Frequently Asked Questions about World War III, Part 1
As an analyst of global Russian information operations, I’m often asked to offer an opinion about what’s happening with this conflict. I’ve collated some of the most common questions and answers below. These opinions are mine alone, but I’ve provided references to other sources wherever I can.
Q: When did World War III start?
A: This conflict can be traced back to 2014, when Putin invaded Ukraine for the first time. By annexing the Crimean peninsula, and occupying the Donestk, Donbass, and Luhansk regions, Ukraine’s progress towards membership in the European Union and NATO was slowed. One could also point to the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and the end of World War II in 1945 as key moments that eventually built to this conflict.
Q: Have we really been at war for eight years already?
A: Yes, very much so. Most all of the information and economic warfare that roiled the US and Europe the last several years (election interference, Brexit, amplification of social division) was a result of an alliance between Putin’s military intelligence and media channels and Fifth Columnists in the West, who for a variety of reasons are aligned with Putin’s agenda. This is all one, seamless theater of warfare that has advanced from informational and psychological to fully kinetic. However, other Russian wars, such as in Syria, could also be considered part of this broader conflict.
Q: Why is Putin doing this?
A: Multiple reasons. 1) He is facing increasingly grim fortunes at home. Declining longevity, increasing brain drain, and an economy dependent on oil and gas have left Russia moribund. Expansionism may offer access to new resources. 2) He sees himself as a historic figure and wishes to reunite the “Rus’ people” of Ukraine and Russia. 3) He is pursuing a “Tellurocracy,” or land-based empire, together with China as a partner, in an effort to shift the world into a multipolar alignment. 4) He is resentful of the United States, the European Union, and NATO, and wishes to terminate them. 5) He wishes to combine the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church as a lever to unite the world around “traditionalism” and against “sexual liberalism,” making Moscow into the “Third Rome” (after Rome and Constantinople.) 6) He wishes to restore the Russian “Imperium” that existed under the Romanov Tsarist regime, which includes areas not even included in the Soviet Union; indeed he blames the Bolsheviks for losing territory previously part of the empire. 7) He wishes to capitalize on long-standing resentment of central banks to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, used for pricing oil, and shift from fiat currencies to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, or ones backed by precious metals. 8) To pursue dominance in the Arctic: for oil and gas reserves, to open up Arctic shipping routes (which depend on continued global warming), and for positioning of missiles.
Q: If Putin takes Ukraine, will he stop there?
A: There is very little reason to to think Putin will stop with Ukraine. He has expressed interest in the Baltic sovereign nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia at a minimum, and could effect a pincer capture of those states by sending divisions into Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic exclave, through the Suwalki Gap, an area between Belarus and Poland. He has also threatened Sweden and Finland with military action in an effort to slow their accession into NATO. He may also pursue the Swedish island of Gotland, a strategic position and home to a military base. Poland may also be a target, and beyond that, any nation that seems attractive may be a target, especially if it is home to Russian-speaking people or otherwise considered strategic to Putin.
Q: Would Putin really risk all out war with NATO?
A: Informed analysts disagree on this. Those who think Putin is a cold, calculating, and rational actor generally think he would not risk it because he knows it would result in nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction. Others, who perhaps know him better and see his desperate, isolated mindset and some of the mystic and religious influences he’s been reflecting, think Putin would not hesitate to use nukes. Ultimately no one can predict what he might do, but we do know that he’s been increasingly isolated due to COVID and seems to be taking bigger and bigger risks.
Q: Putin doesn’t seem religious, so why would religion be a factor?
A: While Putin likely is not himself religious, he seems to understand the value of the Orthodox Church to provide an axis of control throughout his own country, Ukraine, and indeed much of the West. By rallying behind “traditionalism” and opposing LGBT rights, “wokeness” and the like, he can form a global coalition that broadly favors Russia’s interests. Indeed, this is what he’s done. Groups like the World Congress of Families forged links between the traditionalist right in the United States with counterparts in Russia. GOP strategist Pat Buchanan began praising Putin in 2014, with a piece asking “Whose side is God on, now?”
Q: Is Aleksandr Dugin really a significant influence on Putin?
A: Informed analysts have tended to disagree about this as well, suggesting that Dugin, as a mystic eminence grise, is a side-show and unimportant to Kremlin decisionmaking. This view, rooted in ideas of realpolitik is certainly sober and respectable, but it also seems, increasingly, to be just flat out wrong. Dugin’s 1997 treatise, “The Foundations of Geopolitics,” outlines the playbook we see Putin executing these last several years: cleave the UK from Europe (Brexit), place Germany and Russia into a dependent relationship based on energy trade, erode the European Union, fracture the NATO alliance, and pursue a land-based empire of Eurasia, where Russia constitutes the traditionalist “heartland” while China controls the “rimlands.” The US and UK are placed in a bilateral alliance and effectively left isolated and irrelevant in this new multi-polar order. So, whether Dugin is whispering in Putin’s ear is hard to say, but Putin is following Dugin’s playbook, and Dugin for his part has been collaborating with Steve Bannon and the global Fifth Column.
Q: You keep saying “Fifth Column,” but what is that?
