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How much more can the war in Ukraine escalate?

A lot of Americans want to do something more about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What is possible and what is not?

Russian S-400 missile air defense systems are seen during a training exercise at a military base in the Kaliningrad region of Russia on Aug. 11, 2020. (Reuters)
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As the war in Ukraine continues unabated, one emerging narrative is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has retained escalation dominance. Ukraine matters more to him than to the West. In a worst-case scenario Russia can escalate to the use of chemical, biological or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and that threat stops NATO cold.

Putin has been unafraid to threaten NATO directly. In the early days of the war, he announced that he had put Russian nuclear forces on high alert. Putin also declared that the sanctions against Russia were tantamount to a declaration of war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov subsequently warned that anyone transporting weapons to Ukraine would be considered a “legitimate target” by the Russian military. On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN International that Russia would go so far as to use nuclear weapons if it faced an “existential threat.”

Many Western commentators believe that Russia’s bellicose threats have effectively cowed the United States into limiting its response. For example, last week my Washington Post colleague David Ignatius, reflecting the opinions of foreign policy observers, concluded: “a nuclear power can engage in vicious regional aggression without paying the most severe price. America and its NATO allies are deterred in this conflict, but Russia isn’t. The paradox of our restraint is that it enables the unrestrained. Somehow, the balance of deterrence must be restored.”

Let me offer a somewhat different take on the current situation.

First, what the United States, its allies and partners are doing right now for Ukraine is not insignificant. The economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Russia have been greater than expected and hit the Russian economy pretty hard. There is additional evidence that the sanctions will, over time, incapacitate Russia’s manufacturing sector, including its military-industrial complex.

Beyond that, NATO is sending significant amounts of weaponry to Ukraine. It seems as though those weapons are being put to good use. Then there is the very near real-time sharing of intelligence and information, which also appears to be making a difference.

Combined, the NATO-led sanctions, military aid and intelligence sharing are all crucial pillars of support for Ukraine’s fight.

At the same time, President Biden has made it clear that he wants to avoid NATO forces in direct engagement with Russian forces. Given the ability of such engagement to escalate quickly into World War III, that seems wise. So escalatory steps like no-fly zones are unwise.

Second, it is becoming less clear to me that Putin’s escalatory threats are anything more than bluffs. Take the so-called nuclear high alert. I have seen neither independent reports nor U.S. intelligence confirming that there has been any change in alert status. This is the kind of announcement that made a lot of waves — but absent action, suggests that Putin was bluffing. The same holds for Russia’s other nuclear threats or Putin’s conflation of sanctions with war. This is hostile rhetoric, to be sure. At the same time, Russian forces have not attacked any NATO installations — 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 have prosecuted this war with concern for minimizing civilian casualties. Whether that is true, such a claim would seem risible after using a nuclear weapon, the fallout of which would affect Russia proper. This feels like yet another bluff.

Third, just because the Biden administration wants to avoid a war with Russia does not mean there is no way to ratchet up additional support for Ukraine — and use the threat of such a ratchet to coercively pressure Russia. For example, the shipment of S-300 and S-400 systems would certainly enhance Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian air attacks. The shipment of more sophisticated fighter aircraft would have a similar effect.

Also, as Russia diverts more of its forces to Ukraine, its ability to intervene elsewhere in its periphery becomes more difficult. This matters 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 might have Jake Sullivan go on a Sunday morning show and say that the United States is not interested in further escalation but seeing carnage in places like Mariupol tugs at the heartstrings of Americans. Unless the Russian military were to moderate its artillery and aerial bombardment of Ukrainian cities, NATO might have no choice but to transfer more sophisticated weaponry to the Zelensky government as a humanitarian gesture.

Maybe in that same interview, Sullivan might sympathize with Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s recent call for Russian forces to leave Transnistria. Or question whether the Belarusian military really wants to get dragged into a war in Ukraine (it doesn’t.).

Are these moves entirely without risk? No, of course not. But they are much less risky than establishing a no-fly zone and put greater pressure on Putin. At a minimum, they are worth exploring.