By Invitation | Russia and Ukraine

Samuel Charap considers how Russia’s war in Ukraine could escalate

The political scientist says Vladimir Putin may now see himself as engaged in an existential struggle

RUSSIA’S ATTACK on Ukraine—horrific as it is in itself—has raised concerns in many Western capitals of an even-worse outcome: escalation to a broader war with NATO allies which could involve nuclear weapons. While such a war is far from inevitable, the possibility of the current conflict spiralling beyond the immediate theatre of hostilities is real. Understanding how that could happen is essential to minimising the risk that it does.

Escalation—an increase in the intensity or scope of conflict—can occur because of a deliberate decision to up the ante, or because of a step or accident that unintentionally produces the same effect. While the American strategist Herman Kahn famously described escalation in terms of deliberate ascent up rungs on a ladder, his metaphor failed to capture this latter dynamic, which is more akin to free-falling down a ravine.

The nature of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the reaction to it have opened up a wide range of escalatory pathways. Russia is conducting a large-scale military operation—involving cruise missiles, artillery, ballistic missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems and air strikes inter alia—in a country that borders four NATO allies on land and shares the Black Sea littoral with two more. Moscow also has deployed a large force to Belarus, which abuts another two members of the alliance. All eastern allies are on edge, fearful that Moscow might not plan to stop at Ukraine. America, among others, has deployed additional forces to several frontline states, including Poland and Romania, to deter any further adventurism. Meanwhile Russia’s general staff will be watching vigilantly for any sign that NATO, which it sees as the stronger party, is considering intervention in Ukraine.

In these circumstances, not only are accidents more plausible, but the associated escalation risk is also higher. For example, a Russian missileer’s targeting error could send a rocket into NATO territory. In peacetime, the scenario of that accident even occurring, let alone of its leading to all-out war, is far-fetched. But not today. Both Russia and NATO are looking for any indication that the other side is preparing to fight. Current enhanced readiness and frayed nerves, along with the fog of war and the general first-mover’s advantages in modern conflict create pressure for a military response to that errant missile. As the American economist and nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling put it: “In an emergency, the urge to pre-empt—to pre-empt the other’s pre-emption, and so on ad infinitum—could become a dominant motive.” Fortunately, Washington and Moscow have set up a so-called deconfliction mechanism (essentially a communication channel between the defence ministries of each side) that provides an additional failsafe to clear up misunderstandings and avoid accidents in the first place.

While such measures can help mitigate the chance of accidental escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war, they cannot prevent deliberate actions to broaden the conflict. Here it is important to view recent events from the Kremlin’s vantage point, because as much as we find that perspective morally repugnant, it is hugely consequential. In the past few weeks, NATO member states—and others, including Finland—have rushed to supply the Ukrainian armed forces with additional materiel to resist the Russian attack, which inevitably will result in more Russian casualties. Press reports indicate that America is helping the Ukrainian armed forces with real-time intelligence on Russian troop movements. Volunteers from many NATO states, including veterans, are pouring into Ukraine. Meanwhile, not only the EU and America, but also a range of other countries from Singapore to Switzerland, have essentially declared economic warfare on Moscow by imposing draconian sanctions. These have sent the Russian economy into a tailspin. The sanctions have been framed exclusively as (deserved) punishment, without any hint of what Russia might do to get them lifted. Senior Western government officials have openly mused about undermining Mr Putin’s regime, and some have even expressed a desire that he be “physically eliminated”, as Luxembourg’s foreign minister put it, in remarks he soon recanted. Meanwhile, thousands of Russians have bravely taken to the streets of Russian cities to protest against Mr Putin’s war.

Russian military strategists have written similar scripts in their scenarios, which lay out how NATO will go about destroying their own country. A proxy war on Russia’s periphery, a significant American buildup in Eastern Europe, Western economic warfare and fomenting of domestic unrest are steps anticipated in what they describe as a NATO operation to change the Russian regime. Even though all of his current woes result from his own aggression, Mr Putin probably views recent developments through this lens. He may now see himself engaged in an existential struggle; Mr Putin and those around him conflate the security of their regime with the security of the country. And he has now placed both at risk.

Russian retaliation against NATO and other American allies thus seems a matter of when, not if—not because Moscow wants a broader conflict, but because it believes itself to be engaged in one already. In fact both sides now may actually believe, as put by Robert Jervis, the international relations scholar, “that with the infliction of a bit more pain and the running of a bit more risk, the other side [will] back down”. Under such circumstances, he concluded that “even a purely rational decision maker could participate in a cycle of destruction and counter-destruction”. And a Russian president who is facing economic and political turmoil at home might well not be in a rational frame of mind.

Moscow could start with cyber-retaliation for the sanctions, since its formidable capabilities give it the opportunity to counter. The West’s financial sector may well be a plausible target, since the sanctions targeted Russia’s big banks. Mr Putin’s stakes in relations with the West and in the health of the global financial system—from which Russia has largely been ejected—are now essentially nonexistent. He may feel he has little to lose from doing damage to both. If a criminal ransomware group could shut down the largest pipeline operator on the east coast of the United States, one might reasonably assume that the Russian state could do much worse. If it does, Western government cyber-operators would likely be inclined to hit back, and from there things could spiral out of control quickly.

Ongoing NATO member-state assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces or any future resistance movement represents another escalation pathway. If they succeed in taking over most or all of Ukraine, Russian forces may be tempted to interdict convoys crossing from NATO states. The Soviet Union, it should be recalled, conducted numerous air and artillery strikes into Pakistani territory during its war in Afghanistan in order to sever mujahideen supply lines. That does not mean Western assistance to Ukraine should cease, but that it should be carried out in such a way that minimises risks. In the short term, that could include greater central co-ordination of allied assistance and the avoidance of publicity about the deliveries.

If a Russia-NATO conflict does ensue from one of these pathways, it is possible that Moscow would resort to use of its non-strategic—also known as tactical or battlefield—nuclear arsenal. Russia’s military doctrine explicitly allows for nuclear use in a conventional war “when the very existence of the state is threatened”. A war confined to Ukraine is unlikely to reach that threshold, particularly because Russia has significant conventional firepower remaining. But a conflict with NATO certainly could. With its conventional magazine depleted, the bulk of its combat-ready military engaged in Ukraine and the stranglehold of sanctions tightening, the Kremlin might resort to the nuclear option earlier than it would have before it attacked its neighbour.

During the cold war, escalation concerns were at the top of the agenda for scholars and policymakers alike. While that did not stop East or West from engaging in a ferocious, global confrontation, it did inject enough caution to prevent the cold war from growing hot. Although major-power competition has been declared “back” for several years, it took this war to return fears of escalation to the fore. As the conflict drags on into its third week, Western leaders now face the challenge of balancing the necessity to respond to Russian aggression with the need to avoid escalation that could produce even worse outcomes.

Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, American think-tank.

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis

More from By Invitation

To protect Germany’s green transition, accept coal and nuclear power, says Veronika Grimm

The quicker the crisis is over, the sooner the country can decarbonise, argues the German economist

A.N. Wilson on the art of Queen Elizabeth II’s communication

The biographer considers the ways in which she did her job so well

People trust executives to intervene in social issues, says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

Company decisions are rarely driven by a boss’s personal positions, the management scholar adds