26 May 2023

Pathways to Disaster: Russia’s War against Ukraine and the Risks of Inadvertent Nuclear Escalation

The risk of inadvertent nuclear escalation due to actions in the conventional domain is a serious, and underrated, feature of the current stand-off between NATO and Russia, following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. This brief by HCSS analysts Paul van Hooft, Davis Ellison, and Tim Sweijs notes that NATO leaders and armed forces need to be conscious of unintended signals that can follow the placement of weapons, the movement of forces, and support to Ukraine, especially considering the deteriorating state of Russian armed forces.

The brief’s main conclusions are concerning: there are an increasing number of pathways that could lead to inadvertent escalation. Russia’s expenditure of dual-capable missile stocks, the shifting balance of power in Europe to the advantage of NATO, and NATO’s enlargement bringing it closer to the Kola Peninsula increases the likelihood that Russia faces “use-it-or-lose-it” choices. The Russian armed forces have been overburdened and one could expect civil-military relations to be disturbed. The Russian military is offensively minded, with the nuclear class developing its own parochial ideology. Russian C3I systems are degraded through sanctions and direct attacks. Finally, Russia has launched attacks on Ukraine, and used dual-capable delivery systems, from the same locations as its nuclear arsenal.

As NATO-Europe continues to support Ukraine, we suggest a series of measures to avoid inadvertent escalation. Among others, we stress that caution be taken with NATO’s nuclear and conventional posture, including the placement of conventional missiles within range of threatening Russia’s nuclear capabilities. The authors also argue that positive measures, such as military-to-military contacts, should be maintained.

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