It could be seen as saber rattling, fear-mongering or an astute prediction by a man with intimate knowledge of Ukrainian-Russian history, but Leonid Kravchuk is adamant that Russian President Vladimir Putin has strayed into potentially cataclysmic territory, and that the current showdown in Crimea could escalate into a world war.
In an interview with International Business Times, Kravchuk, who led Ukraine to independence in 1991 and became its first president, claimed there are already 18,000 Russian soldiers in his country and that a full-scale Russian invasion would cause Western powers – including NATO – to engage them militarily.
Sitting in his spacious office in Kiev, surrounded by decades’ worth of Ukrainian mementoes and exquisite amber handicrafts as a motley crew of self-styled defenders awaits in nearby Maidan Square, Kravchuk said he sees disturbing parallels between the current crisis and the outbreak of World War II, when he was a 5-year-old boy whose family lived in the village of Velykyi Zhytyn.
Velykyi Zhytyn, now part of Ukraine, was part of Poland until the Nazi invasion in 1939, which sparked the deadliest conflict in human history, and in which Kravchuk’s father died while fighting for the Polish cavalry. He sees the Ukrainian crisis as comparable to the second partition of Poland, and warns of a similar spreading conflict given Russia’s aggressive stance and this week’s announcement that the U.S. would send military aircraft and troops to neighboring Poland.
“In case of a full Russian invasion, there is the risk of a third world war,” Kravchuk told IBTimes. “Ukraine is in the center of Europe; it has a population of 45 million; it has borders with several Western countries; and, of course, if Russia invaded Ukraine and war started, the conflict could spread to neighboring European countries.” He is more convinced than ever of the imminent threat, though his warning is more detailed and less alarmist in tone than his stance in a recent op-ed for the Russian magazine snob.ru, in which he asked, “Does Russia not understand that this is the beginning of World War III?”