fact that there is no concept of a “world war” in international humanitarian law. Therefore, there are no legal criteria to compare with here.
It remains to draw on past experience. For example, the status of a global war seems to only be granted to those in which multiple states are involved simultaneously. However, political analyst Fedor Lukyanov notes that the question is not about quantity. According to him, a war only becomes global when countries that play a determining role in international relations – not just within their own region – are involved. “If you imagine a war between twenty-five countries from Africa alone, it would not become global,” he says.
The degree of involvement is also important. According to Rob Lee, we are still in a situation of active confrontation between only two states (at least until those “red lines” are crossed). Geography also plays a role – the conflict is localized in a specific part of Ukraine, in Donbass and in the south of the country.
But even if it goes beyond the territories where it began, it does not automatically mean that it will enter the stage of a global conflict, emphasizes political scientist Yevgeny Roshchin. It is possible that the parties will decide to exchange “symbolic blows” on some remote military bases, but this may not lead to the escalation of the war to a global level. Roshchin is convinced that the expansion of the Ukrainian war is still far away: “Despite [all the current] rhetoric, I still think that the parties are not ready to engage in suicide.”
At the same time, from a certain perspective, the world war is ongoing and never ended, according to philosopher Arseny Kumankov. He refers to the idea proposed by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century.
The idea is that without states, people would constantly be in a state of war, “every man against every man”. The state protects its citizens from this by establishing and controlling peace within its borders. But this comes at a cost. Firstly, citizens pay for peace within the state with a portion of their freedom. And secondly, different states are constantly in conflict. “Even if there is no open war between them, states at least look at each other with suspicion,” – Kumankov summarizes Hobbes’ idea.
This diagram, explaining the state of affairs in international political reality, formed the basis of the theory of realism. According to it, states are constantly in a state of competition. “Can it be said that there is never really peace, but always a world war? Probably, realists can,” Kuman’kov argues.
He immediately specifies that he considers this point of view “not very adequate.” But it is this view that is very popular in Russia at the political level. The state in this coordinate system is surrounded by endless enemies who are eager to weaken it, harm it, or strike it at the right moment.
The current war has shown, among other things, the tragic consequences that such a worldview can lead to. It has also demonstrated that the term “world war” – as an indication of an unprecedented conflict – has outlived its usefulness, believes philosopher Arseniy Kumankov. Not because a global war is now impossible in principle, but because any conflict nowadays inevitably becomes global – no matter how local the initial confrontation may be.
Any modern war impacts a significant part of the world. The crisis in the global energy market and the threat of world hunger are direct consequences of the Russian invasion. “We can no longer say, ‘We are not at war, this conflict does not concern us’ – we all participate in the global economy in one way or another, and any war affects us all,” says Arseny Kumankov.
According to Fyodor Lukyanov, there is another important difference in new wars compared to conflicts of the past. Once wars were considered a legitimate means of resolving insoluble conflicts, he says, and a new world order was established as a result.
Modern humanity is deprived of the “luxury” of solving contradictions, emphasizes Lukyanov. “Instead of resolving contradictions, we can only put an end to each other’s existence,” he summarizes.