Photo by Wojciech Grzedzinski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The errors of escalation

What does it mean and why is it so dangerous?

Artillery Row

As Ukraine launches its long-awaited counter-offensive against Russian forces in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions of the country, Western observers are hoping for significant military gains against Vladimir Putin’s occupying forces. Yet very real fears exist that if Ukrainian forces fail to achieve notable progress on the battlefield, another period of relative stalemate will descend upon the killing fields of Ukraine.

To date, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has largely been characterised by attrition, offensive-defensive actions and trench warfare, all reminiscent of the Great War of 1914–1918. It has also witnessed the application of cutting-edge 21st century technology, however, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and surveillance, and the widespread use of drones to “target enemy positions with precision-guided munitions”. Whilst this type of “hybrid” warfare — the fusion of the conventional with the unconventional — has thus far ensured continued Ukrainian survival, it has failed to deliver the knock-out blow to Russian forces so desperately sought by President Zelenskyy and his generals.

British Cabinet Ministers continue to fan the flames of European war

Critically, such operational and strategic stasis could very well lead both sides to seek drastic escalatory measures to break the deadlock. Military escalation or the threat of it have been something of a leitmotif of Putin’s “Special Military Operation” against Ukraine. From early on, NATO and the West were exercised by the possibility of Russia escalating the war into neighbouring countries, such as Poland and Moldova, or even farther afield into the Baltic States or the Nordic nations of Finland, Sweden and Norway. The spectre of Belarus being drawn into the conflict has also perturbed official minds in Washington, London and Brussels. President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s recent and highly-publicised receipt of tactical nuclear weapons from Russia has done nothing to assuage such concerns.

Perhaps the West’s greatest worry, as highlighted in a previous article for The Critic (“Bleeding the Russian Bear White: Britain, the US and the War in Ukraine”) is that Putin will commit some “mad dog act” by utilising Chemical, Biological, Radiological or Nuclear (CBRN) weapons — be they tactical or strategic — against Ukraine. Frustration at the absence of conventional military success, anxiety as to colossal losses in men and matériel, and a genuine fear of “regime change” within Russia, could well convince Putin to alter the politico-military-strategic calculus by escalating beyond the sub-CBRN threshold. It is therefore deeply troubling that against this stark backdrop, British Cabinet Ministers continue to fan the flames of European war by means of incendiary and escalatory rhetoric.

Within the context of post-1945 international relations, the British have regularly levelled at their American partners the charge of being far too “gung-ho”. Yet, with regards Ukraine, British government ministers have themselves fallen into this very same mind-set. Mercifully falling short of the late Kenny Everett’s infamous exhortation during his warm-up act at the 1983 Conservative Party Conference, “Let’s bomb Russia!”, members of the present Cabinet have nonetheless descended the ladder of statesman-like oratory over Putin’s illegal invasion of his neighbour.

Setting aside Boris Johnson’s risible efforts to cast himself as a wartime premier of Churchillian proportions, one of the first in the Cabinet to mobilise and deploy jingoistic rhetoric was Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. In what were later categorised as “unguarded comments”, Wallace, who aspires to be NATO’s next Secretary-General, declaimed in late February 2022 that Putin had gone “full tonto”. Drawing ahistorical parallels between the nascent Russo-Ukraine war and the Crimean war of 1854–56, Wallace also asserted that his old regiment, the Scots Guards, had had a hand in ensuring that Tsar Nicholas I’s “army got their arses handed to them on a plate” in 1854, before adding hubristically, “we can do it again”. In March 2022, then Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid raised the issue of enacting Article V of NATO’s charter, which states “that an armed attack against one or more of them [member states] … shall be considered an attack against them all”. Javid warned the Russian Federation that “if there was an attack on any NATO country, even if just a single toe cap of a Russian soldier steps into NATO territory, then it will be war with NATO and NATO would respond”.

