Are we on the brink of war?

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister with Donald Trump. Credit: Amos Ben GershomBenjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister with Donald Trump. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom

On 14th February a terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir caused a crisis between historic enemies India and Pakistan which is now in danger of spiralling out of control. Israel has been bombing Iranian military positions in Iran for years in a confrontation which seems to be growing. Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping openly threatened foreign backers of an independent Taiwan. A Russian-orchestrated crisis in the Sea of Azov sparked Ukraine to declare martial law in preparation for an invasion late last year.

Meanwhile, US defence strategy now focuses on a ‘new era of great power rivalry’ rather than terrorism. A report for Congress (Nov. 2018) warned that the USA could no longer assume victory against China and Russia combined; last year those two countries took part in huge joint war drills. Our military and political leaders are now openly discussing the possibility of a major global confrontation: are we heading for war?

It is highly unlikely that NATO will declare war on Russia and/or China, or vice versa, without a series of escalating events in one or more flashpoints. Both sides have far too much to lose for either to actively choose war. If a Third World War does break out, it will not be along the lines of the Second, in which Germany actively chose to cross a red line by invading Poland. The only scenario in which this is possible is if Russia’s economy collapses to such an extent that Putin feels compelled to invade Eastern European countries to bolster his crumbling support – but so far Putin has shown a keen understanding of exactly how far he can go without triggering NATO’s mutual self-defence pact, particularly in Georgia and Ukraine.

Much more likely is a crisis in one of several hotspots across the world, which could easily escalate all the way to world war without anyone intending it. If there is a Third World War in the near future, it will almost certainly begin in a similar way to the First.

India and Pakistan

A terrorist attack in Indian-administered Kashmir, which killed 44 Indian policemen on 14th February, led to a serious crisis. India soon launched airstrikes against a militant camp in Pakistan. Since then, Pakistan has bombed Indian territory, both countries have fired ground weapons at each other – and Indian pilots were shot down and captured by the Pakistani military on 27th. Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, warned that the crisis could lead to nuclear war. However, the Indian pilot was released by Pakistan, apparently after mediation by the USA and China. Since then, tensions have decreased markedly – although both sides are still shooting across their shared border.

There have been three wars between India and Pakistan since independence and partition in 1947; both countries now have nuclear weapons. Kashmir has always been a sticking point in relations between the two countries because both claim it as their territory. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is campaigning for re-election; taking a hard line against Pakistan will likely please his Hindu nationalist party base, and present him as the strong leader needed in a crisis.

On the other hand, the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides hopefully makes both countries more cautious about escalation in any crisis. Both countries are also part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional grouping led by Russia and China supposedly for economic and counter-terrorist cooperation. It is unclear how closely this organisation links its members, but the fact that India and Pakistan are both happy to be a part of it alongside the other is encouraging.

All-out war between these two countries would be extremely damaging even without the use of nuclear weapons; if the war did become nuclear, the whole complexion of international politics would be transformed. A full-blown war, conventional or nuclear, seems very unlikely now that the crisis has calmed. On the other hand, a month ago, in the middle of the crisis, the risks looked far greater.

However, even if there was a war between India and Pakistan, it is difficult to see how other countries would be brought in as well. Unlike in the regions discussed below, neither country is clearly in either the ‘western’ or ‘eastern’ sphere of influence. India is a thriving democracy with close links to the US and UK, but it also has increasingly good relations with China. Pakistan has traditionally been a Chinese ally and is a big beneficiary of the Belt and Road initiative, but the US frequently cooperates with the Pakistanis against terrorism. This would not be a clear confrontation between East and West; it is therefore unlikely that it would become a world war.


