The decision by the United States and NATO to provide Abrams and Leopard II main battle tanks to Ukraine for its war against Russia is a logical follow-on to the events of the past calendar year. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine in February 2022 did not turn out as well as the Kremlin expected. Instead of a coup de main that toppled the government in Kyiv, Russia has found itself locked into a costly protracted war of attrition. The Russian forces’ military performance has also been disappointing to its political and military leadership, and a periodic reshuffling of field commanders has not improved matters very much. Heavy fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces continues in the east and south of Ukraine. Russia is now maintaining a 1,300-kilometer defensive line and regrouping in order for what many expect will be a major offensive later this year.
To meet the expected Russian offensive in the late winter or early spring, Ukraine needs additional components for modern air-land battle, including main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, long-range artillery, advanced missile defense systems, and trained operators who can use this up-gunned equipment to good effect. Thus the announcements by President Joseph Biden and NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg on January 25 that the United States would send thirty-one Abrams tanks to Ukraine—in order to clear the way for Germany, Poland, and other NATO members to send hundreds of Leopard tanks to that beleaguered country—appears as only an incremental upping of the ante.
But Russia may not see it that way. The problem of escalation in times of war has at least two parts: the military-technical and the political-psychological. The military-technical aspect is the conduct of battle and the provision of the necessary ingredients for doing so: troops; equipment; ammunition; command, control, and communications; intelligence; and so forth. These components of the effective management of the battlefield are challenging enough. Few battles ever go exactly as planned, and a great deal of uncertainty, chaos, and friction can be expected as the fighting continues.
The political-psychological aspect of escalation is even more challenging. This aspect appears in two ways: first, in the perceptions and expectations of political leaders and their senior military advisors; and, second, in the views of the major domestic political forces in each country, including elite influencers of various sorts and the mass public.
With respect to the political-psychological aspects of escalation, it appears that Russia has already taken a considerable hit. Its subpar military performance compared to prewar expectations has embarrassed the Kremlin’s leaders and senior military commanders. Troop morale has lagged and widespread resistance to calling up reserve forces has been outspoken. Putin appears to believe that he has convinced the Russian public of the necessity for this prolonged war. But that presumed approval is fragile, and it depends on the ability of Russian forces to provide convincing evidence of meaningful progress on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Ukrainian military forces have outperformed most prewar expectations. This has led Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his advisors to believe that more state-of-the-art military equipment from NATO, together with other support that includes intelligence, training, logistics, and command-control systems, will permit Ukraine’s forces to go on the offensive and retake territory previously occupied or declared annexed by Russia.
Going forward, there are at least two potential scenarios of escalation: vertical and horizontal. Vertical escalation would imply the use of larger and more destructive conventional weapons and, in the worst case, the resort to short- or medium-range tactical nuclear weapons by Russia. Horizontal escalation implies an expansion of the conflict into other countries, including possibly some NATO member states. From Russia’s perspective, NATO is already engaged in a proxy war against Russia, and the symbolism of American tanks and trainers being forward deployed in Ukraine might appear as a very personal challenge to Putin and his military leadership by Washington.
In addition to horizontal and vertical escalation, either Russia or NATO might engage in domain escalation. One example of domain escalation would be large-scale cyberattacks by one side against the other side’s military, economic, or social assets. We know that major powers already have the capability for constant probing of one another’s military and civil computer and communications networks. In the event of war, even more aggressive efforts to steal secrets and to plant destructive bots can be expected. A side that feels it is losing the kinetic war might turn to cyber war in order to compensate by escalation into another domain
Another example of domain escalation could be more widespread uses of drones for attack or defense of military and other assets which Russia has already done much more than Ukraine. Both sides have used drones for reconnaissance, command control, and strikes. The expansion of limited drone attacks into more massive sorties as the technology improves will appeal to technology-minded commanders and software engineers.
Domain escalation might also take the form of targeted assassinations against political or military leaders, a tactic that Russia, not Ukraine, has repeatedly used. In fact, allegations of Russian clandestine efforts to take out Ukrainian leaders during the early stages of the war were widely reported. In addition to hit squads of commandos, Russia might also use advanced technologies for precision strikes with drones, microwaves, or lasers, among other possibilities, against individual Ukrainian leaders or vital centers of decisionmaking in Ukraine.
Finally, and most regrettably, escalation can take the form of crimes against humanity. The purposeful targeting of civilians for terror and shock effect, apart from any legitimate military purpose, is one option that appeals to frustrated leaders facing battlefield disappointments. In this regard, Russia has deliberately targeted missile strikes against Ukrainian civilians, including attacks on schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and electric power grids. This shock and awe against civilians by Russia is intended to discourage support for the war, but it has had the opposite effect in Ukraine. Public support for the war against Russia and for the Zelenskyy government has remained strong—Russian atrocities only serve to delegitimate the Kremlin’s rationale for war, and thereby, serve to further empower Ukraine and NATO to accomplish their objective of preventing Russia from taking permanent control of any part of Ukraine, no matter how long it takes.
Stephen Cimbala is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Penn State, Brandywine.
Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.