The next to assert their bellicose credentials were then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Armed Forces Minister James Heappey. Despite having publicly told Russia to “dial down” its “Cold War rhetoric” in February 2022, Truss nevertheless delivered a speech at the Mansion House in April setting-out a raft of “British war aims”, promising to drive Russia back to its pre-2014 borders. Heappey, meanwhile, told journalists that it was “completely legitimate” for Ukraine to select and strike targets within Russia. This official line was recently reaffirmed by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who averred that Ukraine had every “right to project force beyond its borders to undermine Russia’s ability to project force into Ukraine itself”. This was in stark contrast to the US State Department, who briefed the media that whilst it was “up to Ukraine to decide how to conduct this war”, as a “more general principle”, the United States was quite “clear” that it did not “encourage or enable strikes inside of Russia”.

The modern UK military-intelligence machine has long advocated and practised military escalation

One of the few commentators in the UK media to question this dangerous British rhetoric is the veteran defence and security reporter Richard Norton-Taylor. On the website “Declassified UK”, Norton-Taylor stated that “British ministers are fanning the flames of conflict in Ukraine” and “ratcheting up their aggressive rhetoric aimed at Putin’s Kremlin”. Alluding to the recent series of drone strikes deep inside Russia — the attack on Moscow in early May being the most high-profile — Norton-Taylor accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and James Cleverly of having “enthusiastically praised the Ukrainian drone attacks on Moscow” and of even “egging on Kyiv to launch further strikes on Russia”. Yet what Norton-Taylor and other “Whitehall watchers” have failed to disclose is that the modern UK military-intelligence machine has long advocated and practised military escalation, despite its not being fully understood by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), nor codified in UK defence doctrine.

Military escalation has been defined by a think tank named the RAND Corporation as “an increase in the intensity or scope of conflict that crosses threshold(s) considered significant by one or more of the participants”. Conflicts can, according to this description, “intensify or expand in many ways, such as through attacks on targets previously considered to be off-limits, opening new theatres of operations against an enemy, or employing weapons not previously used in the conflict”. A narrower definition focuses on three main dimensions of escalation: “political”, “vertical” and “horizontal”.

Politics aside, vertical escalation is defined as an “increase in the intensity of armed conflict or confrontation, such as employing types of weapons not previously used in the conflict or attacking new categories of targets”. It also covers types of weapons, target options, frequency of attacks, and numbers of targets. By contrast, the concept of “horizontal escalation” is specified as “threats to geographically expand a conflict” by opening up multiple theatres of operation against an adversary. It involves boundaries of conflict, locations of targets, locations of bases, elimination of sanctuary, and the violation of neutrality.

The strategic concept of horizontal escalation, (not to be confused with “strategic off-set”, a form of competitive strategy that seeks to preserve peace, whilst maintaining military advantage over potential adversaries for protracted periods of time) was a product of US Cold War thinking and as such an integral part of US “containment” policy during the early 1980s. Designed to deter Soviet global expansionism, horizontal escalation necessitated the US mooting the idea of warning the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies that any military incursions into Western Europe would be countered by horizontal escalation operations. These would take place in geographical locations key to the USSR, such as Cuba and the Far East, where the US enjoyed conventional military supremacy. This strategy was designed as an alternative to the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a breach of Article V of the NATO Treaty.

A 1980 Pentagon paper on the utility of horizontal escalation in the event of hostilities with the Soviet Union listed three major benefits of the strategy: (i) to “affect Soviet cost-benefit calculations of continued aggression; (ii) acquire bargaining chips to be used in settling the conflict; and (iii) and/or force the Soviets to divert forces from its main effort”. Additional benefits of horizontal escalation during the Cold War were its potential to assist in managing crises; to send out clear politico-military signals of US-NATO resolve to incur costs and take risks; to deter aggression; to inflict “punishment”, i.e. destructive retaliation; to threaten hostage-taking, as well as compensatory acquisition; and to fix Soviet forces; and finally, “inducing the redeployment” of Soviet formations.

