This handout photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry on April 22, 2021, shows Russian forces attending military drills in the Opuk training ground not far from the town of Kerch, just east of Crimea. Photo: AFP / Vadim Savitsky / Russian Defense Ministry

Six months into the Ukraine war, the conflict’s escalation pattern seems relatively predictable. However, Western observers may be anticipating escalation in the wrong place. 

Russia is demonstrating the capability to make trouble for the West in the Indo-Pacific region. The US and its allies should anticipate this, both deterring Russian horizontal escalation beyond Ukraine and forcing Russia to redirect assets from its ground war.

Despite prewar anxiety, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not spiraled into a great-power war. Russia periodically strikes targets within Ukrainian population centers, and the West lodges its complaints, while Russia complains after Ukrainian strikes in Crimea. However, Russia, the West and Ukraine refrain from crossing two red lines, attacks on NATO territory or strikes within Russia using conventional long-range weapons. 

The Crimea situation is illustrative: Ukraine has pursued a selective and incremental campaign to erode Russia’s supposed red line over its “territory,” but it has not conducted a similar interdiction campaign in Russia’s Belgorod or Kursk oblasts, despite the operational advantages such a campaign would afford Ukraine.

The escalatory scenarios that dominated prewar Western concerns seem less relevant. However, there are alternative escalatory patterns beyond Europe for which US planning should be concerned. Russia is signaling its ability to pressure the American-backed coalition in the Indo-Pacific region.

Events since February 24 have demonstrated that the US has a serious Russia-related strategic blind spot. Russia was assessed as a major land power that could overrun North Atlantic Treaty Organization positions in the Baltic and Ukraine within weeks. It was also assessed as economically irrelevant. 

The war has proved both assumptions dubious. Russian military power is compromised, but Russia has employed its economic capabilities to effect, intensifying the West’s inflationary crisis to undermine Western morale. 

Time will tell if Russia can survive economically longer than the West – evidence indicates that, while Western media emphasize Europe’s economic plight, the Russian economy is near collapse, with only the organizational talents of financial-economic technocrats as a shallow moat against disaster. 

Regardless, Russia at least wishes to cultivate the impression of long-term strength and has bet on a perceived “commodity war” strategy to choke Western will.

Naval threat

Russian naval power, however, is the underappreciated element in Western assessments. The Russian Navy has taken damage, most notably losing the Moskva in April. It was also unable to maintain sea control – hence Ukraine’s ability to drive Russia from Snake Island and conduct its pressure campaign in Kherson Oblast and Crimea. 

Nevertheless, the Russian Navy has experienced far less combat damage than any other instrument of Russian hard power. Moreover, prior to the war, Russia invested heavily in naval modernization and fortification, resurrecting its bastion around the Kola Peninsula, and developing a bastion in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Considering the damage Russian ground forces have received and the growing portion of resources operations in Ukraine demand, Russia’s navy is the most viable power-projection force left to the Kremlin. Pressure in Europe is possible. However, with Sweden and Finland nearing NATO membership, a surge in the High North becomes less viable by the day, and the Kaliningrad exclave increasingly jeopardized.

Russia’s opportunities in the Pacific are expansive. Although its capabilities are more limited than in Europe, Russia’s Pacific Fleet is a substantial force, with some 40-plus surface combatants and nearly two dozen submarines. 

Some of these forces will be in poor condition. But Russia has demonstrated its ability to deploy a notable part of them. 

Sino-Russian alignment

Immediately before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s Pacific Fleet exercised with the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy. In June, the Pacific Fleet deployed around 40 warships in a large-scale anti-submarine exercise. And last week, 14 Russian warships transited into the Sea of Japan, likely in preparation for Vostok 2022, Russia’s annual large-scale exercise, this year held in the Eastern Military District.

Russia recognizes its disadvantages vis-à-vis NATO in Europe. However, the Indo-Pacific region offers Moscow opportunities. US naval forces are numerically superior. But they, alongside the forces of American allies, are fixated on China. 

The PLA has exercised around the Taiwan Strait almost constantly since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August. And the longer the Ukraine war continues, the greater will be the strain on US and allied military stockpiles, weakening their Indo-Pacific position. 

Russia is unlikely to attack the US directly in Asia. However, various displays of force are possible, each of which could divert American attention. Russian submarines may resume patrols off the US coastline as they did during the Cold War, Russia may employ its electronic-warfare capabilities to jam, spoof, and otherwise harass US forces, and Russia may shadow American and Japanese warships or repeatedly violate Japanese territorial waters.

Most worrying would be Russian participation in a Taiwan contingency. The cross-Strait balance is already nearly even – this does not imply that China would conquer Taiwan rapidly, but that the US no longer has the capabilities to control escalation in a Taiwan war. Even limited Sino-Russian cooperation, for example the deployment of Russian submarines in the Philippine Sea, or Russian surface combatant pressure against Japan, could tip the cross-Strait balance in China’s favor.

The US should recognize Russia’s capabilities and consider its intentions. Moscow’s Pacific naval capacity and increasingly public alignment with China indicate the likelihood of some Russian Indo-Pacific pressure that will expand as the war in Ukraine drags on.

Divide and deter

Paradoxically, however, Russian Indo-Pacific activity presents the US with an opportunity to divide Russian resources and undermine its combat power in Ukraine without firing a shot.

As noted above, the Sea of Okhotsk is one of Russia’s two strategic bastions, protected maritime spaces where Russian ballistic-missile submarines can remain safe from an enemy and still fulfill their deterrence missions. 

Russia deploys the majority of its ballistic missile submarines with the Northern Fleet. But at least four – perhaps five, although as with all Russian naval capabilities, numbers can be spotty – ballistic-missile submarines are deployed with the Pacific Fleet. 

A series of major anti-submarine exercises involving American and Japanese warships and submarines, supported with the necessary aerial assets, would put the Okhotsk bastion at risk. 

The US could even employ one of its Expeditionary Strike Groups in this exercise, simulating amphibious assaults against Russian positions on Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands. This would demonstrate the United States’ ability to pressure Russian nuclear-second-strike assets, demanding a reorientation of military forces to the Far East and reducing Russian combat power in Ukraine. 

Threatening the bastions where Soviet ballistic-missile submarines lay in waters that had been thought secure diverted Moscow’s attention in the Cold War’s final years. It would have the same effect today. We should anticipate and plan for Russian horizontal escalation outside Europe.

Seth Cropsey

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a US naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the navy, and is the author of the books Mayday and Seablindness.