Will Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Actually Lead to World War III? 4 Experts Weigh in

By Maura Hohman, Featuring Arik Burakovsky, Assistant Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

The term “World War III” has been trending on and off over the past several days, even before Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday. At last official count, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at least 137 people have been killed and 316 injured in what Russia has called a “full-scale attack” after weeks of tension on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, prepared for battle Friday as Russian forces reached the city, fueling warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal is to topple the Zelenskyy government. Hundreds of troops on both sides have reportedly been killed in Kyiv. Russia has also bombed airports, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, according to Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana, and Russians seized control of the Chernobyl power plant area Thursday.

The conflict is among the worst security crises for Europe since World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech Thursday that any countries that try to intervene militarily would face a response “so severe that no foreign nations have ever experienced it before.” Putin has previously said he views Russians and Ukrainians as one people and has questioned the country’s right to exist. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union before it fell in 1991 after the Cold War.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden issued sanctions against Russia, targeting banks and Russian elites, in an effort to stop the invasion. He announced even harsher sanctions on Thursday after the invasion but has stressed that U.S. troops will not enter Ukraine and directly engage with Russian forces. Thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed throughout European countries in the NATO alliance, both to deter Russia from attacking any NATO members, such as the Baltic States, and help with refugees fleeing Ukraine.

The situation is “horrific,” James Goldgeier, Ph.D., international relations professor at American University and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, told NBCLX, adding that thousands of Ukrainians could die as the crisis continues to unfold. But does the Russia-Ukraine conflict actually have the potential to lead to World War III? NBCLX talked to four experts to get their perspectives.

Does Putin want World War III?

Goldgeier, author of several books on the Cold War, NATO and Soviet foreign policy, said that while the conflict is tragic for the Ukrainian people, it’s unlikely to lead to World War III because, at the moment, it appears that no world leaders want it to escalate to that degree, and efforts are being made to make sure fighting stays within Ukraine’s borders.

For example, while the U.S. and some of its allies are supplying Ukraine with additional military assistance, the U.S., along with other NATO nations, have said they will not send troops into Ukraine to fight the Russians. Ukraine is not a NATO member, so there is no formal obligation to come to its defense.

That said, Goldgeier thinks it’s possible that Russia will use cyberwarfare to target Western nations. What would this scenario look like? He said it could be similar to what Ukraine has gone through the past week, with cyberattacks knocking several government websites offline and flooding Ukrainian people with text messages that ATMs weren’t working, or what the U.S. went through when the Colonial Pipeline was hacked last year reportedly by a Russian cybercrime gang.

“[Cyberwarfare] can get pretty dangerous for each side pretty quickly, so there would be reasons to try to avoid that escalatory situation,” Goldgeier said. “The bottom line for me is that the U.S. and NATO on one side and Russia on the other will do everything to limit actual conflict to Ukraine itself.”

Biden has been presented with options for massive cyberattacks against Russia, NBC News reported, but no final decisions have been made.

Echoes of the lead up to World War II

While Paul Poast, Ph.D., professor of political science at University of Chicago, also thinks it’s unlikely that the conflict will result in World War III, he told NBCLX that Putin’s aggressive speech on Thursday makes it seem more likely than before. He also said some of what’s happened in the conflict so far resembles the years that led up to World War II; in particular Putin amassing troops to carry out demands on Ukraine follows Adolf Hitler’s playbook toward Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland.

In addition, Poast sees parallels between Japan’s involvement in World War II and present day China. Japan’s attacks against the U.S. in World War II were prompted in part by Russia and Nazi Germany already being engaged in war, and currently, there’s concern that China will see Russia’s approach to Ukraine and try to solve some of its territorial conflicts in a similar way, especially with Taiwan.

But there are two major factors that make Europe today different from in the 1930s and ’40s and could prevent World War III, Poast said.

The first is the NATO alliance. “President Biden last week labeled article five of the NATO Treaty as sacrosanct. That’s the mutual defense clause that says an attack on one is an attack on all, and I do think that Putin takes that seriously,” Poast said. But he added that if Putin becomes more ambitious and tries to take any of the Baltic States, all NATO countries, then that could be a “nightmare scenario” and potential trigger for World War III.

The second factor is the presence of nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia have two of the biggest arsenals in the world, and other NATO countries, such as France and Britain, are also nuclear weapons states. “I think that leads all parties to want to keep the conflict from becoming too large for fear that one side would use nukes,” Poast said.

We don’t need to panic about World War III yet

Kathryn Stoner, Ph.D., author of “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order,” also cited the U.S.’s insistence it would not send troops into Ukraine and the unlikely chance Putin would invade farther than Ukraine as two major reasons World War III is not looming on the horizon. “We should be concerned, but we don’t need to panic about that just yet,” she said.

She added that if the U.S. sends troops into Ukraine, things “would get very violent,” and that if Putin tries to invade other countries, it would be a multifront war, and she doesn’t believe he’s willing to do that — with a caveat: “It’s always hard to predict what Mr. Putin is going to do, and anyone who says they know him really well … would not be telling you the complete truth.”

Stoner believes the fighting will stay in Ukraine, and that Putin will meet a lot of resistance from the Ukrainian people if he tries to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government and install a puppet version. “Even if [he] were to do that, [he’d] still have to subdue a population of 44 million, and that might not be as easy as [Putin] is anticipating. I think he may be underestimating the degree to which Ukrainians now feel themselves to be independent of Russia,” she explained.

That said, the oft-repeated assertion that the Russian economy is weak and therefore can’t sustain longterm fighting is not true. “That is a very outdated view of Russia. They have been preparing for something like this. They have $700 billion in foreign reserves. That’s one of the highest accounts in the world,” Stoner said. “They have economic problems, but they’re not weak.”

Many Russians don’t approve of the invasion

There’s now “a moderate risk,” according to Arik Burakovsky, assistant director of Tufts University’s Russia and Eurasia Program, that the conflict could embroil NATO if Russian troops move too far into Western Ukraine. He added that Belarus’ involvement makes things more dangerous because it borders three NATO countries. (See NBC News’ map tracking the movement of Russian forces.)

But Burakovsky, who studies public opinion in Russia, believes dissatisfaction among the Russian people could help to limit warfare — especially if “significant bloodshed in Ukraine” leads to “countless bodybags returning to Russia” and if sanctions start to hurt ordinary Russians. After the invasion, Putin’s approval ratings dropped, and thousands protested in Moscow and throughout the country.

“History proves that despite initial praise, these daring and expensive military adventures ultimately decrease the Kremlin’s popularity,” he said. “It’s going to be very costly for Putin domestically, and that will undermine his legitimacy and force him to spend enormous resources to quash internal dissent.”

“[Russians] are still a bit shocked about what’s happening, and it will take time for them to sift through the disinformation, but Russians are not zombified by state television,” he continued. “They have other sources of information.”

So, if the conflict is unlikely to turn into a full-blown global war, then why should people in the U.S. care? To start, it will hit your wallet with increases in gas and food prices. But more importantly, Putin’s actions have far-reaching implications for global politics and democracy.

As Goldgeier explained it: “The whole idea after the Second World War was we’re going to try to set up a system whereby we live in a world in which big countries cannot just decide we’re going to send in our military and take this territory that belongs to this other country. I don’t want to live in a world like that.”

Stoner added: “If [Russia’s] allowed to succeed and turn Ukraine from the direction it was going in — which was a very pluralistic, democratic society with increasingly free press and active, civil society — back to 19th century rules, where you can just grab what you think is yours and turn it into an authoritarian government, and we’re not willing to defend that, then democracies everywhere should feel endangered.”

This piece was re-published from LX.

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