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The phrase “Escalate to De-escalate” has been used to describe a Russian military doctrine of the select use of nuclear weapons to stop a war from proceeding any further. While some have countered that the phrase does not exist in Russian military doctrine, it is clear that the idea does.
But what exactly does it mean to escalate?
I have a friend who, years ago, was on a big-city police force. He was once asked (by the staff psychologist I believe) if he had ever used his weapon. He answered “All the time.” The interrogator was shocked. But as he explained, “I use my weapon every day. When I step out of the patrol car and make a point of putting my hand on top of my pistol, I am using my weapon. If I pull the shotgun out of the car and check it, and make sure the guys on the corner see me checking it, then I put it back in the car, I am using my weapon.”
From the perspective of the would-be bad guys on the corner, that was escalation - a very mild escalation, but escalation none-the-less. A new weapon has been brought into the area and once they recognize it, they must respect it.
So, what would that look like with a nuclear weapon?
Consider Kaliningrad - since 2018 the Russians have had the greater part of an SS-26 brigade in Kaliningrad. A fully equipped brigade has 4 batteries of 4 launchers each, for 16 launchers. Each launcher carries 2 missiles, so 32 missiles. Each can carry a nuclear warhead, though whether they do or not is not known. But, it has to be assumed that some, if not all, of these missiles are loaded with nuclear warheads.
But there are other nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad; nuclear weapons for use by the SU-24Ms that are stationed there. On March 1st of this year Sweden announced that it would give Ukraine 5,000 anti-tank missiles. This was the first time since 1939 that Sweden had supplied weapons to any nation that was at war. In 1939 that nation was Finland, which was at that time engaged in a nasty war with the Soviet Union. Now, Sweden was going to give anti-tank weapons to another country at war - with Russia, if not the Soviet Union.
So, on March 2nd two SU-24Ms, clearly carrying ordnance, and two SU-27s armed with air-to-air missiles, departed Kaliningrad and flew out over the Baltic Sea. They then proceeded towards the Swedish Island of Gotland, not only entering the Swedish ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) but also entering Swedish air space and overflying the island of Gotland.
Sweden responded by sending up two JAS-39 Griffen fighters. The Swedish fighter pilots intercepted and photographed the Russian aircraft, escorted them out of Swedish airspace, and then returned to base. The photographs were studied and it was confirmed just a few days ago that the two SU-24s carried nuclear weapons, though the type has not been reported.
The US responded by flying a B-52 into Eastern Europe and setting it up in orbit over Poland on March 31st.
What just happened? Clearly, Putin was, and is, trying to intimidate Sweden. Could he have been trying to escalate the situation in order to de-escalate it in Russia’s favor? Is this his version of the policeman putting his hand on his pistol?
In his discussion on escalation, Herman Kahn noted that near the bottom of any escalation “ladder” between the US and Russia (Kahn was talking about the Soviet Union, but the discussion fits about as well under Putin as it did Khrushchev or Brezhnev) were actions that took place constantly: espionage and various levels of propaganda (which would include information war - which would today include use of cyber), and then as you start up the ladder you start to see various terrorist actions and then you reach proxy wars and then what was called “semi-confrontation.”
It’s quite a few more “rungs” up the ladder before you get to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, but we’ve already had this Swedish incident.
Kahn had a warning about this; he suggested there’s a danger because of a tendency among the Western nations to steer away from planning for crisis situations - situations in the “middle;” because of a hesitancy to provide the President with a broad range of options to deal with such crisis, we are often driven to what President Kennedy called the choice of “holocaust or surrender.” This results in a real possibility that a nuclear exchange is likely to take place not near the top of the escalation ladder, but by some grave miscalculation in the middle of the ladder - which is where we now find ourselves vis-a-vis Russia.
Kahn offers several other thoughts; the first is that nuclear control and release are centralized actions, they’re controlled by the heads of state. But it’s possible, even probable, the head of state will have an incomplete, and perhaps misleading “picture” of the situation, and hence an incomplete understanding of what he should or should not do.
Finally, he offers this warning: controlling, and eventually walking back, any nuclear escalation is a very expensive, dangerous game of chicken. As of March 31st we are playing chicken with Russia. Of course, as Kahn warns us, chicken is a game in which your best chance of survival is to be playing a good player, not a poor one.
I would add, when it comes to nuclear chicken, both players need to be good at it.
Where does that leave us?
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...