My previous post here opined on the broad features of any eventual ‘negotiations’ between Ukraine and Russia:

One of the really key ideas in any negotiation between parties involved in a military conflict is this: You never win more at the negotiation table than you control on the ground. 

But there’s also this:

Russia’s underlying negotiation posture is explicitly psychological and based on these key ideas:

We can take more pain that than you can imagine

We can take more pain that you’re prepared to inflict

Whatever you do to us, we’ll do worse to you

So as the economic costs to Russia mount at giddying speed, it’s no surprise that Putin is stepping up his military invasion efforts and threatening to surround or capture most of Ukraine’s key cities.Then he can shell them for as long as it takes to get some sort of surrender. The more we try to hurt him, the more he hurts Ukraine!

This makes one wonder. What if Putin does establish sullen if precarious control over great areas of Ukraine and then does what he’s done in those far eastern areas. Namely find some stooges to proclaim ‘independence’ and then quickly ask that these lands join Russia? He would in effect have annexed a large chunk of Europe by force.

In these circumstances of a sort of fait accompli, what does the rest of the world do? How many more economic sanctions can be piled on? Efforts to pump in lots of smart military hardware to help Ukrainians resist the occupation in some sort of guerrilla war could then be presented by Putin as an attack on Russia itself.

This might be become a classic example of creating new ‘facts on the ground’ as the basis for a wider realignment of international norms. Although, of course, it might just not be possible for the Kremlin to create solid-enough facts on the ground if enough brave Ukrainians are taking pot-shots at Russian soldiers. How many casualties could the Russian army sustain before it too gets restless? Might the heavily outnumbered Russians then resort to Nazi-style mass killings to try to bludgeon Ukrainians into dropping any insurgency ambitions?

All this is uncharted political and psychological territory. How many horrors in Ukraine might we all have to see on TV and social media before the political pressure on Western and other governments to stop the madness and so do more than impose mere economic sanctions becomes irresistible? And where does that take everyone?

I’ve been warning about World War Three here for years, starting back in 2010:

It is not so much that any one of these problems is uncontainable. It is the fact that they come along simultaneously, creating a sense that the shared understandings and responsibilities which have kept some sense of global order since WW2 are giving way to a new ‘grab what you can’ attitude.

Western policy-makers in particular are paralysed, bogged down in their economic problems and unwilling to use military force since it is no longer clear (a) that Western military force can achieve victory in the sort of conflicts now breaking out in different places, and (b) what a stable outcome in any one place might look like.

Western hesitation is matched by Chinese, Russian and Indian hesitation. Those powers themselves are struggling as world markets seize up, but they see an historic opportunity for themselves to move into the philosophical space created by Western retreat.

World Wars One and Two were conflicts with global reach arising from European power-struggles. But there was at least a clear context, involving thematic rivalries in an understandable form.

World War Three is different. For the first time in centuries the USA and Europe are unable to set or even define the global agenda, and so face philosophical and psychological defeat. Other powers come to the fore, fighting and redrawing the map – and therefore the rules – as they see fit.

The turmoil is all the more dramatic and vicious for being in a sense anarchic and incoherent, even if civilisational principles are implicitly at stake.

What if it all just gets out of control? But what if risking that horrible scenario seems a better bet than letting Putin’s forces massacre our fellow-Europeans with impunity before our very eyes?