Last November, several regions of Ukraine were put under martial law as the country braced for what its President, Petro Poroshenko, believed was a possible full-scale Russian invasion. Ukraine banned all adult Russian males from entering the country, for fear of military infiltration similar to that which happened in Crimea. This crisis had begun when Ukrainian naval vessels sailed under a bridge which Russia had recently built connecting Crimea (which it annexed in 2014) to the Russian mainland. Thereby the Ukrainian ships left the Black Sea and entered the Sea of Azov, which Russia claims as its own waters but is technically jointly managed by the two countries. Kiev says prior notice was given; the Russians nonetheless attacked the vessels, injuring several sailors, and arrested them all. Several have since confessed on television (possibly under duress) to a planned provocation and are now in jail.

Poroshenko has very low poll ratings and, with presidential elections this year, taking a hard line against Russia can only help. Russia moved naval strength into the area, and it looked like the crisis could have escalated. However, Donald Trump gave strong support to Ukraine verbally – but no more than that. Angela Merkel stressed her line that there can be no military solution to the Crimean problem. Having the navies of Russia and Western powers facing off in the Black Sea would have been very dangerous indeed: in this situation it was sensible to hold back, although no response would have been seen by Putin as weakness. In the end Trump sent a warship to the area a couple of days later – a restrained demonstration of resolve which probably helped to contain the crisis.

Putin’s Russia consistently tests both NATO’s defences and its resolve: aircraft regularly fly close to British, Estonian and other NATO airspace to test how quickly jets can be scrambled. It is very possible that the Ukrainian incident was simply another level of test – which is why it was important that NATO did match its rhetoric about defending Ukraine with an actual response.

As a pretext for Russian invasion, this would have been weak: the defence of ethnic Russians which justified the referendum on annexation in Crimea, and the separatism in Eastern Ukraine, is not the message sent by seizing a ship in disputed waters. On the other hand, recent local elections in Russia have shown Putin’s falling popularity, when official candidates failed to win (unusual given the level of vote rigging). A five-year increase in retirement age, a policy essential for the Russian economy but hugely unpopular, has shown the regime’s fragility: large-scale protests in the end forced Putin to lessen the increase for women. If Putin feels insecure – and one of his main concerns must be to ensure that he faces no prosecution by whoever replaces him – then another foreign policy distraction to reinvigorate the patriotic narrative would not be a surprise.

If Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is hard to see how the USA, UK and others could avoid a military response, because if Russia annexed Ukraine, the Baltic states and Poland would be surrounded on two sides plus Kaliningrad; Poland would have a border with Russia directly. It is very unlikely NATO members would allow that to happen without war; European security would be shattered by such projection of Russian might into the heart of the continent. However, Putin does not want a world war: his actions to date have shown a canny understanding of how far, and in what ways, he can act without forcing NATO to respond with force. Crimea was captured so quickly, and Russian forces created so much doubt until they finally revealed themselves, that the West had no idea what was happening, and had no time to respond before it was too late. In Eastern Ukraine, Russian forces are officially not present, hiding behind Ukrainian separatists and Russian volunteers. Any Russian action will likely be along the same lines of hybrid warfare. This makes world war unlikely to arise from this hotspot in the short term – but Putin can surely only go so far, however incrementally, before the West is forced to take a stand.


In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that Taiwan and China “will be unified” and threatened to take “necessary measures” against foreign supporters of the independent island, which Beijing sees as a renegade Chinese province (FT, 2 Jan 2019). The USA has forces stationed in Japan, South Korea and other countries in the region, and a defence agreement with Taiwan. If China invaded, the current expectation is that the USA would defend its ally. Japan and South Korea would both see a Chinese takeover of Taiwan as a threat to them, by increasingly surrounding and isolating them, so it likely they would consider intervening as well.

However, China has been using the full force of its diplomacy to isolate its island neighbour. Only seventeen countries still officially recognise Taiwan as a nation. The Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso and El Salvador all cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan last year under pressure from Beijing. China invests huge amounts across the world, especially in countries struggling to access international markets because of debt. In return for financial assistance – or in return for a bailout when the initial deals become unaffordable – there is an expectation of concessions such as isolating Taiwan: the strategy is often called ‘debt-trap diplomacy’.

