Where experts' strategies are dangerously wrong
Ukraine war non-escalation messaging should be clear, public and targeted at the Russian military
In many ways, Western strategy in the Russia-Ukraine war has been excellent. But one crucial mistake should be fixed immediately.
Aid to Ukraine is necessarily limited by fears of nuclear escalation. The West’s approach to this trade-off has been incremental, semi-secret, and focused on Vladimir Putin. Pundits and working national security professionals alike seem to favor this approach. But all three of those choices are wrong.
Safer and more effective would be a policy that’s bolder, clearly stated in public, and directed at the Russian military even more than at Team Putin. And time is of the essence. The West needs to make a decisive move in the escalation bargaining game, before Putin preempts the possibility. Potential payoffs include both a freer hand in supporting Ukraine (e.g. with fighter jets) and lessened risk of nuclear war.
The main tactic to deliver strategically-wise messaging should be a speech or similar public statement, along the lines:
A senior official such as United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin needs to declare how far the US is willing to escalate in Ukraine, preferably to a professional audience such as a military academy or Congressional committee. (Or it could even be a true direct address to Russia’s military, in the form of a video, perhaps subtitled.)
The declaration should reaffirm that NATO troops will not attack Russians or Russian territory, and the US will not support a major invasion of Russia.
However, the declaration should also reaffirm what the UK has already said, which is that standoff attacks or shallow incursions by Ukraine into Russia (e.g. attacking air power) or logistics depots are fine for the duration of the current war.
And in military substance, NATO should supply the much-discussed MiGs, plus any other (conventional) weaponry or intelligence that Ukrainian personnel can use but which still is being withheld.
The speech or testimony should be made as soon as possible. The last acceptable time to make it is immediately after Putin attempts to draw a red line ruling some of it out.
Reasoning behind these prescriptions is outlined below.
Important players in the escalation game
The West would like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to fail, and indeed to end. Further, we don’t want World War 3 to start. Vladimir Putin has great influence on whether these goals will be achieved. He draws vast attention accordingly.
But – and few experts seem to be focusing on this – the Russian military has similar power in these matters to Putin’s. Observations as to its corruption, ineptness, or low status within Russia don’t contradict that conclusion. If the Russian military doesn’t escalate catastrophically, then neither will Russia overall. In particular:
Civilian leaders in almost any country are at the mercy of military leaders who can “slow-walk” their orders.
That’s especially true in the case of nuclear aggression; it’s hard to coerce somebody into launching national and indeed global suicide.
Accidental escalation scenarios (which fortunately are better known in theory than in practice) generally start with some kind of military screwup.
And by the way – some analysts believe Russia’s military forces and political leadership are quite alienated from each other.
Escalation moves already made
NATO countries are of course devoting much effort towards defeating Russia on Ukrainian battlefields, notably by:
Supplying actionable intelligence.
Sanctioning Russian industry in ways that keep it from replacing expended munitions and equipment.
Indeed, Western leaders seem to have adopted the general stance I previously proposed:
Old conventonal-weapon escalation taboos are obsoleted by Russia’s misdeeds, …
… with one primary exception, namely that …
… both sides still avoid “direct confrontation” between NATO and Russian personnel.
The West is publically messaging its new rules of engagement, to lessen the risk of Russian misinterpretation.
That said, the current messaging strategy is:
Not ideal, even if we assume Putin won’t make any effective moves in countermessaging.
Not robust against countermessaging strategies Putin could adopt.
Why current strategy needs to be changed
The smaller problem with current Western anti-escalation messaging is that the West doesn’t think it works well enough. Yes, we’re giving Ukraine vast amounts of aid. Even so, for fear of escalation, we aren’t giving all we could, in two major ways:
Most visibily, Russia has devasated Mariupol and other eastern Ukraine targets with missiles and bombs – usually launched or flown from within Russia -- and Ukraine lacks the air power to prevent them. More air defense, such as the much-discussed MiGs, would surely save lives and strengthen Ukraine.
More generally, the West should be less squeamish about weapons and intelligence aid that reach across the Russian border. Since Russian planes launch missiles into Ukraine from Russian airspace, supply Ukraine with the ability to shoot them down at the origin. Since Russia stages invasion materiel at depots inside Russia, give Ukraine munitions and intelligence support to destroy them in place. (Similarly, the war seems to be spilling across the Russian border on the Kharkiv-Belgorod axis.)
The greater problem is that Russia could up-end the West’s whole anti-escalation strategy, by drawing new red lines that the West is afraid to cross. Suppose, for example, that Putin and his spokepeople:
Announce the annexation of Ukraine territory in the Donetsk, Luhansk, and/or Kherson oblasts (as they indeed seem to intend).
Declare that Russia will defend all “Russian” territory from conquest with any means available, nukes not excepted.
