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Will the Russia-Ukraine War Lead to World War III? And 2 Other Big Questions, Explained

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

It's been two weeks since Russian forces invaded Ukraine — and the consequences keep piling up, both in the region and across the world.

So far, the war has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, regular shelling of major cities and intense firefights between Russian soldiers and Ukrainian defense forces, which have seen an influx of civilian volunteers. More than 2 million people have fled Ukraine, with refugees entering neighboring countries in a growing humanitarian crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed Russia's goal is the "demilitarization" of Ukraine, but there is little evidence to support any claims of aggression on Ukraine's part. Most experts believe Russia's end goal likely involves removing Ukraine's current pro-Western, democratic government — led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — and installing a pro-Russian regime in its place.

The U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have condemned Russia's invasion, with President Joe Biden calling the war "unjustified." Multiple countries, including the U.S. have imposed a wide range of unprecedented and severe economic sanctions on Russia over the war — and they're likely not done yet. U.S. officials have hinted that more sanctions could still be in the works.

The rapidly unfolding situation has prompted some common questions: What will the war's economic effects mean for you? Will it ultimately lead to World War III? And, relatedly, how might it all end?

Here's what you need to know:

Will the Russia-Ukraine war lead to World War III?

Some in the U.S. have openly wondered if American troops could be deployed to help defend Ukraine and its people. Biden has effectively put those questions to rest, saying at the end of February that the U.S. has "no intention of fighting Russia."

There's a very big reason why: Essentially, Biden is looking to avoid direct conflict between U.S. military forces and Russia, to avoid escalating the invasion into a global conflict between Putin and the West.

"That's a world war, when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another," Biden said.

Since the invasion began, the U.S. has ordered roughly 14,000 troops to NATO ally countries in the area like Germany, Poland and Romania. The U.S. has also ordered all troops stationed in Ukraine prior to the invasion to evacuate – along with any U.S. citizens – and join American forces stationed elsewhere in Europe.

The Pentagon and Biden administration have been careful to spell out exactly why, in the hopes of keeping this conflict from spreading any further. "Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict," Biden said last month, adding that any U.S. troops in Europe will only "defend our NATO allies and reassure those allies in [eastern Europe]."

Ian Bremmer, president of the geopolitical consultancy Eurasia Group, told CNBC this week that Western countries sending troops to fight with Ukraine's military against Russia, or installing a no-fly zone over the country, is "a non-starter" because of the massive implications.

"That leads to direct confrontation between NATO and Russian troops and accordingly risks World War III," Bremmer said.

What the war means for markets, inflation and you

The war in Ukraine – and threat of further destabilization in Europe – has thrown global markets into turmoil, largely due to Russia's predominant role in a number of global commodity markets. World Bank Group president David Malpass recently called it "a catastrophe" for the world economy that could send global inflation higher and hit poorer countries the hardest.

That's unlikely to trigger a recession in the U.S., where economic growth has been strong over the past year — but the war will probably continue to affect consumer prices and confidence.

Gas prices have soared to record levels in the U.S., and Biden warned on Tuesday that the cost of gas "will go up further" following the country's ban of Russian oil imports. He pledged to find ways to blunt those increases.

It's not just gas, either. Combined, Russia and Ukraine make up nearly 30% of the world's wheat exports, according to Capital Economics — and prices for products like wheat and corn have surged since the war began.

Last week, CNBC Make It offered some advice for young people looking to protect their finances during this period of turbulence, including managing fuel costs by taking public transportation whenever possible and focusing on long-term investments that are somewhat shielded from the current spate of volatility.

How might this end?

While Ukraine's defense forces have so far mounted an inspiring resistance, CNBC noted on Tuesday that most analysts and experts believe Russia's military might will ultimately prove difficult to fend off in a drawn-out conflict. Still, it's impossible to know what will happen next.

Some experts seem to believe one likely scenario includes Putin winning some sort of "patchy control" over parts of Ukraine, carving out partial territory for a new regime loyal to Russia. But many analysts say the vast majority of Ukrainians are opposed to Russian control over their country, and would likely refuse to recognize any pro-Russia regime.

The best-case scenario for Ukraine and its European neighbors could be a diplomatic solution, where Putin fails to remove Zelenskyy's democratic government and eventually agrees to a full withdrawal of Russian forces.

That outcome may seem unlikely, after the latest cease-fire talks between the two countries failed — but Russia's position seems to be softening after the tough slog it's faced in Ukraine. Theoretically, a diplomatic solution could still happen.

Yet even in that scenario, the conflict's physical and political damage would likely reshape European politics for the foreseeable future. Earlier this week, economist Tim Ash told CNBC that Putin could be looking to build a new "Iron Curtain" of pro-Russia countries between himself and the rest of Europe — and neighboring NATO countries would likely remain defensive for some time, fearing hostilities spilling across their own borders.

Ultimately, Ash said, Putin is highly determined to re-establish Russia's dominance over former Soviet states that have become increasingly aligned with Western powers.

"Putin still wants Ukraine," he said.

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