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According to this answer for the question Why do Western countries not send more powerful weapons to Ukraine?, Western countries are reluctant also out of fear of conflict escalation:

It is not in the interest of most Western countries to have the war escalate to other countries, especially not other EU or NATO countries.

Considering that Russia's progress in Ukraine is well below its initial objectives and has registered quite heavy losses so far, I do not understand how it can "escalate" this war. I imagine that, if Russia could have poured more / better weapons and manpower into the war, they would have done this so far.

Thus, my question is, considering the context of the first half of 2024 when Russia is still struggling to gain land in Ukraine, how can it realistically escalate the war?

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    There are likely many ways they could do that and any answer would be just guessing at what they are thinking
    – Joe W
    Apr 6 at 14:38
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    Voting to keep open. Re: “ Questions asking for the internal motivations of people, how specific individuals would behave in hypothetical situations or predictions for future events are off-topic, because answers would be based on speculation and their correctness could not be verified with sources available to the public.”: I just provided an answer with such references. Please read it before voting to close or to keep open. Thanks! Apr 6 at 15:43
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    They do not really conscript. It is very, very far from a total war like mass mobilization as the Ukrainians do. If their state would be in risk, or Putin's successor would be much more hardliner, they could quickly mobilize tens of millions of people, and attack other countries with it. Or, the West would start to defend Ukraine with corps, the result would be likely a quick Russian win in the first years, and no one knows, what after. Note, both WW1 and WW2 was won by the West by industrial production... but this time, the enemy is Russia. At a point, such a WW3 would become likely nuclear.
    – Gray Sheep
    Apr 8 at 20:53
  • According to some western official it is legal to target military supply bases far behind of the front line. One of Ukrainian supply bases is called "Rammstein". Recently you also can hear repeatedly "we don't want to start a war against XXX, we just destroy some of their military potential". Apr 9 at 11:40
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    Russia could easily cut most or all of the underwater cables which provide almost the entire Internet bandwidth, causing crippling damage to the world, but most of the damage would be to Western countries as they rely on it the most.
    – vsz
    Apr 10 at 5:20

9 Answers 9

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They could use nuclear weapon against Ukraine, they could attack a NATO country, they could attack a non-NATO country like Japan.

Three Possible Scenarios Illustrate the Risk of Inadvertent Escalation

The ongoing war carries with it risks of inadvertent escalation that have yet to materialize. To better appreciate these risks, we outline three horizontal escalation scenarios that are plausible based on what we know of Russian,Ukrainian, and NATO activities to date.

A Russian strike inside Ukraine could kill NATO officials. Russia may not have intended to target the officials, but the NATO member state might not believe the explanation, triggering political pressure to attack Russia or diplomatic demands for a collective NATO response. Putin could wait to see how NATO responds or attempt to preempt any attack by striking NATO capabilities first. Either possibility could lead to direct exchange of fire between Russian and NATO militaries.

Aggressive Russian maneuvers against U.S. surveillance aircraft kill U.S. military personnel. Aggressive Russian maneuvers targeting a manned U.S. surveillance aircraft operating in or near the Black Sea could plausibly lead to the deaths of U.S. personnel. U.S. policymakers would face pressure to respond, possibly by targeting the Russian aircraft or supporting base involved. Russia may view any U.S. response strike as highly escalatory, leading Putin to consider retaliatory strikes.

Russia misperceives NATO moves as signals of intervention in Ukraine. A substantial increase in higher-readiness forces with longer-range strike capabilities near Russia's borders, accompanied by explicit discussions about a near-term pathway to Ukraine's membership in NATO, or comparable security guarantees, could convince Moscow that it is on a slippery slope to direct NATO intervention. Putin could decide to push for a ceasefire, but he could also decide to strike NATO targets preemptively to degrade NATO capabilities or deter a future intervention by underlining Russia's willingness to bring the war directly to NATO countries. In response to what it would likely view as an unprovoked Russian attack, NATO could be deterred, but it could also be outraged and seek to punish Moscow through direct military action

Through these or other scenarios, the potential for inadvertent escalation is likely to persist for the duration of the conflict, highlighting the value of maintaining open lines of military and diplomatic communications with Russia to help disrupt such spirals.

https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RBA2807-1.html

More realistically, they could inadvertently do the following: They could inadvertently kill a NATO official during an attack against Ukraine, they could kill a U.S. military personnel during a maneuver against U.S. surveillance, and they could attack NATO targets preemptively against a perceived sign of escalation.

