Some writers are wringing their hands over a Russian's botched attempt to shoot down a British surveillance jet early in the war in Ukraine. The most over-the-top claims start with something like, "...which would've caused World War III by dragging Britain, and NATO, into the war!" Here's the most recent one. It's also the one that makes it necessary to say this: America, NATO, and Russia have successfully avoided a war with each other since before Russia was Russia or NATO existed.
The potential loss of 30 British airmen would have been a tragedy for their families and their countries, but it would not, on its own, plunge the world into another global war.
Tensions from World War II through the invasion of Ukraine
Tensions began between the U.S. and U.S.S.R during World War II and came to a head multiple times after the war. American use of atomic bombs against Japan cemented U.S. technological advantage for a few years, but the U.S.S.R still imposed the Berlin Blockade, an attempt to starve out Western troops in Germany's capital, in 1948.
Instead of immediately tripping into war, U.S. President Harry Truman ordered the Berlin Airlift, a famous air resupply mission that prevented a collapse of British, French, and American forces in the city for the almost 1-year blockade. NATO formed just before the blockade ended.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, Russian and Chinese pilots shot down American pilots over Korea, Russian and American pilots killed each other over Vietnam, an entire missile crisis played out, and the Soviet Union collapsed.
And all of that happened without NATO tripping over itself into a war.
In more recent years, Russians kidnapped an intelligence officer from Estonia, a NATO member. Russian ally Syria shot down a jet from NATO-aligned Turkey. Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian jet at their border as well as Syrian jets in another incident. And Russia regularly claims that NATO actually controls and fights the war in Ukraine. Russian forces there lost over 270,000 killed and wounded and thousands of vehicles, jets, and other hardware.
So, when does World War III start and the world burn down?
Probably never, if cooler heads continue to prevail.
NATO leaders display extreme caution, avoid larger conflict
So why are some writers claiming that World War III comes any day now? Well, two probable ones: Scary headlines get a lot of clicks, and arguing that World War III is inevitable would allow NATO leaders to throw caution to the wind and aggressively support Ukraine, maybe even with direct action.
While this author would love for the U.S. and NATO to take direct action against Russia, that's on the basis of stopping the bloodletting, not because conflict is inevitable. There's an argument worth making that Russia would not use nukes, that its military is already proven incapable of conquering Kyiv–let alone Warsaw or Paris or London–and so NATO involvement will simply bring the likely Ukrainian victory about more quickly with fewer deaths.
But it is not a great argument that World War III is inevitable so we might as well start it now. The fact is that smaller conflicts need not grow into larger ones. And NATO leaders consistently navigate the smaller clashes diplomatically. Britain would not necessarily have declared war against Russia and invoked Article V because of the loss of a surveillance jet with 30 service members aboard, even over international waters.
(It is worth a separate discussion that the intentional killing of 30 service members who are not party to a declared war, not engaging in hostilities, and operating well within international waters would be either a war crime or 30 counts of murder.)
Other options than NATO Article V
Britain could easily have chosen to condemn Russia, increase the flow of weapons and intelligence to Ukraine, and maybe even conduct limited strikes against Russian forces.
Russia, facing the real prospect of utter destruction against NATO air and sea superiority, would then condemn the strikes in turn and continue to prostrate itself to North Korea, Iran, and others for outdated ammunition.
And if it didn't? If Russia decided to open a larger war against all of NATO? Well, we could always "blow the Russians out of the sky" then.