It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3
By Greg Mercer
On November 24, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 bomber which had been flying over Syria, after an alleged violation of Turkish airspace. Needless to say, the details are still emerging and the facts are still highly contested. The New York Times has an excellent comparison of claims made by Turkish and Russian officials, including the radar maps released by each country showing the airspace violation (or lack thereof). Russian President Vladimir Putin called the shootdown a “stab in the back” and promised harsh consequences. Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO.
This incident and its bellicose rhetoric sparked immediate buzz about declarations of war, what exactly NATO owes Turkey vis-à-vis Russia, and the possibility of military confrontation between Russia and the West. One particular phrase was cautioned against by reputable folks and seriously considered by less-than-stellar sources: World War 3. I think this is really interesting, so I turned to good old search analytics to see how the internet reacted:
Since 2004, present circumstances seem to have been the best generator of “is this World War 3?” fervor, but there have been plenty of instances before.
Twitter provided a wonderful juxtaposition of cooler heads and satirical edge, too (FYI, that’s a Putin parody account):
So lots of people are talking World War 3, but it’s likely that fewer are afraid of World War 3, and even fewer are advocating for World War 3.
The WW3 buzz was particularly interesting to me in this case because it has a tie to two of my favorite pieces of Cold War fiction. Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon helped to establish the life-after-nuclear war genre in 1959. In it, an American fighter jet accidentally bombs an ammo depot in Syria, prompting a Soviet nuclear strike. On the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum is the gloriously corny made-for-TV-in-1983 movie The Day After, which depicts a nuclear attack after Russian MiGs bomb NATO territory, and apparently influenced President Reagan in his decision to sign the Intermediate Range Weapons Agreement.
It’s worth noting that when we’ve come closest to catastrophic nuclear war, disaster has mostly been averted by, well, human professionalism and the deep desire to not start a nuclear war. Whether that comforts or frightens you, the cooler-heads fallback has a pretty good track record when it comes to nuclear confrontation.
Let’s not forget among all of this hype and counter-hype, though, that the Turkish shoot-down is immensely important. The US, NATO, and Russia have seen a strange, uncomfortable status quo so far, and it’s unusual to see two completely uncoordinated, simultaneous large-scale interventions. The outcome of the Syrian civil war and the various campaigns against ISIS remain deeply unclear, and increased tensions between the regional powers involve stand only to complicate matters further. Like a lot of folks, I think (and I hope) that the cooler heads will guard against escalation. Right now though? It’s definitely not World War 3.
 Also contested- whether or not there was a warning given before the plane was shot down (Turkey claims 10 warnings in 5 minutes).
 Notably, whether or not Turkey will invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is the “attack on one is an attack on all clause” that makes defense treaties great/awful. Last time it was invoked was after 9/11. This links to InfoWars. You were warned.
 That’s not-coordinated-with-each-other, so you don’t think I’m being overly clever.