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Dmitri Trenin: Russia can’t afford to lose in Ukraine, however neither can the US – is there a non-nuclear means out of the impasse?

An escalation can result in an even bigger and extra harmful battle. Are Moscow and Washington able to take the danger?

By Dmitri Trenin, a member of the Russian International Affairs Council

The menace of the battle in Ukraine getting uncontrolled isn’t just an ever-present concern, however a actuality.

The authors of the RAND Corporation’s latest paper, ‘Pathways to Russian Escalation Against NATO From the Ukraine War’, warn US policymakers to watch out of their statements and strikes. This is especially when deciding on army postures, deployment patterns, weapons capabilities, and the like, in order that the steps taken by them don’t provoke the Russian management into pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes, together with utilizing non-strategic nuclear weapons, or taking the marketing campaign into NATO territory.

This is completely consistent with America’s general approach of doing the utmost to weaken Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine whereas avoiding being drawn straight right into a battle towards Moscow.  

Seen from right here, Washington is clearly escalating its participation within the battle by consistently testing the bounds of Russian tolerance of those strikes. It began with the supply to Kiev of Javelin anti-tank methods; it was then amplified to incorporate M777 howitzers and HIMARS MLRS methods; it’s now transferring within the course of offering Ukraine with U.S.-made army plane and coaching its pilots to fly them. In addition to the brand new packages of Western sanctions, Russia can be dealing with strain on its geopolitically weak outposts, whether or not concerning items transit to and from its Kaliningrad exclave or the standing of its forces in Transnistria, a small territory wedged between Ukraine and Moldova. Some discuss with the latter as makes an attempt by America’s junior allies in Eastern Europe to open a second entrance towards Russia. 

So far, Russia’s actions and inaction have typically appeared stunning, even puzzling to US watchers. Moscow has avoided strikes towards transport hyperlinks to Poland, cyberattacks towards Ukrainian – to not point out U.S. – vital infrastructure, and even destroying bridges throughout the Dnieper River. As for probably the most regarding step of all – Russia utilizing tactical nuclear weapons – this state of affairs is irrelevant in a state of affairs the place hostilities are going down on Ukrainian territory with Russian forces slowly however steadily advancing, and a “threat to the existence of the Russian Federation” – the doctrinal situation for such deployment – is out of the query.

Moscow’s failure to reply instantly to high-profile Ukrainian actions, such because the fixed shelling of the middle of Donetsk; missile assaults towards Russian villages and cities near their shared border; and even the lack of the Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, hit and sunk by Ukraine with the fabric help of the United States, most likely demonstrates the Kremlin’s unwillingness to be provoked by the enemy. President Vladimir Putin most likely prefers his revenge to be served chilly, and on the time of his selecting. It can be secure to say that nothing from this battle might be forgotten by both aspect, however no less than the Russians have refused to be distracted from their present central activity – defeating the enemy’s forces in Donbass and taking management over Ukraine’s east and south.

So far, U.S.-led help to Kiev, whether or not army, monetary or diplomatic, has not had a decisive affect on the battlefield. It has definitely propped up the Zelensky authorities and compensated for the Ukrainian forces’ losses of army tools, thus contributing to the slowing down of Russian advances, however has not turned the tide of the battle. One might conclude that the Kremlin sees no want, for now, to do issues that might breach the resistance of the Biden Administration to home U.S. calls for for a extra fast escalation of the U.S. involvement within the battle. Jake Sullivan’s latest remark to the Aspen Strategy Group, demonstrating the reluctance of the White House to offer ATACMS methods to Kiev, means that this approach has some worth.         

Looking forward, one ought to count on extra US escalation in any state of affairs of the evolution of combating in Ukraine – whether or not Russia continues to realize floor (and combine varied new territories into the Russian Federation), or Ukraine mounts a counter-offensive (which to date it has didn’t do). Russian officers categorical concern {that a} Ukrainian provocation offered as Moscow’s use of chemical weapons – which makes no army or some other sense however would definitely be believed within the US as a serious egregious act by the Russians – might result in Washington climbing abruptly up the escalation ladder.

Things might turn out to be much more severe, nevertheless, if the US or its NATO allies enter Ukraine, or in any other case turn out to be straight concerned within the battle; if the fabric help which they supply to Kiev begins making a serious distinction on the battlefield; or if these weapons are used to strike vital targets on Russia’s territory, such because the Crimean Bridge. There are parallel American considerations about Russia attacking transshipment factors on NATO territory, launching vital counter-attacks towards the United States or its allies, and utilizing weapons of mass destruction. The final level has already been mentioned, and as to the earlier two, they may very well be in response to an hostile flip of occasions within the theater of operations.

Neither Russia nor the US can afford to lose within the battle now raging in Ukraine. However, the distinction between the conditions confronted by Washington and Moscow is big. For the American management, a failure in Ukraine can be a strategic setback, politically expensive each at home and internationally; for the Russian management, the result of its particular army operation is an existential matter. In an asymmetrical battle like this one, this quantities to an escalation benefit, if not dominance. What is important for the 2 nations and the remainder of the world is that this combat doesn’t cross the nuclear threshold.

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