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    "They could inadvertently kill a NATO official during an attack against Ukraine" NATO would absolutely deny that and annpuce that the official died somewhere else. A crazy diving accident involving helicopters.
    – alamar
    Apr 6 at 18:27
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    @alamar Probably it would be chalked up to a misfire or other malfunction, like the incident last year with the UK spy plane that was "accidentally" almost fired upon. But that relies on the NATO nation in question wanting to forgive and forget, which isn't guaranteed.
    – Cadence
    Apr 6 at 20:02
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    @alamar That depends on the nature of what that person was doing. There are many openly admitted officials and even soldiers of NATO countries in Ukraine right now - embassy staff and guards, troops overseeing the distribution of Western weapons, pilots on ISR flights.
    – Cadence
    Apr 6 at 21:54
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    It wouldn't need to be in Ukraine. Russian munitions have hit Poland, Russian jets have performed certain maneuvers near US assets. A while back, Russian forces attacked a US position in Syria. While none of these have resulted in NATO casualties yet, it is quite possible.
    – bharring
    Apr 8 at 12:55
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    I'm not clear how possible inadvertent escalations address this question. There is no fear of NATO sending weapons starting inadvertent escalation, since by definition that wouldn't be a response to sending weapons. The questioner wants to know what deliberate escalations Russia could make.
    – cjs
    Apr 8 at 13:55
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Upon re-reading this question I now get what it is about and why existing answers are unsatisfactory.

Russian Federation could absolutely draft more people into its armed forces if that would be justified. Currently, this seems to be limited by two factors: Firstly, Russia pays good wages to contracted and mobilized personnel, out of its limited coffers. Secondly, many people don't see why they have to participate in what looks like a stalled operation that does not actively endanger core Russia.

However, if NATO would step up this war by participating directly on Ukraine side, or worse, if NATO-Ukraine combined forces would breech into pre-war Russian territory, it is not unimaginable that Russian Federation could do more rounds of mobilization. In this case it could also adjust the amount of cash it pays to servicemen if it becomes tight on money. Such as, they will get 1/4 in cash and the rest in some funny money burn before cashing in vouchers.

Russian Federation did a single round of mobilization lasting 40 days, where it could mobilize 300 thousands personnel. It is not unimaginable that a million more could be mobilized if the situation is perceived as critical; which is not the case currently but may happen if NATO rolls into the field.

And, as they say, "God is on the side of larger companies".

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    FWIW, Russia continues to have both a trade surplus and a current account surplus (!), and the government is running a deficit of 1.9% GDP (about $35 billion), and starting with a pristine balance sheet (even in spite of confiscation of European bank accounts). Compared to 6% GDP deficit (about $1.7 Trillion) and nearly 100% GDP public debt for the US. The limiting factor is that there's now full employment due to brisk industrialization from both the war economy and import substitution. So money is a secondary concern, but mobilizing large numbers is a tricky balancing act.
    – Pete W
    Apr 8 at 2:16
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    "Russian Federation did a single round of mobilization lasting 40 days". Officially. Unofficially... twitter.com/DefenceHQ/status/1774049069322682668 apnews.com/article/… That's the army recruitment equivalent of "there's many ways to slice a price". Apr 8 at 15:41
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    @thegodsfromengineering Mobilization is when people who didn't expect to go to war are told to, and can't refuse. Outside of that single round of mobilization, Russia recruits people who can be persuaded to fight willingly (such as football hooligans, convicts, military colleges alumnis, people motivated by money, etc). Obviously, the former group is much larger.
    – alamar
    Apr 8 at 15:51
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    @thegodsfromengineering Conscription and draft are different things. Conscription is when you hit 18, serve for a year, get an army speciality, isn't deployed outside 2021 borders (but might as well be on Belgorod borders). Draft or "mobilization" is when you have a conscription background, pulled away from your civilian life again, and go to the warzone after some training (hopefully).
    – alamar
    Apr 8 at 19:00
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    @SamGinrich As the question implies, suppose Baltic states become directly involved in the fighting, such as by placing blockade on Kaliningrad region. In this case Russia may invoke the "enemy is at our door" rhetoric and draft more people.
    – alamar
    May 3 at 17:17
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If either side had the means to increase the intensity of the fighting and were willing to accept the consequences of doing so, they would have done it.

