7 min read
Going Regional: The Risks of an Escalating War in Ukraine

Henry Choisser

With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine entering its 4th month, things are looking grim, and not just for the Russian Army. As badly as this war is going for the wannabe Tzar, neither Ukraine nor the West should rest easy at the prospect of Putin’s failure. Although it is unequivocally important for the U.S. and its allies to embrace the goal of a Ukrainian victory, such ventures must be taken with a full grasp of the hellacious slog that it will be. Given that a legitimate loss in this expansionist war (e.g. if Ukraine can drive Russian forces back to the pre-invasion line of control, or even repatriate regions occupied prior to Feb. 24th) would jeopardize Putin’s political survival, ultimately all cards are on the table if pushed to the brink of defeat. 

For more reasons than the instinctual urge to secure his self preservation through a pyrrhic success in Ukraine, Putin will be willing to escalate the conflict, and in more ways than just brutality. A concept from behavioral economics, known as prospect theory, illustrates that people make decisions in difficult situations based on the status quo as a reference point rather than the net outcome of the choice. Thus over time they become more risk acceptant as they try to prevent further losses and more risk averse as they seek to maintain gains. Putin is currently on the prevent further losses side of this equation, and consequently we need to consider what new risks he is willing to take in a bid for victory. 

There are yet a number of unutilized levers in the Kremlin’s arsenal that could be used to pressure the Western sanctions regime and the widening funnel of military aid. In general order of least to most escalatory, the options are as follows: economic retaliation against foreign suppliers of arms; cyberattacks against the private sector and critical infrastructure targets outside of Ukraine (which has been subject to such operations since the outset of the war); vertical escalation (i.e. increased brutality, war crimes, intimidation tactics, and the outright leveling of urban centers of defense - such as the obliteration of Grozny in the second Chechen war); broadening the conflict beyond the territorial borders of Ukraine; and ultimately nuclear blackmail. 

The first two levers of coercion - economic retribution and cyber operations - are measures that could be employed to gain bargaining power in the ongoing flexing of soft power between Russia and the West. As sanctions begin to bite, Moscow will have an incentive to play up and exacerbate feelings of economic discontent in the Western electorate in a bid for sanctions relief caused by public pressure from the body politic. 

Putin could use the almost complete reliance of some European nations on Russian oil and gas to economically punish them for supporting Ukraine by cutting them off, though at great loss of revenue and further economic destabilization. Writ large, the dramatically higher energy prices that would occur if Russia shut off the tap could exacerbate ongoing inflation in Western economies. Additionally, Russia and Ukraine together supply almost 30 percent of the world’s total wheat crop. Moscow could use its relative monopoly on international supply to exacerbate the existing food crisis caused by the war to further pressure Western economies. 

Military cyber operations between peer adversaries represent a pandora’s box of unknowns, but based on Russian precedent, their use against neighboring states could indicate an intent to escalate militarily. Thus far, the considerable cyber capabilities of the GRU (the Russian military intelligence directorate) have been held back against Western nations in the sanctions and arms supply regimes, though for somewhat unclear reasons. This strategy is likely either based on a perception that these assets should be held in reserve for a larger and more existential conflict with NATO, should it arise, or for implementation at a time meant to achieve maximum leverage, such as during the lead up to negotiations for a political settlement. 

As we are already seeing in Ukraine, Russia is more than willing to employ vertical escalation. That is: upping the cumulative costs of resistance by increasing the scale of destruction and intimidation through greater displays of brutality and disregard for collateral damage. Massed artillery used in direct fire mode, accompanied with thermobaric weaponry have been used against urban centers, and thermite, “molten rain” has been deployed in Mariupol (which recently fell to Russian forces). The thousands of civilian casualties are likewise indicative of Russia’s willingness to adopt vertical escalation. 

Although Moscow is generally unlikely to commit Russian ground forces to any new conflict zone, four Beluarusian heavy brigades and the Kaliningrad garrison remain undeployed. They could theoretically be directed to initiate operations in Ukraine, or the Baltic states, should Putin see the need. However, the most probable site of military escalation outside of Ukraine will come from the pro-Moscow breakaway region of Moldova known as Transnistria, where Russian soldiers have been stationed for years. 

Considering the stated goal of Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev to create a land bridge between mainland Russia and Transnistria, plus the likely false flag attack on the Transnistrian Ministry of Security, its involvement in the conflict is almost inevitable. The pro-Moscow enclave borders Ukraine’s southwestern flank, and will eventually become a front in the conflict if the Russian forces garrisoned there can attempt to pincer and capture southern Ukraine along with forces occupying Kherson. 

