Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Photos: AFP / Sergey Mamontov / Sputnik

Russia has its back against the wall. Western analysts have missed this fact. Indeed, they have completely misinterpreted Russia’s “escalation ladder,” the technical term for the set of responses Russia sees at each stage of the Ukraine war. The “gas weapon” that Russia has just employed, a full supply cut, signals the Kremlin’s long-term intention of decoupling from Europe.

However, celebration of the Russian regime’s collapse are premature. Indeed, circumspection is called for: Russia has yet to receive the benefit of Chinese support in full. President Vladimir Putin’s final gamble is this China card. The US and its allies must be prepared for a rapid, severe decoupling event at some point within the next six months.

Limited war

It is a singular irony that Russia has posed an economic threat to the West, not a military one. Russia has never crossed the West’s clearest red line: It has not attacked a single target within NATO territory, nor even staged a major cyberattack or intelligence-facilitated sabotage operation within a NATO member state. 

It has, however, weaponized oil and gas to an extreme degree, reaping the profits of higher energy prices while intermittently cutting off or reducing petrochemical exports to a dependent Europe.

The tools of each actor in this standoff between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should be considered. Russia has far less room to escalate than NATO.

A heuristic common in strategic theory, the “escalation ladder,” is helpful in understanding Russian and NATO strategic options. A term borrowed from nuclear and strategic theorist Herman Kahn, an escalation ladder provides a taxonomy of crisis. 

Kahn divided escalation into a ladder. Its “rungs” were actions of different severity that employed different capabilities. Kahn’s concern was nuclear escalation. His escalation ladder, complete with 44 rungs and six break points, begins with ostensible crisis, and runs to “spasm war,” the uncontrolled use of nuclear arms against an adversary with no clear theory of victory, and only a desire to cause maximum suffering.  

On Kahn’s escalation ladder, we are at some point between Rung 9, “Dramatic Military Confrontations,” and Rung 14, “limited conventional war.” The structure of the current crisis transcends this theoretical model, but its precepts apply: considering Russian nuclear saber-rattling, its high nuclear alert status, and more recently, its mischief around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant in Enerhodar, Europe’s largest reactor. 

Events and threats have crossed the “nuclear war is unthinkable” threshold but have yet to cross the “no nuclear use” threshold. 

However, Kahn’s escalation-ladder taxonomy can be applied to specific states. This sheds light on another crucial Cold War concept, that of “escalation control.” 

Intuitively, confrontations have steps or levels: Sanctions or restrained military actions are distinct from, for example, major air strikes, a limited or full-scale invasion, or nuclear war. Certain actors would prefer a crisis to remain at a specific level, not necessarily a lower level, but at a level best suited to their capabilities. If one state can establish escalation control, that is, exhibit superior capabilities at every level of a crisis, it is more likely to enforce its will.

The Ukraine conflict, as a limited war, has rules. This separates it from its so-called total war cousin. The Ukraine war’s rules regulate combatants. NATO has agreed to refrain from active combat against Russia. In return, Russia refrains from strikes on NATO territory. 

Russia has flirted with escalation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense at multiple points, but NATO signaling has demonstrated the danger of such a move: At minimum, CBRN-related damage to NATO territory could trigger Article 5, the collective-defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty. 

Indeed, far from risking greater escalation with Russia, direct NATO intelligence and targeting support for Ukraine restrains it by demonstrating to Russia what NATO could do as an active combatant.

Both combatants can choose to violate the limited war’s rules. Neither wishes to do so. NATO would have an advantage in a broader war with Russia, but Russia could then easily cross the nuclear threshold in response, a move that NATO desperately wishes to avoid. Hence NATO is unlikely to revise the limited war’s terms. 

Nor does Russia have a reason to revise the war’s territorial conditions – it has even refrained from interdicting Western supply convoys in Ukraine to prevent an escalatory reaction. Russia could escalate by declaring war and mobilizing, but this would not trigger NATO intervention, and hence is unlikely to change the limited war’s rules.

Russia’s escalatory trap

Russia’s issue at this point is twofold: an erosion of deterrence credibility within the war’s current rule set and an erosion of punishment capabilities against NATO

On the first point, Ukraine – almost certainly with the West’s blessing – has conducted an interdiction campaign against targets in Crimea. Technically, this violated a perceived Russian red line: It was a strike against “Russian territory” and should have triggered counter-escalation. Russia, however, refrained from a clear response. 

In part, this stems from skillful Ukrainian staging: Ukraine first struck Russian territory on February 25, attacking an airfield in Rostov Oblast, and since then has sporadically sabotaged targets in western Russia with no direct Russian retaliation.  

Ukraine’s Crimea strikes were more robust, but still well staged. Not only did they hit critical military targets, they were also coupled with offensive pressure in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. Russia’s lack of response invites more probing, as its threats of massive retaliation have become less believable. 