In my opinion, the question makes sense more as an inquiry into deterrence options.

If discussing deterrence, it would probably be best to set aside talk about nuclear weapons. Here's why I think that is.

Already in the early 1950's, a doctrine of massive retaliation (ie nuclear) was articulated by Dulles. He was not referring merely to an attack on US or NATO, that was already understood. The issue of the day was conflict along the edges, at that time in Asia. The massive retaliation doctrine was a more powerful alternative to the doctrine of mere containment, where the French in Vietnam and US in Korea had already run up against limitations of power projection. Dulles' bluff was, arguably, called as the French were defeated in Vietnam. The key conclusion then drawn about the Dulles paradigm, was that

If the Communists should challenge our sincerity, and they would have good reasons for daring to do so, we would either have to put up or shut up

The quote coming from Kaufmann 1954, as quoted in Farooqui per link below. Thereafter policymakers shifted away from such a hyperbolic escalatory conception of deterrence, toward one in which there was a graduated spectrum of options. The above is taken from a somewhat critical history by Farooqui 2019, a sometime grad student of Adam Tooze's.

As it applies to this Question, the part about having to "either put up or shut up" applies equally to other first-class players, I.e. USSR becoming Russia and also China. The threat can be made, and it has been (eg Cuba missile crisis) - but ultimately it is too obvious that nobody wants to end the world.

As far as nuclear weapons go, the lack of credibility of such threats applies even more today, as red lines were crossed repeatedly over the years. It's just not a useful line of conversation, as there are many lesser options which are also quite destructive.

Despite that, I hope it is clear that all involved are far more vulnerable to conventional weapons than they care to admit, including even the US.

In the case of the US, Russia is not even the primary rival. It is China. From a geostrategic point of view, US has to stay in this contest just to maintain "credibility" with respect to China - not to a friendly audience such as found here, but rather to the governments of Asia and Africa. This is also a vulnerability that can be exploited by Russia, as the US faces crises in other theaters (e.g. the Red Sea, or bases in Iraq). It is a line of attack would be much more strategically economical for Russia, than deliberately starting WWIII.

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    "If either side had the means to increase the intensity of the fighting and were willing to accept the consequences of doing so, they would have done it." That's meaningless. The US could spend more money, but there's not currently sufficient political will for that with many (mainly Republican) politicians opposed. Russia similarly has to balance spending on the war against other priorities and it could certainly move further e.g. more spending, more conscription, but it doesn't consider such action to be a good use of resources. The fact is they could spend more but don't want to.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 8 at 14:08
  • @StuartF - IMO that lack of political will reflects US resources being limited relative to foreign policy ambitions. There's a good debate among foreign policy hawks (mostly Repub's, to your point), about how to prioritize the current wave of rearmament, among all the competing needs. Many countries now feel antagonized by the US, Middle East is on fire, China is brushing aside US sanctions with ease, Red Sea shipping shut down by a third rate power (with implications for Taiwan), and drones made much existing military stock obsolete. Money isn't limiting, you can always borrow more money.
    – Pete W
    Apr 8 at 19:53
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    @StuartF: The problem in the US is that one individual (Donald Trump) admires dictators like Putin and doesn't want them to face opposition, and that Speaker of the House Mike Johnson puts fealty to Donald Trump ahead of everything else. Ukraine aid had 70% support in the Senate and would have had almost as much support in the House if Mike Johnson would let it come up for a vote, but the person Johnson refers to as "the President" doesn't want that to happen.
    – supercat
    Apr 9 at 21:15
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    @PeteW: Giving Ukraine armaments that had been built for the purpose of destroying Russian military equipment is in many ways a win-win for the US and Ukraine, since the US can gain valuable information from finding out how well its older-generation weapons perform in actual field conditions against actual Russian armaments. Mike Johnson's claim that the border should have higher priority initially carried some weight, but not since Trump decreed that Biden must not be allowed to claim a win on the border issue.
    – supercat
    Apr 9 at 21:20
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First of all - the referred question and answer are from Jun 2022. Since that time many red lines in support for Ukraine got crossed and capabilities of Russian military got better evaluation. Still there is some room for escalation. Besides using nukes mentioned by Sayaman and intensifying mobilization mentioned by Alamar, it is possible that China will engage more in supporting Russia (help evading sanctions, selling technology etc).

