One aspect of the war spiral, or escalation, that must always be borne in mind is that it can occur regardless of the will of the participants, as a simple result of their interaction. A major war may break out inadvertently, because the concatenation of threats, responses, retaliation, etc., leads the contenders where they did not think they would arrive.
The case of World War I
A textbook case was the First World War. The crisis of July 1914, which followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, was only the latest in a long sequence that had occurred in the years of the Belle Epoque, without ever leading to a war conflagration. Even in July 1914, the intention was certainly not to unleash a great European war. The Austro-Hungarians wished to settle the score with Serbia, but feared that the Russians would rush to her aid. For this reason - to intimidate the Tsar - they asked for the support of Germany; and they obtained it also because in Berlin it was believed that Moscow was not ready for war (it had been soundly defeated by the Japanese a decade earlier and was completing a rearmament program financed by the French) and that the Tsar would never have supported, even indirectly, regicides. Especially since Moscow had no formal alliance with Belgrade. The German analysis was that, even if they were wrong, Russia would still have found itself alone, because the wave of sympathy aroused by the Sarajevo attack would have helped to keep France and Great Britain out of the conflict.
They were not entirely wrong: London and Paris did not foresee a war nor did they wish it. In fact they advised Serbia to respond positively to the Habsburg ultimatum. To confuse the cards it was Moscow, who began to mobilize encouraging Belgrade to reject at least some points of the ultimatum. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
It should be noted that Russia intended to carry out a partial mobilization, precisely because it was prepared at most for a limited war with Vienna. In Moscow, however, they realized that the partial mobilization would make it difficult to proceed, if necessary, to a total one. Therefore, they directly proclaimed the general mobilization and this was decisive to plunge Europe into war. In Berlin, in fact, they were still expecting a limited conflict: a rapid occupation of Belgrade by the Hapsburg troops and the start of international negotiations from a position of strength. But the general mobilization in Russia exposed Germany to the risk of an invasion, especially since - as is well known - Moscow was an ally of Paris and the German war plans foresaw a rapid defeat of France (as had already occurred in 1870), taking advantage of the proverbial slowness of Russian mobilization, and then concentrating on the more challenging eastern front. It was this consideration that pushed Berlin to the preventive war, declared against France and Russia. At that point, London felt that it could not remain extraneous and, taking advantage of the violation of Belgian neutrality, entered the war. However, all the players involved were counting on a rapid conflict. How it ended is well known to everyone.
Where are we with today's escalation
Back to today. To understand where we are with the current escalation, we can refer to Friedrich Glasl's famous model.
The first level, the win-win level, has been largely surpassed: we have moved beyond tensions, debate and actions that replace words. The second level is the win-lose level, where we expect to achieve something at the expense of the opponent. Coalitions are formed (NATO sides with Ukraine, Belarus sides with Russia), the adversary is delegitimized (the Ukrainian government is "Nazi", Putin is a "mad and bloodthirsty dictator"), threats are made (alert for Russian nuclear forces or NATO rapid response forces). The third level is the lose-lose level: you are willing to suffer losses provided that those of the opponent are greater. The first phase of this level is "limited destruction": you use every tool to damage the enemy more than you are damaged yourself. This is where we are today, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the strenuous resistance of the latter, the European and US-led bloc sanctions even at the cost of self-imposed "sacrifices" (Draghi dixit).
Beyond this level, there are only two more stages. The first is that of total annihilation: the adversary must be destroyed by all means. We could locate the realization of this stage in an open war between Russia and NATO by all conventional means. The second and last stage is the one where the parties are willing to self destroy in order to destroy the adversary. It would correspond to the scenario of a nuclear war.
It should be noted, as pointed out earlier, that the transition from one level to the other can depend on the will of only one of the two contenders or even occur against the will of both. An incident involving a NATO country could drag the latter into the war and, from there, open the door to a nuclear confrontation as well. Although the existence of this final scenario and of mutually assured destruction acts as a strong deterrent to escalation to the extreme, it would be wise not to exclude the possibility a priori. And let us now go on to explain why.
Let's examine what NATO countries have done so far.
- They are supplying weapons to Ukraine to be used against the Russians. It is not comparable to an armed intervention but it implies however a role that is no longer merely diplomatic but goes beyond into the military sphere. Considering the problems related to the transport of weapons on site and to the training (necessary to use them) of Ukrainian soldiers, the border with belligerence is very thin: according to the expert Gianandrea Gaiani, it can be considered already overcome.
- They are providing, among other armaments, jet aircraft. This has provoked some discussion and some backtracking from earlier statements, both on the European and Ukrainian side, which gave rise to suspicions that Europeans might be flying them - or relying on air bases in Poland for their operations. This would have amounted to an entry into the conflict of the third nations involved.
- They are collaborating with Ukraine to facilitate the recruitment of foreign volunteers to fight against the Russians. Despite the fact that this form of recruitment is illegal in several countries, the authorities are either turning a blind eye or passing ad hoc measures to allow it (as in Estonia). The British Foreign Secretary has approved of her compatriots who are enlisting against Moscow. Ukrainians recommend volunteers to bring with them as much material as possible; even previous service uniforms of the country of origin have been mentioned, but this would expose them to great risks of international incidents (what would the Russians think of an Italian captured in Ukraine while fighting in an Italian uniform?).
- They are imposing very harsh economic sanctions on Russia, openly aimed at bringing it to its knees. Before backtracking, the French Foreign Minister used the phrase "total economic war." We are beyond sanctions as a deterrent. They are an instrument of non-military warfare: they do not serve to discourage or inhibit the opponent's actions, which have already taken place (and no longer inhibited because the maximum possible pressure is already being exerted), but to reduce the opponent to impotence.
