There are many ways the Russian War on Ukraine could escalate, but most articles only discuss ONE of them. Why do you suppose? Here is my list . . .
- Russia attacks Finland and Sweden to prevent them joining NATO (probably with missiles, since their troops are tied up in Ukraine). Both have said they are going to join NATO. Russia already attacked Ukraine to prevent it joining NATO. Russian spokesman Peskov said such a move would not be existential (Russia would not use nuclear weapons). However, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said deviation from Finland’s non-alignment policy would bring “military and political consequences.”
- Serbia attacks Kosovo using the Ukraine was as cover. Much like Russia’s claims about Ukraine, Serbia has continued to claim that Kosovo attacks Serbs living in Kosovo. Here is an example of a 2019 claim. Two days ago, China sent 6 cargo transport jets to Serbia with a semi-secret delivery of air defense missiles. These could be used to protect Serbia from NATO while it attacks Kosovo. There is not really any other need for them, since Kosovo does not have an air force. It is too small and can’t afford one. Serbia does not have any other enemies. Surrounded by NATO countries, no one else could even reach it. Kosovo is concerned that Serbia may use the present distraction to attack.
- Russia attacks inside NATO accidentally (wandering drone, there have been several but no harm done) or on purpose (e.g., to hit a supply base).
- Ukraine attacks inside Russia (an airfield or supply depot just across the border). This morning Ukraine attacked an ammunition depot in Donetsk. Two weeks ago, Russia alleged Ukraine attacked a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, which Ukraine has never confirmed nor denied. If Russia starts losing again in the east, or civilians are killed, escalation could follow.
- Russia does something egregious. This could happen if they feel they are losing in the east of Ukraine. It could be the use of chemical weapons. They’ve said they won’t use tactical nukes (Peskov said Ukraine was not an existential threat), but when have they told the truth? It could be just a more rapid destruction of cities and greater humanitarian crisis than Mariupol. NATO leaders have indicated they would make a strong, unspecified response, and pretty much all possible sanctions are already in place.
- China attacks Taiwan. I consider this unlikely unless one of the other escalations already has the US fully occupied in Europe. Then it becomes likely. I list it for completeness.
- Russia reacts to a US or NATO defense of Ukraine. This is what all of the other articles on escalation are about. Putin experts say the only time he bluffs is when he is weak. He has no viable military response to NATO, he’s basically admitted that, so this is not a real possibility. Russia, via Peskov’s comments, has carefully walked back any nuclear threats over intervention in Ukraine.
Items 1-5 seem just as likely as 7. Items 1-5 increase in probability as the war continues, since they are time and opportunity based. Item 7 decreases with time. If they haven’t reacted to the supply of T-72 tanks and British anti-ship missiles, they aren’t going to react to a few old jets or land cruise missiles.
What does the US public think of the risk of nuclear war? I’ve run two polls recently of 500 random people in the US, giving a margin of error of 4%. A week ago, I learned that 60% favored increasing the range and capability of weapons provided. For discussion of this poll see ShulerResearch.org. There has since been some of that, like anti-ship missiles from Britain, T-72 tanks from the Czech Republic, Air Defense through various collaborations, ability to re-arm the Bayraktyar drones from the US, and armored vehicles from Australia and the US. No jets yet. No cruise missiles publicly acknowledged.
The second poll, just completed today (April 11, 2022) shows that 55% think the risk of eventual nuclear war from allowing nuclear autocracies to take one country at a time, is greater than the risk from confronting Russia now, even a direct NATO confrontation:
While a few people are hyper-concerned, most people think the risk of nuclear escalation from Russia losing ground in Ukraine, even with US/NATO help, is of order 1/1000:
A wrinkle in the polling data is that 55% do not really want to defend any country other than the US from nuclear war, counter to our treaty obligations . . .
So, in an election, it would depend on what order you asked the questions in, or which you most emphasized. This provides insight into the success of Trump’s isolationist “withdraw from NATO” ideas. Most people favor defending democracy, e.g. in Ukraine, and just evaluate the risk of actual nuclear war as small. But if a candidate fans this flame and enhances the nuclear risk, as Fox News has been doing a lot lately, people may be induced to make a decision based on something that is not likely. Since this is a Trump-Republican strategy, it is actually illogical for the Biden administration to over-state nuclear risk.
However, when one considers again the first opinion, that escalation due to continued events like Ukraine is twice as likely to result in eventual nuclear war than confronting Putin now, then the equation changes again. Even those hyper concerned about nuclear war would, if they are in the 65%, chose confrontation now. Only by hiding this scenario can a candidate employ nuclear fear. Trump asserts that Putin will not take countries while he is president. Even if you buy this argument, and you make Trump president for life, he is 6 years older than Putin, far more overweight, and likely to die first. It took Putin only 13 months to invade Ukraine after Trump left office.
