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‘Escalate to de-escalate’: Experts believe that Putin’s goal in Ukraine may be to escalate the conflict.
Observers fear that Russia may exacerbate the situation in Ukraine or the countries that support it to force those countries to accept Russia’s requests for concessions.
This tactic is known as “escalate to de-escalate,” according to former D.I.A. officer Rebekah Koffler on Fox News. Russian military planning is based on the same concept, according to Koffler, but it has origins in Russia’s preparations for a conflict with the United States.
A low-yield tactical nuke would be launched first in a hypothetical fight with the United States, according to Koffler, believing that the psychological shock would be enough to end the conflict.
According to Koffler, if the Ukrainians continue to fight Russia’s invasion, Russia may move to crush cities like Kyiv with conventional weapons.
A nuclear-capable missile armed with a conventional warhead might also be used to target the Ukrainian capital of Kiev by Russian President Vladimir Putin if necessary. That strategy would be designed to confuse the West and demonstrate Putin’s determination to win the conflict.
He also stated Putin’s decision to raise the Russian nuclear threat level may have been an attempt to intimidate Ukraine’s Western allies and that Russia may undertake a cyber-warfare campaign against the West.
As a result, all of this would be aimed at weakening Ukraine and the West until they agreed to Russia’s demands and de-escalated the situation.
“They expect the Biden administration to back down in response to public criticism, and that Zelensky will be told, “You need to give up,” as a result. As he sees it, the American people have a poor tolerance for inconveniences, especially when it comes to something like Ukraine “Koffler made the statement.
She said, “That’s what the phrase means.” If he escalates, “we de-escalate.”
According to James Anderson, a former senior Pentagon official, “either by design or by mistake” there is “potential for escalation” in the Ukraine war. According to Anderson, anything is conceivable in the digital realm.
According to Anderson, “I think this is well within the realm of plausibility” given what he’s previously done invading a sovereign nation. Russian cyberattacks on the US and its allies “creates an additional ambiguity in the crisis,” as one expert put it.
UKRAINE INVASION: WAS BIDE TOO QUICK TO EVACUATE US EMBASSY IN KYIV? EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Trying “every technique in the book to demoralize the West,” as Anderson put it, would be a part of the plan According to Anderson, this may also entail temporary ceasefires and intermittent diplomacy aimed at decreasing morale.
It’s not clear, though, whether Putin is playing by the same rules as other world leaders, according to former CIA station head Dan Hoffman.
In Hoffman’s words, “sticking it in the usual basket of escalate, de-escalate” isn’t quite that straightforward. “190,000 troops were stationed along the border as a result. He had the option to de-escalate the situation and get pretty much everything he wanted. He wasn’t the one who did it.”
“There is no reduction in the intensity of the conflict. Ukraine is engaged in a war for independence. What are we going to do to de-escalate this? What do you want us to do for you, sir?” Hoffman was also a contributor. “De-escalation is up to him. … He must put an end to this invasion. We’ve imposed severe financial penalties on him. We’re helping the Ukrainians militarily. We’re unable to stop it.”
Hoffman has this to say about it: “As a result, the challenge for the Biden administration is to provide him with a de-escalation route… In the end, it’s up to the individual. That is a tremendously difficult task. You persuade Russia that this conflict is unnecessary.”
Table of Contents
TIME TO TERMINATE ESCALATE TO DE-ESCALATE — IT’S ESCALATION CONTROL
U.S. officials, experts, pundits, and security wonks have been using the phrase to describe or criticize Russia’s policy since the 2014 release of its National Defense Strategy, and notably since the publication of the United States’ 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Buzzwords like “escalate to de-escalate” circulate fast through the ranks of government, where they are often misinterpreted and abused.
There is nothing wrong with the term “calculated escalation” in terms of Russia’s ability or plans to utilize this tactic to contain or end a conflict. We should not lose sight of the fact that Moscow’s nuclear threshold is merely one aspect of an overall strategic approach.
An American term for “escalation control,” which Russia uses in its approach to combat, is more accurate. In post-Cold War confrontations, the United States has been able to dominate opponents at any stage of conflict where an adversary is capable, even when fighting non-peer foes. When it comes to determining thresholds and triggers for escalation dominance, thorough calculations have been more of a preference than a necessity.
It has not had this edge over the West, thus Russia has instead chosen to use escalation control, a technique that makes use of deliberate, proactive steps to keep the intensity of conflict controlled at lower, more acceptable levels. Russia can exert influence over the mechanics and circumstances of conflict escalation rather than conflict levels themselves by employing this strategy. This technique has a wide range of options, and de-escalation is simply one of them.
