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Ukrainian servicemen walk in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 8.VADIM GHIRDA/The Associated Press

Should we be considering calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by a frightful, forbidding name: the start of World War Three?

We are not embroiled in the third global conflict doomsdayers have dreaded since 1945, an end-of-days exchange of nuclear attacks killing millions, a catastrophe of contamination and destruction giving new meaning to the term “climate change” and altering life on earth – though Vladimir Putin has suggested he might contemplate that. But with more than a dozen non-combatant countries reading the fine print of their alliance agreements and sending arms to Kyiv, the fighting at the far end of the Eastern European plain is acquiring many of the qualities of a global conflict.

Right now, more countries are involved one way or another in the fight against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than were involved in the conflict we call the Second World War when Time Magazine first employed the term in 1939. That occurred 11 days after Nazi Germany invaded Poland and before the Soviet Union joined the partition of that proud land. Today we stand on a fragile precipice: Any false move, or any planned escalation by Mr. Putin to deflect from military and internal failure, could result in a wider conflict across Europe – and a consensus that the dreaded third Roman numeral is appropriate.

Here, the parlour game – if such a light term is even permissible in this context – begins. If we compare our timeline with that of 1939, Great Britain and France were already actively at war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany by this point; they entered the war on the third day of fighting in Poland. So did Australia and New Zealand, with the Dominion of Newfoundland joining the next day, in a much forgotten but not insignificant contribution. And of course Japan and China had already been fighting for more than two years.

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At this point in the Second World War, there had been a rush to declare neutrality. Italy did so. Also Spain. The United States, of course. Many others, including, fatefully, the Netherlands and Belgium. Canada, which had established formal foreign-policy independence from Britain in 1931, joined the war on the 10th day of the fighting. William Lyon Mackenzie King’s vision of Canadian “limited liability” bears a striking resemblance to what the United States, Canada and others are pursuing: support, at least in the beginning, without soldiers.

Scholars and commentators have declared “World War Three” from time to time after the guns grew silent in 1945. The Cold War, which pit NATO (which had 15 countries by 1955) against the Warsaw Pact (with eight) – and included proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Congo, Laos, Nicaragua, Angola and Ogaden – might qualify. The Third World War beckoned but wasn’t ignited in Hungary (1956), in Czechoslovakia (1968) and in Poland (1981), nor was it triggered during the Suez Crisis (1956) or the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). It failed to launch on several occasions in Berlin, including 1948 (when the Allies responded to a Soviet blockade of access routes with the Berlin Airlift) and in 1961 (when the Berlin Wall was constructed).

Indeed, M.J. Akbar, a pioneering Indian journalist and India’s former minister of state for external affairs, has argued that the First World War created the conditions for its 1939 sequel, and that “the Second World War led directly to the Third World War, which was the Cold War, after the division of Europe at Yalta.”

The term “world war” is often used prospectively. Time magazine used it that way less than three months before Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. The Manchester Guardian worried about a second world war only three months after the end of the first one – and of course nobody called the 1914-1918 crisis the First World War, because no one knew at the time that there would be a Second one. They called it the Great War – first coined by Canada’s national magazine, Maclean’s – though an even Greater one loomed two decades later.

By 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would use the term “Second World War,” but even he was tentative about it; he asked Americans to come up with their own name, the way the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins solicited new names for their teams. He preferred the “Survival War.” That never caught on, though it had merit.

Does the fighting in Ukraine really deserve the third Roman numeral? That depends on how events unfold in a conflict that, to many North Americans, remains what former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, in his regrettable and much-regretted characterization, described as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” But we are learning more and more about that far-away country, and the war there more and more is engaging the attention and arms of the world.

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