Can the war be stopped by negotiation? Most of those involved or in a position to judge likely outcomes think not. Austria’s chancellor visited Russia to talk directly with Putin today and got nowhere. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister said “I personally have no reason to believe that he’s talkable.” Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavsky said “Don’t be naive. Putin is a perpetrator of this horrendous war crime and those atrocities, and he should be punished for that.” Zelensky himself has given up finally on negotiations, saying he is not interested in NATO’s diplomacy. Even before, he estimated the chance of negotiations working at only about 1%.
Russia has broken every treaty ever signed with Ukraine, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum where Ukraine gave up nukes to get border security, the 1997 Russia-Ukraine friendship treaty, nearly 500 treaties when it annexed Crimea, and the Minsk Agreement which should have ended the 2014 war. It’s hard to think of a treaty Russia has kept. They said they wouldn’t invade Ukraine, then did. They claim they are not targeting civilians, but they are. Can you honestly find a statement made by Russia which is true? What is an agreement with a liar worth? Absolutely nothing. There is no negotiated settlement possible. Even the complete removal of Russian troops, even from Donetsk and Crimea (astonishingly unlikely) would not resolve the West’s complaints enough to remove sanctions, because Putin and most of the rest of his government are now wanted for war crimes. That leaves only a military solution to Russian troops in Ukraine. The solution to what to do about Russia’s criminal government I will not address in this post.
Can the war eventually be stopped by sanctions? We know it won’t be quick but would sanctions eventually stop the war? Extremely unlikely. Even Russians who oppose Putin will not want to appear so weak as to be manipulated by Western sanctions. It’s most likely a first coup would be driven by hard liners.
The basic mechanisms of a globalized economy (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, now replaced by the World Trade Organization) were established after WW2, along with the UN and World Bank and the IMF, to try and prevent large scale war. The theory was summed up by Immanuel Kant, the “power of money … perhaps the most dependable of all powers,” would compel nations “to prevent war wherever it threatens to break out.”
What actually happened was Russia and China played along for a while to get fabulously wealthy. China nearly surpassing US in GDP has the second largest number of billionaires. Russia has the 4th largest number of billionaires behind Germany. They’ve used this wealth to build up their militaries and ensnare other nations in economic dependency. An article today in the Washington Post puts it like this:
“All of that now seems hopelessly naive. Putin invaded Ukraine despite unambiguous Western threats that Russia would be immediately isolated from the global economy through sanctions. China under Xi Jinping has crushed democracy and press freedom in Hong Kong, increased military threats against Taiwan, and entered a loose alliance with Russia to challenge the U.S.-led global order. Rather than moderating the ambitions of authoritarian leaders, their rising wealth — brought about in good part by foreign investment and trade — has emboldened them to challenge Western democracies head on. So has economic engagement been a catastrophic failure? . . . Economic interdependence breeds peace only if the costs of breaking those ties are high enough — and just as important, if all sides recognize that the costs are high enough.”
The cost of sanctions to Russia’s economy in the next year are predicted to be maybe as little as a 10% contraction. They’ve survived lots worse. The economy of Ukraine, which they might hope to add, is worth already 1.5 times that, and much more if they develop its energy reserves. It’s a straight business deal to them. Acquire Ukraine. Pay the cost.
The cost to the rest of the world hasn’t been calculated. I can’t find it anywhere. But there are already fuel or food price protests in more than a dozen countries.
Sanctions will lead to instability and other wars in the world, in the same way the Financial Crisis led to the Arab Spring. Recall it was started by a Tunisian who “just wanted to work,” not for ideological reasons. What is the cost of not having fuel to drive to work, or gas to heat your home? Infinite, basically. This is not a guess. Here is the evidence:
World Trade is a cooperative enterprise. China and Russia favor extortion and ultimatum, not cooperation. In 2012 Press and Dyson showed in a now-famous game theory paper that extortion beats cooperation, mathematically.
There is nothing you can do about it, except disallow extortion. And there has never been found a pleasant, “cooperative” way to do that. At the level of countries, it is a matter of joint military action. It cannot be the action of a single or a few countries as “Who watches the watcher?” Aside from the atrocities committed, that is a fundamental problem with Russia’s unilateral intervention in Ukraine.
So as time goes on and the probability of the first 5 increases, taking action to roll back Russian troops from Ukraine decreases the chance of escalation by cutting the time short for the most likely causes of escalation. It is just backward of what people are claiming. If you don’t want escalation, write to or call your legislators now and request they intervene directly to help Ukraine drive Russia out. Here are the addresses:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500
The Honorable (Name)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
For correspondence to a Senate committee or to a Senate committee chair:
(Name of Committee)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
For members of the House