- They are conducting heavy cyber attacks against Russia. It is hard not to believe that behind "Anonymous" there is, at least in this case, the cyber-warfare capability of NATO. We are therefore talking about a form of hybrid warfare, which has already been used in the past against Iran and to which the Russians have also resorted, albeit in a less intense way.
- Ukrainian President Zelensky has called for NATO to impose a no-fly-zone over Ukraine. It would necessarily imply direct confrontations between NATO and Russia, making an escalation to total war in Europe very likely. For this reason it has been ruled out by all Euro-Atlantic governments that have spoken on the issue, but it should not be ignored that some MPs, both in Britain and the US, have welcomed Zelensky's proposal.
- The Euro-Atlantic leaderships openly speak of President Putin and his close associates as insane, bloodthirsty and war criminals. The Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, showing off his diplomatic skills, laughingly declared on live TV that Putin is "more atrocious than any animal". These are well-known mechanisms of dehumanization and reductio ad Hitlerum of opponents, probably in the hope of stimulating a coup in Moscow that would depose Putin. But we must not forget that recent history shows us more examples of dictators, isolated, sanctioned and demonized, who despite all the auspices and intrigues of the U.S. or Europe have remained in charge for years or decades: from Assad to Saddam Hussein, from Maduro to Castro. This kind of communicative strategy risks only to entrench and strengthen the ruling clique, now aware that, if defeated, they would end up like Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. And this prospect of final elimination can also push Putin and his people to extreme decisions, feeling hunted and with their backs to the wall, with no way out.
- To confirm how ill-disposed not only towards Putin, but towards every Russian, NATO countries are, there are evident persecutory excesses, which are configured as real Russophobia. Just to remain in Italy, we have seen: the government starting the procedure to revoke the honors granted to Russians in recent years; an orchestra master prevented from performing if he had not first abjured his country; an important public university canceling a course dedicated to Dostoevsky because he is a Russian writer. Nothing that contributes to calm down the spirits or that portends the possibility of peaceful and negotiated solutions.
We are confident that the risk of escalation remains low, as neither the Russians nor any NATO country would seem interested in a widening of the conflict. At the moment, and for understandable reasons, only Ukraine is working on an enlargement. However, the willingness of Kiev to conduct negotiations with Russia, parallel to the operations on the ground, leads us to believe that not even President Zelensky is aiming at an all-out resistance, which would condemn the country to suffer great damage and grief.
However, as mentioned at the beginning, one should not overlook the risks of an involuntary escalation, which can depend both on incidents on the ground and on the perceptions of political leaders regarding the adversary's intentions. For example, Putin surprised other countries by invading Ukraine: many expected that his calculus would include severing relations with Europe and sanctions, dissuading him from war. Plausibly, Putin did not evade this calculus, but considered the neutralization of Ukraine a categorical imperative and weighed the "cons" diachronically: attacking Ukraine will result in damage, but will there be a time in the future when such damage will be less? Considering the weakness shown by Biden in Afghanistan, the critical state of the European economy between pandemic shutdowns, inflation, energy costs, he must have concluded that this was not the ideal moment, but the "less inopportune" one. Also for this reason it is dangerous to give the idea that we want to lock him in a corner and pursue his deposition and the annihilation of the Russian Federation.
Regarding the risk of nuclear escalation, one must consider the strategies of NATO and Russia.
After the Korean War, NATO planned to react to a Soviet invasion also with the massive use of nuclear weapons. It was the concept of "massive retaliation", which excluded the possibility of a limited conflict with the USSR. In the 1960s, after Moscow had developed an equally fearsome atomic arsenal, a "flexible response" was envisaged: conventional to conventional attack, tactical nuclear to tactical nuclear attack, strategic nuclear to strategic nuclear attack. NATO's fourth strategic concept (1968), however, contemplated "deliberate escalation": the increasingly credible threat of recourse to atomic weapons to stop aggression. This was the last formulation made during the Cold War, thus during an open confrontation with a nuclear rival. A new strategic concept for the alliance will be released this year, taking into account the now clear antagonism of Russia and China towards NATO.
Let us turn to Russian military doctrine. It has, in the last decades, lowered the threshold of potential use of the atomic weapon, foreseeing it also in response to a conventional but large-scale and critical attack. This is the doctrine of " escalate to descalate": in case of an overwhelming conventional attack (evidently NATO is thought of as the executor), Moscow would respond with a limited use of the atomic weapon in order to push the adversary to get back off from ill-chosen positions. It is not by chance that the Russians have invested a lot in the development of tactical nuclear weapons, that is low yield (of expressed energy), and today they have an advantage of 10:1 over the USA, which is doubled considering that only half of the American weapons are deployed in Europe. This type of weapons is described as a possible vehicle for nuclear escalation, since - being hundreds of times less powerful than strategic nuclear warheads - they could be used more "lightly". But always without knowing where the spiral will stop.
In conclusion, the recommendation to policy makers and citizens is not to assume that the war will not expand just because, Ukraine aside, no one wants it to. The road to hell is paved with good intentions....
Founder and President of Centro Studi Machiavelli. Graduated in Historical Sciences (University of Milan) and PhD in Political Studies (Sapienza University), he is professor of "History and doctrine of jihadism" and "Geopolitics of the Middle East" at Cusano University. From 2018 to 2019 he was Special Advisor on Immigration and Terrorism to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Guglielmo Picchi. His latest book (as editor) is Topicality of sovereignism. Between pandemic and war.