Instead of focusing solely on Russia’s nuclear policy, Russia’s entire conflict strategy should be examined. As a starting point for comprehending Moscow’s strategy, the West must re-examine its concept of how to control escalation. Misunderstandings and miscalculations can occur if the suitable framework for today’s evolving capabilities and the blurring of military and nonmilitary lines of effort is not used.
The Bumper Sticker Version has issues
Instead of focusing on Russia’s threshold for nuclear weapons use, “Escalate to de-escalate” focuses on conflict holistically. Although de-escalation strikes are meant to prevent further aggression, they don’t necessarily have to be conducted with nuclear weapons. As an example, while tensions between Russian and American forces operating in Syria were rising in 2015 and 2016, Russia “escalated to de-escalate” by deploying S-400 and S-300 air defense systems there. “Nusra doesn’t have an air force, do they?” remarked a US official when asked about the purpose of the S-300 deployments in 2016.
U.S. officials were aware of the prospect that Russians could shoot down a US military plane. To avoid a direct confrontation with Russia due to the increasing possibility of both states being drawn into a conflict, the Pentagon avoided taking persistent unilateral action against regime forces (apart from limited cruise missile attacks).
Despite the absence of tactical nuclear weapons in ZAPAD-2017, the exercise still demonstrated Russia’s ability to modify the enemy’s cost-benefit analysis by unleashing a barrage of artillery and rocket fire. The use of nuclear weapons is not required for de-escalation measures.
An even greater concern is that policymakers (and policy wonks) may take the remark as implying that Russia has dropped its nuclear-weapons threshold. You may easily think of “escalating to de-escalating” as just an attempt by the United States to out-escalate the opposing party by using nuclear bombs sooner than they would.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the United States is capable of projecting war might into Russia’s backyard, which is only 300 miles from Moscow. U.S. authorities may misunderstand Russia’s response to this scenario as “escalate to de-escalate” in action. Washington’s attitude would have influenced nuclear use in this case, not Moscow.
Focusing solely on Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons risks disregarding other measures performed deliberately below NATO’s escalation thresholds. With its contemporary military advances and superiority demonstrated in 2014, Russia could have almost ensured a decisive military victory over Ukraine by securing the border and crossing it with many divisions and heavy bombers. To prevent NATO engagement, it instead focused on achieving its objectives at the lowest feasible degree of violence and as rapidly as possible.
The situation has been exacerbated by the addition of spin-off terminology. Russian strategy is described as “escalate to win,” although this concept is misleading because it leaves open the notion of “victory” in a given battle. If winning is defined as attaining one’s strategic objectives, then this definition is too broad to be of use.
If the term “victory” is open to interpretation, the range of conceivable outcomes makes it impossible to formulate a universal norm. The word “escalation control” is more comprehensive and relevant since it encompasses examples of Moscow exercising restraint to keep the conflict below levels that promote reciprocal escalation.
A War on the Rocks podcast suggested the phrase “escalate to survive,” which refers to activities performed to keep the state in existence, or even revert to the pre-existing status quo. However, this term does not take into consideration more forceful operations at lower levels of war when the Russian state is not immediately at stake, such as in Ukraine. To de-escalate, win, or survive, the West may miss Russia’s activities at lower thresholds if it concentrates on escalation to de-escalate, win, or survive.
Increased Control Through Escalation: An Improved Term…
The Kremlin’s recent string of military and diplomatic moves can best be explained by the idea of escalation control. Proactively controlling escalation rather than militarily destroying an adversary at any given level is outlined in this concept for Russian strategy.
Keeping the upper hand in a confrontation requires Russia to thrive in an area in which it has a proven track record. At lower levels of engagement than those needing decisive combat strength, Russia attempted some techniques in Ukraine to achieve measured success before NATO intervened and escalated the conflict to a level unacceptable for Moscow.
A large portion of the Syrian civil war is being controlled by Russia, which pushes American-backed troops to respond in kind because of Russia’s efforts in the region. Some incidents have raised tensions between Russia and the United States since
Russia’s initial intervention in Syria in 2015: cruise missile strikes in response to chemical weapon use, harassment and encirclement of At Tanf, and the massively successful U.S. strikes on alleged Russian mercenaries Every conflict that Russia has been involved in has had a significant impact on what follows, and Russia has been able to keep the conflict from spiraling out of control and maintain a military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Confidence in one’s understanding of the adversary’s escalation threshold is also necessary for escalation management. This was a factor in the Kremlin’s decision to gradually escalate direct activity in Ukraine’s east without increasing to decisive combat force (and presumably not because it was deterred by Ukraine’s military). While Russia used and developed its understanding of NATO intervention thresholds, it was careful not to invite conflict.
