Preparing for Putin's Next Escalation
What the United States can do head off what might come next in Ukraine
America’s policy and political discussions surrounding the Russian war against Ukraine tend to revolve around the prospect that any U.S. move might set off an uncontrollable spiral of escalation that would invariably lead to global thermonuclear war. President Biden himself claimed that any clash between NATO and Russian forces in Ukraine would almost automatically lead to World War III. Outside government, analysts and academics have wrung their hands and worried that an assertive American approach to the conflict in Ukraine might lead to a wider war with Russia. These voices typically counsel some form of self-deterrence that effectively rewards the Kremlin’s aggression out of fear that the United States and its allies might provoke a trigger-happy and barely-stable Putin to angrily lash out against NATO with any means at his disposal.
But our own debate has become so preoccupied with premonitions of inadvertent escalation on our part that we’re ill-prepared for deliberate escalation on Putin’s part. Indeed, we’re already seeing rhetoric and actions from the Kremlin that may foretell moves to dramatically escalate Russia’s war against Ukraine.
There are five main ways Putin could deliberately escalate his war on Ukraine:
1. Chemical weapons. Russia supposedly destroyed its Cold War-era chemical weapons stockpile in 2017, in accordance with its obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Since then, however, Moscow has used Novichok nerve agent on at least two separate occasions in assassination attempts on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018 and opposition political leader Alexei Navalny in 2020. What’s more, Putin supported the Assad regime in Syria as it used chemical weapons like sarin nerve agent against ordinary Syrians, shielding it from even minimal accountability and repeatedly smearing Syria’s White Helmets emergency responders as perpetrators of chemical weapons atrocities.
Moscow has already begun making the same sort of false claims about Ukraine, fabricating obviously counterfeit narratives about Ukrainian government biological and chemical weapons programs – narratives that have been picked up and amplified by the Chinese government as well as American fellow travelers like Glenn Greenwald and Tucker Carlson. In other words, Russia appears to be revving up a propaganda campaign that could justify its own use of chemical weapons at some point in the near future. The United States, Great Britain, and NATO have all warned that this Russian disinformation effort could be a prelude to Moscow’s own decision to unleash chemical weapons as its conventional military offensive in Ukraine stalls out. For his part, President Biden stated that Russia would pay a “severe” if unspecified price if it uses chemical weapons in Ukraine.
2. Downing commercial aircraft. As with chemical weapons use, Moscow’s bloody reputation precedes it here: the Netherlands and Australia hold Russia responsible for the deployment of the Russian-manned surface-to-air missile system that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine and killed 298 people in July 2014. In a transparent attempt to shut down the flow of Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, moreover, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson cited the “enormous risk to international civil aviation” posed by such missiles in a March 5 statement. In light of Moscow’s own track record, it’s hard not to view this declaration as a threat.
Right now, the risk to commercial aviation appears low. Ukraine closed its airspace to all civil air traffic on February 24, while the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, and Germany have all banned flights to Ukraine. There simply aren’t any commercial aircraft flying over Ukraine that could be shot down. Nor, thanks to Russia’s own flight bans, will too many commercial aircraft be skirting the war zone – including the airspace of Russian ally Belarus. Still, the threat that Russian forces might shoot down a civilian airliner on purpose or, more likely, by accident should not be considered an idle one.
3. Cyberattacks. So far, Russia’s invasion hasn’t been accompanied by the expected massive cyberattacks against Ukrainian computer networks. That’s due in part to the fact that the United States quietly bolstered Ukrainian cyber-defenses at the end of last year, but it’s also probable that Moscow simply hasn’t brought its full capabilities to bear. Indeed, a Slovakian cybersecurity firm discovered a new strain of destructive malware in Ukrainian networks on March 14 – the third such strain found since just before the start of the war. Nor have Russian hackers targeted the United States or its NATO allies, though malware targeting Ukraine has already spread to the computer networks of NATO member nations Latvia and Lithuania.
But while full-blown cyberattacks haven’t yet occurred, that doesn’t mean they won’t. There may be more malware embedded in Ukrainian computer networks that has yet to be activated, malware that may also be present in the networks of America’s NATO allies as well. More worryingly, Putin could choose to escalate with a deliberate cyberattack against American and NATO computer networks. While the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency says there are no “specific or credible cyber threats” to the United States at the moment, ransomware attacks like last year’s Colonial Pipeline shutdown represent only the tip of the potential iceberg here.
4. Attacks on NATO members – especially bases involved in supplying arms to Ukrainian forces. President Biden has made it crystal clear that the United States would meet its “sacred obligation” to defend its NATO allies in the event of a Russian attack on a member nation. Such an attack may seem exceedingly foolhardy given the difficulties the Russian military – and in particular the Russian air force – has had so far in prosecuting its offensive in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine. But that doesn’t make a Russian attack against a NATO member impossible, and Moscow could go after arms supply routes or the NATO bases these arms transit through. Indeed, Russian officials have already stated that they consider these shipments “legitimate targets,” and a Russian cruise missile attack targeted the Ukrainian military base on the Polish border where U.S. troops trained their Ukrainian counterparts.