Donald Trump takes a very hard line against China, particularly in their current trade dispute but also on foreign policy issues such as North Korea. On the other hand, nobody can ever be sure of how he would react in a real crisis. Although he talks tough on China, he has also shown himself to be no champion of human rights, praising the leaders of Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. At the same time, European powers do not want a confrontation with China: trade and cooperation are important to us. There is also the simple fact that no European power has a strong base in East Asia: the region is distant geographically and low in European priorities.

Xi Jinping might well decide that the UK, France and Germany would not intervene in time. He would then have to make a guess about Trump; if he guessed wrong and invaded, he would end up at war with the US. If that happened, things could escalate very quickly indeed. However, China’s economy depends on international trade, which always collapses during a major war. All the signs point to a slowdown in the Chinese economy at the moment anyway – so it is possible that Xi might choose the economy over Taiwan in the short term, or back off if the USA were about to intervene.

Israel and Iran

Of all the scenarios discussed, the risk of escalation to world war is greatest here. Israel is becoming increasingly concerned about the scale of Iranian and Hezbollah forces on the other side of its border with Syria. A senior official claimed that Israel has attacked Iranian targets in Syria more than 200 times in the last two years.[1] The fear is that Hezbollah and Iran are preparing weapons in Syria for an attack on Israel. Iran denies any involvement in Syria’s border region with Israel; as a result, the conflict has stayed quiet so far. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah move weapons closer to the border; Israel bombs them if they get too close; both sides deny everything, leaving a very tense situation.

Recently, however, Israel has publicised its involvement. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a strike against Iranian caches at Damascus airport last month. The danger is that, if the conflict becomes more open, neither side will be able to back down without humiliation.

Netanyahu is struggling politically: he faces a strong challenge in Tuesday’s election and is dogged by various corruption allegations. His coalition barely survived a crisis late last year when his defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned and withdrew his party’s support; he has depended on extreme hardliners led by Naftali Bennett ever since. This coalition crisis developed when Israeli special forces were killed in Gaza, triggering airstrikes and conflict with Hamas. The two sides agreed a peace deal, but Lieberman opposed the idea of making peace with Hamas so soon after such an attack. If another similar confrontation developed, it is likely that the government would feel forced to retaliate with greater strength.

In this flashpoint the path from local confrontation to world war is frighteningly clear. It is not difficult to imagine another Hamas attack leading to greater retaliation by Israel, and Hezbollah then intervening in some form, from Syria and/or Lebanon. This could very easily escalate to the point where Israel sent troops across the border to stop attacks from Hezbollah and possibly Iran. Iran would make increasingly severe threats of repercussions, but this would not just be ideological rhetoric. Over the last decades, Iran has very skilfully created a corridor all the way to the Mediterranean: it now has its own forces or proxy militias in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and large influence over all three governments. The culmination of this strategy came last week when it was suggested that Iran will take control of one of Syria’s most important Mediterranean ports, Latakia.[2]

If Israeli bombing or ground forces threatened to wipe away those successes by clearing Hezbollah out of Syria and/or Lebanon, the Iranian regime would have little choice but to intervene. Tehran has pumped resources into its foreign policy despite growing protests over the struggling domestic economy; it is surely not prepared to see it all go to waste. More than that, for Iran that corridor is security: it is a power bloc for protection against the Saudis and Israelis, who have become strangely close as mutual enemies of Iran. Without it, the regime is very isolated.

