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War in Ukraine: is the threat of a Third World War real?

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Could the conflict in Ukraine degenerate into World War III? This worrying prospect was in any case brandished by Sergueï Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Monday, April 25, during an interview on Russian public television, he considered that the “danger” was “serious, real” and should not be “underestimated”.

But these words have to be put in a precise context. First, they were pronounced the day after the visit to kyiv of Anthony Blinken, American Secretary of State, and Lloyd Austin, head of the Pentagon.

Knowing that the latter, on his return from this trip, announced new large-scale military aid to Ukraine and assured that the country of Volodymyr Zelensky “can win” the war.

All while displaying the American intention to “weaken” Russia “to such a degree that it cannot do the same kinds of things as the invasion of Ukraine”.

Not to mention that at that time, Washington had planned to bring together its allies in Germany to organize, in a concerted manner, the continuation of military aid for Ukraine. The meeting, which took place on Tuesday April 26, led some countries to consider the delivery of heavy weapons.

However, this is happening at a time when Russia “had to revise its military objectives downwards”, analyzes Isabelle Facon, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research and specialist in Russian security and defense policies. Vladimir Putin will, according to her, “put the package on the Donbass because he needs to be able to claim military successes to justify the losses suffered so far and the economic cost of the war”.

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This determination of Western countries to support Ukraine is therefore experienced as a “threat” by Russia, and Sergei Lavrov’s words are intended as “a warning about a risk of escalation that no one wants”.

It is a question of signifying to Westerners that they “will be considered as co-belligerents if a certain red line is crossed”, continues the expert. However “the NATO countries said from the start that they would not intervene militarily, to avoid the risk of direct war”, recalls Isabelle Facon. But one cannot “prevent Moscow from considering” that the support given to Ukraine as an attacked country is “directed against Russia”.

The “communication war”

This is not the first time that the Russian authorities have used this kind of threat. The nuclear power of their country is thus regularly put forward. “No doubt there is also the desire to erode the support of Western public opinion, particularly European, by raising the idea that there is a great risk in providing this support to Ukrainians”, underlines Isabelle Facon .

It is an element of the “war of communication”, estimates the specialist. These kinds of statements aim to “create anxiety” in order to “bring division”. Because if we observe a “real momentum” of support for Ukraine, this “common front” necessarily presents “nuances” that Russia hopes to be able to dig, “rightly or wrongly”.

So far, the war in Ukraine is not escalating into a global conflict. For that, other actors would have to take a direct part in the fighting. But “the more time passes, the more positions harden,” notes the deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research.

She notes that both sides seem to be disinterested in peace negotiations. On the Russian side, first, because Vladimir Putin must be able to justify this invasion through military victories. But also on the Ukrainian side since “given the losses suffered and the successes encountered, it becomes more popular to continue the war with this hope of winning it, rather than to enter into discussion at the risk of having to make concessions that are difficult to accept”.

Moscow requires its gas buyers to make payments in rubles.

Sergei Lavrov’s remarks therefore need to be contextualized and tempered, but the instability of this conflict remains real. Without being alarmist, Isabelle Facon calls for caution: “in a tense situation like this, we can never exclude the possibility of an incident or a slippage”.

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