It's unclear just how the United States and its allies are sending weapons to Ukrainian forces, but presumably it’s over land routes. Russia’s military has yet to demonstrate the competence necessary to hit these moving targets, which may make strikes against NATO bases appear more tempting to Moscow. However, direct attacks against third countries materially supporting one side in a conflict don’t have much historical precedent; both the United States and Soviet Union refrained from hitting enemy safe havens during the Korean, Vietnam, and Afghanistan wars. What’s more, an attack on a NATO member state would activate the alliance’s Article V collective defense obligations. When combined with Russia’s now-manifest military deficiencies, a decision to lash out at NATO seems risky to the point of suicidal for the Kremlin.
5. Nuclear weapons. It’s unlikely in the extreme, but we shouldn’t assume it’s impossible that Putin would order the Russian military to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons have factored into the Kremlin’s distorted strategic calculus since the start of the war. Putin has already made two nuclear threats over the past three weeks – one a thinly-veiled warning against external intervention as he announced the invasion, the other an increase in the alert status of Russian nuclear forces a couple days later. Russian officials also later accused Ukraine of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and building a dirty bomb.
We can’t rule out the possibility that Putin might resort to nuclear weapons in order to cut the Gordian knot he’s tied for himself in Ukraine. He’s reportedly become increasingly isolated over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, living in his own hall of mirrors and inclined to believe his own propaganda. Still, former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev argues that Putin’s nuclear threats constitute evidence of his fundamental rationality: “The Kremlin knows it can try to extract concessions, whether from Ukraine or the West, by saber-rattling its last remaining card in the deck: nuclear weapons.”
How should the United States and its allies respond to the possibility of deliberate escalation by Putin? It’s hard to give definitive answers here; we’re in largely uncharted geopolitical territory. But here are some initial ideas:
Issue clear and explicit warnings against attacks on NATO territory for any reason. President Biden has rightly made clear to all concerned that the United States will honor its collective defense obligations to its NATO allies. But both he and other NATO leaders should go further and specify in clear and uncompromising terms what Russia should expect if it violates NATO territory in any way. Russian military aircraft will be shot down if they stray into NATO airspace and refuse to turn back when told. Any attack against a NATO base would risk a retaliatory strike against the Russian units responsible. The Kremlin would be foolish to compound its initial strategic blunder by escalating with a strike on a NATO member nation, but the United States and its allies can best deter such a move by removing any doubt or ambiguity about their own response to a potential Russian attack.
Clear, personal warnings to Russian military commanders against chemical weapons use, targeting civil aviation, and especially nuclear weapons use. The United States and its allies should make the consequences of complicity or participation in the worst possible war crimes – whether chemical weapons use or the downing of civilian aircraft – exceedingly clear to the Russian military commanders ordered to carry them out. That would require good intelligence and penetration of Russian computer networks, but this task seems feasible based on what we’ve seen from the U.S. intelligence community over the past several months. These messages should contain an appeal to disobey obviously illegal and immoral orders from the Kremlin – especially in the highly improbable but not impossible event that Putin gives orders to use nuclear weapons.
Establish cyber-deterrence. In normal times, cyber-deterrence may not be a terribly useful concept. Does it make sense to respond to a state-sponsored ransomware attack in kind, all else being equal? But in current conditions, the idea that the United States and its NATO allies would mount retaliatory cyberattacks against Russia makes a good deal more sense. Indeed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has already stated that a sufficiently harmful cyberattack could activate the alliance’s Article V collective defense provisions. President Biden should also make it clear that any Russian cyberattack against the United States and its allies would trigger an attack of similar nature against Russian computer networks.
Get out ahead of potential Russian escalation. Despite some criticism at the time, the United States got out ahead of Russian attempts to sell its invasion of Ukraine by releasing its intelligence assessments of Moscow’s intentions and capabilities. It needs to do the same for the Kremlin’s efforts to lay the groundwork for potential escalation, whatever form it may take. We’ve seen a similar bid to get ahead of possible Russian chemical weapons use, but the United States needs to be ready to turn up the volume on these warnings if necessary.
Ultimately, the United States and its NATO allies need to stop outlining what they won’t do and begin to establish what they will do if Putin deliberately escalates his war in Ukraine. As commendable as their overall response to the Kremlin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine has been so far, the United States and its allies still have yet to move on from the reactive position they’ve been in since the start of this crisis late last year. A firm articulation of the actions they’ll take in the event of further Russian escalation in Ukraine would be a good place for the United States and its allies to start.