At some point, that might change. Maybe a Ukrainian military unit uses a NATO long-range system to attack Belgorod, just inside the Russian border, and Putin orders his army to retaliate against a Western country. Or, as the torrent of heavy weapons to Ukraine increases, perhaps Russia decides that supply depots in Poland are fair game. We can imagine these scenarios by the dozen.
In all likelihood, however, none of this will happen. The fighting is ruinous and, as a rule, countries do their best to avoid open conflict, especially one that could go nuclear. The costs of war also mean that (when fighting) nations have powerful incentives not to escalate and expand those wars – to contain the fighting. This is one of the most powerful ideas in game history and theory, and the subject of my recent book, Why we fight: the roots of war and the paths to peace. War is a last resort, and the more expensive that war is, the harder both sides will work to avoid it.
For the most part, that logic holds here. The United States and Russia have an extremely low risk of conflict. But this risk is not zero. In their vocal support for Ukraine, it is important that American politicians and their publics have a clear eye on the perils involved. It’s not just that NATO might be unlucky and see the fighting escalate for idiosyncratic or irrational reasons. Game theory and history show us how NATO or Russian aggression could occur for rational and calculated reasons.
Before we get to that, though, let’s get back to why a Russia-NATO war is unlikely. The conflict in Ukraine makes this a strange time to argue that war is rare or a nation’s last resort.
A powerful example came two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, when India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan. Predictably, calm ensued, as it had for decades. War between the two hostile, nuclear-armed rivals would have been so costly that both sides worked hard to avoid it.
For years Putin also avoided invading Ukraine. Instead, for two decades he tried every other underhanded means possible to co-opt the country: black money, propaganda, political stooges, assassinations and support for separatists. He tried everything he could, because as violent and costly as these things were, none of them were as risky or as ruinous as war.
Similarly, Putin has managed to pacify Russia’s other neighbors with varying degrees of persuasion and force, from subjugating Belarus to “peacekeeping missions” in Kazakhstan (not to mention bullying the Russian people). None of these clashes required long campaigns of violence.
Finally, once the war broke out, both sides took steps to avoid escalation. Russia has the missiles to raze all government buildings in the Ukrainian capital, but it hasn’t done so yet. And while it’s hard to look at the recent attack on shopping mall shoppers in Kyiv and see evidence of restraint, the fact is that Putin has the capacity to do much worse. Similarly, Ukrainian forces may intensify their attacks across the Russian border, but have reduced such incursions to a minimum. Each of these choices is likely to be strategic – a decision to focus the fight on Donbass and reduce costs and escalation risks. A war between NATO and Russia would cost more than all these conflicts combined.
Three Ways War Could Happen
An escalation is unlikely, but every day the war rages means a small chance of global war. Some of this risk is idiosyncratic or even irrational. A NATO or Russian officer could misinterpret the situation, or a computer system could produce an error, and one side would mistakenly launch an attack on the other. Although unlikely, such events are easy for most people to imagine.
Less obvious are the strategic reasons why one side might decide that war, whatever the cost, is worth the bet. There are at least three ways this could happen.
First, there is the logic of reputation and deterrence. NATO has an incentive to confront Russia – to take excessive risks in supporting Ukraine – to deter future adversaries. This is because each of the other NATO rivals is watching and learning. If the West treats Russia kindly just because it is a nuclear-armed power, that sends a clear message to all other strongmen in the world: atomic weapons are the ticket to impunity; get them as soon as possible.
To avoid this signal, America and its allies should be prepared to show that they are prepared to oppose a nuclear-armed state and endure a risk of escalation. That would be taking more risks than in a world where NATO only has to think of Russia. Unfortunately, no rivalry exists in isolation.
Second, Ukraine or NATO could unwittingly incite Russia into a pre-emptive strike. Suppose the Ukrainians concentrate their forces and heavy weapons, tempting Putin to use a tactical nuke while he can. Or maybe the West promises to deliver even heavier weapons to Ukraine, but those systems won’t be operational for months. This could give Russia an incentive for an aggressive push to surround Ukrainian forces, cut off Western supplies and attack NATO supply depots while they can.
Either way, Russia has a window of opportunity in which it thinks it is temporarily strong. Quick action can lock in their advantage – an incentive to escalate the war, even if it risks dragging NATO into the fight.
Now, in theory, Russia could use its momentary advantage to demand concessions rather than escalate. As a rule, adversaries prefer to negotiate rather than fight. But it could undermine the secrecy and effectiveness of a preemptive strike. And besides, how could Ukraine and the West credibly commit to these concessions? Once Russia is weakened, its adversaries may be tempted to back down. It’s what international relations scholars call the “security dilemma” and what game theorists call the “commitment problem” – arguably one of the most common but underestimated causes of war. Of the history.
Thirdthe last rational path to war involves wise leaders with inducements to stir up public opinion against certain types of compromise, only to find that they have overstepped the mark and eliminated any possibility of peaceful agreement.
Suppose that in six months the war of attrition continues, leaving Russia in control of large swathes of Donbass, where Ukraine is unlikely to take them back by force. Imagine that, privately, the Ukrainian government thinks that some sort of settlement is necessary. Optimistically, they reason, Russia could withdraw from Donbass in exchange for the region’s autonomy, Ukrainian neutrality and the formal annexation of Crimea.
Unfortunately, it is easy to imagine a world where Western and Ukrainian public opinion would be against such an agreement, even if it is the pragmatic way. As a result, the Ukrainian parliament could not be trusted to implement a peace agreement. NATO membership, enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution, would be even more difficult to change. Amid this opposition, Western leaders would feel compelled to publicly distance themselves from a peace deal they would secretly like to see. This could plunge Russia and Ukraine into an eternal war – a permanent, festering wound – which could escalate into a NATO-Russia war for all the idiosyncratic and rational reasons above.
Why would Ukrainian and Western leaders ever find themselves in such a predicament, where the sensible way is anathema in public? Several reasons, but one is that public opinion is a weapon and a negotiating tool. Clever politicians know they can anger the public to gain broad support for recruitment, taxes, and other costly sacrifices needed to wage war. It strengthens the government’s hand against an enemy. In addition, agitating public opinion can end a whole series of agreements that are unfavorable to you. “I know it makes sense to concede what you’re asking for,” you can tell the rival leader, “but look at public opinion, my hands are tied.” In short, leaders on both sides of a war have an incentive to demonize the enemy and manufacture discontent.
Unfortunately, a few bad choices and politicians may find they have ruled out any chance of a deal, especially if the other side has played the same risky strategic game. Suddenly, in the twelfth month of the war, the two rivals are exhausted, exhausted and yet unable to find peace.
It’s time to evaluate reasonable settlement options
For Western leaders, these three logics mean that there will be difficult choices to be made.
In terms of deterrence, this means trying to strengthen Ukraine’s position in a way that minimizes the risk of escalation. The Biden administration’s caution against no-fly zones or long-range weapons reaching Russia seems well justified.
With respect to security dilemmas and other engagement issues, this means that no measure gives Russia reason to believe that its advantage is huge and temporary. Public declarations of massive military support months later could be worse than no declaration at all. Faster and regular support is wiser.
Finally, leaders must guard against stirring up hostility to any agreement. “In it to win it” plays well on Twitter and cable news, but ignores that few wars end in decisive victory. Almost all require painful concessions. Determination in public is reasonable, but it is also time to assess the kinds of settlements Ukrainian leaders are planning, and not undermine them in advance.
Christopher Blattman is professor of global conflict studies at the University of Chicago and author of Why we fight: the roots of war and the paths to peace (Viking, 2022). He tweets at @cblatts. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.