Ukraine and the West would have only two options.
Give up on recapturing the territory in question.
Say, in effect, “We already told you we won’t be deterred by such threats.”
The “We already told you ...” claim should, for safety’s sake, be emphatically true. The speech proposed here would make it truer than it already is.
Choosing the targets of anti-escalation messaging
The main objectives of anti-escalation messaging directed at Russia are to:
Strengthen their resolve to avoid nuclear suicide.
Help them avoid panic about apparent NATO escalation.
Such anti-escalation goals are reasonable even if there is no letup in Russia’s barbaric war efforts. Indeed, the importance of anti-escalation strategies will go up the longer and more brutal the Russia-Ukraine War turns out to be.
More precisely, such goals are reasonable if the decision-makers are reasonable people. So the main target for escalation-reassurance messaging should not be Putin, who seems to be cocooned in his own reality distortion field. Rather, it should be directed toward anybody else in Russia who has relevant decision-making power.
Most important, the messaging should be designed to reach some of the many Russian military officers relevant to nuclear escalation, including:
Anybody who’s in the chain of command for strategic or tactical nukes.
Anybody who’s in the chain of command for a strike of any kind on NATO territory.
Anybody who needs to make a judgment as to whether NATO personnel have entered a battlefield.
Anybody else who could participate in Russian escalation, or judge whether NATO escalation already seems to have occurred.
Delivering the messages
While backchannel communication is valuable, much of the anti-escalation messaging needs to be public, for two main reasons:
Discreet-only messaging reaches fewer Russians than the combination of discreet and public messaging can.
Clear messaging, such as is found in carefully crafted public speeches, can be transmitted more accurately by word of mouth (and its social media equivalents) than back-channel mumbles might be.
The obvious way to signal seriousness would be a public address by a very senior US official, such as President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The single best choice is probably Austin, in that:
He’s the most senior US official who can speak as a purely military expert.
He is less often undermined by partisan Republican attacks than elected officials may be.
Some of his natural audiences (groups of troops, congressional committees, etc.) could be mustered at short notice.
But why should we expect what US leaders say to even reach Russian officers? Answers start:
Why wouldn’t it? When your adversary (or you adversary’s chief supporter) states plans, it might seem helpful to know what he says.
Surely a reasonable fraction of Russian military and military intelligence officers have decent, uncensored internet access.
The Russian military prizes at least some level of military education. For example, if Wikipedia articles are to be believed, a Russian general has commonly graduated from multiple military academies, including a senior staff college.
This address should be given immediately, if not sooner, so that the West may provide more aid to Ukraine with less escalation risk.
Alternatively, it can be held in reserve, against the possibility that Russia tries to draw a Ukraine-aid red line that we don’t want to honor. In the latter case, it would have to be given very quickly in response to whatever Russian declaration it is supposed to counter.
Four obvious objections can be quickly dismissed.
The United States actually has a policy of strategic ambiguity about its response to hypothetical nuclear or chemical weapon use. While true, that’s not a relevant objection. Clarity about conventional weapon plans doesn’t get in the way of nuclear ambiguity.
NATO-supplied weapons and US intelligence are making significant contributions to the deaths of numerous Russian generals and other officers. The surviving ones may not enjoy listening to what we have to say. Also true. But the whole premise here is “talking to adversaries”, and we have six decades of precedent for doing just that.
Anything the US says could be adapted into propaganda to inflame the Russian civilian populace. But Russian propagandists excel at spinning something out of nothing, and surely already have all the raw material they need. Giving them yet more is not a major increase in risk.
Russia censors and distorts. The messaging wouldn’t get through. As noted above, Russian officers study US military doctrine (just as Americans study Russian and Chinese policies). An important US statement about Ukraine tactics would likely be neither censored nor ignored.
One objection may actually have some merit. For all of Russia’s crazy-sounding nuclear saber-rattling, it hasn’t said anything particularly clear on the subject of escalation – other than what is obvious or has been well-established for decades. Statement that Russia will attack NATO weapon deliveries in Ukraine if it can? No surprise there. Diplomatic note bemoaning US weapon deliveries to Ukraine? No practical substance. Threat to station nuclear weapons in the Baltic region? That’s not a threat to actually use them. Basically, Russia has been trying to create a mood of intimidation or nuclear menace without painting itself into any tangible corners.
Perhaps stronger Western moves to firm up escalation rules would lead to a Russian response in kind. But it’s hard to think of what that could be. Threats to somehow expand the non-nuclear scope of the war fly in the face of current strategy and reality. Threats to use tactical nuclear weapons (or other weapons of mass destruction) need to be stared down, however and whenever Russia makes them. So I don’t think I’m overlooking any possible Russian countermoves here. But it is indeed the part of the analysis I’m least sure of.