The Coming Russian Escalation With the West

To judge from the editorial pages and Capitol Hill currents that both shape and reflect Washington’s perceptions of the world, the doomsayers sounding alarms over the risk of direct military conflict between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine have been proved wrong. Despite many Russian warnings and much nuclear saber-rattling, the United States has managed to supply advanced artillery systemstanksfighter aircraft, and extended-range missiles to Ukraine without an existential contest—or even significant Russian retaliation.

For Washington’s hawkish chorus, the benefits of providing increasingly greater lethality to Ukraine outweigh the dangers of provoking a direct Russian attack on the West. They insist that the U.S. not allow fears of an unlikely Armageddon to block much-needed aid for Ukraine’s defense, particularly now that battlefield momentum has swung toward Russia. Hence the White House’s recent decision to green-light Ukraine’s use of American weapons to strike into internationally recognized Russian territory and its reported deliberations over putting American military contractors on the ground in Ukraine.

There are several problems with this reasoning. The first is that it treats Russia’s redlines—limits that if crossed, will provoke retaliation against the U.S. or NATO—as fixed rather than moveable. In fact, where they are drawn depends on one man, Vladimir Putin. His judgments about what Russia should tolerate can vary according to his perceptions of battlefield dynamics, Western intentions, sentiment inside Russia, and likely reactions in the rest of the world.

It is true that Putin has proved quite reluctant to strike directly at the West in response to its military aid for Ukraine. But what Putin can live with today may become a casus belli tomorrow. The world will only know where his red lines are actually drawn once they have been crossed and the U.S. finds itself having to respond to Russian retaliation.