02.10.23 Review

A War of Nerves and Words: Although Russia has toned down its rhetoric, the West must remain ready for potential escalation

A year and a half of war in Ukraine and the increasing involvement of Western countries in the conflict have not led to the serious escalation that Western analysts feared at the beginning of the war. Ukraine's determination and Western unity have acted as deterrents against Kremlin aggression. However, from the very beginning, the current conflict has been developing along unpredictable trajectories, and analysts have been constantly wrong in their forecasts. And, in the future, events may take unexpected and unforeseen turns. The fact that Moscow has avoided excessive escalation and has toned down its threats, including nuclear threats, likely indicates that the Kremlin considers a protracted conflict as a winning strategy that could drain Ukraine's strength and the West's resolve. Nevertheless, if the balance of power shifts, the Kremlin may revert to a strategy of intimidation. Moreover, analysts at RAND warn that a protracted conflict increases the risk of unintended escalation. Finally, if the protracted war leads to mutual exhaustion, the temptation to end the conflict on their terms, securing a symbolic victory in the eyes of their own population, could push the Kremlin toward more bold actions. Therefore, the West must actively prepare to respond to Moscow's escalation or the threat of it, even when this issue has faded from the current agenda.

As the front has stabilised, talk of escalation (including the threat of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine) has receded into the background. Vladimir Putin and the Russian General Staff have, at least temporarily, abandoned plans for a total defeat of Ukraine and are focusing on securing the 'Crimean corridor' captured in the early months of the conflict. However, in recent weeks, amid successes in countering Ukrainian counteroffensives, Moscow has felt confident enough to discuss plans for a wider occupation of Ukrainian territory and is developing strategies for a large-scale mobilisation that, unlike last year's, would remain largely unnoticed by most of the population.

Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine has been highly unpredictable from its very beginning, and there is a high likelihood that it will remain so in the future. The situation on the front may change because no one knows the extent to which the forces of both sides will be depleted. In a new report by the RAND Corporation focusing on the risks of possible escalation, analysts list past mistakes in predicting the course of the conflict. Putin and his generals planned the invasion poorly, relied on a blitzkrieg approach, and did not anticipate resistance from Kyiv and the united response from the West. The West, in turn, overestimated the power of the Russian Armed Forces and the rationality of the Kremlin, while at the same time underestimating the detachment of the Russian political leadership from quality expertise and the realities of life in general.

Moreover, Western military and political analysts and experts made errors in their predictions about Russia's reaction to NATO and US intervention in the conflict. They seemed to believe that this would lead to a lightning-fast escalation and an attempt to thwart aid, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons. As a result, the West was cautious in providing weapons to Kyiv in the early stages of the conflict. However, the increasing Western support has not led to a ramping up of aggression or a direct response from Moscow. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the growth of Western assistance has not yet outpaced the rate of military production and the strength of the Russian forces, and has therefore not led to a turning point in the course of the war.

Moscow is primarily attempting to operate within a different paradigm, the RAND experts note: a paradigm of prolonging the conflict, hoping for Western fatigue, US elections, and so on. However, protracted warfare and active use of the Russian Aerospace Forces have unintended side effects. For instance, escalation may occur like a domino effect due to unintentional actions or a coincidence of circumstances. Moscow may misinterpret any action by Ukraine or NATO as provocative, serving as a trigger for escalation. Accidents, such as erroneous nuclear threat warnings, could also occur irregardless of the intentions or immediate actions of the parties involved.

The RAND experts point out that prolonged hostilities, third-party intervention, and the active use of drones, aviation, and missiles increase the risk of unintended escalation of the conflict. The report outlines three possible scenarios for such developments: Russian forces might kill NATO representatives, shoot down an American reconnaissance plane, or misinterpret the actions, exercises, or troop movements of the alliance.

However, even if we exclude randomness as a factor, it should be kept in mind that Russia may intentionally escalate the conflict. This could happen in the event of a significant threat to Russian forces, an attack on Crimea, or even intensified strikes on Russian territory. The experts identify several types of possible deliberate escalation by Moscow: direct conflict between Russia and NATO, provoking conflicts in other territories, large-scale air and missile attacks, the use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons, and underground nuclear tests.

The RAND analysts note that so far de-escalation factors have outweighed escalation factors, but there are no guarantees that this situation will not change. In particular, a protracted war could lead to mutual exhaustion and a desire to end the conflict on one's own terms, securing a symbolic victory for one's own population. In such a case, the escalation of the conflict may have the ultimate goal of strengthening one's own position in the negotiation process. However, the worst-case scenario would be realised in the event of political turbulence in Russia: if the remaining checks and balances cease to function, Vladimir Putin may decide to launch a nuclear strike on Ukraine.

In other words, the absence of a threat of escalation at the moment is primarily linked to the Kremlin's positive assessment of the dynamics on the frontlines and the domestic political situation. From Moscow's perspective, the current balance of power favours the scenario of a protracted conflict, leading to the depletion of Ukraine's resources and Western patience. Such an outcome is seen as favourable in the Kremlin. However, if this balance of power shifts not in Moscow’s favour, the world may once again face the threats of escalation and hear nuclear sabre-rattling from the Kremlin.