RAND Analysis Outlines Possible Further Escalation in Ukraine Conflict, Including Potential for Russian Nuclear Attack

For Release

September 21, 2023

A new RAND Corporation analysis evaluates the potential for further escalation of Putin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, including the grave prospect of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine. A perception that Russian military losses on the battlefield are threatening the security of Putin's regime would provide the most likely trigger for a nuclear attack on Ukrainian territory, researchers conclude.

The report aims to inform U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) policymakers as they balance a desire to limit the risks of escalation with efforts to help the Ukrainian military defeat the Russian invasion. The research was conducted within the Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy in the National Security Research Division and funded through philanthropic support .

“We now know that pre-war assessments of the triggers for Russian escalation underestimated the factors restraining Putin from taking such actions,” lead author and senior political scientist Bryan Frederick said. “However, the conflict still has the potential to generate substantial further escalation should these restraining factors erode, even while allied policymakers and publics may come to discount escalation risks the longer the conflict continues at a similar level of fighting.”

Russia's escalation to date, particularly against civilian targets inside Ukraine, has largely hardened Ukrainian and NATO opposition to its invasion. The authors assert that three primary factors are restraining Putin from escalating the conflict further: concern about NATO military capabilities and reactions; concern for broader international reactions, including the potential to lose China's support; and a perception that his goals in Ukraine are achievable without further escalation.

The erosion of these restraining factors as the conflict evolves could lead to further deliberate escalation by Putin, ranging from a limited Russian attack on NATO to the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Moreover, according to the authors, inadvertent escalation—resulting from misperceptions or mistakes in the conflict—is still possible due to military action by either Russia or Ukraine as the protracted conflict drags on.

Frederick and coauthors Mark Cozad and Alexandra Stark recommend that U.S. and allied policymakers prioritize maintaining NATO alliance cohesion regarding the escalation risks that alliance members are willing to accept in their efforts to support Ukraine. Doing so could help reduce the risk that Russia may perceive any benefit in attacking NATO to coerce a reduction in NATO assistance, while also helping to sustain political support inside the alliance for assistance over the long term.

U.S. and allied policymakers should develop plans to respond to further escalation in the conflict, including by being prepared to interrupt escalatory spirals that could begin from lower-level Russian or Ukrainian attacks, preparations to respond to further deliberate Russian escalation, and prioritizing the maintenance of diplomatic and military communication channels with Russia, the authors conclude.

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