Limiting Putin’s Escalation Options

After Ukraine’s advances in the Kharkiv region in mid-September, what once seemed a remote prospect – the operational defeat of Russia’s forces in Ukraine – is looking increasingly plausible. But President Putin will seek to avoid that through escalation. But he is not holding all the cards; Ukraine and its supporters can take steps to give President Putin pause for thought about escalation.

The conflict in Ukraine seems set to grind on for months, if not years.

President Putin’s wholesale offensive launched on 24 February failed to achieve the “knock-out” he had expected, and since then, his invasion has become a grinding war of attrition, with both sides sustaining heavy losses.

Recently, however, the military equipment, munitions, and training provided by Ukraine’s international supporters has started to make a real difference, as illustrated by Ukraine’s recent rapid advances in the Kharkiv region.

Indeed, some analysts started suggesting a few months ago, these new capabilities, coupled with Ukraine’s morale, determination and ingenuity, might soon not only turn the tide of battle in Ukraine’s favour, but even enable Ukraine to achieve the operational defeat of Russian forces.

The Threat of Escalation

Unfortunately, that does not mean that President Putin’s forces will beat a hasty retreat back to their “pre-February” positions, let alone all the way back to Russia, abandoning the regions of Donbas and Crimea they have occupied since 2014.

If his forces are pushed back, President Putin will not simply watch on, wringing his hands. At some point, he will try to stop Ukraine’s advance by escalating the conflict, essentially, threatening to inflict unacceptable harm on Ukraine.

And he has plenty of escalation options available.

The most fearsome would be the use of nuclear weapons, and it is alarming beyond measure that analysts have had to speculate about what forms that might take and how Ukraine, NATO and other nations might respond.

Another particularly dreadful option would be the use of chemical weapons. Russia is a party to the convention banning their use, but it must have been complicit in the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against insurgents and has used them itself in the “Salisbury Poisonings” and the assassination attempt on Putin critic Alexei Navalny.

But the employment of nuclear or chemical weapons would have global political implications.  Even if their physical effects were confined – as far as possible – to Ukrainian territory, their use would inevitably reinforce and broaden the Putin regime’s pariah status.  In any event, whatever its rationale – for the moment, at least – Moscow has declared that it does not need to use them in order to achieve its goals in Ukraine.


Ukrainian HIMARS in operation in Zaporizhya oblast in June 2022. (General Staff of the Armed forces of Ukraine:

The M142 High Mobility Rocket System is providing Ukrainian forces with the ability to strike at ranges of up to 80 kilometres with high precision.  Targets have reportedly included Russian supply lines, command and control nodes, logistical networks, field artillery and air defence sites.

If his forces are pushed back, President Putin will not simply watch on, wringing his hands.

But President Putin could escalate in many other ways without crossing the nuclear or chemical thresholds.

Russia has a huge array of weapons able to strike anywhere within Ukraine, and Ukraine is so large and populous that there is no prospect of “leak-proof” air and missile defences. With President Putin’s callous disregard for human life, kindergartens, schools, hospitals, shopping centres and densely populated residential areas could well feature on President Putin’s escalation menu.

Immediately after Ukraine’s recent advances in the Kharkiv Oblast, for instance, the Kremlin showed its ire by launching strikes against power and water infrastructure, and there are fears that Russia could use its longer range systems to strike anywhere within Ukraine.

President Putin could also resort to the use of indiscriminate, large-scale destruction of civilian areas, and perhaps even the use of thermobaric weapons, which have a longer-lasting blast than traditional explosives so that their lethal shockwave can penetrate deep into fortifications and shelters.

Further options include expanding the geographical scope of the conflict by opening or reopening offensives virtually anywhere on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus.

In addition, President Putin’s could escalate in another dimension by stepping up pressure on Ukraine’s international supporters.

Direct military engagement would be a precipitously dangerous step, so military measures are likely to be confined to further sabre rattling and posturing. But he has other ways of pressing them to halt their decisive assistance to Ukraine and encourage Ukraine to negotiate a ceasefire.

The most obvious “lever” is energy. Despite its efforts, Europe will be highly vulnerable to cuts in Russian gas supplies this winter. Rising energy costs are already hitting consumers, and President Putin might well hope that a severe economic downturn and even winter power outages would erode western public support for Ukraine.

Another pressure point is the transit of grain and other produce through the Black Sea. Cutting that route – or keeping it at a trickle – will add to price rises and food shortages which are hitting parts of the Middle East and Africa particularly hard. This could also create another refugee crisis with people fleeing from poverty and food shortages.

The essential point is that President Putin seems to have, if not quite “escalation dominance”, something like “escalation superiority” – the ability to set the pace and nature of escalation.

Put bluntly, the fear is that if or when Ukraine gets the upper hand on the battlefield, President Putin will respond with disproportionate retaliation in the belief that whatever Ukraine does, he can do worse.  And regarding Ukraine’s allies, he seems to feel that cuts in energy supplies threaten their resolve more than their sanctions threaten his regime.

An Inevitable, Endless Stalemate?

