As the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds on and the death toll mounts – and Ukrainian resistance holds up under the Russian assault – the threat of escalation is high. Since we live in the age of asymmetry, escalation in unpredictable and unconventional ways from Russia is more likely, not less so.
In such a world, deterrence is dead and compellence is the name of the game.
Whereas deterrence is inherently defensive and is predicated upon actors not taking offensive action lest they be punished with in-kind retaliation from an enemy in possession of similar military strength, compellence is offensive in nature and highly destabilizing.
Despite having such conventional military strength, because the Americans misunderstand the rules of the new great-power game, Washington has invited massive unconventional retaliation from Russian President Vladimir Putin – who is a maximalist at heart, seeking to restore lost Russian geopolitical power at all costs.
The world according to the Kremlin
Besides, in the eyes of the Kremlin’s leadership, Washington and Brussels have already initiated an unwarranted escalation. The moment that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began sending arms and other forms of aid to the desperate Ukrainian resistance, one of Moscow’s “red lines” had been breached.
After Washington enacted the most onerous economic sanctions against Moscow in recent history, in effect sending Russia’s economy back to the dark days of the 1990s in about 15 days, Russo-American relations have already reached the point of no return. Washington’s sanctions are the equivalent of having dropped a thermonuclear weapon on Moscow.
Further, by slamming Russia’s economy the way that Washington has done, it has ensured that Vladimir Putin’s position atop Russia’s government is threatened. So when Putin rails against illicit attempts to force a regime change in Moscow, he isn’t necessarily wrong. That is the purpose of the American sanctions.
What this means is that Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule has little left to lose as it looks to escalate asymmetrically against the West. To compound matters, President Joe Biden continues announcing what the United States will not do in response to Russian provocations, which is hardly any way to manage such an asymmetrical ordeal.
Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons – Russia has a large arsenal of these destructive systems. Russia under Vladimir Putin appears more than willing to risk a wider war with the West using such weapons. Additionally, Russia has significant capabilities in space and cyberspace weapons.
Any of these domains could be the place where Moscow ultimately chooses to escalate suddenly and unpredictably as retaliation for the economic nuking of Russia by the West.
As the ties that once bound Russia and the West together – however limited they were – are cut, and as Putin has overcommitted himself to the invasion of Ukraine, it is unlikely that he will simply back down in the face of stiff Western opposition. At least Putin will not back down before extracting a terrible place from Ukraine (and possibly the wider West) in blood and treasure.
Cyberwar in the next few weeks?
It is in the realm of cyberspace that American strategists must be most concerned about near-term and uncontrollable escalation. While Russia cannot retaliate against Washington in the same manner that Washington used to weaken Russia (with sanctions), Russia can cripple the US economy by attacking specific weak points of America’s infrastructure in cyberspace.
Last year, when Biden met with Putin, the American leader presented a list of 16 US cyberspace targets that he deemed as being “off-limits” to Russian attack.
In essence, any attempt by Moscow to target and attack these 16 soft spots in America’s cyber infrastructure would constitute an act of war in the eyes of Washington, and retaliation would follow.
While the Biden administration may have believed that such openness would create deterrence, what it likely did was convince the Russians that if they struck in those 16 areas during a crisis, such as the one we are living through, they might debilitate the Americans so badly that the US could not wage war against Russia in Europe.
Everyone in the US would be too busy recovering from the Russian onslaught in cyberspace to continue aiding Russia’s rivals in Europe. The costs of retaliation would be too high for most Americans to bear.
Therefore, Washington would either retaliate in a weaker way than American leaders would ordinarily favor. Or the Russian cyberattacks could be so devastating that it might force Washington into a conciliatory stance with Russia, lest the US endure more devastating Russian attacks.
The space war is here
Similarly, in the strategic high ground of space, the world has already witnessed Russia’s flirtation with escalation. Since 2018, Moscow has launched a series of co-orbital satellites that could tailgate sensitive American satellites in orbit and destroy or disable those systems to render US forces on Earth deaf, dumb, and blind.
Last November, Russia surprised the world when it launched a massive anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test that destroyed a derelict Soviet-era satellite in orbit – and nearly destroyed the International Space Station (ISS). That was a clear signal from Moscow to Washington, which at the time was warning the world about what was then Russia’s military buildup along their border with Ukraine.
The message from Moscow was that if the West intervened against Russia in Ukraine, Moscow would strike against its vital-yet-vulnerable satellites in orbit. Just as with full-scale cyberattacks on sensitive American infrastructure, total war waged upon American satellites would basically send the United States back 50 years and remove the Americans as a major threat to Russian irredentism in Europe.
Let’s take a moment and look at the realm of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapon escalation by Moscow.
Since 2016, Russia has surged its vast and modern arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave nestled between Poland and Germany.
In recent days, Putin himself has warned his American interlocutors of his willingness to employ nuclear weapons in his ill-advised invasion of Ukraine – especially as the conflict there drags on. So, too, could Putin deploy chemical and/or biological weapons (which may be in the offing soon).
As for asymmetrical escalation, need we forget that Russia fired a hypersonic missile at a NATO weapons supply depot in the supposedly “safe” western Ukrainian city of Lviv? This represented the first time a hypersonic weapon was used in battle (although there are unconfirmed reports that Russia has used this weapon in Syria in the past decade).
Just as with Russia’s ASAT weapons test in November, this was Moscow’s signal to Washington that it needed to back off from its unfettered support of the Ukrainian resistance – or else.
This is not the first time a Putin-led military intervention has gone upside-down, and the Kremlin has attempted to use brute force and asymmetrical escalation fundamentally to change the facts on the ground.
The world witnessed how far Putin would go to make a point in a war that was not exactly going as he had planned when, despite seeking a negotiated settlement with the Russian breakaway province of Chechnya, he utterly leveled the capital city Grozny.
Those insisting these things cannot happen in the Ukrainian war because it would only prolong the conflict or because Putin fears American reprisals miss the point. Putin does not fear American reprisals partly because he thinks the United States is unserious.
Further, Putin doesn’t care about American reprisals because he thinks he can best the Americans with his unconventional capabilities. Whether he can or not remains to be seen. What matters, however, is that Putin is in a place where he thinks he can beat the Americans at this game – and where he has no other option but to try.
The best-case scenario for Putin is that he gets to be as savage as he wants in Ukraine and still walk away with a negotiated settlement that neutralizes Ukraine and gives him control over at least the eastern half of the besieged nation. At worst, Putin triggers a world war that no will win – but it won’t matter to him because he’ll probably be as dead as the rest of us.
One cannot economically nuke a country, as the United States has done, like Russia and expect nothing to happen in the way of retaliation. Because Russia is not conventionally militarily equal with the Americans, Moscow won’t bother to escalate in a predictable or fair way, as it often did during the darkest moments of the Cold War. Instead, Putin will go for America’s jugular and see how much blood he can draw before the fighting stops.
This isn’t the Cold War (which was more of a gentleman’s duel at dawn). This is a brass-knuckle street fight – and the West isn’t prepared for the broken bottle that Putin is about to whack America with soon.
What’s more, sadly, Western policies got us into this fight, and Western policies keep making everything bloodier.