How far can the war in Ukraine escalate?


Putin is not afraid to threaten NATO directly. In the early days of the war, he announced that he had put the Russian nuclear forces on high alert. Putin too explained that the sanctions against Russia amounted to a declaration of war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov then warned that anyone transporting arms to Ukraine would be considered “legitimate goal‘ by the Russian military. On Tuesday Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said CNN International that in the event of an “existential threat” Russia would go so far as to use nuclear weapons.

Many western commentators believe that Russia’s warlike threats have effectively caused the United States to limit its response. Last week, for example, my Washington Post colleague David Ignatius, echoing the views of foreign policy observers, concluded: “A nuclear power can engage in vicious regional aggression without paying the ultimate price. America and its NATO allies are deterred by this conflict, Russia is not. The paradox of our restraint is that it allows for the unrestricted. Somehow the balance of deterrence has to be restored.”

Let me look at the current situation a little differently.

First, what the United States, its allies and partners are doing for Ukraine right now is not insignificant. The economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Russia were larger than expected and hit the Russian economy quite hard. There is additional evidence that penalties have changed over time put out of action Russia’s manufacturing sector, including its military-industrial complex.

In addition, NATO is sending significant amounts of weapons to Ukraine. It seems these weapons are being put to good use. Then there’s the very timely sharing of intelligence and information that also seems to be making a difference.

Taken together, NATO-led sanctions, military aid and intelligence-sharing are all critical pillars of support for Ukraine’s struggle.

At the same time, President Biden has made it clear that he wants to avoid NATO forces working directly with Russian forces. Given the possibility that such an engagement could quickly escalate into World War III, this seems prudent. Escalation steps such as no-fly zones are therefore unwise.

Second, I’m becoming less and less aware that Putin’s escalation threats are anything but bluffs. Take the so-called nuclear high alert. I have seen neither independent reports nor US intelligence confirming that the alert status has changed. This is the sort of announcement that made a lot of waves — but the lack of action suggests Putin was bluffing. The same is true of Russia’s other nuclear threats or Putin’s mixing of sanctions with war. This is, of course, hostile rhetoric. At the same time, Russian forces have not attacked NATO facilities – probably because such an attack would end badly for the Russian military.

As for the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons, where exactly would they be used? The Russian narrative remains that they waged this war with concern for minimizing civilian casualties. Whether this is true, such a claim would seem ridiculous after the use of a nuclear weapon, the consequences of which would affect Russia itself. This feels like another bluff.

Third, just because the Biden administration wants to avoid war with Russia doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to get additional support for Ukraine — and use the threat of such a ratchet to pressure Russia. For example, the delivery of S-300 and S-400 systems would certainly improve Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russian airstrikes. The shipping of more modern combat aircraft would have a similar effect.

Also, as Russia redirects more of its forces to Ukraine, its ability to intervene elsewhere on its periphery becomes more difficult. This is important because the Russian military has helped ensure frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and elsewhere. One has to wonder about the stability of Alexander Lukashenko’s tenure in Belarus.

If I were advising the Biden administration, I could have Jake Sullivan go on a Sunday morning show and say that the United States is not interested in further escalation, but that the slaughter in places like Mariupol is what Americans care about. Unless the Russian military moderates its artillery and air strikes on Ukrainian cities, NATO may have no choice but to hand over more sophisticated weapons to the Zelenskyi government as a humanitarian gesture.

Perhaps in the same interview, Sullivan sympathizes with Moldovan President Maia Sandu last call that the Russian troops leave Transnistria. Or question whether the Belarusian military really wants to be drawn into a war in Ukraine (it not.).

Are these movements completely risk-free? No of course not. But they are far less risky than imposing a no-fly zone and put more pressure on Putin. At least they are worth exploring.


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