An escalation can lead to a bigger and more dangerous conflict. Are Moscow and Washington ready to take the risk? By Dmitri Trenin, a member of the Russian International Affairs CouncilFILE – Finland and Sweden are nearing decisions on whether to ditch their long-standing policy of military nonalignment and join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto is expected to announce his stance on NATO membership on Thursday, May 12, 2022. © AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi, File

The threat of the conflict in Ukraine getting out of control is not just an ever-present concern, but a reality.

The authors of the RAND Corporation’s recent paper, ‘Pathways to Russian Escalation Against NATO From the Ukraine War’, warn US policymakers to be careful in their statements and moves. This is particularly when deciding on military postures, deployment patterns, weapons capabilities, and the like, so that the steps taken by them do not provoke the Russian leadership into pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes, including using non-strategic nuclear weapons, or taking the campaign into NATO territory.

This is totally in line with America’s overall approach of doing the maximum to weaken Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine while avoiding being drawn directly into a war against Moscow.

Seen from here, Washington is clearly escalating its participation in the conflict by constantly testing the limits of Russian tolerance of these moves. It started with the provision to Kiev of Javelin anti-tank systems; it was then amplified to include M777 howitzers and HIMARS MLRS systems; it is now moving in the direction of providing Ukraine with U.S.-made military aircraft and training its pilots to fly them. In addition to the new packages of Western sanctions, Russia is also facing pressure on its geopolitically vulnerable outposts, whether regarding goods transit to and from its Kaliningrad exclave or the status of its forces in Transnistria, a small territory wedged between Ukraine and Moldova. Some refer to the latter as attempts by America’s junior allies in Eastern Europe to open a second front against Russia.

So far, Russia’s actions and inaction have sometimes appeared surprising, even puzzling to US watchers. Moscow has refrained from strikes against transport links to Poland, cyberattacks against Ukrainian – not to mention U.S. – critical infrastructure, or even destroying bridges across the Dnieper River. As for the most concerning step of all – Russia using tactical nuclear weapons – this scenario is irrelevant in a situation where hostilities are taking place on Ukrainian territory with Russian forces slowly but steadily advancing, and a “threat to the existence of the Russian Federation” – the doctrinal condition for such deployment – is out of the question.

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Moscow’s failure to respond immediately to high-profile Ukrainian actions, such as the constant shelling of the center of Donetsk; missile attacks against Russian villages and towns close to their shared border; or even the loss of the Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, hit and sunk by Ukraine with the material assistance of the United States, probably demonstrates the Kremlin’s unwillingness to be provoked by the enemy. President Vladimir Putin probably prefers his revenge to be served cold, and at the time of his choosing. It would be safe to say that nothing from this conflict will be forgotten by either side, but at least the Russians have refused to be distracted from their current central task – defeating the enemy’s forces in Donbass and taking control over Ukraine’s east and south. (RT)