Will the Russia-Ukraine war become World War III?

Introducing Grid Health, our new weekly health and policy newsletter

Ukraine isn’t World War III — but it’s getting much more international

“World War III” is the specter that has hung over the war in Ukraine since the beginning — the threat that the violence could spread to other countries or draw more countries into the fighting. So far, for all its brutality, the conflict has been confined within Ukraine’s borders. But that’s not to say other countries aren’t playing a role. Citizens and governments around the world are wading into the war in different ways, with highly unpredictable results. Certainly not “World War III” — but three weeks in, Russia and Ukraine are no longer the only protagonists.

NATO support: How far will it go?

In the last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been making direct addresses to the legislatures of NATO allies including the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States. Despite the rapturous response from officials around the world, he hasn’t gotten everything he wants; these governments are still steadfastly refusing to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. But he’s gotten a lot. The new $800 million arms package announced by the White House this week includes 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 2,000 Javelin anti-tank missile systems, and — a new addition to the arsenal — 100 Switchblade drones, also known as kamikaze drones, relatively easy to deploy and designed to loiter in the air before crashing into their targets.

This new package, unlikely to be the last if the war continues, adds to the billions in aid pouring into Ukraine from more than two dozen countries — and not just from the usual suspects. Turkey, an erstwhile Russian ally, has provided Ukraine with the Bayraktar drones that have been so effective against Russian armored vehicles that they’ve inspired pop songs. Germany and Sweden have abandoned their long-held policies of not sending weapons into conflict zones.

For all this material support, NATO countries are also trying desperately to avoid direct conflict between the alliance and Russia. That’s why a no-fly zone remains off the table: Enforcing such a zone could require firing on Russian air defenses or Russian planes that violate such a zone. The allies have also rejected Ukraine’s request for fighter jets. In a confusing chain of events last week, the U.S. rejected a Polish plan to transfer Mig-29 fighters to Ukraine via the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany. U.S. military officials argue the planes wouldn’t be as effective as other weapons systems being given to Ukraine and that having Ukrainian pilots fly them from Germany into Ukraine would be needlessly provocative. In fairness to the U.S., there’s nothing stopping the Poles from giving the planes to Ukraine themselves — they don’t seem to want provoke Russia either.


From the beginning, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned of consequences for those who assist Ukraine. In his address to the nation that outlined his justification for war, Putin said: “I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or … create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

But for all his saber-rattling, Putin also seems to want no part of a direct NATO-Russia war, particularly given the performance of his military to date. “I would be shocked if Putin decided to escalate within the bounds of NATO. He’s not suicidal,” Rachel Rizzo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told Grid. “The fact that NATO has been around since 1949 and there hasn’t been a conventional attack on any NATO territory shows that deterrence works.”

Fears of “miscalculation”

Rizzo said that right now, “miscalculation and misunderstandings” are a bigger concern than deliberate attacks. And the risk of miscalculation grows the more the war expands within Ukraine. Last weekend, Russia struck a Ukrainian military facility just 10 miles from the border with Poland, a member of NATO. The strike, which may portend a wider campaign to interdict supplies and fighters entering western Ukraine, prompted a warning from the White House that any attack on NATO territory would trigger Article 5, the alliance’s mutual defense guarantee. In other words, any attack on a NATO member state compels the alliance to respond.

As military activity reaches closer to both sides of Ukraine’s borders with NATO states Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, the chances grow of an errant strike or military support activities being misread as an attack. In recent days, there have already been two instances of Russian reconnaissance drones straying into NATO airspace. Both sides may wish to keep the war contained, but it’s not hard to imagine circumstances in which it would expand.

Foreign fighters

The influx of volunteers into Ukraine in recent weeks has drawn comparisons to the 1930s Spanish Civil War, when thousands flocked from around the world to fight on behalf of the Spanish Republic against a fascist insurgency. In the first days of the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy announced the formation of an “international brigade” of foreign volunteers and said that 16,000 of them had already signed up. Their ranks have grown since then. The base near the Polish border, which the Russians attacked last weekend, is believed to be a training facility for some of these foreign volunteers.


Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center who has been tracking the foreign fighters on social media, said they’re a diverse group. A large number aren’t really “foreign” at all; they’re Ukrainian émigrés returning home to defend their homeland. While there are questions about whether the volunteers have the kind of combat experience Ukraine really needs right now, there are also a significant number of American military veterans enlisting for the fight. “A lot of them reference Afghanistan,” Clarke told Grid. “They were left with such a bad taste in their mouth and say, ‘Why did we did we spill all this blood and treasure for nothing?’ They see themselves now as answering a call for a far more noble cause.” There are also a number of left-wing “anti-fascists” who view Ukraine’s defense against Russia as an anti-imperialist cause.

There is at least one uncomfortable aspect for Ukraine and its international backers: Since fighting in Ukraine broke out in 2014, it has also been a magnet for far-right activists from around the world, who have joined up with groups like the ultranationalist Azov Battalion. The Ukrainian government has taken steps to distance itself from these groups — a few years ago, Congress threatened to withhold military funding over the issue — and their role has been exaggerated by Russian propaganda, which portrays Ukraine as a “Nazi” government, but they remain a presence on the battlefield, including in the ongoing fight for Mariupol. Clarke says right-wing extremists are still a presence among the foreign volunteers, though they seem to make up a smaller percentage than they did several years ago.

