Are Russia, France and the U.S. preparing for World War III?

You are asking the wrong question, since the main reason current conflicts could escalate into a new world war is more related to the country that killed most civilians in the past 50 years and have invaded most countries, and it's not Putin's Russia or China.

Russia, France and the U.S. are preparing themselves for World War III. But they are not preparing the war.

Every country prepares for all kinds of wars. A lot of money and quite a number of people are tied in these preparations. Every military needs to run scenarios, make plans, acquire weapons, and do everything else to be up for every threat from abroad. All do that.

The ones who don't are bad military. There are not many of them. Ukrainian generals in 2014 who lost Crimea to Russia without a single shot are an example of bad military, unprepared for war.

Media come now with a lot a news stories about mounting tensions between NATO and Russia. Russia is often presented as a threat to the West, and even compared to the USSR.

True, president Putin, using our replenished wealth that came from the oil bonanza of the 2000s, has been upgrading our military. We want to be at least on par with our neighbors. Some fine pieces of military hardware have been produced and taken into use. Yet, we lack the ability for global projection of power that we had during the Soviet era. Our overall strength in Europe is far inferior to what NATO possesses. The economy of Russia is not strong enough to support any effort to achieve parity with the US and their allies.

Putin knows that, as do his generals and the rest of the Russian elite. A war in Europe, or a world war, makes no sense. We are now living the most prosperous lives in the history of Russia, by far. Our rulers keep their kids and their fortunes in the West. We all got an awful lot to lose in a case of war. There are no realistic objectives Russia could possibly achieve through a war. None of our problems can be solved in war. In Russia, no one wants war, period.

We also know that the US and the Europeans won't attack us. Not because of their docile and magnanimous nature, but due to the simple fact of how power works in the West. Their rulers are accountable to their electorate, and no one in their power base needs war with Russia. The human life in the West costs too much to waste it in a war.

What is happening, however, is a big, masterly made smokescreen. Having little ability to project global power, we still possess means and skills to produce a sense of global menace. We know how to make our enemies uncomfortable without firing a single shot. Fat Kim got nothing on us.

This smokescreen is not all ours. This is an old trick, and many know how to play it. There comes much valuable contribution from our Western partners. External threats have always been very helpful in internal political consolidation, East or West. We see how this is working in the kerfuffle around president Trump and his mysterious crush on Putin and all things Russian. Then everything is magnified by the media who never miss a chance to whip up drama, the more the better.

World War can come in today's world only as a Black Swan. In other words, as something totally unprepared, happening because of a tragic miscalculation, mistake, human or technical glitch.

For it to be a World War:
  • Putin will need to start or enter war. Will he? Can he? With economy in recession, currency reserves thinning, popular support in decline? Someone sane would not want to start a major war under the circumstances - but this is Putin - whose reputation includes many interesting things, with sanity not amongst them.
  • Another major country or three will need to join the party, get involved in a military conflict in a significant way, like Italy and Japan in WW2. Is there such a country? North Korea? Turkmenistan? Mongolia? Are we laughing yet?
Then, can Putin rally his troops like this dude could?

Russia had been preparing for WWIII since the end of WWII =)

I don't know if anyone knows a book series that's very popular in Russia called "Metro 2033"

In short: definitely not in that sense, but you shouldn't ignore a couple of major risks.

In details:
There is very little to tie Putin to 1938' Hitler - not without getting other Nationalists, including some supported by us, into the same group. Hitler was openly bent on "Master Race" and world domination, and had it in writing*. Putin ideology, in its worse, is much more moderate. He hails China (rather than Russia) as a world leader in waiting, talks about an alternative alliance and some Russian way - and connection with Russians elsewhere. If you need a German analog, think Bismark rather than Hitler. There is little indication of an appetite for conquest outside of the Russian-speaking areas. It doesn't mean the world is safe - plus mind you, no WW1 leader was into world domination.

You need to pay attention to what Barack Obama (politician) is saying** - especially if he is your President. He stated that Putin is after instability. And considering that now he knows that stability in the Middle East means oil below $50 any time Saudis want that, he is definitely after instability in the Middle East. And he needs instability in other places, otherwise US will sail in and make it stable at the cost of another trillion dollars and thousands of lives.

That is a systemic problem*** that was ignored for over a decade, while it could be addressed with a combination of low prices and anti-corruption assistance a decade ago. Now, with sanctions in place, assistance out of the question, Donetsk etc, chances of chasing such instability the ways that were unthinkable a decade ago are high. So not a WW3, but if you are in the Middle East, it does sound like a danger.

Also be ware of the risk of Russia shifting into far-Right territory - either through a coup, or through Putin shifting into their position to avoid a coup. I am talking about the people who call [the President of Ukraine] Poroshenko a "separatist", and Putin a "Judo-oligarch of Kremlin" - you get the idea, we are staring into the real darkness here. It is entirely possible that Putin let them thrive to have a scarecrow for the West, but that doesn't mean they wont get out of control. In Egypt MB that was used by Mubarak in a similar role of a scarecrow, nearly got out of control, and was stopped by the military. In Russian the military will be leading the charge - because of Odessa, Donetsk etc. It doesn't mean the west should give Putin everything - that is never a good idea - however thinking a bit further ahead is a must.

(*) It's called Mein Kampf
(**) It is really stupid that you need to remind people that. Hey, US is the dominant country in the World, and he is the President, who is supplied with information by the world most powerful intelligence apparatus.
(***) An oil-based economy with high extraction costs combined with massive nuclear forces and decent weapons manufacturing.
Putin does not want World War 3. What does he want, then?

Is it territory? Well, sort of. There is already plenty of land in Russia, with more than enough resources to make Russia a rich country. A lot of it, though, is undeveloped and would be very expensive to do so. What Putin is fighting for instead is geopolitical space. Russians have always felt threatened by Western influence and expansion. From the Teutonic Knights to Napoleon to Hitler, Russia's greatest threats have come from the West. While Eastern invaders have threatened Russia, only the Mongols were ruthless and sophisticated enough to be an existential threat. So, Russian foreign policy since World War 2 has focused on creating a friendly "buffer" around Russia.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia made treaties with both NATO and the Western Soviet Republics that they would not be admitted to NATO (except for the Baltic Republics. They hated the Russians utterly). Over time, however, their governments changed, and their citizens became more afraid of Russian influence in their countries. So, they began to move towards the West, breaking up Russia's "buffer."

To rebuild this "buffer," Putin is trying to use both the carrot and the stick. For the carrot, he offers cheap energy, and if that doesn't work, he supports the Russian minorities left over in those countries to cause internal unrest and violence. If the pro-Russian forces don't win control outright, it's still ok because you cannot join NATO or the EU if your country is in a state of unrest.
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