Could World War 3 be just one major incident away?

The war of words between Moscow and Washington rages on with scant regard for consequences.

First it was about Syria, now the hacked-emails-issue has been added to the stirring pot, and the infantile slanging match — couched in diplomatic-speak, of course — is threatening to spin out of control.

Joe Biden has threatened to mount a retaliatory cyber attack against Moscow “designed to harass and ’embarrass’ the Kremlin leadership.” In other words, teach them a lesson.

And Moscow has responded predictably:

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov immediately denounced Biden’s remarks, saying Moscow would take precautions to safeguard its interests in the face of the increasing “unpredictability and aggressiveness of the United States”.

“The threats directed against Moscow and our state’s leadership are unprecedented because they are voiced at the level of the US vice president,” RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

“To the backdrop of this aggressive, unpredictable line, we must take measures to protect (our) interests, to hedge risks.”

And Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov vowed Moscow would respond to any US cyber attacks, saying such threats were “borderline insolence”, the news agency said.

And it gets worse. “With tensions between Russia and the United States at their highest since the Cold War, there have been alarming signs coming out of Moscow that suggest the country is ready for war.”

While it’s hard to believe Russia is indeed “preparing for military conflict with the United States,” there are, however, “some unsettling things Russia has done” to indicate that war is looming — and not just over cyber attacks:

As the confrontation between the United and Russia has worsened over Syria, and amid speculation Washington might launch airstrikes against Syrian government forces, Russian state-controlled media has gone into high gear, asking Russians whether they are prepared for nuclear war.

“If that should one day happen, each of you must know where the nearest bomb shelter is,” a report on the state-controlled network, NTV, noted, before taking viewers on a tour of a nuclear bunker in Moscow.

State outlets, already solidly anti-American in their coverage, have unleashed themselves further, indulging in bitter denunciations of America duplicity, bombastic promises of merciless defenses and freely bandying the nuclear card. Russia’s main current affairs show, hosted by a man known by critics as the country’s “propagandist-in-chief,” warned American “impudence” could take on “nuclear dimensions,” then spending 40 minutes taking viewers through a panoply of potential nuclear options Russia possesses if the United States were to intervene too strongly in Syria. The host, Evgeny Kiselyov, described how three Russian missile frigates this week had sailed toward Syria to head off potential U.S. airstrikes against Syrian military targets.

“Incidentally,” Kiselyov told his audience, the ships missiles “also [come] in a nuclear version. Which version is aboard our missile frigates right now isn’t known.”

This month Russia held a large-scale civil defense drill across the country, meant to prepare people for disasters, among them nuclear catastrophe. The drill, which Russian authorities claimed affected 40 million people, and particularly the way it was presented on state television, resembled Soviet-era exercises, with scenes of schoolchildren flooding out in evacuations and being taught to hurriedly pull on gas masks.

While much of what is taking place on both sides could just be posturing, it is fraught with danger for the world:

The back and forth between Russia and the West grows in intensity as time goes on. The United States is threatening retaliation for “alleged” Russian cyber attacks. The United States government had better produce the evidence before taking any retaliatory actions otherwise it risks further embarrassment on the world diplomatic stage at the hands of the Russians, which can only bolster the Russian position at the expense of the United States international diplomacy.

Escalation of minor incidents, diversion from other issues, and miscalculations of expected responses are some of the causes of the greatest conflicts in history. These often back adversaries into corners that neither can escape from.

We are witnessing an escalation in tensions based on perceived weaknesses and conflicting interests.

Posturing of military forces within close proximity to each other in geographic areas that are politically unstable with both side engaged in uncoordinated combat operations against a range of adversaries only requires one incident to rapidly spiral events out of control — and produce an effect none of us is expecting but which will influence all of our futures.

It’s cross-your-fingers time for the world.