The risks of military escalation
What reason do U.S. officials have for believing that Putin, if forced to choose, will opt for negotiations over a yearslong war? Not much, Michael Cohen argues in The New Republic. He cites a new report by two British scholars at the Royal United Services Institute, which concluded that “Russia is now preparing, diplomatically, militarily, and economically, for a protracted conflict.”
Cohen also notes that when Russian military authorities recently announced a shift in strategy, away from capturing Kyiv to advancing in the Donbas, it was matched by heightened, inflammatory rhetoric. “This is not the language or domestic approach of a national leadership looking for a quick exit ramp,” he says.
In recent weeks, U.S. war aims have expanded beyond defending Ukrainian sovereignty, raising the stakes of the conflict even higher. After a recent trip to Kyiv with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
As a result, “the U.S. role has evolved — from a reactive response to Russia’s unjustified war to a proactive assertion of American leadership and leverage,” Robin Wright writes in The New Yorker. And Putin’s rhetoric has, in turn, become bolder and more aggressive. “The war could now play out in many disparate ways,” she writes. “Each carries its own dangers — for the U.S. as well as Ukraine.”
One of those dangers, of course, is nuclear war. Last week, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that he viewed NATO as being engaged in a proxy war with Russia by supplying weaponry to Ukraine, raising the odds of nuclear conflict. “The danger is serious, real,” he said. “It must not be underestimated.”
Some analysts believe these threats are empty. But The Times’s David Sanger reports that some U.S. officials are indeed taking seriously the risk of Putin turning to stepped-up cyberattacks on Western infrastructure, chemical weapons or his arsenal of tactical, “battlefield” nuclear weapons.