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

Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched attacks on major Ukrainian cities by air, land and sea. Many have speculated online that the invasion may lead to another world war, but just how likely is this scenario?

This story was updated on March 1, 2022, at 4:08 p.m.

The term "World War III" has been trending on and off over the past several days, even before Russia invaded Ukraine last Thursday. In the days since, hundreds have been killed or injured as major cities across Ukraine have been hit with explosions and heavy shelling.

Russian forces have been advancing on Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, including a massive armored convoy. Peace talks between Russian and Ukraine held in Belarus earlier this week concluded without any clear progress. On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the European Union to accept his country's application to join, as more Western countries issues sanctions that hit Russia's economy hard.

The conflict is among the worst security crises for Europe since World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin — who views Russians and Ukrainians as one people and has questioned the country's right to exist — has said any countries that try to intervene militarily would face a response "so severe that no foreign nations have ever experienced it before."

Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, and is now a buffer between Russia and European members of NATO, a military alliance led by the U.S. Sky News security and defense editor Deborah Haynes explains more about tensions in Ukraine and how negotiations are going between the U.S. and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

While President Joe Biden 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 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.

If Russian leader Vladimir Putin gets what he wants in Ukraine, it could reshape world politics. But first we have to understand the stakes and how NATO, a military coalition led by the U.S., plays a role.

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.

On Sunday, Putin ordered his nuclear deterrent forces to be on "high alert," but the White House has said U.S. citizens do not need to be concerned about nuclear war.

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 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.

Even if Russian forces take over Ukraine quickly, many Ukrainian citizens would object and fight back, says Chris Miller, professor of international history at Tufts University. Miller says Russian President Vladimir Putin would likely "rather just get Ukraine without an occupation." But if Russian forces were stationed in Ukraine for a long time, they could face attacks from unofficial Ukrainian military groups even after a formal war is over. NBCLX storyteller Clark Fouraker reports.

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 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."