With the end of the Cold War in 1990, however, academic and military interest in horizontal escalation faded, and the concept became a much-neglected subject. This is evidenced in part by the dearth of secondary sources on the strategy, as well as the conspicuous absence of horizontal escalation within the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review, Integrated Operating Concept 2025 and the MoD’s Joint Doctrine Note 1/19, Deterrence: The Defence Contribution. That said, the recent Integrated Review Refresh 2023 has, albeit rather tardily, promised to “ … introduce a new long-term goal to manage the risks of miscalculation and escalation between major powers”. The raising of diplomatic temperatures by British politicians over Ukraine, therefore, is acutely disconcerting. It is evident that they are only belatedly becoming aware of the dangers of vertical and horizontal escalation, with the second, third and perhaps fourth order consequences of championing such a course of action against a nuclear-tipped Russia.

Horizontal escalation is supposed to act as a deterrent to, not a catalyst for, vertical escalation

Four decades ago, responsible and well-informed Cold War thinkers raised five questions regarding potential drawbacks to horizontal escalation: (i) “what is horizontal escalation supposed to do; what is the goal in an operational sense?”; (ii) “given some relatively concrete goal, how is the ‘proper’ horizontal target selected?”; (iii) “in what ways might horizontal escalation affect the probability of vertical escalation of the United States and the Soviet Union?”; (iv) “what are the risks of “counter-horizontal escalation” by the Soviets?”; and (v) “are there otherwise avoidable diplomatic costs associated with the strategy?” In light of the fact that the Ukrainians, with the blessing of His Majesty’s Government, have begun to conduct horizontal escalation operations into Russia by means of drone strikes and cross-border raids by anti-Putin “partisan” units, such as the Russian Volunteer Corps and Freedom of Russia Legion, these theoretical questions are as relevant and valid today as they were during the height of the Cold War. This is doubly so when one considers that Ukrainian horizontal escalation has induced a fear of “regime change” in Moscow, as well as an acute anxiety as to the future existence and security of its nuclear ballistic missile fleet and accompanying facilities in Murmansk. As already noted, horizontal escalation is ultimately supposed to act as a deterrent to, not a catalyst for, vertical escalation between great power states.

Fear of an apocalyptic miscalculation between the Cold War Superpowers due to incendiary rhetoric — President Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech made in March 1983 being a case in point — helped moderate political and diplomatic language in that epoch of bi-polarity. Fast forward to the war in Ukraine, however, and the potential for grave misjudgements on the part of Russia and the West, exacerbated by bombastic and inflammatory comments by the UK government, has grown exponentially. British politicians and policymakers would therefore do well to remember and practise the advice proffered by Vice-President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, later the 26th President of the United States, who on 2 September 1901 declared that the secret of an effective foreign policy lay in a nation’s ability to “speak softly and carry a big stick”.

A clear sign of Russian intent to escalate the conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine came in May, in response to James Cleverly’s rash remarks on Ukrainian escalation across the Russian border. Former Russian President, and deputy chairman of Putin’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev stated publicly that “ … any of its [the UK’s] public officials (either military, or civil, who facilitate war) can [now] be considered as a legitimate military target”. This ratcheting-up of high-octane rhetoric merely increases the risk of miscalculation and state-on-state war. Thankfully, it is known that the current Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, has access to a direct “hotline” to his opposite number in Moscow, and he has indeed used it on numerous occasions since the Russian invasion.

It is also a given that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) will be in regular contact, via back channels, with figures in the Russian state apparatus. It can only be hoped that Russian officials are being advised to ignore these jingoistic and highly irresponsible rhetorical utterances emanating from London. They must instead be persuaded to observe the one-time French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s style of statecraft, which cautioned that, “Between an uncontrolled escalation and passivity, there is a demanding road of responsibility that we must follow.” If NATO and the West are to avoid escalating into a Third World War with Russia, then “Quiet Diplomacy”, not dangerous rhetoric, is the order of the day.

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