If it seems like much of the planet is engulfed in violent conflicts, it’s because that actually is a fairly accurate description of where things stand globally right now. And it isn’t just about the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East that are dominating international media and political attention. Raging violence continues — with unconscionable civilian suffering — in South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, the Xinjiang region of China and many other places across the globe.
In spite of the fact that many of these regional conflicts are geographically contained and politically isolated, they certainly have enormous consequences for innocent people in harm’s way. Still, these fierce conflicts are relatively off the radar for the American public. That is not to say that the humanitarian toll on civilian populations is ignored. Relevant United Nations agencies and NGOs are certainly concerned, attempting to quell violence and respond to urgent humanitarian needs.
It is safe to conclude that ubiquitous violence remains a sad reality on the planet.
That said, however, it is important to understand that all wars characterized as “regional” are, in fact, not just regional. That is to say that some currently localized or regional wars may actually be geopolitical tinderboxes capable of rapidly spreading out of control, beyond the region, even involving major powers.
There are two principal qualities that I believe identify these dangerous hotspots: first, direct or indirect involvement of a superpower nation in the war and, second, one of the combatants possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal.
In the case of the war in Ukraine, one of the combatants, Russia, is a superpower that is fighting, presumably, to expand its sphere of influence and protect its borders from a perceived encroachment by NATO and the West. This entire conflict has been described by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and allies as an existential threat to democracy perpetrated by Russia’s autocratic president Vladimir Putin.
And, it’s worth remembering that Russia’s nuclear arsenal, with around 6,000 warheads, is the largest in the world. If Putin found himself stressed and frustrated by a truly stalemated war, especially if it eroded his domestic authority, would he consider the idea of deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine? We’d have to assume that the answer is probably yes. And if he did, how would the West respond? Would nuclear escalation be likely? I fear that outcome is not out of the question.
The horrific crisis in the Middle East also fits the criteria for defining a seeming regional conflict as a dangerous war, potentially capable of spreading in highly unpredictable ways.
In this situation, major global powers also have a serious stake in the outcome of the now-declared war which has migrated from a savage terror attack by Hamas on mostly civilians in southern Israel, to a massive counteroffensive by the Israel Defense Forces into the Gaza Strip. It is abundantly clear that outcome stakeholders here include, most importantly, Iran, Lebanon and certain other Arab nations, as well as Russia, the U.S. and other allies of Israel.
And here again, as in Ukraine, one of the direct combatants is a nuclear power. The size of Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a closely guarded secret. The Federation of American Scientists estimates the country has approximately 90 warheads and it has the means to deliver them via long-range missiles, bombers and attack submarines.
And to be clear, if Israel feels that the threat of destruction is potentially imminent, especially in a region that does not universally recognize that it even has a right to exist, the use of nuclear weapons in its own defense would not be off the table.
In short, the current state of regional wars is horrendous for civilians caught in the crossfire. What’s new now, however, is the fact that the regional wars in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza make us think about the awful prospect of a nuclear World War III emerging from one of these crisis zones.
Now’s the time for cool heads to prevail, understand the risks and do everything possible to put out the fires of war in the world’s most dangerous hotspots: Ukraine and the Middle East. This will require complex and difficult challenges, including getting Russia and Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire with certain concessions, and, importantly, pulling Russian troops out of Ukraine. And 1,200 miles to the south, Hamas will need to be eliminated as a horrific terrorist presence that it has proven to be, and Israel will likely need to pull back from settlements that threaten the West Bank.
Can these conditions or something like them be accomplished? We can only hope so if there is real global commitment to stepping back from the brink of a new world war.
Irwin Redlener, MD, (@IrwinRedlenerMD, www.IrwinRedlener.org) is an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and the co-founder of Ukraine Children’s Action Project. He is the author of “Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now.” (Knopf)
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