As Russia escalates its nuclear threats, a survey suggests a world on edge.
Sept. 29, 2022
Survey: Fears of WWIII Are Growing
An elderly woman walks on a street in Raihorodok, Ukraine, on Sept. 26, 2022.(AP PHOTO/LEO CORREA)
Russia’s unprovoked war with Ukraine recently entered its eighth month, and there are few signs of it ending anytime soon.
Rather, the fighting appears more likely to escalate. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last week that he will push 300,000 reservists into service, and his accompanying speech featured some alarming threats. Referencing – without evidence – that the West is engaging in “nuclear blackmail” against Russia, the leader noted that his country “has various means of destruction” and, when threatened, “will certainly use all the means” at their disposal, according to a translation. This comes after Russia reportedly engaged in provocations near a Ukrainian nuclear power plant in August, which a U.S. Department of Defense official described the “height of irresponsibility.”
A stark new finding from an international survey suggests that the world is taking these threats – and their broader global implications – seriously.
In a survey of more than 17,000 people across the world, three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement, “I fear we are moving closer to World War III.” The findings are culled from the U.S. News & World Report Best Countries survey, which was fielded this year from April 30 to July 13 and is used for an annual, perception-based rankings of countries.
The share of respondents who agreed that we’re heading toward global war rose above 80% in five countries: Indonesia, South Korea, Spain, Thailand and the United States. Those surveyed within the age range of 25-35 were the most fearful, with 76% worrying about nations moving closer to another global conflict.
But Rudra Sil, a professor of political science and the director of graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says that while the findings make sense, he cautions against people being overly fearful.
“The key word there is ‘closer,’ which is a relative term and I think, relative to a year ago, I guess everyone could say we’re a little bit closer,” Sil says. “But would I interpret that as a reason for thinking that Armageddon is coming and that we should all start storing things in our basement? No, I don’t see it that way at all.”
Other experts agree that there’s no cause to panic.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a presidential doctoral fellow also at the University of Pennsylvania, says she doesn’t believe the situation is “that dire.” Rather, she says, the recent threats from Putin are more of a reflection of Russia’s lack of success in Ukraine and sinking global standing.
“This isn’t World War III – this is Russia saber rattling and operating from a position of weakness,” St. Julian-Varnon adds.
This sort of antagonistic posturing from Putin has Cold War roots, adds Sil. In a “semi-optimistic interpretation” of the Russian leader’s rhetoric, he sees Putin as simply reminding his foes about the concept of “mutually assured destruction,” a form of reciprocal deterrence.
“I think they’re just basically warning you: An attack on Russian soil is tantamount to an attack on Soviet soil from the old days,” he says. “Basically, it’s a reminder – ‘Don’t forget, we are a nuclear power, you’re acting like we’re not.’”
Sil adds that he hopes these threats spur action and some “serious agreements” on arms control negotiations with Russia. The START treaty between Russia and the U.S., which sets limits on intercontinental-range nuclear weapons, will expire in 2026.
“The whole point of having a nuclear arsenal is to prevent and deter attacks on your soil,” Sil says. “Beyond that, they basically become a threat to the entire world.”