For some, this suggests that the conflict is destined to become an endless stalemate.

On the one hand, Russia does not have the military capacity to conquer and occupy a country as large as Ukraine and subdue a population so fiercely hostile to the invader.

On the other hand, if – or when – Ukraine manages to push back Russian forces, President Putin will escalate, calculating that he can halt a retreat by imposing unacceptable casualties and losses on Ukraine, and by pressuring Ukraine’s supporters to phase down their assistance.

The Trap of a Negotiated Ceasefire

To avoid what some see as an inevitable, indefinite, and inconclusive war of attrition, some have proposed that Ukraine should negotiate a ceasefire whereby Ukraine would yield some of its territory and President Putin would renounce further future land grabs.

This, it is argued, would provide President Putin with an “off ramp” so that he could end his offensive without “losing face”.

But if President Putin felt the need for an “off ramp”, he could manufacture one without any outside help. With his iron grip on the Russian media, he could put a favourable “spin” on any course he chooses and even package an outright defeat as some sort of pre-planned victory.

As for “saving face”, the futile procession of Western leaders to Moscow prior to 24 February showed quite starkly that President Putin does not care what Western leaders think. They might be concerned about humiliating him, but he is quite at ease humiliating them.

Furthermore, calling for Ukraine to accept the loss of territory taken by force would be to reward a flagrant violation of international law and human rights.

As for “saving face”, the futile procession of Western leaders to Moscow prior to 24 February showed quite starkly that President Putin does not care what Western leaders think. They might be concerned about humiliating him, but he is quite at ease humiliating them.

And to cap it all, there is no reason to believe that President Putin would respect his side of the bargain.

For him, undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and government is a central priority. President Putin does not want his own people to start wondering why their neighbours, with so much in common, can enjoy far greater freedom, prosperity, and democracy.

That priority is reinforced by President Putin’s warped interpretation of history and litany of perceived grievances against the West, which he believes has undue influence over nations that were once under Soviet dominion.

His animosity to Ukraine will therefore last as long as his own regime or until Ukraine can be bent to his will. For President Putin, a ceasefire, would simply be a short-term expedient that would provide time to regroup, absorb the lessons from the assault of 2022, and prepare for a renewed offensive.  As an added bonus, the pause might also produce a relaxation of sanctions.

As Nathalie Tocci has cogently put it, a compromise or truce would effectively be a trap, giving Moscow time to prepare for the next round of fighting while possibly dividing Ukraine’s supporters.

Victory is in the Eye of the Beholder

Fortunately, Ukrainians are made of sterner stuff than those calling for ceasefire negotiations, with a large majority – almost 75 per cent – in favour of fighting for “as long as it takes to victory”.

Victory in President Putin’s eyes might well be a stalemate that is relatively inexpensive for Russia, but hugely disruptive for Ukraine

But “victory” and “defeat” are slippery concepts in this context because President Putin might well see an indefinite, indecisive conflict within Ukraine as a success.

A certain level of on-going losses could be an acceptable price to pay for inflicting hardship on Ukraine, preoccupying its government, and fuelling propaganda campaigns about a Ukrainian civil war, with “breakaway” regions defending themselves from a “malign” government.

In other words, victory in President Putin’s eyes might well be a stalemate that is relatively inexpensive for Russia, but hugely disruptive for Ukraine.

Eroding Russia’s escalation advantage

All this suggests two imperatives for Ukraine and its supporters: deny President Putin a “comfortable” stalemate and negate his escalation advantage.

Both could be achieved by providing as much military assistance to Ukraine as it can usefully handle, while leaving Ukraine to determine its own political and military strategies.

Maximizing Ukraine’s ability to engage and defeat Russia forces would not simply help Ukraine to turn the tide of battle, it has the potential to unsettle and unnerve President Putin.

As Stephen Dalziel has pointed out, a disillusioned army played a role in the 1917 Russian revolution, and seven decades later, the realities of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan fuelled growing disillusionment with the Soviet regime.

While President Putin might care little or nothing for the lives of his soldiers, he is acutely sensitive to potential threats to his own regime and will be well aware of the historical precedents.

In fact, concern about the growing demoralization within Russia’s armed forces might well partly explain President Putin’s reluctance to “upgrade” his “special military operation” into a declared war, which would enable him to compel conscripts to take part in operations in Ukraine and to mobilise reserve forces. Instead, Russia has sought to increase the enlistment of volunteers, employ mercenaries from abroad, make use of private – and deniable – forces such as the Wagner Group, and even recruit in prisons.

A disillusioned army played a role in the 1917 Russian revolution, and seven decades later, the realities of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan fuelled growing disillusionment with the Soviet regime.

Any anxiety about the possible destabilising effects of growing casualties among conscripts and regular forces will also be compounded by cautiously veiled reservations about the ability to sustain a long war expressed by some Russian military commentators and what appears to be jockeying for position in and around the Kremlin.

Although reports of President Putin’s pending demise should be treated with caution, he would be right to fear that a lethal quagmire in Ukraine would fuel resentment and discontent in his armed forces, embolden any potential pretenders to his throne, and might even stretch the patience and credulity of the broader Russian public.

