Are we heading towards World War Three?

Doomsday scenario could see China, Russia and Iran exploit war in the Middle East

A black and white illustration included images of President Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un
The Indo-Pacific and Ukraine are not the only potential flashpoint involving major powers around the globe
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Russia is leading us to the brink of a third world war, says Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with its invasion of Ukraine igniting global tensions and drawing ever starker battle lines between countries. 

The Ukrainian president accused Moscow of “lighting fires” around the world, exporting conflicts everywhere from the Balkans to the Middle East. In an interview with The Sun, Zelenskyy accused Russia's president Vladimir Putin of exploiting Hamas's October attack on Israel, claiming the carnage was a "really big wish" of Russia.

The US and its allies were already in a new cold war with China, argued historian Niall Ferguson in The Times, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine was "roughly equivalent to the Korean War during the first Cold War, revealing an ideological as well as geopolitical division between the countries of the 'Rimland' (the Anglosphere, western Europe and Japan) and those of the Eurasian 'Heartland' (China, Russia and Iran plus North Korea)". 

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And now the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza threatens to escalate into a wider Middle Eastern conflict, bringing with it the risk of all-out war between superpower blocs backing opposite sides. 

It threatens to become the "next crisis in a cascade of conflict that has the potential to escalate to a Third World War", warned Ferguson, "especially if China seizes the moment – perhaps as early as 2024 – to impose a blockade on Taiwan".

And the United Nations, "envisioned as the global forum for dispute resolution, is in more turmoil than usual", said Adam Boulton on Sky News

So where does the biggest threat to world peace lie?

Middle East

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has "spent the past three decades sounding the alarm about Iran's nuclear programme" and he has threatened to attack the country numerous times, but after Hamas's assault on 7 October he "may finally be able to act on his threats", said Al Jazeera.

Whether he does or not will ultimately depend on whether the current, limited, conflict in Gaza broadens out to a wider war in the Middle East involving regional superpower Iran through its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Many experts believe there is "little desire in Washington and Tehran for a regional conflict", reported NBC News, but given the intensity of Israel's bombardment and ground operation "the scope for miscalculation is huge".

For decades, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a "shadow war" fought on land, at sea, and in the air, said Foreign Affairs. Now, the war in Gaza is "disrupting their already delicate calculus, and the longer the conflict continues, the more it will reduce the incentives for moderation and raise the risk of Israeli-Iranian conflict".

Seeking to act as a deterrent against a further escalation, the US has continued its troop build-up in the region, with CBS News reporting the deployment of a nuclear-power submarine to join the two American aircraft carriers already in position in the eastern Mediterranean. However, Netanyahu and his ministers "may have something very different in mind for the US deployment, that goes beyond military deterrence and political posturing", said Al Jazeera. "He may try to widen the scope of the war to include Iran."

"Iran is how the conflict spirals", agreed Sky News's Mark Stone, but in truth the path to escalation via a Hezbollah-led second front from Lebanon is "unlikely" said Lina Khatib, director of the Soas Middle East Institute, in The Guardian. It would most likely spark US intervention which has "the potential for the war to spread to Iran itself, which is the last thing Iran wants".


Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has been described as "more dangerous than anything Europe has seen since the end of World War II" by Politico.

In the 20 months since, the Kremlin's hopes for a quick victory have turned into a drawn-out war of attrition, with even Ukraine's commander-in-chief recently admitting the conflict was at risk of becoming a "stalemate".

With European leaders thought to be tiring of the conflict and resistance growing in Washington to open-ended support, Putin's "strategic priority is to divert Western support and attention away from Ukraine", said Politico, and he may see the war in Gaza as the perfect opportunity to push his advantage.

Last week, the Russian president signed a law withdrawing Russia's ratification of the global treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. Russia has the world's largest nuclear arsenal and some Western arms control experts are concerned that Putin may be "inching towards a nuclear test to intimidate and evoke fear amid the Ukraine war", reported Reuters.

Now Russia has issued an ominous warning that the Kremlin is ready for war with Nato. "We are ready, as it has already been demonstrated, to defend our national interests with all the means at our disposal," deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian daily newspaper Izvestia on Wednesday.


The greatest threat to geopolitical stability has long been assumed to be the growing tensions between China and the US over the past few years. A slight thawing amid the outbreak of conflict in the Middle East led to a groundbreaking meeting between leaders Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in November, aiming to reestablish communication and reach some consensus on trade, technology and global security. But core issues between the two countries "aren't getting any easier", said the Financial Times's Swamp Notes newsletter.

Much like Russia's claim over Ukraine, Beijing sees the island as an integral part of a unified Chinese territory. It has, in recent years, adopted an increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan. At the same time, the US under President Joe Biden has ramped up its support – financially, militarily and rhetorically – for Taiwan's continued independence.

In recent months there has been an attempt, led by Washington, to cool the hostile rhetoric and find common ground. However, analysts believe relations are so fraught that "re-establishing a semblance of stability and balance will take much more effort and political will", said NPR, and will be "tested" by presidential elections in the US and Taiwan in 2024. "Mutual trust is running thin."

Failure to de-escalate risks a doomsday scenario, in which China takes advantage of the current crisis in Gaza to impose a blockade on Taiwan that draws in the US.

The devastating human cost aside, even if fought by conventional methods, a military conflict between the world's two biggest economies would lead to "a severing of global supply chains, a blow to confidence and crashing asset prices", said The Guardian's economics editor Larry Elliott. "It would have catastrophic economic consequences, up to and including a second Great Depression."

Artificial intelligence

Recent high-profile advances in artificial intelligence have led to increased fears that AI could accidentally cause a global conflict, with another former Google executive issuing an "apocalyptic warning" about the risks, said the Daily Mail.

Eric Schmidt, the company's CEO from 2001 to 2011, told the Axios AI+ summit in Washington this week that there were not sufficient safeguards on AI, and that it was only a matter of time before humans lost control of it. 

It could pose a risk to humanity on the scale of a pandemic or nuclear war, Rishi Sunak warned leaders at the world's first AI safety summit, hosted by the UK at Bletchley Park in early November. 

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", Peter Rautenbach, from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, told the i news site in March.

Without a human cut-off in place, explained the news site, "a mistaken alert by an artificial intelligence could trigger a devastating missile launch in a fraction of a second".

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