Photo illustration by John Lyman
World News /06 Nov 2016
11.06.16

Is Donald Trump Right about World War III?

How plausible is Donald Trump’s ominous warning that Hillary Clinton’s policies will lead to World War III? Trump isn’t the first to suggest war should Clinton be elected president.

The colorful Russian politician and an ally of Putin, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, threatened Americans with war if they elect Clinton. Other than politicians the military establishment on both sides have raised the specter of a looming confrontation. Speaking to lawmakers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen Joseph Dunford said that imposing a no fly zone in Syria would require the US to go to war against Russia and Syria. On the other side, Vladimir Shamanov, Russia’s chief of Defense and Security warned about a high probability of confrontation between the US and Russia over Syria.

Previous American presidential elections might shed some light as to the validity of these claims. During the 2000 US presidential election, Russia was fighting a war in its breakaway province of Chechnya.

Although the Second Chechnya War started in 1999 under President Boris Yeltsin, the conflict was used by Putin to springboard his political career and has been described as his personal war. Chechnya never became a major foreign policy issue in the 2000 election but the Republican nominee and eventual winner George W Bush took a relatively hard line position on the conflict. Bush called for cutting IMF and export/import loans to Russia while his Democratic opponent Al Gore took a more moderate position of further engaging Russia.

Russia’s Georgian war in 2008 did ruffle a few political feathers in the US presidential election. The Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, issued a moderate initial response by calling both sides equally responsible. Putin’s action drew harsh condemnation from the Republican nominee John McCain. Obama then hardened his position, condemning Russian aggression and vouching for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

This time, under President Putin, Russia is not just waging one war but it is involved in two different fronts simultaneously and for the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia is fighting a war outside its periphery, in Syria. Closer at home, Putin has already annexed Crimea and is supporting rebels in two break away provinces in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia has become a major foreign policy issue in the US elections with accusations of its hacking the Democratic National Committee emails and its purported role in influencing the election.

The stakes are definitely higher this time around. Putin’s bellicosity as shown in this election in unparalleled compared to two previous elections. Does Trump have a point that a Clinton presidency would lead us into war?

A look at the earlier wars in Chechnya and Georgia indicates how conflicts with Putin have usually ended. Though the second Chechnya war officially ended in 2009, Putin was able to accomplish his goal to install a pro-Russian regime in the province even before Bush became president. In the aftermath of 911, Putin’s proactive support in the global war on terror led to US disinterest in Chechnya. In fact, Bush even called upon the Chechens to severe their ties with global jihadists like Osama bin Laden. In the case of Georgia, Putin made sure that the two break away provinces remained nominally independent. After his ascent to power, Obama’s desire for a reset with Russia meant the Georgian issue was off the table.

Under Trump’s presidency, an end to the present conflicts with Russia is plausible. Not only has Trump refused to toe the line “Assad Must Go,” he has called Assad a secondary priority with the Islamic State being the first which means that Putin will be able to keep Syria under its control as was the case in the Chechnya conflict. On Ukraine, Trump first refused to meet with the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and has acquiesced to the annexation of Crimea. This means that the Ukrainian conflict will take the shape of the Georgian War and will most likely become a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Hillary Clinton’s public position on Syria and Ukraine may be more confrontational. She has been an early proponent of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s departure as a solution to the Syrian civil war. On Ukraine, she hasn’t so far promised to provide offensive weapons to Ukraine but has promised to defend Ukrainian borders. Given that Putin is supposed to stay in power until 2018 when his term ends and hasn’t given any indications that he won’t run for re-election in 2018, America will continue to have to deal with him. Amid increased Russian hostility, it would be unrealistic to believe that Putin would back down voluntarily from the present confrontation.

So yes, Trump is not wrong when he says a Clinton presidency might suggest the possibility of a Third World War. Giving Putin an easy pass as in the cases of previous elections isn’t an easy option for either of the candidates this time. At least Trump is honest about his desire to work with Putin against a common enemy, ISIS. Yet at the same time it’s hardly wise to move the world towards a major war in Syria.

In the WikiLeaks email disclosure from 2013, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that a no fly zone in Syria would mean taking down Syrian defense and could cause mass causalities. Yet she publicly has supported the no fly zone and has continued to do so. Should Hillary Clinton maintain her dichotomy between public and private positions that she defended in the presidential debates, Trump’s warning of an impending war might be prescient.

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