Western countries do not expect Ukrainian military victory (how would it look like? Ukrainian forces marching on Moscow to force surrender are out of question. If each army stops on some negotiated border, what will stop Russia from rebuilding its forces and trying once again?). The hopes are in crippling Russian economics with sanctions and war efforts it commits. So a balance is kept to not let Ukraine fail but not to induce anyone to engage in supporting Russia nor induce Russia into more intense actions.

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    Well, China did ship to Russia a few thousand ATVs that showed up near the front lines, and sometimes in assault parties as well. I suppose China argued they're unarmed, so not military vehicles, despite Russia not hiding the reason for the purchase. youtube.com/watch?v=TtXlYa9vdKU ; reddit.com/r/CombatFootage/comments/1bn9lar/… Apr 8 at 13:36
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    @thegodsfromengineering China does support Russia. But if it engaged as strongly as Europe and US do, the conflict would go much differently. Apr 8 at 13:47
  • Yes, but that would be mostly escalation from/by China. The Q is what could Russia do. I suppose offer higher prices/premiums for Chinese stuff, so they'd sell them some military gear too. Apr 8 at 14:00
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    I suspect the top Western governments consider themselves safe, due to being geographically buffered, and are indifferent as to where Ukraine's borders end up. It's more a matter of power and prestige. The US in particular is in it to bolster its "credibility" for an anticipated showdown with China. This means an indefinite slow burn is the safest, as it doesn't present the possibility of losing face. In a desperate fight, there's not telling what might happen. On the part of China, the situation must be quite satisfactory. US stays busy in an area that has no impact whatsoever on China.
    – Pete W
    Apr 8 at 20:21
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    @PeteW: actually, this war makes Russia somewhat more dependant on China. Something that China probably doesn't mind much. For instance, Chinese car sales in Russia are booming, and replacing Western brands there reuters.com/business/… So, China also probably likes the war going on forever, or at least the Western sanctions on Russia, even if China publicially says something else in that regard. Apr 9 at 10:31
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To quote from the comment by o.m.:

Russia could attack NATO countries (horizontal escalation) or use nuclear weapons in Ukraine (vertical escalation). Neither may be a realistic path to anything but WWIII, but Russia has miscalculated before and "escalate to deescalate" is studied by strategic think tanks who worry about such things.

All the credit for the above quote should go to o.m., and I simply provide a few references below.

Additionally, Russia can damage Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which it currently occupies and which it claimed on numerous occasions to have been under attack by the Ukrainian military. The resulting radioactive contamination under appropriate weather conditions can spread into NATO countries. The geopolitical implications of such “accident” are left to the reader.

References:

From Dmitry Medvedev (Deputy Chair of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, the third President of Russia, 2008-2012), on X/Twitter:

Various nazi bastards who wish death on Russia – like rinkēvičs, the president of a non-existent latvia – must remember the fate of the fascists, the 1943 Kharkov trial included. Retribution is inevitable. Memento mori!

