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Opinion Columns

Zornio: Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine the start of World War III?

Western democracies are hesitant to engage Putin directly, but we can’t launch a war that may have already been waged

By the time American forces formally entered World War II in 1941, it had been more than two years since Nazi Germany invaded Poland.

In the interim, President Franklin D. Roosevelt deployed an “arsenal of democracy” to allies such as France and Britain — despite remaining neutral in the war on paper. This included the lending of arms and leave for American pilots and troops to serve under allied forces.

It’s an eerily familiar scene as sanctions and arms are provided to aid Ukraine in attempts to neutrally combat Russia’s unprovoked war on the country. Still, many remain split over just how far to engage Vladamir Putin directly. The risk, they say, is inadvertent escalation to a third world war. 

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

It’s a valid concern that raises the question: Can we escalate to a war that experts claim has already been started?

Putin has long been clear on his goal of a new “Russian World.” From invasions into Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015), Kazakhstan (January) and now the entirety of Ukraine, Putin has solidified his legacy as a tyrant of bloody and brutal conflicts.

Experts suggest he’s looking to reclaim territory well beyond former Soviet Union borders, offering a distinct threat to many in his wake. Reclaiming such massive territory, however, would require a weakened West. 

It appears Putin recognized this, effectively launching an ongoing effort by Russia into the advancement of informational warfare against Western democracies. The goal was, and is, deceptively simple: obfuscate the truth by any means to erode trust in Western media and institutions, thereby paralyzing nations that might otherwise thwart his conquestorial efforts.

As Americans have learned the hard way, it works.

Russian disinformation campaigns online have actively targeted citizens of the United States and European nations since at least 2014. It’s a modern form of aggression constituting a variety of topics from anti-vaccine to anti-climate change campaigns and political interference

Critically, Russia has engaged in a sort of psychological cyber warfare within this approach whereby people are targeted with tailored disinformation they are most likely to believe. This is based on their known preferences collected over vast data repositories such as Facebook. 

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By way of example, it’s possible that someone who “likes” natural and organic products on Facebook might be more susceptible to anti-vaccine disinformation campaigns regarding chemicals, versus someone who “likes” Republican candidates who might be more susceptible to false assertions of negative intentions by Democrats.

Despite a tailored approach, the outcomes remain the same; toxic discourse, polarization, confusion of what’s real and ultimately an intent to dismantle a democracy from within. In this light, America and the West at large have long been under active attacks by Russia — even if we’ve failed to recognize modern warfare for what it is. 

This aggression becomes especially clear when you consider that these tactics helped install a pro Putin president in America for four years — a nation that would normally strongly condemn Russian aggression. This is evident in the first articles of impeachment made against former President Donald Trump. 

Although Republicans failed to hold him accountable, Trump was charged with abusing his power in attempts to extort Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This was done by withholding millions of dollars in aid to fight Russian aggression in exchange for dirt on his political opponent. 

Thankfully, Zelenskyy stood up to Trump just as he stood up to Putin. However the delay of support arguably weakened Ukraine’s position and sent the message that America is not an active ally of Ukraine — an excruciating position given today’s circumstances, and proof of how long-term disinformation campaigns can ultimately serve to neutralize a superpower. America certainly didn’t join Russia, but under Trump we became less effective allies to Putin’s opposition.

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It’s for this reason that in the fight of democracy versus autocracy, Americans cannot only consider fighting abroad; they must also fiercely fight the battle at home.

Electing President Joe Biden despite copious disinformation campaigns was a strong start, and it’s helping unite the West against Putin in a way that would not have been possible under Trump. But our work to fight the threat to democracy at our doorstep is not done, as evidenced by a portion of the Republican Party that still vocalizes support for Putin and anti-democratic practices.

This brings us back to the original question: Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the start of World War III? The answer, it would seem, depends on your perspective. 

To the many who still view war as strictly boots on the ground, the answer is “no” until we declare war and dispatch localized troops. But for those who recognize informational warfare as a tool to dismantle democracy over time, and the acts of violence committed as a result, the answer just might be a resounding “yes.”


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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