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Russia-Ukraine conflict: Are we in the undertow of an inevitably wider war?

Ukrainian soldiers on an armored personnel carrier pass by people carrying their belongings as they flee the conflict, in the Vyshgorod region close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 10, 2022. AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

We’re now past two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine and there remains hope that the Russian advance can be stalled long enough for sanctions to so badly damage the invader’s economy that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be forced – one way or another – to end his war.

But an analysis of what’s happening doesn’t favour such hope. That’s not to say despair is the singular alternative, only that military preparedness for what could come next — as well as the psychological readiness of Canadians and citizens of the 29 other allied NATO nations — is essential.

On Friday, Defence Minister Anita Anand made clear in a CBC interview that Canada’s government is now scrambling to deal with a “global threat environment” and the need to “defend the North American continent.”

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This is telling language, and it reflects a widespread rhetorical shift over the course of the Ukraine emergency from deep concern about a regional geopolitical flashpoint to existential alarm over the fate of the world.

One measure of this intensifying unease is that news of the gravest nature coming out of Ukraine is no longer quite as shocking as it should be. Why? Because repetition is numbing and the prospect of a widened war looms ever larger.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine capital of Kyiv braces for an expected all-out assault, and the number of panicked people pouring out of Ukraine — a country that functioned much like Canada a month ago — surpassed one million, then 1.5, then two million, all in a matter of days.

Click to play video: 'Options dwindle for stranded Ukrainians as Russia continues onslaught'
Options dwindle for stranded Ukrainians as Russia continues onslaught

As the litany of horrors lengthens, and as the struggle to comprehend Moscow’s bewildering motivation and elusive endgame grows more maddening, the darkest possibility forces itself front-of-mind: We do seem to be caught in the undertow of an inevitably expanding conflict, perhaps even a world war.

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It’s in that frame of mind that Russia’s indiscriminate shelling is now failing to deliver the gut punch it should. This could get worse — much worse, and much faster than we might imagine — for hundreds of millions of people across the northern hemisphere.

NATO leaders reassure us that the world’s harshest-ever economic sanctions will work and Russia will lose this war. And we can applaud the restraint shown so far by Western allies — heartbreaking though it is — in resisting the Ukraine president’s desperate pleading to establish a no-fly zone over his country, a move that would surely ignite a direct, unimaginably devastating conflict between the NATO nations and Russia.

Read more: Zelenskyy criticizes NATO for refusing to impose no-fly zone over Ukraine

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So far, we’ve kept back from that brink. And we can’t forget this, not even for a moment: That behind any such brinkmanship lurk nuclear arsenals in Russia and the U.S. big enough to engulf us all in Armageddon. With every new atrocity in Ukraine, it feels more and more like there’s an ominous, irreversible momentum to all of this.

If Russia wants a truly epic fight with the West — no matter how self-destructive its impulse may be — can we avoid it? Will any amount of diplomatic tough talk or economic torture or military muscle-flexing by the U.S. and its allies ultimately deter a dictator’s death wish?

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Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: UN nuclear watchdog says situation is “dire.”'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: UN nuclear watchdog says situation is “dire.”

This crisis is now being framed as a potentially apocalyptic eruption in global affairs.

“There are moments in history,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said this week, “when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight in one place, which is waged for all of humanity.”

That doesn’t sound like a collision that might be side-stepped or a confrontation that will be contained to a contest of strategies and posturing rather than unbridled violence. How can democratic nations constrain themselves in a monumental showdown “between freedom and tyranny?”

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Then there’s this: What are we to make of China’s sympathetic silence in response to Russia’s world-altering rashness? And what are the implications of the Feb. 4 pact between the two countries — signed just weeks ahead of the Ukraine invasion — cementing a “friendship” that “has no limits,” and which explicitly warns NATO “to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches” that “intensify geopolitical rivalry.”

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There is talk in the West of exit ramps, de-escalation and negotiation to end the war. But at a meeting this week in Turkey with his Ukrainian counterpart, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov merely repeated his country’s demand that Ukraine must capitulate — and spouted transparently false denials of attacks on civilians by Russian forces.

Click to play video: 'Ukraine-Russia peace talks fruitless amid Moscow’s claims about hospital bombing'
Ukraine-Russia peace talks fruitless amid Moscow’s claims about hospital bombing

At this point, with domestic dissent and free expression fully suppressed, Russia barely tries to sound convincing about anything it says connected to Putin’s war. We get only fabricated grievances, “preposterous” allegations (as the U.S. labeled an accusation about supposed bioweapons labs in Ukraine) and inexorable aggression.

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Even so, it is possible to imagine the Russians facing defeat. Warmed-over Cold War stereotypes of diabolically shrewd Russian operatives backed by a ruthless superpower military have given way to unexpected impressions of a bumbling belligerent — its 60-kilometre-long invasion convoy near Kyiv stuck in the mud, maybe out of gas, lacking key supplies, its soldiers bereft of morale.

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But this is a moment for honest appraisals of the entire situation in Ukraine – including what grim possibilities this localized war may unleash beyond one country — and not just wishful thinking.

And so here we suddenly are, forced to seriously contemplate the spectre of a wider war.

Randy Boswell is an Ottawa journalist and Carleton University professor.

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