War has its own life. It spirals out of control, upsetting the plans, hopes and expectations of those engaged in it.
Military strategists have spent lifetimes trying to tame it. But the study of war is still to a large extent the study of uncertainty, misunderstanding, missed opportunities and unintended consequences. The history books offer countless tales of accidental wars and deepening conflicts whose rulers wonder in retrospect how things got so out of control.
“It’s very easy to start a war, but once it’s in progress, it becomes harder and harder to stop it,” says Karl Mueller, defense analyst at Rand Corp. “Getting out is harder than getting in.”
Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
It is great that President Biden and his European allies have repeatedly assured us that they have absolutely no intention of getting involved in a direct military confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.
But, frankly, it’s not that hard to see that promise swept away in the face of unexpected pressures and changing circumstances. It is not difficult to imagine the war in Ukraine taking ever more dangerous directions.
Among the wars that escalated in unexpected ways are the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, according to a study by Rand.
During World War I, for example, Germany’s plan to invade France required it to invade Belgium as well, triggering treaty-bound Britain’s entry into the conflict in August 1914.
During World War II, a small group of German bombers accidentally attacked London in August 1940. In retaliation, the Royal Air Force launched its first raid on Berlin, which in turn contributed to the German decision to launch the Blitz, the concerted bombing campaign of 1940-41.
This is how escalation works.
Sometimes it’s intentional, according to military strategists. A party deliberately exacerbates the conflict because it calculates that the price to be paid is worth it.
Sometimes it’s inadvertent, as some say was the case with the invasion of Belgium, which took place at a time when the Germans were eager to keep Britain out of the war.
And in some cases, it’s purely accidental. A stray plane mistakenly flies into enemy airspace and is shot down, triggering a new phase of the conflict. Or faulty intelligence causes a bomb to fall on the wrong target – a civilian neighborhood, for example – prompting a forceful response.
In Ukraine, barring some sort of negotiated solution, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who is most likely to take things to the next level. It could do this by invading a nearby non-NATO country like Moldova. Or he could start using chemical, biological or – God forbid – even more dangerous weapons.
Putin’s unpredictable nature, his alleged sense of grievance at the West’s treatment of Russia, and his belief that brutal military force can work to his advantage – all of this makes an escalation on his part more likely.
And it’s even more likely if he feels backed into a corner or like he’s losing the war or his grip on power is threatened. Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, told Congress on Tuesday that in response to setbacks, Putin “could step up, essentially doubling down.”
As for Biden and his European allies, they have made it clear time and time again that the last thing they want is a direct military confrontation with the Russians, and that they have no intention of being sucked in. But can they really assure us that they won’t?
So far, the Biden administration and its allies have adamantly opposed the creation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. They recognize that this would amount to a war, forcing them to shoot down Russian planes that violate it. “What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a bigger one,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said this week.
But the pressure to impose one increases every day. Several members of Congress supported the idea. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a hero these days to many in the West, is asking for one. Two dozen foreign policy experts signed an open letter published Tuesday by Politico endorsing a “limited” no-fly zone to protect civilians and enforce humanitarian corridors.
Could it become politically impossible to resist? Of course, it could be, especially if the Russians continue their savage and heartbreaking attacks on Ukrainian civilians.
And even if we don’t go that route, there is growing pressure for an escalation of other types. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) says introducing ground troops shouldn’t be taken off the table. Senator Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) called for the assassination of Putin.
Others want the West to provide more deadly fighter jets to the Ukrainians or impose even more crippling sanctions on Russia. Either could be taken by Putin as a provocation. A Pentagon spokesman said the transfer of planes from Poland to Ukraine could be “confused as an escalation” and lead to a “significant Russian reaction”.
Obviously, this is a terribly dangerous cycle. You start with a strictly limited role, but gradually you can get carried away. Remember when we only had “military advisers” in Vietnam?
And then things can go south quickly. When one side intensifies, sometimes the other side’s response is proportionate. Other times, however, it’s asymmetrical. It’s not a good result.
For now, there is no direct military conflict between Russia and the West. As long as that is the case, a nuclear confrontation remains extremely unlikely, according to foreign policy experts. But that’s no longer unthinkable either.
All of this proves what rational people already knew: war is a horribly bad idea, especially among nations with devastating weapons of mass destruction.
We have no choice but to maintain sanctions pressure, but also to keep our eyes peeled for diplomatic overtures, political exit routes, and strategies to pull Putin off the ledge he has climbed on.
The alternative is a race up the escalation ladder, which could leave the world’s two most heavily armed nuclear powers in a direct confrontation that cannot be controlled.