Rumors of World War 3 have been brewing all year, but the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria — which many blame for the incitement of World War 1 — is being called the historical equal of the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, whose executioner is currently being described by the media as a police officer of possible terrorist association.
First, before calling the onset of World War 3, it’s important to put the assassination of Franz in context. While Ferdinand’s assassination is the most simplistic way to explain the beginning of the Great War, he was really just the last shove in a situation that was already hanging dangerously close to the edge. Moreover, the assassination was carried out by the Black Hand, a group linked to the Serb nationalist movement that included army officers — not what could potentially be a lone actor.
The calls for World War 1 did not arise instantaneously after Franz’s demise either. Before war broke out, the Austro-Hungarian government issued an ultimatum to the Serbs that demanded official action to combat such potentially violent movements like the one that killed Ferdinand, not, admittedly, unlike Putin’s demand that Turkey work to fight off terrorist elements.
“Far from carrying out the formal undertakings contained in the declaration of the 31st of March, 1909, the Royal Serbian Government has done nothing to repress these movements. It has permitted the criminal machinations of various societies and associations directed against the Monarchy, and has tolerated unrestrained language on the part of the press, the glorification of the perpetrators of outrages, and the participation of officers and functionaries in subversive agitation.”
Fast forward to 2016, and we find a situation just as volatile, if not more so, than the one that kicked off World War 1. Turkey and Russia have already been pushed to the brink in terms of their international relationship, with the Turkish government supplying training and diplomatic support to the Syrian rebels that Vladimir Putin has been fighting against with airstrikes. Along with Syrian head of state Bashar al-Assad, Putin characterizes anyone fighting against the regime as terrorists, a phrase that was repeated by the Russian president and various diplomats from the country on Monday.
But there’s also the crippling threat of terrorism in Turkey and the question of Kurdish nationalists, a group at odds with the Turkish state and involved in the Syrian War along its northern border with Turkey. In that faction, Putin and Erdogan share a common enemy — something that could potentially bring them unity where neither party has garnered much sympathy from NATO. It’s also common ground that wasn’t at the forefront when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.
One more curveball: Donald Trump and the potential rise of other Russian friendly governments in Europe. Sure, Turkey is a part of NATO along with the U.S. and most of Western Europe, but it’s very difficult to say what action Trump — soon to be the leader of the most powerful country in NATO — would take if Russia did declare war on Turkey, and makes it even less likely that any such declaration would result in World War 3.
Comparing a conflict that began in 1914 to one that could potentially blow up today ignores major shifts that have taken place on the global stage in the meantime. More international organizations created to prevent World War 3 exist now than ever before. Furthermore, the top officials in Russia and Turkey, Putin and Erdogan, have already participated in a phone call that indicates they are willing to work together for a common solution. After which, Erdogan himself sought to downplay the damage of the event to the country’s bilateral relations.
“This murder is clearly a provocation aimed at undermining the improvement and normalization of Russian-Turkish relations, as well as undermining the peace process in Syria promoted by Russia, Turkey, Iran and other countries interested in settling the conflict in Syria.”
That’s a far cry from the assassination of Franz, where Austria-Hungary essentially dissolved the sovereignty of Serbia in response. On the other hand, modernity isn’t necessarily a positive on all fronts here. NATO-allied countries and Russia’s own alliance with Iran and the Syrian government has already created a basic schematic of who the belligerents would be if this situation came to a head. Archduke Ferdinand may have opened the wound, but it was the entrances of Germany and Russia into the conflict that drained the blood.
In addition, we live in an era of suicide bombers and well-armed terrorist groups. Major international treaties don’t necessarily have to happen for an uptick in violence to take place. The quagmire of Syria — with its impossibly intertwined combatants — is more than ample proof of that.
World War 3 is a term that signifies the start of something cruel and substantial in current history. Its declaration will be slow to unravel; not something we wake up to see in the headlines one morning, but something we look back on to piece together with the precision of hindsight just like the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It’s clear that the murder of Russia’s ambassador is not that turning point, yet to downplay it entirely would be severely imprudent: A world war can only be prevented by the memory of how tenuous our international relationships really are.
[Featured Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]