Russian troops mass on Ukrainian border

Chill wind: Satellite images also show a huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic.

Could Vladimir Putin start World War Three? Yesterday, Ukraine’s president asked Nato for help as hostile forces continued to gather to the north and east of Ukraine and in occupied Crimea.

The attack would come without warning. A muffled thump, coming from deep underwater, would be the only sign that World War Three had started. And then, vast, radioactive tsunamis would crash over the coastline, devastating the land and claiming millions of lives.

This, experts warned on Monday, would be the effect of Russia’s new superweapon, the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo. It would be able to sneak past coastal defences and detonate underwater, turning the sea radioactive and pushing enormous waves towards the land.

Some worry that this new weapons-testing is evidence that Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive – and that efforts to extend its influence could lead to new wars.

Russia has been taking advantage of climate breakdown to test Poseidon, as well as other superweapons, in the thawing Arctic Circle. In the next few years, as the Arctic ice melts and exposes more open ocean, this area will become a major shipping route. Some fear Russia’s military activities there show the state is trying to establish control of the route as it opens up.

At the same time, Russia is flexing its muscles towards its neighbours. Last year, it helped suppress pro-democracy protests in Belarus. And in the last few days, it has amassed troops on the border with Ukraine.

In 2014, Russian soldiers seized Crimea, a vital strategic outpost in the Black Sea that belonged to Ukraine. Since that time, Russia has been funding rebel groups in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, trying to destabilise its neighbour. Now there are fears the country could be preparing to invade Ukraine and annex Donbas. The US has warned Russia against the move, and would come under pressure to defend Ukraine.

Others are sceptical that recent events hint at possible war. They think Russia is only acting aggressively in order to mask its weaknesses.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin now has the right to stay in power until 2036, there have been signs in recent years that he might be toppled long before then.

Earlier this year, waves of protest against Putin broke out across Russia. Growing numbers of Russians regard the regime as corrupt and oppressive, and they have found a charismatic figurehead in Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Putin critic who survived a poisoning attempt last year.

And Putin’s control is slipping outside Russia’s borders as well. In October, Russian ally Armenia lost a short war against Azerbaijan, which was backed by Turkey, Russia’s great southern rival. Under the peace treaty, the Russian military presence in the region has been heavily scaled back.

Then, in Moldova’s 2020 elections, the pro-Russian president was defeated by a pro-Western candidate who is expected to seek closer ties with the European Union.

For some, Putin is not expanding his power at all: he is lashing out at the West to hide these failures and shore up his support amongst Russian conservatives.

Could Russia start World War Three?

Putin-g it on

Yes, say some. Russia is still a very powerful nation: with 6,400 warheads, it owns the largest nuclear stockpile in the world, and its soldiers have gained combat experience in Ukraine and Syria. Its expansion into the Arctic will be seen as a threat by the USA. Even if it does not want a world war, Russia could accidentally spark one by provoking the USA into a confrontation.

Not at all, say others. Russia is really quite a weak nation, with a restive population and shrinking influence abroad. Its allies in eastern Europe, like Belarus and Moldova, are turning away from Russian-style authoritarianism, and towards European social democracy. Within Russia, anti-Putin movements are going from strength to strength. It is in no position to fight a new world war.

You Decide

  1. In what circumstances, if any, should a country ever use nuclear weapons?
  2. What should the rest of the world do if Russia does invade Ukraine?

Activities

  1. You have been assigned to interview Vladimir Putin. Think of five questions you would like to ask him.
  2. Imagine the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo has just struck the closest coastline to you. Write a series of diary entries, covering the week after the attack, from the perspective of a survivor.

Some People Say...

“The worst thing for a politician is to try and cling to power by every possible means, and focus only on that.”

Vladimir Putin (1952 – ), Russian politician and current president

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that Russia is not in a position to win a war against the US. The US military is the most powerful armed force that has ever existed on the planet. The US spends more than seven times as much on its military as Russia does: in fact, its military budget is greater than that of the next 10 biggest military spenders combined. However, there is no question that it poses a serious threat to its much smaller neighbours, including Ukraine.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over who could replace Putin. Although the West has pinned its hopes on Alexander Navalny, he is a controversial figure in Russia: in his early career he was an avowed nationalist who railed against migrants, and many anti-Putin protesters do not support him. Some think the Russian state is so structurally corrupt that it can only be governed by a strongman – that whoever replaces Putin is doomed to become like him anyway.

Word Watch

Tsunamis
Enormous, devastating waves, created by the displacement of a huge amount of water.
Arctic Circle
The area around the North Pole, generally covered in sea ice.
Belarus
An Eastern European country previously part of the USSR. It became independent in 1991, but since 1994 it has been ruled by pro-Russian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Crimea
A peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea, which is an important crossroads between Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Donbas
A region of eastern Ukraine with a relatively large proportion of ethnic Russians. Some in the area want the region to become part of Russia.
Annex
To seize an area of land and declare it part of one’s own territory.
Alexei Navalny
Navalny mounted a serious challenge to Putin’s party in the Moscow mayoral election of 2013. He is currently ill with tuberculosis in a Siberian prison.
Syria
A Middle Eastern country in the grip of a civil war since 2013. Russia has been providing military support to the Syrian government since 2015.
Social democracy
A form of government in which a liberal, constitutional state funds generous welfare provisions for its people.

Subjects

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