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Putin meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 7, 2022 (Photo Elysee.fr)

The West’s fear of escalation is Russia’s greatest weapon

Nothing has contributed to the escalation of Russia’s wars more than the Western fear of angering Russia
Putin meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 7, 2022 (Photo Elysee.fr)
The West’s fear of escalation is Russia’s greatest weapon

After the end of the Cold War, terms like atomic diplomacy and nuclear blackmailing seemed to become obsolete. Yet, it took less than two decades for them not only to resurface but also to re-enter mainstream discourse, raising questions about the real risks of nuclear escalation.

In 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin lamented, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” These words encapsulated Russia’s revisionist agenda, signaling growing ambitions to reestablish once-lost influence.

In less than a decade, Russia officially annexed territories of another independent state in Europe. These ambitions have continued to grow, now aiming to reshape the post-Cold War security order in Europe, challenging NATO’s current structure.

Given Russia’s diminished power compared to the Soviet Union and the economic, demographic, and military superiority of NATO countries, it seemed improbable for Russia to coerce the West or assert its will over it.

How did Russia manage not only to annex territories but also to emerge as a real threat to the security of the West?

To answer these questions, we must understand the evolving role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s strategy, the risks of escalation, and the principles that transform these weapons into tools for exerting influence and political leverage rather than for actual warfare.

Escalation management and Russia

Escalation management is a strategic concept that aims to prevent conflicts from escalating into more widespread and destructive confrontations, such as nuclear warfare.

By exploiting vulnerabilities in the West’s current political establishment’s approach to escalation management, Russia has influenced the quantity and quality of Western aid to Ukraine through a tactic known as reflexive control.

More about Russian reflexive control in our video: A guide to Russian propaganda. Part 5: Reflexive Control

This tactic involves presenting specific information to an opponent to influence their decisions in favor of the initiator’s desired outcome.

In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials have timed nuclear drills or threats to coincide with critical Western decisions about aid to Ukraine, aiming to deter support for Ukraine.

Such tactics also played a significant role in 2014-2015, convincing European leaders like Angela Merkel to pursue peace resolutions in Ukraine on Russia’s terms. Fearing conventional or even nuclear escalation, these leaders adopted what they considered “responsible” politics.

Fearing a Russian nuclear escalation, Western leaders have adopted what they considered “responsible” politics

Thanks to reflexive control, each successive step on the escalation ladder is perceived as more disadvantageous to the United States and Europe than to Russia. This allows Russia to retain the initiative in terms of timing and location of escalation, deterring the West from taking actions that Russia deems undesirable.

Unlike escalation dominance, where one side can decisively win, both Russia and the US are equally capable of destroying each other (mutually assured destruction, or MAD), ensuring no winner.

So where does Russia’s escalation advantage come from? It stems from Russia’s perceived readiness to escalate and use non-strategic or strategic nuclear weapons in response to actions it might deem as leading to its strategic defeat. This approach can be especially effective against risk-averse adversaries unwilling to escalate to preserve the status quo.

As a result, Russia perceives this situation as a window of opportunity that should be exploited until the response from the West outweighs the potential benefits of Russia’s actions.

In the case of Ukraine, Russia claims that the country is vital for its national security and part of its sphere of influence, justifying nuclear escalation in response to any interference.

The designation of entire countries as vital parts of a sphere of influence can be largely subjective and is often used as political leverage and justification for aggressive action. For example, Russia might argue that previous NATO expansions pose an existential threat, demanding that NATO’s borders and memberships revert to their pre-1999 stage.

However, such overt and assertive threats to the West on core issues like NATO’s existence are unlikely to yield any tangible results for Russia. Therefore, to manage escalation while achieving geopolitical goals, Russia employs what experts term “Salami slicing tactics” — tactics involving incremental, limited actions to expand influence while mitigating the risk of escalation.

In such a situation, Russia’s small territorial gains may initially appear insignificant compared to the risk of nuclear warfare. To better understand this dynamic, we need to examine the timeline of escalation.

Reflecting on the past decade of Russian aggression

Russia threatens escalation Ukraine
Compilation of headlines from The New York Times, Deutsche Welle, Foreign Policy, Atlantic Council, and Jacobin

In 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, Putin warned unnamed Western leaders that Russia was ready to set its nuclear forces to combat readiness, a fact he later admitted in a 2015 interview. After the successful occupation of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine, Russia continued to deter the West from providing substantial aid to Ukraine by threatening to escalate the war further.