However, as of the writing of this article, the US National Intelligence Director, Arvil Hanines, deemed that Russian forces lack the requisite capabilities to attempt a push on that front from either side. This is largely due to the overwhelming concentration of Russian firepower being used to advance on the last holdout city in Luhansk, Severodonetsk, albeit at significant losses. This constitutes the lower portion of their encirclement campaign, which looks to entrap the forward echelon of the Ukrainian army that has been forestalling and reversing Russian advances in the East. 

Escalation of the kinetic conflict into other regions is possible but it would suffer a severe disability: namely the lack of military resources necessary to achieve any decisive result, given that the majority of Russia’s professional military is already deployed in Ukraine. Furthermore, it is doubtful that these operations would contribute anything meaningful to the war in Ukraine, and could undermine the limited international support still available to Russia. Until the conflict is resolved or frozen, the Kremlin lacks the military capacity to credibly threaten its neighbors. That is unless Putin feels the need to escalate his invasion to a total war against NATO as a measure to stave off his removal from power or some other existential threat to his tenure in office. 

After the Ukrainian war has been decided, Finland and Sweden must be swiftly brought into NATO, or else they will certainly befall the same fate as Ukraine and other nations who have attempted to join the Alliance. Short of regime change in Moscow or their accession to NATO, we can expect Russian aggression against the Scandinavian nations irrespective of Russian victory in Ukraine - just on different timetables respectively. In the event of Russian defeat, a revanchist Putin will inherently want to reconsolidate and seek out a more manageable target in his ambition to reestablish Russian empire as his legacy. However, if Putin can walk away with more than a pyrrhic victory, his expansionist desires will merely be emboldened. The decades-long pattern of Russian expansionism will continue and accelerate. 

If Turkish objections to the Scandinavian nations’ applications are circumvented and they join NATO before the Russian armed forces and economy can recoup, Putin will likely opt to target another former Soviet republic, such as Kazakhstan. In particular, the Kremlin may seek to punish a defiant and unsupportive Kazakh administration. In addition to being a part of the former Russian Empire, and thus a subject to Putin’s claims over the Russki Mir, the Kazakh military has only a fraction of the capacity and nationalist morale that have made Ukrainian forces such a potent underdog. Likewise, Putin’s speeches and internal disinformation campaigns have spent years putting their sights on the Baltic States, which stand between Kaliningrad and a contiguous Russia, and hybrid operations there could occur if new NATO reinforcements in the Baltic states pose an insufficient deterrence. 

As for the most extreme form of escalation, which is understandably weighing on some people's minds, a nuclear strike is not out of the realm of possibility, but it would most likely not take the form that many fear (e.g. a mutually assured destruction style exchange). Before any nuclear strike we should expect to see more nuclear threats from the Kremlin, backed up by the tangible deployment of tactical nuclear systems in the theater of conflict. 

In Russian doctrine there exists the concept of so-called “nuclear de-escalation”, i.e. ending a conventional conflict by intimidating opponents through limited use of nuclear weapons. Not necessarily targeting an enemy object, but, for example, exploding it in the air or off the coast. The message would be: stop, end this war, sit down at the table, negotiate a settlement because we do not believe you want this. If Zelenskyy were to remain steadfast, a low yield tactical warhead within Ukraine would be the next rung of escalation. 

Likewise, should Russia find itself with full control of, and the ability to formally annex, the Donbass and Kherson regions, they would immediately extend their nuclear umbrella to these territories as a deterrent to Ukrainian counter offensives. Army General Valery Gerasimov, the chief commander of the Russian Armed Forces since 2012 and deputy minister of defense, is believed to have played a role in developing Russian military doctrine, including the concept of de-escalation through a limited nuclear strike. This doctrine reflects the Russian nuclear umbrella concept for limited wars, including possible wars against NATO countries. Consequently, fears of a nuclear exchange are currently unfounded, barring the possibility of misunderstandings such as the Able Archer 83 incident that sent Soviet nuclear forces into a hair trigger state of alert. 

The first form of escalation that we are likely to see in the near term is that of an economic coercion and pressure campaign directed against the public in Ukraine-allied nations. We already have a full view of Russian vertical escalation, and until their armies begin to make significant headway, we should expect that escalation to continue. Broadening the conflict beyond Ukraine is always an option for Putin, but most of those options carry more costs than benefits given the current preoccupation of most military capacity. Though the presence of Russian forces in Transnistria predisposes it to eventual inclusion in the conflict, the present situation does not call for a Russian incursion into the neighboring Odessa region, especially given the significant loss of Russian naval power in the Black Sea after the sinking of the Moskva. Although it is a vain effort to predict the course of any war with true certainty, we can be assured that even in the most ideal circumstances, Putin won't lose this war without trying to make Ukraine unviable as a state. The escalation is going to continue, and we in the West must be prepared to endure it, because we already know that the Ukrainians will.

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