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The potential for Russia to decide to escalate the ongoing war in Ukraine by attacking a U.S. or allied target is a significant concern. This Perspective summarizes the most-plausible pathways that could lead to a Russian decision to target NATO member states during the current conflict, describes the conditions under which Moscow might undertake such actions, and lays out how U.S. and NATO actions — including ongoing military assistance to Ukraine — could affect each pathway's likelihood.

The authors conclude with a set of key considerations for U.S. policymakers to help them manage escalation risks while continuing to pursue U.S. objectives in the context of the war in Ukraine. Although escalation risks stemming from this war are real and significant, this Perspective helps to bound those concerns; a Russia-NATO war is far from an inevitable outcome of the current conflict. U.S. and allied policymakers should be concerned with specific pathways and potential triggers, but they need not operate under the assumption that every action will entail acute escalation risks.

This Perspective was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This commentary is part of the RAND expert insight series. RAND Expert Insights present perspectives on timely policy issues. All RAND Expert Insights undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

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