Besides official statements, Russian domestic and international channels like Russia Today, along with pundits and sensationalist journalists, continued to spread the nuclear threat narrative and the fear of nuclear escalation. Aggressive demands coupled with nuclear threats were presented as “reasonable negotiations,” branding any country that refused to respond to these subtle threats as unwilling to engage in diplomacy

Russia escalation threats western respones
Timeline of escalation: Russian aggression vs Western actions. Image by the author

These threats were backed by showcasing new strategic capabilities and an updated nuclear triad, including the Avangard, Kinzhal, Poseidon, and Sarmat systems. During the presentation of the Sarmat ICBM, Putin even played a mock video of a nuclear attack on Florida. This aggressive and irresponsible saber-rattling became more frequent and bold yet received little pushback.

Demands peaked on 17 December 2021, when Russia submitted documents requesting the rollback of NATO military force deployments in Central and Eastern Europe, the refraining from any further NATO enlargement, including Ukraine, and the limitation of troop and weapon deployments.

Russia knew these demands were unacceptable to the United States and other NATO members. This wasn’t done with an honest intent to establish a dialogue but rather to portray the West as unwilling to exercise diplomacy and negotiate.

Russia escalation
Screenshot from a Reuters report on Russia’s demands to scale back NATO

Despite these de-escalatory actions, limited aid to Ukraine, and the normalization of relations between Russia and many Western countries, including the restoration of trade despite sanctions, Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Despite western “de-escalation” actions, Russia invaded Ukraine

Just a few days later, on 27 February 2022, President Putin ordered Russian strategic deterrence forces to be placed on “high combat alert” to further deter the West from taking decisive actions.

Is Russia likely to use nuclear weapons?

In 2020, Russia officially released a document titled “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,” outlining scenarios for nuclear use.

Most scenarios presented in this document do not apply to the situation in Ukraine. For example, Russia considers the use of nuclear weapons in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons when the state’s very existence is in jeopardy.

The notion that Ukraine could threaten the existence of Russia is highly unrealistic, given that Ukraine faces significant challenges in liberating its own occupied territories, let alone occupying a substantial part of Russia and its command and control centers in Moscow.

However, it would be naive to rely solely on published documents or doctrines, especially in a country where decisions are made by an autocratic leader and his close inner circle. Therefore, this situation should be analyzed from a cost-benefit perspective.

Before using tactical nuclear weapons, Russia must consider whether such an action will be beneficial and whether it will leave Russia in a better position.

From a battlefield perspective, the use of tactical nuclear weapons is unlikely to yield significant results. A potential strike on Ukrainian fortress towns like Kurakhove, Vuhledar, or Chasiv Yar might decimate multiple battalions or even a brigade, but it is unlikely to provide a strategic advantage. Strikes on training centers or airfields could result in hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries, and the destruction of a few aircraft, but it would not be sufficient to change the course of the war.

Similar to Russia’s campaign of bombing civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, which did not result in Ukraine’s surrender, striking Ukraine with a nuclear weapon is unlikely to force submission—there are no guarantees of such an outcome.

Western countries would react extremely negatively to such an escalation, likely responding to Russia in more tangible ways, potentially even considering the use of conventional weaponry against Russian targets in Ukraine.

However, the reaction of Russia’s partners must also be considered.

China officially opposes the use of nuclear weapons, particularly as an offensive tool, including by the Putin regime in Ukraine. However, this stance does not signify support for Ukraine or opposition to Russia’s aggressive military ambitions. Instead, it reflects a pragmatic approach by the Chinese leadership, which seeks to avoid regional nuclear escalation that could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe involving China.

Xi is unlikely to approve of Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or Europe

Putin’s visit to China on 16-17 May 2024 and his talks with top Chinese leader Xi Jinping confirmed Putin’s regime’s growing dependence on China. The visit underscored China’s growing geopolitical weight compared to Russia, revealing Russia’s increasingly vulnerable position.

China appears to be leveraging this situation to maximize its strategic and economic gains, while Russia tries to maintain and develop military cooperation with China, which is already constrained by sanction threats. The use of nuclear weapons would likely jeopardize any remaining military cooperation and further complicate efforts to help Russia evade sanctions or develop its military industry.

In this context, it is unlikely that Xi would approve the use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine or Europe, given that Europe is another major trade partner for China.

Additionally, more neutral countries like India would likely disapprove of such developments, as the resulting instability would bring economic and political problems globally. It might also elevate tensions with India’s nuclear rival neighbors due to a new, uncertain nuclear security paradigm.

