How worried are Britons about a Third World War?

Ukraine's prime minister has warned defeat to Moscow could escalate to a global conflict.

Ukraine has warned of a Third World War if it loses the conflict with Vladimir Putin's Russia. (AFP via Getty Images)
Ukraine has warned of a Third World War if it loses the conflict with Vladimir Putin's Russia. (AFP via Getty Images)

Ukraine has warned of a Third World War if it loses its conflict with Russia.

Prime minister Denys Shmyhal, who is campaigning for the US to pass a £49bn aid package, told the BBC on Thursday: “If we will not protect... Ukraine will fall. So the global system of security will be destroyed... and all the world will need to find... a new system of security.

"Or, there will be many conflicts, many such kinds of wars, and in the end of the day, it could lead to the Third World War."

Ukraine’s warning comes amid ever-increasing instability in the world, including the Israel-Gaza war which has threatened to spill over into a wider Middle East conflict.

How worried are Brits about the Third World War?

In January, defence secretary Grant Shapps warned the UK is facing a “pre-war world” and that the “peace dividend” which allowed successive governments to ease spending on defence is over.

"In five years’ time," Shapps said, "we could be looking at multiple theatres including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea."

According to polling, Britons agree with him. YouGov data from January show a majority of Britons - 53% - think it is likely there will be another world war in the next five to 10 years.

Only 31% of the 2,048 people surveyed said another global conflict is unlikely in that timeframe.

A breakdown of YouGov polling asking if people think another world war is likely. (YouGov)
A breakdown of YouGov polling asking if people think another world war is likely. (YouGov)

Meanwhile, 59% of those surveyed believed nuclear weapons would be launched in a Third World War, compared to 24% who believed this unlikely.

The survey also showed most Britons would expect the West and its allies to win against Russia and its allies (44% to 13%). However, just as many, 43%, said they didn't know who would win.

At the time of the polling, prior to the escalation between Israel and Iran, nearly eight in 10 Britons thought the US and Russia would likely be involved in any global conflict.

At the time, nearly 80% of Brits felt like any Third World War would involve the US and Russia. (YouGov)
At the time, nearly 80% of Brits felt like any Third World War would involve the US and Russia. (YouGov)

What do experts say?

The Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza wars, as well as wider global instability, has led to increasing discussions about the possibility of a Third World War.

Here is what some experts have said about it:

"It depends on your definition of World War Three. A possible conflict between Iran and Israel has the potential to expand into a major military conflagration in the Middle East, with global implications. The primary pathway to a World War Three scenario remains a direct Western clash with Russia. That scenario will be more likely if Donald Trump wins and undermines NATO, tempting Vladimir Putin into an attack on the Baltics." - Luigi Scazzieri, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, speaking to Sky News this week

"War among our neighbours has been unthinkable for decades, but the era of strong leadership from Washington, London and Paris died with that generation of politicians led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The sheer uselessness of our politicians, inflamed by external meddling via a weaponised social media, has undermined the certainties of international diplomacy." - Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin's Threat To Russia And The West, writing in the Daily Mail in January

On the one hand, the sheer cost of war and the risks of inevitable destruction for both sides appear to be getting higher. For game theorists and those who emphasize rationality, deterrence and its ilk still provide a mechanism to either deter or limit violence. Yet, at the same time, Shapps also argues the likes of North Korea and Iran cannot be trusted to act rationally. They therefore need to be contained, and in the case of Iran, prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. This looks like someone trying to have his cake and eat it."- Professor Andrew Dorman, Editor, International Affairs at Chatham House in January

"The reassuring news is we are not heading towards the Third World War... We need to see these risks in a certain context, which is they do impact the UK, but they are not existential risks." - Hugh Lovatt, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, also speaking to Sky News

“Towards the end of the decade, the world is going to be much more unsafe, more insecure. I think we will find ourselves in a conflict. Whether it is a cold or a warm conflict, I think we’ll be in a difficult position.” - Ben Wallace, former UK defence secretary, speaking to The Sunday Times in July last year

"Prediction is always a risky business in war and international politics. But while the world might be in a moment of dramatic and uncertain transformation, congested with new actors, technologies, tactics and terrains, there might be one timeless lesson from the history of war and international politics. Politicians and policymakers make strategic errors and miscalculations which can have unforeseen consequences." Mark Lacy, Senior lecturer in Politics, Philosophy, and Religion, Lancaster University, writing in The Conversation

"Deterrence is based on credibility. British Army credibility has been weakened by 20 plus years of hollowing out and diminished fighting power. Army morale is fragile. We must signal to adversaries and potential adversaries the fact that we are strong and want to get stronger whilst at the same time having no interest in attacking or subverting any non-aggressive city or country. To be credible in deterrence terms we need to prepare genuinely for war and communicate this to potential foes, NATO and allies, and particularly to the British public." - A report by the New Bletchley Network think-tank in March 2024

"If Israel finds it cannot contend with a three-front war in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, and turns to the United States for military help against Iran, we shall have reached one of history’s hinges. The future of the world will turn on it." - Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, writing in The Sunday Times in November last year

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