In the week after the Nazis began attacking Poland, the U.S. weekly newsmagazine Time declared in its September 11, 1939, edition, “World War II began last week at 5:20 a.m. (Polish time) Friday, September 1, when a German bombing plane dropped a projectile on Puck, a fishing village and air base in the armpit of the Hel Peninsula.”
France and the United Kingdom, allies of Poland, had declared war on Germany on September 3.
In the hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine — although no country has declared war on Russia — many are asking: “Is this the start of World War III?”
“No, it’s not,” according to Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a former consultant to the U.S. government on issues related to weapons of mass destruction, including proliferation, arms control and deterrence. “The real question is whether it’s the start of Cold War II. The answer may depend on the longevity of Putin’s regime.”
Plenty of previews
Naoko Wake, Michigan State University associate professor of history, concurs.
“This appears to be one of the beginnings of a second Cold War, which we have been seeing so many manifestations of around the globe in the recent decade,” she says.
“We’re far from World War III but a lot closer than we were 24 hours ago,” says Kenneth Weinstein, a Hudson Institute distinguished fellow. “But if NATO is forced to invoke Article V by a Russian attack on the Baltics, Poland or other alliance members, and the Chinese move simultaneously and massively on Taiwan, while Iran launches a blistering attack on Saudi Arabia, we’d be there.”
That scenario is “unthinkable but not impossible,” adds Weinstein, who was former President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Bryan Clark, a Hudson Institute senior fellow and a former director at the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group, states, “This isn’t the start of World War III, at least in terms of how previous world wars played out. Russia can manage its operations in Ukraine to keep the conflict from escalating out of control, and the U.S., NATO and EU have reconciled themselves to not intervening militarily.”
This could be, however, “the start of a long-term, slow-motion global confrontation between Russia and its Western neighbors, which could be complemented by conflict between China and its eastern neighbors,” Clark says.
Democracies vs. authoritarians
It is premature to call this a new world war, according to Brett Bruen, who runs the Global Situation Room consultancy.
“Nonetheless, there clearly is a worldwide war being waged on a range of fronts between democracies and authoritarian regimes. While they may not be fighting on the battlefield, they certainly are squaring off online and through regional conflicts in places like Ukraine and Afghanistan,” says Bruen, a former White House global engagement director.
"Regardless of how the situation is resolved, it would engender a bitter divide between Russia and the West, triggering a new Cold War,” according to Vishnu Prakash, India’s former ambassador to Canada and South Korea.
“If NATO were to intervene militarily, all bets are off and could even precipitate the Third World War,” Prakash says.
Time magazine’s early reference to World War II — what we now call World War I was known simply as the World War or the Great War until the bloody sequel — prompted U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to begin using the term, although the government did not officially adopt that name for the six-year conflict until September 1945, a month after the Japanese surrendered.
Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also views World War III terminology as premature.
“The concern is that this becomes a larger-scale European conflict,” he says, observing “a small possibility that other states could seize on a distracted West amid this crisis to pursue escalation elsewhere. But there’s no evidence this is likely.”
'Death knell' of postwar order
What is clearer among the people who make a living thinking about such questions is that a new era is beginning this week, regardless of what it ends up being labeled.
“Putin’s invasion may well signal the death knell of the postwar global order and the rise of a revanchist global alliance of Russia, China and Iran, undeterred by the rule of law and laser-focused on kinks in the Western alliance system,” Weinstein says.
“This act of war is intended to rewrite history, and more concerning, upend the balance of power in Europe,” said House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy in a statement Thursday.
Asked by a reporter on Thursday whether we are seeing the start of a new Cold War, President Joe Biden responded “that depends,” adding what is more certain is “it's going to be a cold day for Russia.”