Authors: Bryan Frederick, Samuel Charap, Scott Boston, Stephen J. Flanagan, Michael J. Mazarr, Jennifer D.P. Moroney, Karl P. Mueller

Source: Rand Corpiation

Pathway 0 Escalation Spiral That Could Have Already Begun.

With a rapidity and severity that has surprised most observers, as well as the Russian leadership, the United States and its allies have already imposed tremendous costs on Russia both through comprehensive economic sanctions and related restrictions and through the large volume of military support that has been, and continues to be, provided to Ukraine. As of this writing, Moscow has yet to respond directly in any substantial manner, even though these actions have both immiserated Russia and led to the death of many Russian soldiers. There are a number of possible explanations for this inaction. The Kremlin’s preoccupation with its faltering campaign in Ukraine might be consuming senior leaders’ limited bandwidth—bandwidth that would be required to plan or approve such a response. Alternatively, the Russian leadership might not want to start a second war while it still has not accomplished its objectives in the current conflict. Nonetheless, Russian retaliation is likely to come in due course. Although a direct military attack on NATO member states is unlikely, Moscow could undertake a variety of highly disruptive actions, such as cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, assassinations of military or political figures, or sabotage or covert action against targets that support Ukraine. The Kremlin might believe that taking such actions is necessary to undermine U.S. and European willingness to impose costs on Russia, or even that retaliation is required as a matter of national honor. Depending on the damage that the Russian actions cause, the United States and its allies might feel compelled to respond. Such a tit-for-tat escalatory spiral could lead both sides to take increasingly assertive actions, which could eventually lead to a kinetic clash.

Pathway 1: Preemption Against Perceived NATO Intervention in Ukraine

The most acute risk of a Russian decision to escalate directly to a kinetic strike on NATO allies would result from Moscow perceiving that large-scale, direct NATO attacks on Russian military forces in Ukraine are imminent. Such perceptions might be preceded by more-limited NATO member states’ involvement in the Ukraine conflict, or force posture enhancements on the eastern flank. In such circumstances, Moscow might believe that it has little choice but to blunt the damage that NATO can inflict by first striking key allied capabilities. Adding to this risk, Russia’s conventional long-range missile magazine has been significantly depleted in the war in Ukraine, leaving Moscow with less capability to conduct conventional strikes on key NATO targets in Europe. If Russia becomes convinced that a NATO intervention is imminent, the Kremlin therefore might either immediately resort to its nonstrategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) or it might do so much earlier in the conflict than it would have if its conventional capabilities had not been degraded in the war in Ukraine. Although the decision to use such weapons would have momentous consequences, Russian military doctrine and training have long prepared for the employment of NSNW as a warfighting capability. There are several potential circumstances that could lead Russia to view NATO entry into the war as imminent or inevitable. First, public outcry against Russian war crimes could create the impression of a political drive to intervene. The brutality of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine appears likely to continue, which, in turn, will further increase public outrage in NATO countries and amplify calls to take action that would stop the carnage. With the economic and diplomatic isolation of Russia already at near-maximum levels, there will likely be intensifying calls in key NATO capitals for more-direct military actions to defeat Russia or otherwise coerce it into stopping its campaign. Although allied governments might recognize the risks of such steps and refuse to take them, large-scale public outcry, particularly if supported by current or former government officials, could carry risks of escalation. Russia might begin to question whether allied governments are prepared to stand up indefinitely to these pressures. In such circumstances, Russia could infer that direct NATO intervention has become highly likely, or even inevitable, regardless of what official NATO government statements say. Russian military strategists have extensively studied the likely form that a NATO first strike on Russian forces would take, and a large-scale aerospace attack on key military targets appears to be the scenario of most consistent concern. If Russia perceives heightened readiness or forward deployment of NATO long-range strike assets along with intensifying political pressures for intervention, it could decide to strike first at key allied-enabling capabilities. Russian escalation could begin by conducting cyberattacks on military communications dazzling or temporary disabling of satellites, which could limit further NATO member states’ actions. Second, Moscow could misinterpret ongoing NATO efforts to enhance the alliance’s defensive capabilities on its eastern flank as forces being deployed to enable a first strike against Russia. Although even thousands of additional ground forces deployed to Poland, Romania, or the Baltic states are unlikely to have such an effect on their own, other capabilities that would enable strikes deeper into Russian territory could do so. The Kremlin has been concerned that long-range NATO strike capabilities could enable a decapitation attack against Russia’s military or political leadership . If Russia assesses that such capabilities are being deployed near its borders, it could decide that a preemptive strike is necessary to avoid the risk that a first strike by NATO could leave Moscow without the ability to respond. Furthermore, as already noted, the depletion of Russian conventional strike capabilities in the Ukraine war could push Moscow to make such a decision sooner than it would have before the conflict or to employ NSNW in its response. Third, given the high levels of U.S. and allied support for Ukraine during the conflict and the increasing number of volunteers from NATO member countries fighting for Kyiv, Russia might conclude that NATO has already effectively intervened directly in the conflict. Russia could view the presence of such individuals, particularly those with military training or backgrounds, as evidence that NATO allies have decided to send their own armed forces to fight in Ukraine. Recent deliveries of sophisticated weapons systems to Kyiv, including those that Ukraine does not have a history of employing, could lead Moscow to assume that NATO trainers or other technical advisers accompanied the hardware. If such actions lead Russia to believe that NATO is already fighting in Ukraine, Moscow could undertake covert operations against targets in NATO territory to signal its willingness to respond in kind. If such operations led to substantial damage or were publicly disclosed, they could create pressure for allies to retaliate. The goal of any preemptive Russian strikes would presumably be to rapidly coerce NATO to not undertake further military operations. Given the large number of precision-guided missiles that it has expended in the Ukraine war thus far, Russia is likely even more concerned about how it would fare in a prolonged conflict with NATO. This concern could increase escalation risks by putting Russian leaders in the position of believing they must terrify NATO out of military action quickly at the outset of a potential conflict