This all suggests that Russia’s armed forces – a key instrument of President Putin’s power – could also be a route to undermining and perhaps even neutralizing his apparent escalation advantage.

Making them feel vulnerable and exposed, even tens of kilometres from forward areas, would not only prevent them from concentrating forces and supplies close to forward areas, it would also further erode their sagging morale.

And – needless to say – any equipment, munitions and training that enhances Ukraine’s ability to engage Russian land, sea and air forces will help tilt the attrition of forces more in Ukraine’s favour.

At the same time, more extensive and effective air and missile defences would blunt Russia’s ability to strike at military and civilian areas throughout Ukraine. Although comprehensive coverage is not feasible, more could and should be done, particularly around heavily populated areas, to at least “thin out” missile and air attacks.

The concept is quite simple: enhance Ukraine’s combat capabilities while decreasing the effectiveness of Russia’s.

Ukraine does not need to acquire identical capabilities in order to counter Russia’s escalation dominance: the escalation “ladders” can be asymmetric. In any event, Ukraine would not wish to respond in kind to President Putin’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians, but the capacity for  Ukraine to expand its strikes against Russian forces, perhaps far behind the “lines of contact”, would give President Putin pause for thought. Nothing would focus his mind like the prospect of tens of thousands of disaffected and resentful Russian military personnel.

…Russia’s armed forces – a key instrument of President Putin’s power – could prove to be a route to undermining and perhaps even neutralizing his apparent escalation advantage.

Providing the Tools

Ukraine simply needs the capabilities – and a variety of them – to ensure that President Putin would have to think twice about climbing up another rung on the escalation ladder.

There have been accusations about half-hearted support to Ukraine, again for fear of “provoking” or “humiliating” President Putin. While the main impediments to support are likely to be more mundane – inefficiency, penny pinching, and bureaucratic inertia – the fact remains that the gap between what Ukraine needs and what is being delivered is too large. Whatever the rationale, Ukraine’s supporters should remove their assistance bottlenecks as a matter of urgency and make every effort to fulfil Ukraine’s requests.

And the deterrent effect would be maximized – made more credible – if it were made clear that Western leaders would not interfere with Ukraine’s decisions on how to respond to escalation or whether Ukraine should engage in dialogue with the Kremlin

The author in 2019 with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Madeleine Moon, the then President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly

After all, is any other leader better placed to judge what is best for Ukraine than its own President? And do any other world leaders understand President Putin better than President Zelensky does?

Maintaining a united front among Ukraine’s supporters

As Ukraine’s forces gain the initiative, President Putin will try all the harder to dissuade Ukraine’s international supporters from providing crucial military assistance.

At the same time, he will try to coerce or encourage them to press Ukraine to accept some form of ceasefire on Moscow’s terms.

And, as noted earlier, the most obvious coercive tool is the “energy weapon”.

Of course, cutting energy supplies to Ukraine’s supporters also deprives Russia of a source of huge revenue, and although President Putin makes light of the impact of international sanctions, a detailed analysis by economists at Yale University suggests that Russia’s economy has been hit much harder than the Kremlin asserts.

On the other hand, Russia has benefited hugely from higher energy prices since it launched its invasion of Ukraine, so President Putin might feel that he could withstand a reduction in revenue far more easily than Europe could withstand further energy price rises and even energy shortages and power outages during the winter.

Indeed, President Putin has stepped up his rhetoric about stopping all gas supplies and seems increasingly inclined to gamble that huge increases in energy bills and power outages in mid-winter will sap international public support for Ukraine.

A strategic imperative: neutralizing Russia’s “energy weapon”

For months, Ukraine’s supporters have naturally been taking steps to minimize the impact of cuts in energy supplies from Russia.  Enormous progress has been made, but dependence on Russian is still likely to be worryingly high this winter, raising fears of widespread hardship created by inflation, recession, unaffordable energy bills and mid-winter power outages.

That could threaten to erode public support for Ukraine, which has remained commendable strong since President Putin launched his invasion. Alleviating those hardships will help to maintain public support so should be seen as a moral, political and even strategic imperative

Staying the course

The West is adapting to a new strategic reality. President Putin will not give up trying to destabilise Ukraine, nor on his adversarial approach towards the West. He will hope that international support for Ukraine will wane in the long term, and he will have been encouraged by calls for an “off ramp” and ceasefire negotiations, which he will have interpreted as early signs of wavering and fragmentation.

That perception should be countered by renewed, unambiguous, long-term commitments to provide military equipment and economic assistance to Ukraine. The more Ukraine is able to threaten Russia’s armed forces, the better will be any stalemate, negotiated ceasefire, or outcome on the battlefield. And the more it will limit President Putin’s opportunities for escalation.

But the nature and timing of the end of conflict cannot be foreseen, and that will sorely test the solidarity of Ukraine’s backers.  It is therefore worth recalling that for more than four decades, no-one knew how or when the Cold War would end.

Today’s leaders will need to show the same sort of resolve and staying power as their predecessors.