Dmitry Medvedev, @MedvedevRussiaE on X/Twitter, 2:15 PM · Mar 15, 2024


On the phone conversation between the Bundeswehr officers about planned attacks against our country

Our historic adversaries, the Germans, have once again turned into our archenemies. Just take a look at how thoroughly and in what detail the krauts are discussing long-range missile strikes on Russia’s territory, and are picking out targets and the most workable ways to harm our Motherland and our people. And they are doing so without leaving out the deceptive rhetoric about Germany’s non-involvement in the conflict.
Just a little while back, could anyone have imagined this?
And how to react to this in a diplomatic way?
I don’t know…

But I do know this one thing. The Second World War-era call has once again become relevant: DEATH TO THE FASCISTS!

Dmitry Medvedev, @MedvedevRussiaE on X/Twitter, 10:00 AM · Mar 1, 2024


If – God forbid! – such a war breaks out, it won’t go according to the Special Military Operation scenario. It won’t be fought in trenches using artillery, armoured vehicles, drones and EW.

NATO is a huge military bloc, the total population of the Alliance member states is about 1 billion people, and their combined military budget can get as high as $1,5 trillion.

So, because our military capabilities are thus incomparable, we will simply be left with no choice. The response will be asymmetrical. To defend our country’s territorial integrity, ballistic and cruise missiles carrying special warheads will be put to use. It is based on our military doctrine documents and is well known to all. And this is exactly that very Apocalypse. The end to everything.

This is why Western politicians must be telling the bitter truth to their voters, and stop taking them for brainless morons; to explain to them, what will really happen, and not to play the false mantra of getting ready for war against Russia over and over again.

*Dmitry Medvedev, @MedvedevRussiaE on X/Twitter, 2/7/24


From Russian Media Monitor on YouTube, by Julia Davis:


Russia said Ukraine struck the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station controlled by Russian forces three times on Sunday and demanded the West respond, though Kyiv said it had nothing to do with the attacks.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has experts at the site, said it was the first time the nuclear plant, Europe's largest, was directly targeted since November 2022 and said the attack had endangered nuclear safety.

Russia says Ukraine struck nuclear plant, Kyiv denies it was behind the attack

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I imagine that, if Russia could have poured more / better weapons and manpower into the war, they should have done this so far.

There is a problem with the word "could" here. Like all autocratic states, Russia has to keep a certain amount of force in reserve to defend the elite against the population, should they become overly restive. If something were to happen that greatly increased support for the regime, Russia might risk putting some of their internal-defence forces into Ukraine.

A mass killing of Russian civilians by a long-range weapon might well fulfil that criterion. This is probably one of the reasons by the USA warned Russia of indications of the attack by ISIS-K, to make it clear that the US was not involved. That's likely also why Russia tried to paint it as a US- or Ukraine- sponsored attack, although we don't know how well that worked within Russia.

There are two other ways in which Russia could escalate: attacking other countries, or using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Both would be very risky for Russia, but avoiding them happening is well worthwhile for the West.

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A scientific approach as proposed by Sergey Karaganov, a prominent Russian political scientist with a significant influence in the fields of foreign policy and defense, is to attack Europe with nuclear weapons (Meduza).

As much as I understand, the rationale behind this idea is to prevent the world scale nuclear war.

The plan is based on expectation that if not directly attacked, USA will not respond with the nuclear strike. Karaganov seems not explaining how to mitigate the threat of European nuclear weapons, maybe he assumes there are not many and Russia can just take that hit.

In 2022, Karaganov was awarded the title of Honorary Professor. He and his team are working on many state-funded projects of the comparable focus.

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    Russia has kept rattling the nuclear sabre ever since the war began, and has intimated dire consequences if various red lines, namely shipments of various classes of weapons to Ukraine, were breached. And what happened after they were? No nuclear attacks nor other measures against NATO countries. It's starting to look liked the intention of the constant nuclear threats is to strike fear in the West, thereby hindering their aid to Ukraine; and that seems to have worked at least to a degree. However, I seriously doubt the Russians would be so stupid as to actually start a nuclear war. Apr 9 at 13:37
  • Interesting at this point that the attack on the Ukraine seems to have the potential of invoking a global war, while destruction of the EU-area does not. May 4 at 6:32
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Considering that Russia's progress in Ukraine is well below its initial objectives and has registered quite heavy losses so far, I do not understand how it can "escalate" this war. I imagine that, if Russia could have poured more / better weapons and manpower into the war, they would have done this so far.

