Pressing the Triggers That Could Lead to Two Wider Wars

In both Gaza and Ukraine, the United States has followed a policy of allowing a war to continue – in the former case through its Security Council veto and in the latter by blocking negotiations – while attempting to limit a widening war. In Gaza, attempts to prevent a wider war have focused first on Lebanon and the potential to spread still wider from there; in Ukraine attempts to prevent a wider war have focused on calibrating Ukraine’s ability to strike deeper into Russian territory and preventing a Russian response that would draw the United States and NATO into a wider world war.

That balancing strategy of allowing war while preventing widening war is now at risk in both theaters.

In the Middle East, while the focus was on Lebanon, a perhaps surprising threat came from Yemen as Houthi fighters attacked and boarded commercial naval vessels bound to or from Israeli ports with cargo. The U.S. opted for a military solution, forming a naval coalition with a small number of countries to protect Red Sea traffic from Houthi attacks. As the attacks continued, and even escalated, the U.S. and thirteen likeminded countries issued a joint statement warning the Houthi against further attacks.

The joint statement asserted that there is no justification for targeting and killing civilians nor for blocking the flow of goods. It called for an immediate end of the illegal attacks and warned the Houthi that they “will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.” The joint statement anchored its legitimacy in a commitment “to the international rules-based order.”

Unlike international law that is based on known sources and established laws and has its foundation in the United Nations, the rules-based order has no known or agreed upon source and the laws are insisted upon by the United States when they work for them and set aside when they do not. The U.S. is surely right that attacking civilian vessels at sea and blocking the flow of goods into or out of a country is illegal under international law. But threatening the Houthi on those grounds with a selective use of the rules-based order is likely to provoke and anger them, given the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths they suffered under a blockade and a U.S. supported war and the civilian deaths and blockade they are responding to in Gaza.

That provocation led to further escalation and risk of a widening war when Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of Yemen’s Houthi supreme revolutionary committee, responded two days later that any country that is a member of the U.S. naval coalition will lose its security in the Red Sea. The American strategy for preventing the spread of the war is pushing on trigger points and risking a widening war.

And that threat is coming on land as well as sea. Israel’s northern border with Lebanon has been the scene of a carefully measured confrontation in which Israel and Hezbollah have calibrated their strikes below the threshold for war.

Hezbollah has been trying to balance their support for Hamas and their role in the region with the self-interest of an economically collapsed Lebanon that cannot afford a full out war. But the recent Israeli strike deep into Lebanese territory that killed Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy chief of Hamas’ political wing and a founder of its military wing, on January 2 pushed hard at those balancing calculations and risks crossing the line at which Hezbollah sees itself as having to act on Lebanese interests.

Following the killing, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that Hezbollah “cannot be silent about a violation of this level” because the strike on a Hezbollah stronghold much deeper inside Lebanon “means that all of Lebanon will become exposed, all cities, villages, and figures will become exposed.” This time, Nasrallah promised that “the murder of al-Arouri … will certainly not go without reaction and punishment.”

Nasrallah stressed that Hezbollah makes its decisions independently and in its own interest and does not blindly follow the orders of any other and promised that the response to the killing of al-Arouri would come on the battlefield.

That preliminary response came just a few days later on January 6 when Hezbollah fired 62 rockets at a key Israeli observation post used for aerial observation and air control.

As in the Red Sea, the pressure on trigger points, in this case an assassination of a senior Hamas official on Lebanese territory, threatens the American policy of attempting to manage the conflict and risks a widening of the war.

The same risk is being faced in Ukraine. On December 30, 2023, Ukraine launched long range missile attacks on the Russian city of Belgorod. None of the targets seem to have been military targets. 21 civilians were killed and 111 were wounded. No military personnel were killed.

The attack led to an escalated Russian response. Waves of Russian drones and missiles struck Ukraine over the next three days.

Such spectacular Ukrainian strikes will not change the course of the war. They are meant to refocus the media spotlight from Ukraine’s serious loss of land, lives, and weapons on the battlefield and to show the West something that may persuade it to keep sending aid.

But there may be a more sinister intent too. The use of Western long-range missiles will not weaken Russia, but it may anger them. It may trigger Russia to reverse its policy of restraint in not striking Western-supplied weapons as they transit through NATO countries like Poland or Romania. Russia made a point of blaming the Czechs for supplying RM-70 Vampire multiple rocket launchers that they say were used in the attack. Were Russia to reverse its policy and launch retaliatory strikes on Westen targets, the American policy of containing the war could break and introduce a risk of wider war.

Ukraine is losing the war on the battlefield, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has previously acted in ways that seriously restrict his ability of initiating a negotiated settlement. With no chance for victory on the battlefield nor at the negotiating table, widening the war and pulling in the United States may be Ukraine’s only hope for victory. Strikes by Western-supplied long range missiles inside Russian territory that lead to high civilian deaths or the destruction of a symbolic target could trigger a Russian retaliation that could risk widening the war. And that may be Ukraine’s intent.

In the Red Sea, along the Lebanese border, and in Ukraine, the danger of Washington’s policy of pursuing a balancing act that allows wars while also trying to manage their spread is being exposed, and the United States and its allies are risking a widening war in two very flammable conflicts.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at