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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchHow the War in Ukraine Could Get Much Worse

How the War in Ukraine Could Get Much Worse

Authors: Emma Ashford and Joshua Shifrinson

Affiliation: Georgetown University and the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security / Boston University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: March 8, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Article

Word Count: 2235



Keywords: The War in Ukraine, Nuclear Escalation, Insecurity Spiral, Paradox of Stability-Instability and the Deadly Great Power Conventional War 




Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, observers have expressed their fears of the return to Cold War nuclear brinksmanship, especially with the Russians clearly warning their opponents of the possibility of a nuclear response if Washington and NATO would intervene in this war. However, the article considers that the intense focus on nuclear escalation obscures a no-less-dangerous problem: the threat of conventional non-nuclear escalation between Russia and NATO, as the two sides have entered a spiral of mutual escalation and insecurity in a way that threatens the outbreak of a major war in Europe. The authors shed light on this traditional threat, how it emerges, then offer recommendations that may prevent a bigger bloody catastrophe, especially in the coming weeks which could be more dangerous.


The article is divided into three parts. In the first part, the authors explain the concept of the “Insecurity Spiral” in Security Studies. It “ensues when the choices one country makes to advance its interests end up imperiling the interests of another country, which responds in turn. The result is a potentially vicious cycle of unintended escalation.” This has happened many times in history, the most famous of which was Germany’s attempt at the beginning of the 20th century to build a world navy, which threatened the UK naval power. The UK responded by mobilizing its naval power, then Germany responded in kind. Thus was prepared the scene for the outbreak of the First World War. Currently, the United States and Russia are caught in such a dilemma, after they engaged throughout the post-Cold War era in a slow movement of escalation. In the midst of it, each power sought to reshape European security according to its desire, trying to limit the response of the other side. The two sides have taken decisive steps of action and reaction since 2007 that has brought them to the brink of direct confrontation in the ongoing Ukraine war. For instance, the US’ promises in 2008 to include Ukraine and Georgia in NATO pushed the Russians to invade Georgia that same year. In 2014, the European Union’s offer for Ukraine to sign an association agreement triggered the “Maidan Revolution” in Kyiv (after the Yanukovych government refused to sign it), which increased Russia’s fears of Ukraine’s membership in NATO and prompted Putin to seize Crimea in the same year. Today, Moscow sees that Washington and its allies are actually threatening to annex Ukraine to NATO, while Washington sees that Russia is threatening the basic principles of peace in Europe. The ferocious escalation between Russia and Washington-NATO continues. It may take just a single spark to ignite a broader conflagration.


In the second part, the authors argue that nuclear states whose conflict has reached a dead-end are more willing to escalate in the traditional sense, this is called the “stability-instability paradox” which also means a “widening spiral of insecurity.” Therefore, decision-makers should not rule out the dangers of a conventional war between NATO and Russia, especially since history is replete with such examples. A large-scale escalation can occur for many reasons. The economic war waged by the West against Russia may be the beginning, especially since the West has not used such harsh sanctions against a large world economy like Russia, so it remains ignorant of its impacts. Economic sanctions may cause severe damage to Russia, so Putin may decide to retaliate through non-military means such as abandoning energy revenues and closing some gas pipelines destined for Europe, which leads to higher energy prices, or by launching cyber-attacks against Western targets. This may be counterproductive, as NATO could respond with retaliatory cyber-attacks against Russia, then the spiral continues to widen. In addition, large-scale escalation could occur due to the spillover of the war in Ukraine across the borders of NATO countries in Eastern Europe, which are geographically close and more sensitive to Russia, such as Poland and the three Baltic states. Russian forces’ penetration of the air or land borders of these countries may lead to their mobilization. They could initiate independent, unilateral action against Russia dragging NATO into a confrontation against Russia, especially since these countries explicitly call for arming Ukraine and supporting the rebellion of Ukrainians against Russia by all means. What would the United States do, for example, if Russia bombed a Ukrainian camp located on Polish soil operating from there? Therefore, the risks of a broader war increase dramatically.


The final part presents a set of recommendations for the Biden administration to avoid falling into a larger and bloodier war. The US administration should be more restrained towards developments on the ground in Ukraine with the advance of Russian forces and the increase of moral anger in the West over Russia’s actions. Also, it should not easily succumb to the calls of its European allies to repel Moscow, especially from countries that are geographically close to Russia, so that Washington does not turn into a party involved in the fighting on the ground. It must be prepared to restrain its allies. Moreover, at some point, the United States may need to use its influence on everyone in order to end the war in Ukraine and find some kind of settlement with Russia. It may need to remove very harsh sanctions on Moscow or reduce US and Western aid to Kyiv because the alternative would be getting drawn into a direct military confrontation with Russia. Such a move might represent a fundamental change in US policy, but serious consideration of US interests would require such an adjustment in order to avoid a larger and bloodier war.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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