We must not ignore the non-nuclear options for Russian escalation
The success of Ukraine’s offensive in taking back territory held and illegally annexed by Russia is increasing worries about what will happen if President Vladimir Putin finds himself backed into a metaphorical corner.
Two weeks ago, in light of the battlefield setbacks, Moscow announced a “partial mobilization” and support for the illegal votes in four territories only partially controlled by Russian forces. Alongside that announcement, Putin once again raised the threat of nuclear weapons, saying: “They have even resorted to the nuclear blackmail … I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well.” He added, “This is not a bluff.”
The attention to Russia’s nuclear threats is not surprising. Even a small chance of the use of nuclear weapons, given their outsized destructive capacity and the risks associated with climbing the rungs of the escalatory ladder, understandably demands the attention of the West’s policymakers. According to reports, the United States has directly warned the Kremlin of “catastrophic consequences” should Moscow use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. While policymakers debate the likelihood of Russia using nuclear arms and potential retaliatory measures, it is worth remembering that Moscow possesses considerable alternative means to signal its intentions to the West and to act if it feels cornered.
Most recently, it is believed that Russia is behind several unexplained explosions and resulting leaks along the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. Moscow has long targeted undersea pipelines and internet cables. Admiral Tony Radakin, the then head of the United Kingdom armed forces, warned that Russia was targeting these undersea assets and the Royal Navy was tracking their operations. Physical attacks on undersea critical infrastructure are perhaps less deniable than comparable cyberattacks but can be as, if not more, destructive.
With cyber operations there is, thus far, a risk of confirmation bias: Just because the West hasn’t seen substantial cyberattacks from Russia does not mean they are not happening now or that they could not emerge in the future. Moscow has demonstrated its capacity for cyber operations across Europe and the United States, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that now or in the future Russia could escalate its cyber activities.
Russia also possesses counter-space capabilities, both cyber and kinetic in nature. In November 2021, Russia demonstrated its kinetic tools by destroying one of its satellites with a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapon. According to U.S. Space Command, this created a debris cloud of some 1,500 trackable pieces — upwards of several hundred thousand smaller pieces are expected to develop as a result of this signaling event. Far from deniable, it remains nonetheless a tool in Russia’s arsenal.
Equally, too, Moscow has demonstrated its ability to raise the political temperature within countries in its near aboard and further afield. U.S. intelligence suspects that since 2014, Russia spent at least $300 million as part of its political influence efforts across some two dozen countries. This money was funneled to parties, politicians and other groups in an attempt to influence targeted countries’ political dialogues and push pro-Kremlin narratives. While the avenues for this type of political warfare are perhaps more circumscribed than pre-February, they are not wholly closed off and there is nothing to suggest that Russia will not attempt to pursue its interests. Indeed, Russia’s political warfare efforts have demonstrated a remarkably protean nature, evolving with both the times and technology. Escalating tensions via proxies in Africa, encouraging terrorism and embarking on a campaign of assassination are all well within Russia’s toolkit.
The West would be remiss if it only focused on the nuclear part of the escalatory question, despite Moscow’s past behavior. Russia is perhaps the only country to have engaged in nuclear terrorism — murdering Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 with polonium. It has also used chemical weapons to target its adversaries, including poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018, and dissident Alexei Navalny in 2020. Earlier this year, it appeared that Russia was creating informational conditions for a chemical or radiological false flag attack to justify increased aggression in Ukraine.
The Soviet Union possessed a robust biological weapons program and there is little to suggest that Russia has done much, if anything, to dismantle its capabilities. Thus far, the threats from chemical or biological attacks have been limited to information warfare, but the West should neither rule these threats out nor fail to prepare for their possibility. As with the threat of nuclear arms, a low probability is still significant in and of itself given the potential high impact of said event.
Just as we are seeing greater energy disconnection from Russia and the pursuit of alternative energy sources across Europe, so too must we prepare for the possibility of Russia engaging in low-probability, high-impact escalation across the political, cyber and health spectrums.
Politically, states must work to close off avenues for Russian political and financial exploitation and work to increase awareness of and defense against Russian propaganda and mis- and dis-information. Naming and shaming persons or parties receiving support from Russia and working to counter coordinated inauthentic behavior on social media are two examples. This is no easy feat, especially in this highly politicized environment.
In the cyber domains, the government must work with the private sector for collective defense against diverse and evolving threats, leveraging information sharing on indications and warnings. Building on the work already underway between the private sector and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency will lead to greater cyber resiliency in both the near- and long term.
In the health space, building preparedness means leveraging the lessons learned during COVID-19 and applying them to the risks of state and non-state actors’ use of both chemical and biological weapons (a side benefit of which would be overall improved preparedness). Rebuilding critical stockpiles, reinvigorating vaccine supplies for diseases like smallpox, ring-fencing funding for preparedness, and ensuring a trained workforce and sufficient manufacturing capacity will lead to better long-term outcomes for the multiplicity of threats — both man-made and natural.
Focusing on the nuclear threat alone risks being blindsided by Russia’s other avenues for escalation and conflict expansion.
Joshua C. Huminski is the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. There he co-chairs the center’s program on strategic competition, with a specific focus on Russia. He is a fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute. He can be found on Twitter at @joshuachuminski.