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How to get ahead of escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war

Russia’s failure to achieve its military objectives alongside increasing diplomatic and economic isolation create new escalation risks. By all accounts, Russian President Vladimir Putin is isolated and emotional, increasing the probability of miscalculation and risk-acceptant behavior, as seen in the false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine. World leaders need to start planning now for a dramatic turn and how best to disincentivize multiple escalation vectors. The world must balance punishing Russia and helping Ukraine with finding off ramps to the crisis before it’s too late.

Putin is pulling the world up the escalation ladder to compensate for the lackluster performance of the Russian military. In crisis and war, escalation refers to an increase in the intensity or scope of contention, often in a manner that crosses a key threshold. Escalation can be deliberate coercion, such as bombing civilian targets in a sadistic effort to force Ukraine to capitulate, or it can be inadvertent and even accidental because of the fog, friction and miscalculation endemic in war. 

In seeking to maintain his coercive leverage, Putin is employing multiple forms of escalation. In academic literature, there are three primary means of instrumental escalation adversaries use to change the cost-benefit calculation of adversaries. First, states can violate common norms of war through acts such as seizing nuclear power plants as a form of political escalation. Second, states can increase the intensity of violence through vertical escalation, such as expanding ballistic and cruise missile strikes. Third, states can expand the geographic scope through horizontal escalation, such as Russia’s threats on display to target countries that offer Ukraine fighter jets

Despite its tactical setbacks, Russia retains multiple options to expand the conflict. Moscow could extend its mobilization and attack additional territory. Russia deployed roughly 50 percent of its Western Military District to Ukraine. That still leaves as much as 75 percent of its total land forces available. In Ukraine, Russia could open an additional front to cut lines of communication currently being used to move weapons through Poland to Ukraine. This attack also would pull combat forces away from Kyiv if Russian ground forces threaten Lviv. Though unlikely while it’s bogged down in Ukraine, Russia could gamble and attack a non-NATO European country such as Moldova or Finland to challenge the West. 

While all these options seem irrational given the stalled pace of the Russian war in Ukraine, they may be appealing to isolated leaders in the Kremlin afraid of appearing weak and convinced — as ridiculous as it sounds — that this is their last chance to confront the West.

Rather than escalate on land, Russia could opt for a series of air and missile strikes to signal its capabilities. Given the logistical and command and control challenges on display in the ground offensive in Ukraine, a series of surgical strikes is likely more appealing. Russia already has fired over 775 missiles in the conflict and used cruise missiles to attack bases in western Ukraine likely used to receive foreign weapons. Russia could escalate further and launch a surgical strike against an airbase in Sweden or Finland as a signal beyond NATO of the costs of supporting Ukraine. Russia could even attack a Polish airbase used to channel weapons into Ukraine. Seen in this light, recent troop movements by NATO, including deploying additional air defense assets to the Polish border make sense.

Beyond horizontal escalation, there is the risk of vertical escalation. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used atmospheric nuclear tests to signal the West. In Ukraine, Russia has been building a web of lies to justify the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. It is not hard to imagine a beleaguered Russian force using a tactical nuclear strike against a Ukrainian military target, more as a means of signaling the West than winning the war in Ukraine.

NATO can take actions now to shape Russian decision-making and reduce the prospects of horizontal and vertical escalation. First, diplomats and world leaders need to make sure Putin understands the consequences of using a weapon of mass destruction through both public and private communication. Diplomats must prepare and signal the suite of coercive responses in advance to make it credible. It must be a multilateral diplomatic effort that includes getting China’s buy-in. The same holds for attacking another country. Putin needs to understand the risk of moving the conflict beyond Ukraine. Just as important, his inner circle, which is likely shrinking by the day, needs to know they will pay a price for vertical and horizontal escalation.

Second, the NATO alliance must continue aggressive intelligence sharing with Ukraine and key countries such as 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. 

Last, directly and through intermediaries, NATO member states need to communicate the types of off-ramps that will end the conflict based on their consultations with Russia and Ukraine. Absent a near-term off-ramp and brokered peace deal, escalation will, counterintuitively, become more likely with each Ukrainian gain and 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, a research associate at  CSIS, contributed to this article.

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