Are we heading towards World War III? Experts give their verdict

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Are we heading towards World War III?  Experts give their verdict

In a world that has become more dangerous in recent years, the nightmare scenario of a Third World War is in the public consciousness.

Earlier this year, British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps warned that the world could be engulfed in wars involving China, Russia, North Korea and Iran over the next five years, and said we are moving “from a post-war world to a pre-war world.”

The relief felt at the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s was replaced by growing concern over Russia’s invasion of the territory. Ukraineand we are outraged at the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Sky News spoke to experts to find out if a Third World War was a possibility – and if we really live in a ‘pre-war world’.

Here’s what they had to say…

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F-35B Lightning aircraft on the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales. Photo: AS1 wire Amber Mayall RAF/PA

“The international order is unraveling”

Hugh Lovatt, senior policy fellow at the European Council think tank on foreign relations

“The reassuring news is that we are not heading towards World War III,” he says.

Although there are conflicts and tensions in different theaters – Ukraine, Middle East, Asia-Pacific – these are all “separate and not linked”, according to Mr Lovatt.

“The war in Gaza has lasted six months and is leading to regional escalation. Iran’s retaliation against Israel is just the latest example.”

There are implications for the international community, including the UK, for example in terms of Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping and their impact on global trade.

There is, he says, a risk that British troops could be drawn into conflict in the Middle East.

“We need to view these risks in some context, that is, they have an impact on the UK but they do not constitute existential risks.

“This is also happening at a time when the international order is crumbling and under considerable strain. This is something that should be of great concern to us.”

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“The UK must prepare for war”

“More likely than ever since the end of the last world war”

Deborah Haynes, Sky News security and defense editor

Given the scale of the unrest gripping parts of the world – particularly in Ukraine and the Middle East – the potential for a spark that would ignite World War III already exists.

This does not mean that an escalation into global confrontation is inevitable, but it is arguably more likely today than at any time since the end of the last world war.

Iran’s decision to launch an unprecedented barrage of missiles and drones against Israel has just raised the stakes even higher.

Israel has pledged to respond, although its allies, including the United Kingdom and the United States, are calling for restraint, especially as they have helped ensure that the vast majority of incoming munitions are thrown from the sky before they can cause damage to the ground.

If Israel chooses to retaliate, the crisis could be contained if its return strike is limited and any further Iranian response triggered by such an attack is also curbed. But those are two big ifs.

Photo: British Ministry of Defense/Reuters
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A Royal Navy helicopter fires flares during NATO exercises. Photo: British Ministry of Defense/Reuters

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Furthermore, whenever even limited military action is undertaken, there is a risk of error or miscalculation that leads to an uncontrolled escalation into regional war.

What happens in the Middle East also has a global impact, not least because Iran is backed by Russia and has close ties to China, while Israel’s most powerful allies, the United States in head, are mainly Western nations.

This means that the crisis pits authoritarian states against democracies – just as the concomitant war in Europe does.

Despite promises of Western support, Russia is slowly gaining ground in Ukraine. Western allies are failing to deliver the weapons and ammunition the Ukrainian army needs, leading to an almost inevitable retreat unless the balance of military forces on the ground changes.

Vladimir Putin’s success in Ukraine could embolden the Russian president, whose country is on the verge of “total war,” to test the strength of the NATO alliance by invading a member state.

Again, this would create a direct war between authoritarian Moscow, armed by Iran, North Korea and also with the help of China, against the Western NATO alliance.

Evidence that military force has proven effective against Western powers could further strengthen China’s resolve to keep its promise to reunify the island of Taiwan with the mainland, even if it means invasion.

Such a move could also plunge Asia into conflict, always on the same dividing line between authoritarian states and democracies.

Photo: AS1 Amber Mayall RAF/PA Wire Undated Ministry of Defense photo showing F-35B Lightning aircraft on the flight deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales as it heads towards the most largest NATO exercise since the Cold War.
Picture:
F-35B Lightning aircraft on the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales. Photo: AS1 wire Amber Mayall RAF/PA

“Diversion of attention”

Edward R Arnold, senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank

“I think people really need to understand what the North Atlantic Treaty is, which is the foundation of NATO,” he says.

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Mr. Arnold says the public seems to believe that NATO’s Article 5 (the principle that an attack on one member is treated as an attack on all) is automatic.

“That is not the case, and it is certainly not the case … escalation is not automatic and there are measures to de-escalate the situation.”

Regarding the situation in Ukraine, where NATO is providing weapons and assistance, he believes that the risk of poor communication between the West and Russia has increased.

“The chances of a communications problem when one ship accidentally fires on another, I think it increases.

“We need to be really prepared for what that means.”

Ukrainian servicemen of the 59th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine fire a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher system towards Russian troops near a front line, amid the Russian attack on the Ukraine, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in April.  4, 2024. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova
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Ukrainian military personnel fire a BM-21 Grad Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Photo: Reuters

He also claims that, in some ways, the threat of a broader conflict with Russia is currently diminishing. Kremlin forces are beginning to advance in Ukraine, but the quality of their troops has deteriorated significantly, to the point where they are no longer able to pose a threat to NATO.

Mr. Arnold continued: “Vladimir Putin will be looking very closely at what is happening in the Middle East: how each nation is responding and simply the diversion of attention (from Ukraine).

“All of this helps Putin right now, because even though we are focused on the Middle East, we are not as focused as we are on Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Sparta battalion commander Artyom Zhoga during a ceremony of awarding Gold Star medals to servicemen, bearing the title of Hero of Russia and involved in the country's military campaign in Ukraine, in on the eve of Heroes of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, Russia, December 8, 2023. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Vladimir Putin speaks with Commander Artyom Zhoga. Photo: Reuters

“Donald Trump could undermine NATO”

Dr Luigi Scazzieri, senior researcher at the Center for European Reform think tank

“It depends on your definition of World War III. A possible conflict between Iran and Israel could potentially escalate into a major military conflagration in the Middle East, with global implications.

“The US would almost certainly be drawn alongside Israel and other Western countries, including the UK, could do the same to a lesser extent.

“But their involvement would be limited and it would not be a Third World War, particularly because Russia does not have the means to support Iran and China is unlikely to do so.

“The impact of such a conflict on Europe would be above all economic, through further disruptions in energy flows and trade.

“The main path to a World War III scenario remains a direct confrontation between the West and Russia. This scenario will be more likely if Donald Trump wins and undermines NATO, prompting Vladimir Putin to attack the Baltics.

“A clash with Russia would also be very likely if Western forces become involved in supporting Ukraine in front-line combat roles.”

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