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 is 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.
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.
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