Pathway 2: Interdiction of NATO Allies’ Military Assistance to Ukraine

If Moscow concludes that its ability to achieve its war aims is in jeopardy because of the support that the United States and other NATO members continue to provide to Ukraine, it might decide to take steps to interrupt the flow of such assistance. There are several historical examples of states expanding the geographic scope of conflicts to strike at enemy supply lines. Russia is unlikely to strike supply lines inside NATO member states before attempting to interdict aid inside Ukraine—an approach it began taking in April. These conditions could change if NATO allies provide qualitatively more potent military capabilities to Ukraine or, perhaps more importantly, if Russia suffers major setbacks on the battlefield. New or additional capabilities that Russia might be more motivated to interdict because of their potential effects on the conflict could include medium- or long-range air defense systems and long range precision-strike systems. But interdicting forms of military assistance that have already been flowing to Ukraine for weeks, months, or years could also begin to seem imperative if Russia cannot achieve its aims in its desired timeframe. Moscow would be more likely to interdict military aid in the event that a Ukrainian counterattack or insurgency is seen as being largely fueled by the NATO assistance. If Moscow perceives that interrupting further external assistance to Ukrainian forces is critical, and if Russian efforts to accomplish this inside Ukraine prove unsuccessful, then the Kremlin might decide to strike relevant targets within NATO territory (such as supply depots and airfields receiving aid deliveries) either to cut off the flow of weapons closer to their sources or to coerce NATO into ceasing or limiting this assistance. Hitting one target is unlikely to have a significant operational impact on supply lines, so Russia might strike NATO targets that are not directly related to the transfer of assistance as a way of coercing allies to curtail their support. Russian interdiction efforts within NATO member states need not be missile strikes; they could instead entail cyber, covert, or other gray-zone activities designed to interrupt the flow of materiel while reducing escalation risks. Russia reportedly undertook such an effort relatively recently: Press accounts suggest that Russian operatives covertly destroyed an arms depot in the Czech Republic Republic in 2014 , presumably to prevent the weapons it contained from being shipped to Ukraine. Attacks on NATO member states’ facilities would lead to Article 5 consultations and, at a minimum, likely trigger additional mobilizations and deployments of NATO forces . Such strikes could also generate intense political pressures for retaliatory strikes against Russian targets, likely including those assets or bases involved in launching the attacks, particularly if NATO personnel or citizens have been killed. In considering their next move, U.S. decisionmakers would need to weigh the requirement to reinforce Article 5’s credibility by underlining U.S. resolve to respond to any and all attacks on NATO territory or forces, the military value of continuing to provide supplies to Ukrainian forces, and the escalation risks of directly retaliating against Russia. Further escalation could occur following NATO retaliatory strikes for numerous reasons, including if the strikes are publicly embarrassing for the Kremlin, which could incentivize Russia to demonstrate its own resolve. Additionally, the strikes could destroy capabilities that Russia believes are essential for its defense against further NATO attacks, triggering countervailing actions that Russia believes would even the scales.

Pathway 3: Domestic Instability in Russia Sparks Aggression

A dramatic increase in domestic, economic, and political instability in Russia also could lead the Kremlin to decide to attack NATO member states. Crucially, Russian leaders see antigovernment protests as a key element of a potential Western-backed campaign to overthrow their regime. According to Russian strategists, several other components of such a campaign are taking place: instability on Russia’s periphery, a buildup of U.S. forces near Russian borders, and Western economic warfare . Eventually, these strategists say, this campaign would culminate in direct kinetic strikes on the homeland. Therefore, Moscow is more likely to see large-scale protests that begin in the current environment as evidence of a coordinated Western campaign to topple the Russian government. Against this backdrop, officials from the United States or other NATO governments highlighting the prospect that domestic unrest would depose the current regime, could heighten the Russian leadership’s perceptions that popular discontent is driven by U.S. or allied intelligence operations and therefore constitutes a non-kinetic attack on the homeland. The Kremlin would likely conflate the security of the regime and the security of the country. To plausibly affect the Kremlin’s calculus about horizontal escalation, instability would have to grow significantly in size and scope beyond the relatively small antiwar protests that took place during the first weeks of the war in major cities. However, as opposed to the war itself, the dramatic economic contraction that has resulted from the war might well be the spark for such broader popular unrest once economic pain is felt over the medium to long term. The protests would likely need to reach the point where they threaten to exceed the Russian government’s ability to control them before Moscow would contemplate taking actions abroad. Because the Russian government would likely view protests of this scale as a non-kinetic NATO attack, it might decide to strike NATO allies to compel a cessation of external support for the domestic threat. Russian responses are more likely to begin with non-kinetic attacks (e.g., cyberattacks against critical infrastructure targets such as power grids, power plants, or key information or telecommunications systems, including satellites) in an effort to dissuade future perceived NATO aggression at minimal cost. If these attacks are successful in substantially disrupting U.S. or allied economic and political life, the United States or other allies might feel compelled to respond in kind by disrupting similar systems within Russia. Such attacks, which would compound existing stresses from the war, could lead Russian leadership to conclude that it has exhausted non-kinetic options for reducing NATO threats to regime survival and therefore decide to turn to kinetic attacks.

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