So, a situation in which the Israeli response to Hamas and Hezbollah attacks escalates into a confrontation with Iran is very possible. From there, it could easily go further. Iran has substantial forces in Syria, which might well come to the aid of Hezbollah, bringing Iran to war with Israel. At that point Saudi Arabia and the USA would start to consider intervention. The Saudis, Israelis and Americans are closely linked by their joint opposition to Iran: this strange new triumvirate was in evidence at a Middle East peace summit in Poland last month, at which only the pro-US, pro-Saudi side were present. Netanyahu attended in person. Meanwhile, Trump is now surrounded by advisers who want regime change in Iran even if it means war. These three allies, linked as a group only by their mutual hatred and fear of Iran, might well see a chance to remove their enemy.

Therefore, Iran must support its proxy corridor; Israel has to defend itself from Iranian proxy attacks. Suddenly the situation has grown from a small confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah to the possibility of a full-scale invasion of Iran, without anyone intending it. With the current absence of any cool heads among the relevant leaders, alongside the already frightening geopolitical reality, such an invasion seems very possible. It is of course the case that at every stage there would be opportunities for de-escalation – but it is also entirely possible that every leader would refuse to do so.

Russia would have to consider intervention if Iran looked vulnerable. Iran is a key regional ally for Vladimir Putin, as is Syria. If at any stage it looked likely that the USA and its allies would take control of Iran, Russia would feel very threatened indeed. The entirety of Russia’s history, as its people see it, is typified by isolation and encirclement – it is a fact of Russian geography that it will always seem to be surrounded by potential enemies. American troops in Iran would be a step too far in such a narrative, alongside current NATO expansion eastwards in Europe. Regardless of ideology and rhetoric, in practical geopolitical terms an American-backed regime in Iran would be a serious danger to Russia.

Putin would not want a full-scale war with the USA and its allies in Iran, but it would have to respond to defend itself and its ally. If all diplomatic methods failed, the most likely response would be a rapid series of attacks all around the world, including war-level cyberattacks. The British armed forces have been surprisingly public in recent months about their plans to counter precisely this scenario[3]. Russian forces would launch attacks in Eastern Europe, across the Middle East, possibly in central Africa where they are growing in numbers, and possibly in the far East, as well as sending forces to defend Iran. At this stage, another world war would have begun.

There have been two outbursts of fighting between Israel and Hamas in recent weeks. Both were started by a small number of missiles hitting Israeli land. The first time, Hamas claimed that maintenance workers had accidentally fired the rockets while repairing the launchers[4]; retaliatory Israeli bombing soon stopped. Two weeks ago, Hamas missiles again flew into Israel – no similar claim of accidental fire has been reported, yet again the fighting did not escalate. Whoever wins the Israeli election, they will need to form a coalition. They must ensure that their partners do not force them into a less measured response when the next missile is fired.


Last year the most likely flashpoint for war looked to be North Korea. Despite the rapprochement since then, war is possible, though it does seem less likely now. If Kim Jong-un agreed to denuclearise in return for the lifting of sanctions, aiming to open his economy up to US investment, it is possible that Beijing would force him to reconsider. China almost entirely controls North Korea’s access to oil: if Xi Jinping felt that the peace plan would mean a westernising North Korea, potentially moving towards the USA and out of China’s grip, he might well threaten to stop the supplies. However, in this case the situation would likely return to its current state: North Korea would remain isolated and occasionally aggressive; the stalemate would continue.

Anyway, such an agreement between the Trump and Kim Jong-Un looks to be a very remote possibility after their second summit meeting failed to find any common ground. If negotiations continue to make no progress, the stalemate will continue, with occasional spikes in hostility but no outright war. If Korea was planning to unite on the South Korean (i.e. pro-US) model, then war would be possible: China could try to stop any risk of US troops on its border, possibly supporting hardliners in the North in a coup against Kim. But, again, this is extremely unlikely at the moment.


At any stage in any of the scenarios above, cooler heads could (and hopefully would) prevail. But the list of world statesmen does not currently include many cool heads, and does include several decidedly hot-headed leaders. Add that to the geopolitical reality of such a confrontation and the results could be very severe. In particular, the ongoing confrontation between Israel and Iran is extremely concerning.