Nuclear escalation doesn’t always involve the direct use of nuclear weapons. In 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russians seized control of both the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear plants. These actions, including the armed assault and shooting at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) on 3 March 2022, were characterized by reckless behavior.

Armed provocations and the placement of military objects at the ZNPP continue to this day. The largest nuclear power plant in Europe has now become another instrument of nuclear blackmail in Russian hands, increasing global nuclear risks.

It is in the West’s best interest to avoid escalating the situation by yielding to Russian demands, allowing their ambitions to grow

While it would be irresponsible to disregard the risks of nuclear threats entirely, the overall probability of such an occurrence remains quite low, certainly much lower than what Russia tries to convey. Therefore, it is in the West’s best interest to avoid escalating the situation by yielding to Russian demands and allowing their ambitions to grow unchecked.

The risks of submitting to coercion are greater than those of a strong response

Almost every serious arms delivery or new weaponry to Ukraine has been met with threats of serious escalation, including subtle nuclear threats and warnings.

Whether it was HIMARS in 2022, tanks in 2023, or long-range ATACMs in 2024, the messaging remained the same. This has played a negative role for Ukraine, as many weapons remained unavailable in 2022 when Ukraine could maximize its gains against Russia’s undermanned and overextended units.

Escalation management nuclear blackmail reflexive control Russia 4_result
Compiled screenshot of a news article from nbcnews.com, where Russia threatens that western long-range missiles will cross its “red line”

HIMARS arrived with range and geographic target limitations, and ATACMs were delivered to Ukraine to target Russian air bases with helicopters in the South only after Ukraine’s failed counter-offensive.

Almost every serious arms delivery or new weaponry to Ukraine has been met with Russian threats of serious escalation

The problem is that by limiting Ukraine’s opportunity to significantly shift the balance during the first year of the war, the United States has found itself in a situation where it is forced to provide more potent weaponry every time Ukraine faces a dire situation, like in Kharkiv, instead of providing such weaponry and permission to engage targets before the situation deteriorates.

Escalation management nuclear blackmail reflexive control Russia
Screenshot from an Aljazeera.com news article where Russia alleges “escalation” if the West deploys heavy weapons to Ukraine

Such an approach has resulted in the prolongation and geographical expansion of the war. In 2022, the war was primarily between Russia, with limited support from Belarus, and Ukraine, supported by the West.

By 2024, the war had expanded to include Iran, North Korea, and partially China on Russia’s side, as Russia desperately sought to expand its industrial capacities to meet the demands of a long-term war of attrition.

By 2024, Russia’s war expanded beyond Belarus to include Iran, North Korea, and, partially, China

Addressing the threat

The fundamental goal is to deter adversaries by showcasing resolve and preparedness to counter any escalation. Russia must grasp that the potential consequences of escalation would be unfavorable, thereby discouraging it from initiating such actions.

An overly cautious Western approach, seen as weakness and indecisiveness, is the greatest reason behind these escalations.

Effective measures could include issuing stern and specific warnings directly to Putin and his inner circle, both officially and unofficially. The Kremlin should not monopolize the public discourse surrounding nuclear use.

Nuclear threats must be countered with a reminder that Russia is not the sole nuclear-capable country. Security organizations like NATO must demonstrate readiness to react even in the face of nuclear threats instead of sending ambiguous signals which are interpreted as weakness.

NATO must demonstrate readiness to react even in the face of nuclear threats

Despite claims of strict sanctions by the West, Russia can bypass many of these restrictions due to lax enforcement. This issue extends not only to small items easily transferred through third countries but also to larger, modern, and expensive industrial equipment that is supposed to be subject to very strict export control measures.

The West must undoubtedly enforce sanctions more rigorously in response to Russian escalations and threats.

Moreover, in response to escalations, the West should leverage its capacity to equip Ukraine with resources capable of significantly shifting the balance on the battlefield, such as relaxing restrictions on target selection.

The reason states typically avoid yielding to terrorist demands is that it incentivizes future incidents. Similarly, Russia is not actively seeking nuclear war, but if it perceives a lack of resolve from the West, it will continue pushing boundaries until it encounters firm resistance.

Consequently, Russia will keep escalating threats, forcing the West to make a difficult decision: either respond more harshly to Russian nuclear provocations higher up the escalation ladder to defend its vital interests later or take firmer actions now to prevent further escalation. This pattern has been demonstrated multiple times, with Moscow interpreting Western de-escalatory steps as weakness.

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