Are we heading for World War Three?

6 min read

The CIA is “confident” that China is considering providing lethal equipment to support Russia in Ukraine, prompting fears of an escalation in the war.

In an interview with CBS, CIA director William Burns said there was no evidence that a final decision had been made, but he warned that it would be a “very risky and unwise” move.

If China were to side with Vladimir Putin, “there will be a world war”, Ukraine’s President Volodymr Zelenskyy declared last week.

The conflict in Ukraine is not the only potential flashpoint involving major powers around the globe.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been described as “more dangerous than anything Europe has seen since the end of World War II”, said Politico. As more countries get involved, it has the potential of becoming “a real European war, or a world war very quickly”, one European official told the site at the start of the conflict.

This risk would be dramatically raised if China supports Russia, Zelenskyy told German newspaper Die Welt last week. “If China aligns itself with Russia, there will be a world war and I do think that China is aware of that,” he said.

Bill Browder, once the largest foreign investor in Russia and now a staunch Kremlin critic, agreed with the assessment, telling Sky News: “If China were to enter the game and give them weapons, that would be a game-changer for Russia. That would be terrible for Ukraine and it could lead to a third world war.”

Browder suggested that China would be unlikely to make such a move, as “if we see an unexploded Chinese missile on the ground of Ukraine – that’s gonna lead to many people’s call for sanctions, economic counter-measures”. China will not want to damage its economy, he said. “What’s in it for them, other than poking NATO, America and the UK in the eye?”

Marking the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Putin railed against the West and said it was seeking to turn the war into a “global conflict”. “It’s they who have started the war. And we are using force to end it,” he said.

Former US president and 2024 candidate Donald Trump has also told a campaign rally: “Through weakness and incompetence, Joe Biden has brought us to the brink of World War III.”

North Korea

North Korea’s recent vow to expand its nuclear stockpile has also increased fears of a global conflict. Hours into the New Year, supreme leader Kim Jung Un called for an “exponential increase” in his regime’s nuclear arsenal, in a sign of “deepening animosity” towards the US, South Korea and Japan, said The Guardian.

In the same address, at a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, he described South Korea as “our undoubted enemy”, which was “hell-bent on an imprudent and dangerous arms buildup”.

Earlier, Pyongyang had fired a ballistic missile off its east coast, “starting 2023 as it had ended the previous year, when it conducted a record number of weapons tests”, said the Guardian.

This included a ballistic missile over Japan. The intermediate-range rocket flew 4,600km (2,860 miles) – the longest distance ever travelled by a North Korean missile – over northeast Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean.

“Security dynamics in Northeast Asia have become increasingly volatile with China’s growing military threats and in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said The Washington Post. Pyongyang has “drawn closer to Russia, while Japan’s relations with Russia have deteriorated”.


Uncertainty also surrounds efforts to stop Iran from joining the nuclear club.

The US began long-awaited talks to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal in 2022, three years after Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement. Iran responded to the withdrawal with “a public, step-by-step ramping up of the machinery used to enrich uranium – the nuclear fuel needed for a bomb”, said NPR

The two nations “have resolved some of the thorniest stumbling blocks in negotiations”, said Politico’s defence reporter Lara Seligman. But whenever talks appear to be on the brink of an agreement, “actors on both sides try to disrupt them”, national security expert Joe Cirincione told the site.

Iran’s recent suppression of protests and arming of Russia poses a dilemma for the West. And, in Britain, doubts have again been raised over the deal after the execution of a British-Iranian dual citizen, Alireza Akbari, on Saturday. Reports at the time “suggested that Britain is reconsidering its support for the deal”, said The Times.


Although China hasn’t “employed large-scale military force against an adversary since its 1979 war with Vietnam”, it gets “pride of place as security challenge number one” for the US, wrote Michael E. O’Hanlon for the Brookings Institution.

To be sure, Beijing “deserves most of the blame for today’s unsettled Indo-Pacific region”, with its “big military buildups” and threats towards Taiwan, said Hanlon. But he suggests US foreign policy and assessments of its rival might also be “overhyping the China threat in a way that could raise the risks of war”.

Tensions “dramatically escalated” last year after former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, said NEWS. US President Joe Biden later met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to visit China in February for “continued discussions related to one of America’s most complicated and consequential relationships”. However, the meeting was cancelled after China flew a giant balloon into US airspace. Blinken called it “an irresponsible act and a clear violation of U.S. sovereignty and international law that undermined the purpose of the trip”.

Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, analysts fear that “Moscow and Beijing will be driven closer as the United States casts both issues as a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy”, said The New York Times

Although “there are a multitude of differences” between Ukraine and Taiwan, “both embattled democracies sit next to much larger, nuclear-armed military powers” whose leaders have “made it clear that they do not see their neighbours as sovereign states”.

Artificial Intelligence

Recent high-profile advances in artificial intelligence have led to increased fears that AI could accidentally cause a global conflict.

One leading academic at Cambridge University told the i news site that the technology could, in an extreme case, “mistake a bird as an incoming threat and trigger a nuclear launch if no human override is in place to assess alerts from an AI-assisted early-warning system”.

While no state is openly attempting to automate its nuclear weapons systems, “integrating AI with command systems seems promising and even unavoidable”, said Peter Rautenbach from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

But that comes with risks. “AI systems are somewhat unknowable”, said Rautenbach, in that they “effectively program themselves in ways that no human can fully understand”.

Military AI designed to act rapidly to capitalise on advantages “could miss de-escalatory opportunities or function too fast for human decision makers to intervene and signal their de-escalatory intent”.

This could exacerbate humans’ own worst tendencies: already states often “stumble into [war] out of misperception, miscalculation and fear of losing if they fail to strike first”, the American political scientist Richard K. Betts wrote for National Interest in 2015.

This week, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said governments should take seriously the “threat posed by humans armed with AI”.

“Like most inventions, artificial intelligence can be used for good purposes or malign ones,” he wrote in a blog post. “Governments need to work with the private sector on ways to limit the risks.”