Russia’s failure to achieve its military objectives, coupled with growing diplomatic and economic isolation, creates new risks of escalation. By all accounts, the Russian President Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump rips Biden amid Ukraine conflict Bipartisan group of senators meet with officials, visit refugee sites in Poland Republicans seize on rising gas prices amid Ukraine conflict MORE is isolated and emotional, which increases the likelihood of miscalculation and risk-accepting behavior, as seen in the false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine. World leaders must start planning now for a dramatic turn and how best to discourage multiple vectors of escalation. The world must balance punishing Russia and helping Ukraine find ramps out of the crisis before it’s too late.
Putin lifts the world climbing ladder to compensate for the poor performance of the Russian army. In times of crisis and war, escalation refers to a increase in intensity or range of divisiveness, often in a way that crosses a key threshold. Escalation can be deliberate coercionlike bomb civilian targets in a sadistic effort to force Ukraine to surrender, or it may be involuntary and even accidental due to fog, friction and calculation error endemic to war.
In seeking to maintain his coercive influence, Putin employs multiple forms of escalation. In the academic literature, there are three main means of instrumental escalation that adversaries use to alter the cost-benefit calculation of adversaries. First, states can violate the common norms of warfare through acts such as seize nuclear power plants as a form of political escalation. Second, states can increase the intensity of violence through vertical escalation, as expansion of ballistic and cruise missile strikes. Third, states can expand geographic reach through horizontal escalation, such as threats from Russia target countries offering Ukrainian fighter jets.
Despite its tactical setbacks, Russia retains several options to expand the conflict. Moscow could expand its mobilization and attack additional territory. Russia has deployed about 50% of its Western Military District in Ukraine. This still leaves up to 75% of his total ground forces available. In Ukraine, Russia could open an additional front to cut the lines of communication currently used to transport weapons through Poland to Ukraine. This attack would also draw combat forces away from Kiev if Russian ground forces threatened Lviv. Although unlikely to be bogged down in Ukraine, Russia could gamble and attack a non-NATO European country like Moldova or Finland to challenge the West.
While all of these options seem irrational given the slow pace of Russia’s war in Ukraine, they may appeal to lone Kremlin leaders afraid to appear weak and convinced – ridiculous as that may sound – that this is their last chance. to face the West. .
Rather than stepping up on land, Russia could opt for a series of airstrikes and missiles to signal its capabilities. Given the logistical and command-and-control challenges of the ground offensive in Ukraine, a series of surgical strikes is probably more appealing. Russia has already fired on it 775 missiles in the conflict and used cruise missiles to attack bases in western Ukraine likely to receive foreign weapons. Russia could still escalate and launch a surgical strike against an air base in Sweden or Finland as a signal beyond NATO of the costs of supporting Ukraine. Russia could even attack a Polish airbase used to ship weapons to Ukraine. Seen in this light, recent NATO troop movements, including the deployment of additional air defense assets to the Polish border, make sense.
Beyond horizontal climbing, there is a risk of vertical climbing. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used atmospheric nuclear tests to signal the west. In Ukraine, Russia has been build a web of lies justify the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. It’s not hard to imagine a beleaguered Russian force using a tactical nuclear strike against a Ukrainian military target, more as a way to signal the West than to win the war in Ukraine.
NATO can take steps now to shape Russian decision-making and reduce the prospects for horizontal and vertical escalation. First, diplomats and world leaders must ensure that Putin understands the consequences of using a weapon of mass destruction through public and private communications. Diplomats should prepare and signal the series of coercive responses in advance to make it credible. It must be a multilateral diplomatic effort that includes getting China on board. The same goes for attacking another country. Putin must understand the risk of shifting the conflict beyond Ukraine. Equally important, those around him, who are probably shrinking by the day, must know that he will pay the price for vertical and horizontal escalation.
Second, the NATO alliance must continue aggressive intelligence sharing with Ukraine and key countries like Finland and Sweden. Sharing threat information will help these nations adopt the right military posture to make any attempt at horizontal or vertical escalation less likely to succeed.
Finally, directly and through intermediaries, NATO member states should communicate the types of exit routes that will end the conflict based on their consultations with Russia and Ukraine. Absent a short-term exit and a negotiated peace deal, escalation will unexpectedly become more likely with every Ukrainian gain and every Russian loss.
benjamin jensen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ivan Vinnyk, the former secretary of the Ukrainian Parliament Committee on National Security and Defense, and Carolina Ramos, research associate at CSIS, contributed to this article.