I don't think that assumption is necessarily founded.

Obviously Russia can in theory mobilise more soldiers, has weapons of greater power in reserve, and has many more targets for destruction which it has not yet attempted to strike.

Russia's progress fighting Western forces in Ukraine is not going too badly by most of the world's standard. It's Western forces themselves which are not making the progress that could have been expected in destroying the Russian forces and purging Putin.

The real balancing acts Russia has to perform are two.

Firstly, it has to have the political justification for mobilising more soldiers from its population, and moving too quickly to try maximum mobilisation to the fronts in the absence of an immediate mortal threat could produce ungovernable resistance.

Secondly, Russia has to carefully balance the available manpower between frontline soldiering on the one hand, and economic production and reorganisation on the other.

The reserve army of labour that Western liberals keep on hand to discipline workers into greater exploitation, has already been purged in Russia. The Russian population is now fully employed in an economy gearing up for all-out war against the West - and Russian workers are jubilant at the fact due to the end of designed-in unemployment and due to soaring wages.

And if Russia is to confront the West with full force, it will require a Soviet-style command economy with maximum efficiency and with capitalist deadweight and foreign control eliminated. And that is exactly what it is currently doing - there is indeed a total mobilisation of the population into reinforcing the economy it requires to wage war.

So for these reasons I think the premise of the question needs review.

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    I don't believe Russian Federation does any kind of total mobilization. The approach seems to be "both guns and butter" for now.
    – alamar
    Apr 8 at 8:37
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    @alamar, even Stalin had some people behind actually making the guns and bullets, and the "butter" to keep soldiers' bodies and souls together. But he'd already spent many years preparing economically for confrontation with the Nazis before they turned up at the gates. Putin winning the war on the ground in Ukraine won't be the end of the conflict with the West (who will be left smarting and bitter by their defeat), so gearing up for both further military confrontation and for economic siege, is a perfectly sensible approach to Putin waging the kind of war he is in with us.
    – Steve
    Apr 8 at 8:50
  • Good for identifying the limitation of full employment. All-out war or full-force confrontation is perhaps taking it to an extreme. Ongoing active hostility, in the cold war style of proxy war and sub-state actions, is probably the more sensible expectation of the Russian government.
    – Pete W
    Apr 8 at 20:10
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Russia can do basically anything imaginable:

  1. destroying all electricity generation: Russia has coordinates of every power plant in Ukraine, just launch missiles and its over. Russia believes Ukraine is governed from abroad, this makes chaos enough to stop that. Russia absolutely does not need to create incident on Zaporizhzhya power plant, as Khmelnitsky and Rivne power plants are in their reach.

  2. Russia can bomb every bridge in Ukraine. Kyiv have 5 bridges, 3 road bridges, 1 railroad bridge and 1 combined road and railroad bridge. After doing so illusion of Ukraine winning stops immediately.

  3. Russia can bomb Zelensky, Verhovna rada, any government building including military commissariats which are in charge of mobilisation, Ukraines Security Service buildings, news agencies, internet hubs, National Bank of Ukraine, anything. Russia does not do this just because Zelensky and parliament are not in charge. After Ukraine bombed Luhansk administation building on 2 june 2014 Ukraine knows two can play that game.

  4. Russia can bomb Holodomor memorials, bandera streets and avenues, maidan casualties memorials, just to deliver a message.

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    I don't see how 2) would prevent Ukraine from winning, or help Russia. I would have thought that if anyone would be destroying bridges in Ukraine, it's the Ukrainians themselves, so the Russians can't cross them and advance.
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 17 at 8:05
  • Thank you for reminding us, that Russia is a super power, able to flatten any country and any time. May 4 at 6:36

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