A: The term “Fifth Column” was coined to describe a network of infiltrators working on behalf of Franco’s fascist network inside Spain during its civil war, to subvert and weaken civil society from the inside. They might partake in information operations or other initiatives that advance the fascist agenda. Putin has an extensive Fifth Column operation that includes individuals and organizations on both the left and right aligned with Putin’s objectives. Putin has a global network consisting of a range of libertarian, anarchocapitalist, anti-tax, anti-state, and white supremacist factions that will benefit if he prevails. This has been a key part of Putin’s strategy since at least 2012.
Q: And how does cryptocurrency fit into this?
A: Since the 20th century there has been a longstanding resentment of central banks and fiat currency. Many people, especially the wealthy, wish to eliminate central banks and replace them with so-called “sound money.” The so-called “gold standard” (using money backed by gold) was the traditional fixation; now gold-bugs have switched to a focus on cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, because like gold it is a “scarce” asset, or a kind of “hard money,” despite not being backed by anything other than scarcity. Now that Putin has been fully shut out of the global banking system, there is hope by cryptocurrency enthusiasts that Russia’s economy will move entirely into these assets, driving prices up and attracting other countries to do the same. So far, this doesn’t seem to be happening, but it might be one reason why Putin did not seem to be afraid of financial sanctions. One of his oligarchs, Vladimir Potanin, is also planning cryptocurrencies backed by Russian nickel and palladium. This seems to be their backup plan.
Q: How long might this war last?
A: As long as Putin is alive, and possibly longer. Putin has limited options now but to see this through to its conclusion. There are few prospects he might retreat; if he does, he cannot stay in power and expect a rapprochement with the West or an end of sanctions. If he moves forward, he has no choice but to try to fully subjugate Ukraine. What chain-reaction events may unfold from there are impossible to guess, but more aggression seems likely. This conflict could take a year or several years to resolve. If Putin is removed from power sooner, relations may renormalize fairly quickly if new leadership in Russia arises that rolls back from this aggression.
Q: Will Putin prevail in Ukraine?
A: Russian troop morale seems low and the operation has gone poorly, probably worse than Putin expected. However, Ukraine has dominated the information space, and Zelensky has emerged as a hero, and Putin as a villain. Still, Russia seems determined to persist and can probably sustain this assault for at least a month, possibly longer. With total assets of about $650 billion, and costs around $20 billion per day, Putin can push a few more weeks before running out of money. Even then, there may be high-cost, last-ditch efforts he might pursue to continue fighting.
Q: What are some known unknowns?
A: We don’t know how other Russian proxy states like Iran or North Korea may get pulled into this. Cyberattacks or demonstrations of power like nuclear strikes or missile tests could be used to shock or deter the West while still providing plausible deniability to Russia itself. China also seems to be playing an increasing role in advancing Russia’s propaganda.
Q: Will China move on Taiwan now?
A: Many analysts think that China does not have the military capacity or a timing incentive to move on Taiwan right now. It would be massively disruptive and would risk a US response. Right now there is little indication China will make a move. The CCP is also very weak, with the Chinese economy highly dependent on overleveraged real-estate. Because of that weakness, someone like Steve Bannon may try to provoke an untimely conflict between China and Taiwan with the intention of destabilizing and toppling the CCP, and try to overtake it with his “New Federal State of China” initiative. This all seems aspirational more than actionable right now.
Q: What might provide a casus belli for war with NATO and the US?
A: In 2021, Russia began circulating disinformation narratives speculating about the nature of US-affiliated bio and chem labs in Ukraine. In recent days, these narratives have taken center stage in Russian messaging from foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. He has coupled this with threats of nuclear war. Whether this is saber-rattling or not, strategists have to take seriously the notion that we are dealing with a country that is willing to make any claim and take any action to pursue its agenda.
Q: What will happen if Putin orders the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction?
A: That’s impossible to guess, but Russia likely has escalation procedures that involve multiple people who themselves will need to exercise their judgment about whether such an order is sane, legal, or survivable. We should hope that the building anti-Putin faction inside Russia will extend to this circle of people and that Putin’s most insane orders will be tempered within the chain of command. If Putin does order a first strike and it is executed, other countries will need to think carefully about whether to unleash the full “mutually assured destruction” doctrine. Because Russia appears to be a country that is ready to self-destruct if it doesn’t get what it wants. After a call with Emmanuel Macron today, he said he believes “the worst is yet to come.”
Q: How should people prepare for what may come?
A: That’s a personal decision people have to make for themselves. Cyber and banking disruptions seem the most likely, so maybe get some cash and a bit of extra food, and await developments. Panic and fear are not helpful, but stoic preparation for what may come is necessary and useful. For my part, I think we need to spread the word about the real risks here and rely on people in positions of power, with real leverage, to steer us out of this crisis. Going into ‘survivor’ mode isn’t a real option for most people and won’t really solve the actual problem.
Q: What can people do to help?
A: You can contribute to help Ukrainians defend their country and to feed refugees who are fleeing, via trusted charities Save Life In UA and World Central Kitchen. Contact your representatives, and let them know about your concerns. Share this piece and spread the word to your family and friends about what’s really at stake here.