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Commentary Last Updated: Nov 1st, 2007 - 00:44:11

Does World War III loom large?
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 1, 2007, 00:42

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If the US and Russia continue a course of mutual belligerency -- albeit gloved -- the road to Armageddon will be short.

The West must understand that Russia newly flushed with energy wealth is no longer an underdog but a major world player. Russia, in its turn, must quit sending its bombers to tease Western countries. The US should come to terms with the fact it's no longer the only policeman on the block.

People are generally given to shrugging off mentions of a third world war. This is mainly because the next one could be mankind's last. Those who sprinkle their speeches or articles with dire warnings of a massive nuclear conflagration are often written off as scaremongers. Those who lived through the horrors of World War II and later witnessed the battered planet coming together to draft the Geneva Conventions and form the United Nations had hope that we had truly learned our lesson. Never again!

Surely it is inconceivable that world leaders would be prepared to put their nations on a suicidal collision course for any reason. Indeed, even during the most critical periods of the 45-year-long Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States, successive leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain were careful to exercise restraint.

It was, therefore, surprising -- nay shocking -- to hear President George W. Bush say, "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing Iran from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon".

Was this a warning? Was this a threat, or was it merely overblown rhetoric intended to be a global wake-up call? Whatever the intent behind the statement, it brought the ugly specter of another world war back into the public conscious as a potential reality.

President Bush refrained from spelling out who the protagonists of any such world war might be, but in light of the current cool climate between the US and Russia -- and to a lesser extent between the US and China -- over ways to eliminate Iran's uranium enrichment program one can be forgiven for speculating.

There is no doubt, too, that Russia is increasingly flexing its newly developed muscle. Earlier this month, Caspian Sea states (including Iran) signed a declaration upon Russia's urging to the effect they will never allow their soil to be used by a foreign country to launch a military attack against another Caspian nation. They also stressed that all signatories to the NPT have the right to generate and utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes -- a snub to US thinking.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has told Washington in no uncertain terms that his country will not accept military strikes on Iran and reinforced that message with an unprecedented invitation to the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit him in Moscow.

Pundits noted that the body language between Putin and Ahmadinejad appeared jolly and relaxed in contrast to the Russian leader's earlier more sober meetings with Germany's Chancellor Merkel and France's President Sarkozy.

And last week, Putin turned his ire on Bush, comparing the stringent new US sanctions against Iran and the American president's attitude toward Tehran with that of a madman "running about with a razor blade in his hand." Putin believes the sanctions will achieve little other than to undermine any hope of constructive dialogue between Iran and the West.

Highlighting the reality of war talk in the air, the Director-General of the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies, Dr. Bulat K. Sultanov, was recently driven to announce that Kazakhstan would side with Russia in case of a US-Russia confrontation. Wouldn't such a confrontation amount to World War III?

But the method of ensuring Iran does not acquire the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons is far from being the only bone of contention between Russia and the US.

Russia vehemently objects to what it views as Washington's interference in the politics of former Soviet republics. Moreover, the two nuclear giants do not see eye-to-eye on an independent Kosovo and neither can they agree on Bush's plan to deploy missile interceptors in Poland and a radar-tracking facility in the Czech Republic, which Russia believes would pose a threat to it, despite American assurances to the contrary.

Last week, the Russian leader compared the atmosphere surrounding the US missile defense proposal with a severity parallel to the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s, when the Cold War heated up to the point of becoming a nuclear confrontation.

"For us the situation is technologically very similar," he said. "We have withdrawn the remains of our bases from Vietnam, from Cuba and have liquidated everything there, while at our borders such threats against our country are being created."

Russia has also warned that the stationing of US weapons in space would trigger a full-scale arms race between Russia and the West. "We don't want to fight in space," said a Russian commander, but "the consequences of positioning strike forces in orbit will be too serious."

Putin did, however, mitigate his comments by referring to President Bush as a personal friend and allowing that Washington appears to be listening to Russian concerns.

In the end this is a dangerous power play, which risks ending in unwanted and unforeseen consequences for either side. Russia's nuclear bombers have resumed their Cold War-style routine flights and, in August this year, flew close to the US Pacific island of Guam; close enough to "exchange smiles" with US pilots on aircraft carriers.

A month earlier, in July, Britain scrambled RAF Tornado fighter jets to prevent Russian bombers from entering British airspace -- a provocative near incursion at a time when London and Moscow had withdrawn their diplomats over Russia's refusal to extradite a murder suspect.

What if one of those pilots on either side of the divide had unleashed his firepower, fearing his country was under serious threat? Despite the damage, cooler heads may have prevailed, or, on the other hand, there could have been massive retaliation in kind.

Back to the question: Is World War III inevitable?

If the US and Russia continue a course of mutual belligerency -- albeit gloved -- the road to Armageddon will be short.

The age of the sole superpower has to make way for a multipolar world. Only when big powers learn to treat one another with respect can the rest of us continue sleeping soundly at night.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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