At one level of warfare, western deterrence worked well, but at another level, it didn’t quite work. Russia’s progressive escalation was not aimed to shock and convince a foe to back down, but rather to escalate the situation. Instead, they were forced to comply to stay below NATO’s threshold for action. However, this is consistent with an escalation control approach and not “escalate to de-escalate,” as some have claimed.
- Ukrainian servicemen on Snake Island who told off Russian ships may be alive
- 70 Ukrainian servicemen were killed by Russian shelling at a military base, according to an official, and the United States has expelled Russian ambassadors.
An Even More Difficult Problem, nevertheless
If you don’t know the exact size of the boot that is kicking you in the face, the difference between a strategy that uses de-escalatory actions and one that doesn’t may seem like mere semantics. In dealing with Russia, the United States must take this distinction into account.
Despair not, for as Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria have proven, that “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear war isn’t going to be the only or even the most likely degree of conflict the West sees from Russia. Russia wasn’t the original inventor of escalation control, at least not in the early stages of its development. Our residual forces can be used as a bargaining tool to end a war on advantageous terms.” Our huge arsenal of… weaponry would deter an adversary from attacking our cities, thereby putting an end to a conflict.
In 1962, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara explained the U.S. policy to use limited nuclear attacks to de-escalate a conflict by utilizing “deliberate escalation,” specifically in the case when NATO non-nuclear forces could not successfully defend against an attack by the Soviet Union. It’s time to bring out the new in the old.
For example, putting modern air defense systems in areas where U.S. aircraft are operating is not an effective way to de-escalate tensions, but rather an effective means of enhancing the risk of what could happen next. It is only when the prospective consequences of these actions are both realistic and undesirable that they are effective in deterring future escalation. As the battle escalates, escalation management actively employs this danger to prevent more powerful enemies.
Others argue that there is no way to regulate the rate at which a conflict escalates because it is something that happens, not something that can be controlled by any of the participants. Others say Russians don’t believe they have control over the escalation of hostilities.
In this scenario, nuclear first-use thresholds, the stakes are higher and there are fewer rungs to ascend on the escalation ladder at the higher end of the conflict spectrum. Despite this, the Kremlin has been effective in controlling the escalation of violence in two areas where the United States and NATO could intervene in the last four years.
Russia, on the other hand, exploits this fear of escalation to its advantage. If an enemy perceives that no one can control the escalation, even lower-level intervention can be discouraged by increasing the possibility of a large-scale war. Fear of a direct large-scale war can inhibit lower-level confrontations because of the shared risk of escalation. Russia can utilize the risk and uncertainty of a possible escalation to dissuade its foes at these lower stages of war through proactive and premeditated escalatory acts.
It doesn’t matter how you look at it, “escalating to de-escalating” is an extremely difficult approach to defeat. Many goals can be achieved with this tactic, including winning or just not losing, preserving a conflict, or establishing a new norm. Forward-looking, specific preparation aimed towards a small number of enemies is the key to this strategy’s success. This system is adaptable and able to deal with rapidly changing conditions.
The United States is being discouraged by Russia’s use of provocative, lower-level acts that increase the likelihood of conflict. This strategy has a flaw: An adversary with known or well-predicted thresholds is required for this strategy. Decide how much information the U.S. wants to give Russia about escalation thresholds, and how much it wants to keep under wraps.
This is going to be a difficult task because it will have to take into account fresh areas and methods of conflict. A lot of harsh decisions will have to be made internally about what is vital enough to the United States of America for actions and risks to be justified. Russia does not believe that any act of aggression will result in a direct military response from the United States. To begin with, the United States must decide whether to communicate clarity or uncertainty to Russia about the thresholds it has established.
Escalation thresholds are intentionally left open to interpretation, which can lead to misunderstandings when the two parties get used to one other’s escalation levels and posturing. Russia and the United States should have miscommunications at the lowest feasible levels of conflict, rather than one party being pushed into a corner and needing to respond with large-scale military action.
Before a crisis happens, the United States may feel obligated to intervene, rather than acquiesce, if it doesn’t think out its policies and posturing. A clear understanding of Russia’s plan for limiting escalation can help the United States make difficult decisions earlier rather than later, and that starts with finding the correct terminology.
Currently assigned to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Jay Ross is a Booz Allen Hamilton associate assisting the Department of Defense and a U.S. Army Reserve Nuclear Weapons Officer. Throughout his military and defense career, he has worked extensively on nuclear technologies and weaponry, as well as Russia’s strategic military concerns. Neither the views of Booz Allen Hamilton nor those of the Department of Defense or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency are reflected in this article.