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Russia vs. NATO: 5 Ways the War in Ukraine Could Start World War III

NATO Germany
A Challenger 2 main battle tank (MBT) is pictured during a live firing exercise in Grafenwöhr, Germany. Exercise BAVARIAN CHARGER was the first of three large contingency operation exercises being undertaken by 20th Armoured Brigade between May – October 2013. Contingency Operations training is known as Hybrid Foundation Training or HFT.

Since tensions between Kyiv and Moscow started to rise, people have wondered whether the conflict could escalate to a general fight between Russia and NATO.  Ukraine is not part of NATO and the military alliance is not obligated to come to its defense. In accord with leaders of most of the largest NATO allies, President Biden has made clear that he sees no circumstances in which US troops would find themselves fighting on Ukrainian soil. Leaders are clearly sensitive to the danger of World War III and keen to avoid it.

And yet while accidental wars are rare, they do happen. Here are five ways that the war in Ukraine could escalate to conflict between Russia and NATO.

Russian atrocities force NATO’s Hand

Taking Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa could be extraordinarily destructive. These are ancient cities, and watching them destroyed by artillery over the course of weeks could create such a public outcry in the West that NATO would be willing to accept the risk of direct intervention. This would initially result in a no-fly zone, than on direct attacks against Russian fielded forces in the zone of conflict. The Russian response would set the terms for the rest of the conflict.

Russia escalates to de-escalate

Russia and NATO have been trading levels of escalation since this crisis began. If Russia feels that either the diplomatic or the military situation are tipping away at this level of escalation, Moscow might risk moving to the next one. Militarily, this could involve the use of a nuclear weapon on Ukraine, an attack against another non-NATO member, a major cyber-attack, or any of several other scenarios. In such a case NATO might believe has to intervene, either directly in support of Ukraine or in a different theater of operations.

Ukrainian forces fire from the wrong side of the border

While Russia has largely stayed away from the areas of Ukraine bordering NATO, military necessity might at some point require maneuvering into those areas. If Ukrainian forces flee across the border (with or without the connivance of NATO authorities), Russian commanders might feel sorely tempted to launch an attack. This is especially the case if it looks like Ukrainians are using NATO borders as a sanctuary, waging war from the protected territory. Infiltration, bombardment, or airstrikes into a NATO country might force an immediate response from an alliance deeply concerned with its credibility.  This could include air and missile strikes against responsible units along the border.

Russia accidentally strays across a border

Whether in pursuit of fleeing Ukrainians or by accident, a Russian aircraft might find itself over NATO airspace. This airspace is now thickly patrolled by NATO fighters, and while we don’t know everything about the rules of engagement that the pilots on either side will operate under, we could easily see a replay of the 2015 incident in which a Turkish F-16 downed a Russian Su-24.  Russia and Turkey avoided escalating the conflict and indeed grew politically closer in the years following the incident, but the political situation is now much tenser. NATO could declare and enforce a partial no-fly zone along the borders of NATO countries, undertaking strikes on SAM systems in the area.

Russia intentionally retaliates for arms transfers and foreign fighters

Whether through political reticence or the lack of good targeting technology, the Russian air force has yet to attack any convoys of weapons flowing from NATO into Ukraine. While it is not likely that these convoys will have NATO military personnel, they may include a significant number of Westerners, especially if volunteer fighters show up in any kind of numbers. The destruction of one or several convoys could rally sympathy in the West for direct intervention, especially if it appeared that Westerners were intentionally targeted. NATO military intervention might be the declaration and establishment of a corridor into Ukraine.

NATO vs. Russia: World War III Possible? 

It’s important to understand that even if there’s a limited engagement between NATO and Russian forces this does not guarantee escalation to strategic nuclear warfare. In every one of the crises discussed above, both sides would have multiple opportunities to step back from the brink and de-escalate the situation.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Alex

    March 6, 2022 at 11:55 am

    One reason why there won’t be a third world war: the creation of the Canada-Mexico Strait. Everyone understands this.

  2. Slack

    March 6, 2022 at 8:52 pm

    Dr Farley, I have to disagree. There’s only ONE way for US & NATO (they never work alone) to ignite ww3 in Europe.

    That is, for everyone to believe in Biden’s hog swill that he’s now peddling or selling to all and sundry.

    Biden and his underlings or spokespersons say “no US involvement” but can you believe them. He’s already sent men, weapons and planes to Europe, yet asserts US not interested. Ahem, hogwash.

    I predict that by may or June, US and NATO sidekicks will be inside ukraine, and it will turn into a ding dong battle, or a ding dong war until somebody decides to resort to nukes. Then, eureka!,,ww3.

    I urge people to prepare now, START stocking up your larder. Don’t wait until Biden shits in his pants. Start buying extra packs of sugar, instant coffee/ tea, canned stuff, cereals, cordial concentrate, and toilet paper and soap powder. Don’t wait for bye-bye Biden and his ww3 in Europe.

  3. Commentar

    March 6, 2022 at 9:10 pm

    WW3 is coming! World War Three is coming, it is coming and brought to you by biden and gang.

    Even if somehow, the almighty decides to save us by preventing US involvement in ukraine, world war three will inevitably come.

    This is because biden, the great hitlero of washington, has whacked the whole world with sanctions, restrictions, cutoffs and many other forms of strangulation that the world will soon endure shortages of this and that.

    As a result, people will soon bring out their guns, knives and spears to wage mass warfare against each other in order to survive. WW3 then.

  4. Jacky

    March 6, 2022 at 9:18 pm

    Biden is a liar, an inveterate liar. The dems have always been a bunch of liars. Clinton? Liar. Obama? Liar. Pelosi? Liar !!!

    A woman whose child was murdered by an alien who illegally entered through the southern border confronted pelosi and asked her why supported protection for illegal aliens with criminal records. Pelosi said everyone, including aliens deserved protection under law.
    LIAR !!!

  5. Commentar

    March 6, 2022 at 9:44 pm

    Biden’s massively successful plan to shield hunter and push all attention to ukraine and Russia and putin will have a serious consequence for everyone on earth.

    This is because cyber attacks and hacking and disruption will rise in the coming weeks and months.

    ATMs, counter cash tills and even smartphones could be affected by cyber strife, and severe cash shortages could hamper every day life.

    Smugglers and black market racketeers will have a great time, thanks to savvy Biden.

  6. varmintito

    March 7, 2022 at 11:21 am

    Ah, I see the Fifth Column has arrived in the comments. Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself.

  7. Alex

    March 7, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    President Zelensky posthumously issued the Heroes of Ukraine to the border guards on Snake Island. Allegedly, they died the death of the brave and there were 13 of them. In fact, all 82 border guards on Zmeiny Island surrendered to the Russians without firing a shot and are provided with everything necessary until they return to their families. Check this information, it is 100% true.

  8. dilbert dogbert

    March 7, 2022 at 5:41 pm

    Carpathian’s Pripet Marshes
    Hungary resupply route
    The Russians can’t make a move without the Ukrainians knowing it.
    If it gets that far the Russian forces are toast.

  9. Richard Young

    March 8, 2022 at 8:20 am

    Biden needs a war to save his Presidency. This Puppet led by One World Order scum will get us involved. God Help Us.

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