CBRN use at a level that dramatically changes facts on the ground is unlikely, as it would raise the odds of NATO intervention. Russia is already executing what interdiction strikes it can, and although mobilization would escalate the conflict, it would lack deterrence value and carry severe domestic risks.

In turn, by cutting off petrochemical exports to Europe indefinitely, Russia has deprived itself of the final tool it has to pressure the Europe short of war. A confident Russia would willingly export to Europe despite sanctions, ensuring sustained revenues and grinding forward in Ukraine. 

But Putin’s Russia is not confident. It has sent a final, stinging political rebuke to Europe that, in the long term, fully decouples Russia from the European energy system. There will be pain for some months, perhaps as long as two years, but Europe will no longer see Russia as a trustworthy long-term energy provider. 

Some leakage will occur, particularly through Iran if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is re-implemented. But this will not rebuild Russian credibility. Nor does Russia now have a final lever to pull, a last instrument of manipulation to exploit. European resolve may crack, but Russia can no longer influence the situation.

Russia is therefore trapped at the escalation ladder’s current rung. It can neither ascend nor descend. And as Ukrainian pressure increases, this step on the ladder is at risk. 

The cracks have begun to show. Ukraine is pushing on multiple fronts, in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and now Kharkiv. It is highly unlikely that Russia can hold its current positions in the short-term, and absent mobilization, retake them in the long term. Russia has turned to Iran to procure unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs, aka drones) – of uneven quality – and to North Korea for artillery shells, despite Moscow’s supposedly limitless munitions stocks.

Russia could disengage, but that would severely erode Putin’s credibility. A ceasefire is unlikely before Ukraine has at least retaken the south, even if that objective lies several months off: again, having expended its last weapon against Europe in spasmodic, poorly calculated escalation, Europe has nothing to lose from staying the course. 

Mobilization’s domestic risks, again, are extremely high. Russia appears to face a slow, grinding disaster at Ukrainian hands.

The China card

No evidence supports the notion that Russia is irrational. Rather, evidence supports a different proposition: that Putin is a reactive planner and that Russian grand strategy is opportunistic and adaptive

Putin’s actions since 1999 confirm this. He takes what is offered, pressing where possible, enduring where he cannot. He also understands the value in holding the line. Russia did so in Ukraine in late 2014, allowing the political context to shift to Syria, and buying time in Ukraine. 

Ultimately, Russian strategic patience failed to produce a more pliant Ukrainian leader who would enter the Eurasian Economic Union and spurn Europe. Yet when confronted with equally bad choices, patience is often the best course.

In this case, Putin’s back-pocket failsafe is clear. It is the “China card.” 

Russia is holding out until the People’s Republic of China either sparks a Taiwan contingency, redirecting American and allied attention east, or provides Russia with economic and technical support, thereby blunting the effect of Western sanctions and providing Russia with tangible strategic insurance in the long term.

The timing fits almost perfectly. The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China begins on October 16. There are three likely outcomes. 

First, as expected, Xi Jinping will retain power, despite being over the unofficial retirement age of 68. Second, Xi will appoint a slate of loyalists to the Politburo Standing Committee and lower-level positions who ensure his control of the Party and the country. 

Third, and most critically, Xi is set to promote very few younger cadres to leadership positions. He is instead turning to older, loyal allies. This indicates, among other implications, that Xi plans to rule for another two terms: He sees no need to groom a successor. He will have ample time to do so over the next decade.

With his power consolidated, and with his strict surveillance apparatus and exit controls imposed on the Chinese population, Xi can turn his eye toward external affairs. Xi need not order the People’s Liberation Army to move on Taiwan yet, although the Party Congress would be ideal cover for a joint command center to coordinate a Taiwan invasion. However, he can immediately execute several Russian-related actions. 

He can expand military-technological sales with little worry of domestic backlash from resulting capital flight. He can replace lost Western capital with Russian cash that has no other outlet. He can drastically expand purchases of Russian oil and gas. He can set in motion the BRICS financial system that China and Russia have so widely touted over the past months, forming the backbone of a legitimate alternative global system. 

And by decoupling relatively aggressively, he can destroy Euro-American resistance to Russian designs in Europe, triggering a global financial and economic contraction that may paradoxically reduce the economic damage of a Taiwan operation further down the line.

Xi may, and perhaps is far more likely to, remain more restrained. His marathon speech at the 19th Party Congress delivered in October 2017 and running for three and a half hours demonstrates his intentions better than any other announcement. 

Yet the evidence has increased that, first, Russia has few options, and second, China seeks a confrontation with the US and its allies. More likely than not, Putin knows that he holds a China card.

This makes war termination of the utmost importance. Russia must be defeated – that is, removed from Ukraine’s south and, if possible, from Crimea, its military power humbled, and Putin left with no options other than to mobilize or sue for peace. 

Only such a victory will give the US and its allies the flexibility they require to turn to Asia, while still confronting a Russian threat to Europe that despite setbacks is likely to remain live and dangerous.

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.