C O R P O R A T I O N
Risk of Escalation
in the War in Ukraine
2 \ UNDERSTANDING THE RISK OF ESCALATION IN THE WAR IN UKRAINE
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has
imposed devastating losses on the Russian military and on Ukraine’s military
and civilian populations, but both sides have avoided certain escalatory options.
Putin has been restrained for several reasons, including fear of NATO’s military response; an information flow that filters out negative facts, promoting the view that Russia can win a protracted war; and incremental increases in NATO support for Ukraine.
The fact that Putin has avoided certain escalatory options to date does not
mean that he will avoid them in the future. The Kremlin’s control of Russia has become brittle, potentially encouraging Putin to consider options to shorten the war. Withdrawal from Ukraine is one such option. Greater escalation is another, including attacking NATO directly, intensifying the use of Russian air forces against Ukraine, and using chemical weapons. Putin could also use nuclear weapons inside Ukraine. The risks to the Kremlin would be enormous, but a sudden deterioration of Russian forces or threats to internal stability could lead Putin to view nuclear weapons as the best among a set of bad options. Should he choose to take that risk, he may not be restrained in the number or types of weapons he uses inside Ukraine.
RAND’s assessment highlights implications for U.S. and NATO
- Maintaining NATO alliance cohesion is critical to sustaining support for
Ukraine and deterring Russian escalation.
- A continued incremental approach to providing greater support to
Ukraine could limit escalation risks, but it could work against Ukraine if
Russia fields new forces quickly and Ukrainian losses increase.
- Putin may be politically unable to reduce his war aims, giving him less
room to maneuver.
- More-destructive attacks against Ukraine’s civilian population could
initiate an escalatory spiral if Ukraine retaliates with intensified attacks
- Internal instability in Russia is likely to influence Putin’s calculations, but
the direction of its effects is not yet clear.
- U.S. ability to control future escalation may diminish. U.S. and allied
policymakers should plan to respond to Russian escalation while striving
to maintain diplomatic and military communication channels with Russia
that could arrest an escalatory spiral. (…)