Only three short hours of Turkey announcing it had shot down a Russian warplane for violating its airspace, an unusual phrase appeared as a new trending topic on Twitter: "World War 3." The conversation is both joking and not joking.
You can see why people might worry. Turkey is a NATO ally, meaning that at least in theory the other members of NATO — the United States and most of Europe — can be obliged to come to its defense against an external attack. A theoretical slide into conflict between Turkey and Russia could thus also become a conflict between Russia and NATO, dragging the world's top four nuclear powers into war. Tensions between NATO and Russia have been rising for two years, and now both are bombing on opposite sides in Syria. With fears of some unintended escalation in Ukraine or now Syria sparking a larger conflagration, it sounded scarily possible.
But I am here to reassure you: This is not the start of World War III. And I say that as someone who has voiced real concern about other ways in which Russia and the US could be dragged into an unintended escalation to war. But those conditions are not present here.
Why neither Russia nor NATO will risk major war over this
The answer is pretty simple: The stakes are just too low. The things at issue here are Russia's bombing of anti-Assad rebels in Syria, the sanctity of Turkish airspace, and the life of one (or possibly two) Russian pilot.
Those things matter, and Turkey cares an awful lot about its airspace and about what happens in Syria. But Russia doesn't care enough about those things to risk a major war. And neither do the leading members of NATO (the US, UK, France, etc.), which will largely decide how NATO responds.
There is thus every reason to believe that both Russia and NATO will seek to deescalate. Neither cares enough about enforcing Syria-Turkey border zone air rights to escalate much over this.
Russia expert Mark Galeotti, who teaches at NYU, summed this up well:
I suspect neither Moscow nor, at the very least, the other European NATO powers will want to let this go too far. Russia cannot fight hot diplomatic wars on too many fronts, and Europe clearly wants Moscow to be part of the solution in Syria and maybe Ukraine, too. And, frankly, there is in many capitals concern about Turkey, its agenda and its role in the region. Much will depend on where Washington falls, of course, but if Moscow can get even a crumb of contrition from Ankara or sympathy from Europe, then we can expect this to be splashed on Russian TV and allow the Kremlin to let this slide a little.
There's another very important factor here. Because the Syria-Turkish border is so far from Russia or from central Europe, there is just zero risk that either side could misperceive this as the start of something bigger.
The Turkey-Syria border is just not a place where Russia-NATO war could break out
The thing that has made Russia-NATO escalation in Eastern Europe so dangerous is that that is exactly where, were Russia and NATO to fight a war, it would happen. So any misstep or overreaction risked being misperceived as the start of something larger.
Had today's shoot-down happened in, say, Estonia, then there would be a risk that NATO could misperceive it as Russia attempting to do in Estonia (a NATO ally) what it had done in Ukraine. Russia might have misperceived the shoot-down as the start of a NATO war against Russia — something that sounds silly in Washington but is taken seriously in Moscow. (And is a fear you hear earnestly expressed from some in NATO.) Thus each side might respond to such an incident by escalating a little to defend against the other side. Then each side could misread the other's escalation as an act of aggression. That's how, in an unlikely but scarily plausible worst-case scenario, you could get a major war that neither side wanted.
There is no such danger on the Turkish-Syria border. Russia has zero reason to believe that Turkey is about to invade it (and, if it did, it sure wouldn't do it by marching south into Syria). And NATO has no reason to believe that Russia is considering an invasion, or a Ukraine-style "hybrid war," in Turkey. So neither side has any real reason to see this as anything but an isolated incident.
And even if Moscow or Washington did want to escalate here — which they don't — neither has that capability. The number of Russian forces located in or near Syria is quite small — way too small to provoke, intentionally or unintentionally, any kind of major conflict. The US forces in the region are also relatively modest. The point is that neither Russia nor NATO could possibly believe that the other side is about to launch an invasion.
So, to review: Neither Russia nor NATO has enough at stake to escalate to anything near the point of war. Neither has the physical military capability to do so in this region. And because the Syria-Turkey border is so far removed from either Russia or Europe, there is very little risk of unintended escalation.
But the world should take this as a warning: What if this had happened in Eastern Europe?
As I argued in a lengthy piece this summer, even though neither Russia nor NATO has any desire whatsoever to fight a direct war, there is a real fear on both sides that it could happen anyway. The reasons for this are complex and laid out in the piece. But many of the risk factors are very specific to Eastern Europe, and especially the Baltic states (which are NATO allies on Russia's border), and do not apply in Turkey and Syria.
That said, this incident today should make us worry all the same. If it had happened in, say, Estonia or Latvia, the risks of a major US-Russia war would still be remote. But they would be awfully less remote. If you're curious about that risk, what it looks like, and why many take it seriously, I would urge you to read my piece from this summer, but here is a super-condensed version:
The US has a number of military forces on perpetual "temporary" deployment to the Baltics, where they sometimes parade within a couple hundred yards of the Russian border. The US and NATO see this as defensive, meant to deter Russia from any Ukraine-style actions in the Baltics. That's not a hysterical fear — Russian security forces stormed across Estonia's border and kidnapped an Estonian agent shortly after Obama gave a speech there promising to defend the country.
But many in Russia see it as offensive; the Kremlin earnestly believes that the US fomented violent regime change with Ukraine's 2014 uprising and that it seeks the same in Moscow. Moscow worries about Kaliningrad: a small region of Russia that is physically separated from the rest of the country and located on the far side of the Baltic states. Russia has long feared that the West secretly desires to "retake" Kaliningrad (it was formerly part of Germany).
The point is not that Russia thinks NATO is poised to invade tomorrow, or that NATO believes Russia is prepping a massive invasion of the Baltics. Rather, the point is that NATO sees the Baltics as very insecure and very at risk from Russia should conflict break out. Russia sees Kaliningrad as very insecure and very at risk from NATO should conflict break out. Insecurity breeds escalation, and escalation can be misread as offensive.
Thus the risk is that if something happened that both sides could misread as the beginning of a possible attack, then both sides would likely respond with "just in case" escalations to prep their defenses, which the other side would misread as confirming their worst fears of a coming attack, and so on.
If this sounds outlandish, it's important to note that there are a number of other factors that increase the risk of such a misunderstanding: For example, Russian state media spent much of the spring hammering away at the idea that ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltics are at imminent risk — an echo of what Russian state media said about Russian-speaking Ukrainians shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.
And then there are the Russian flights. Before Russian planes were buzzing Turkish airspace, they were buzzing — and at times violating — NATO airspace in the Baltics. Russian subs were showing up at communications cables or going missing off the Swedish coast. Aging Russian bombers were rumbling around even British airspace.
In other words, what allegedly happened in Turkey that began today's incident — a Russian jet crossing into NATO airspace and ignoring calls to turn back — has in fact happened in the Baltic states of Eastern Europe, exactly the place where such an incident would be so much more dangerous. NATO forces in the Baltics have not fired on Russian warplanes in response, and they're smart enough not to shoot at Russian forces along the Russian border. In other words, the odds of a shoot-down are much lower in the Baltics than they are in Turkey. But the stakes are potentially much higher.
Hopefully a lesson that Russia and NATO will take from today's incident is that they should find a way to better manage tensions and prevent possible escalations in Eastern Europe, where the danger of a major conflict is still quite low — but not nearly as low as it is along the Turkey-Syrian border.