Foreign fighters’ home countries have sent somewhat mixed messages. Technically speaking, it’s not illegal for Americans to join another country’s war, unless they’re fighting against the U.S., but the White House has advised American citizens against it. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss surprised many on Feb. 27 when she encouraged Britons to join the fight. “Absolutely, if people want to support that struggle,” she said, “I would support them in doing that.” She later backtracked.

The issue is not just that these foreigners, many of whom may have minimal combat experience, are risking death or injury for themselves. Clarke said at a minimum, governments should be planning for what happens when battle-hardened volunteers come back home, including, perhaps, some who may resent their governments for failing to do more to support the cause. “There’s all sorts of things that can go sideways when we’re talking about a foreign fighter returnee population,” he said.

Fighting for Putin

The foreigners headed for Ukraine aren’t all fighting for the resistance. Putin has put out a call for international volunteers, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said last week that 16,000 fighters from the Middle East had signed up — from Syria in particular — a number that seems just a little too neat, given that it came shortly after Zelenskyy said 16,000 had joined his side. But whatever the total, it’s worth noting that Russia’s foreign fighters are different.


“The motivations are different,” Sergey Sukhankin, a senior analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, told Grid. “The Syrians fighting for Russia would be part of a bargain between the Assad regime and the Russian regime where they would be paid by the Russian regime.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Russia is offering volunteers in Syria between $200 and $300 to go to Ukraine to serve as “guards” for six months at a time. Many experts are skeptical the Syrians will serve as anything more than cannon fodder, if they’re used at all.

“I think it would be a strategic mistake to rely on these fighters,” Sukhankin said. “If Russia is seriously planning to rely on the Syrians, that would be a huge mistake and a sign of desperation.”

Also fighting for Russia in Ukraine are somewhere between 10,000 and 70,000 fighters from Chechnya, the semi-autonomous republic in the Caucasus where Moscow brutally crushed an insurgency in the 1990s. Chechens have been fighting in Ukraine since 2014 and have gained a reputation for brutality, even a willingness to commit war crimes. In a surreal twist, Chechnya’s strongman leader and self-described Putin “foot soldier” Ramzan Kadyrov claimed on social media this week to be in Ukraine himself, leading the troops, though this has not been verified.

If there is desperation, it may be because Russia’s friends aren’t rushing to its aid. There’s been speculation for weeks about troops from Russia’s close ally, Belarus, joining the battle. But while Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has allowed his territory to be used by Russian forces, he’s stopped short of ordering his own military to join and appears to be studiously avoiding the topic. Kazakhstan, where the Russian military helped the government put down protests just two months ago, has reportedly denied a Russian request for troops as well. Chechens and Syrians may be the only options available.

Western governments will, reasonably, draw a distinction between the Syrian and Chechen “volunteers” fighting for Russia and their own citizens who are traveling to Ukraine of their own accord to fight in Zelenskyy’s international brigade. But there’s no guarantee the Kremlin will see it that way. The more international the fighting forces on both sides get, the greater the risk of more governments being drawn in.

China: the limits of “no limits”

When it comes to worries about the conflict spilling across borders, the Moscow-Beijing axis has raised profound concerns. According to U.S. officials, Russia has asked China for military equipment to support its war effort, including surface-to-air missiles, drones, intelligence equipment and armored vehicles. The Financial Times reported these U.S. officials believe the Chinese are open to providing at least some of this support, though how much is unclear. According to CNN, Russia also asked for military food kits, which would not bode well for the state of the Russian military’s logistics.

There are as yet no signs that China is backing away from Russia. But the “no-limits” friendship that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin proclaimed when they met on the eve of the Winter Olympics last month is being put to the test.

The U.S. government is evidently taking the prospect of a Russia-China alliance seriously. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held an “intense” seven-hour meeting in Rome this week with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, during which he reportedly threatened that Chinese attempts to help Russia evade Western economic sanctions could result in secondary sanctions targeting China. Biden spoke directly with Xi on Friday.

Maria Repnikova, a professor at Georgia State University who studies the China-Russia relationship, noted to Grid that China’s state media is still devoting remarkably little coverage to the war in Ukraine, perhaps indicating a reluctance to take too strong a stance.


“The rhetoric is kind of attempting to be ambiguous, like, ‘We’re not supporting the invasion, but we also understand Russia,’” she said. “This very wishy-washy kind of middle-ground rhetoric combined with limited media coverage suggests that they’re trying to be very cautious about public reaction.”

The immediate issues driving the war in Ukraine may seem regional and contained: Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” Ukraine’s sovereignty, the role of NATO and Putin’s notions of Pan-Slavic unity. But the war has already spread — in small ways for now — to other countries. And its implications are being felt globally, from wildly fluctuating prices for fuel, food and other commodities to the ever-present threat of nuclear war. The longer this conflict drags on, the harder it’s going to be to stay neutral. And the risk of a wider war will grow.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.