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Could the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars escalate into World War III?

With tensions now flaring in the Middle East and in Europe, can the two crises snowball into one global war — World War III, as some might call it — or are they contained within their respective spheres of influence?

Smoke billowing from an apartment building in Ukraine that had been hit by a Russian missile.
Russian missiles targeted Ukraine’s two biggest cities early Tuesday, damaging apartment buildings and killing at least 10 people after Moscow shunned any deal backed by Kyiv and its Western allies to end the almost two-year war. Photo by Yevhen Titov/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year mark next month and Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza rages on, a growing crisis in the Red Sea involving the U.S. and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels has many observers and officials concerned about the possibility of a regional war.

Regional wars, of course, pose even broader risks. With tensions now flaring in the Middle East and in Europe, can the two crises snowball into one global war — World War III, as some might call it — or are they contained within their respective spheres of influence?  

The view in Europe is still laser-focused on Vladamir Putin’s war in Ukraine, as Russia draws from scarcer military resources to continue waging its war of aggression.  

“I think that the focus so far is still very much on the challenge closer to home, and supporting Ukraine,” says Mai’a K. Davis Cross, director of Northeastern’s Center for International Affairs and World Cultures and dean’s professor of political science. 

Nearly 90% of Putin’s pre-war army has reportedly perished in the conflict — and with it, confidence in Russia’s ground force. As conventional resources continue dwindling, some experts worry that Putin might turn to so-called tactical or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons. A study from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a Western think tank, published this week suggests that the battlefield-ready nukes could serve as a key way to deter NATO in future conflicts. 

Headshot of Mai'a Cross.
Mai’a K. Davis Cross, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures and dean’s professor of political science. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Cross says that support for Ukraine — in terms of both weaponry and raw financing — should remain a top priority for Western leaders. Western support for Ukraine has flagged in recent weeks and months, as U.S. focus has shifted to the Israel-Hamas war and other domestic priorities, such as border security

Cross notes that the 2024 presidential election also carries funding implications for Ukraine’s war effort. 

“While it is disheartening that Russia can persist in this way, at the end of the day I think Ukraine has what it takes, as long as it has EU support, to keep this going,” she says. “It’s really important that … Ukraine doesn’t give up in the face of this aggression.”

How do European security experts view the turmoil in the Middle East?

While Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and resulting war have tested alliances and raised concerns about security in the long run, European officials have expressed concern about the treatment of Palestinians civilians, Cross says. 

“The clearest statement that consistently comes out [of Europe] is the concern about the humanitarian situation when it comes to Israel’s efforts to eradicate Hamas, and all of the civilian Palestinian deaths,” she says. 

“The war in the Middle East really further solidifies the need to think about and to act upon a common approach to European security and defense, so that it can be more interoperable, more efficient with funding, and we’re seeing this across the board in Europe,” Cross says.

In addition to the Israel-Hamas war, Houthi attacks against commercial ships in the Red Sea, a shipping channel critical for world trade and the global economy, have ratcheted up tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The Houthis have stated that the attacks are in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

This week, U.S. officials asked China to step in to help defuse tensions. Their request is that Beijing urge Tehran to rein in the Houthis, which Iran has provided with “advanced drones, anti-ship cruise missiles, precision-strike ballistic missiles and medium-range missiles,” according to Reuters

Northeastern Associate Professor of Political Science Max Abrahms, speaking to Northeastern Global News last week, described the Houthis’ attacks as “unprecedented” and “very escalatory behavior.”

“Historically, when I have thought about the Houthis, I have thought about them as a party to a very bloody conflict within Yemen, where the Houthis were at war within the country as well as regionally,” Abrahms said. “However, for the first time we’re seeing the Houthis really try to impact the international stage in terms of their attacks on international shipping.”

Northeastern experts suggested that the tit-for-tat between the Houthis and the U.S. will continue for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to know, however, whether that means a regional war — one that risks a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran — is brewing.

“This is another example of how vulnerable the U.S. — as the world’s superpower — is to asymmetric warfare,” says Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute.

The U.S. “was caught off guard” in the Red Sea, and with respect to the Israel-Hamas war, Flynn says. That’s because he says the U.S. has been shifting too much of its national security attention on “great power” conflicts — the Russia-Ukraine war, and China’s threat to Taiwan. He says “there is a finite amount of resources that our security community has,” and that “lower-order threats,” such as the Houthis, have, to some degree, flown under the radar. 

He emphasized that the U.S. is “going to have to focus more on the full spectrum of threats” posed by actors big and small. 

“These are essentially blended actors — a mix of terrorists and quasi-state actors,” he says. “Hamas was identified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, but it has state-like power in the Gaza Strip. And similarly, the Houthis have evolved from essentially a guerrilla warfare group to the primary governing entity in an ungovernable place, which is Yemen.”

Is the Red Sea standoff part of the Israel-Hamas war?

Flynn sees the war in Gaza and the evolving situation as “separate challenges” at this time — at least in terms of “how the U.S. is managing” both crises. 

But that doesn’t mean that they can’t escalate into a regional war.

“The Middle East has always been described as a powder keg, and now it looks like there are a lot more fuses out there that could go off,” Flynn says. 

Flynn predicts that wars in both Europe and the Middle East will eventually strain U.S. foreign policy decision-making, a tension already playing out in Congress as some Republicans have urged their colleagues to turn their attention away from Ukraine and toward Israel.

“I think one of the biggest concerns for our allies is whether the U.S. has the staying power in both the Ukraine and the Middle East,” Flynn says. 

“We have all these unknowns in the Middle East playing themselves out,” Flynn continues, “the U.S.’s longstanding role as the dominant power that has prevented conflict from resulting in wider regional and global warfare, and it’s not clear that you know we’ll pass these tests in Europe and the Middle East.”