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If NATO wants to comprehensively address the risks of escalation, including deliberate Russian escalation, the alliance needs to understand the potential consequences and possible shortcomings of its policies in the realms of deterrence and assurance, resilience, and risk reduction. Assessing NATO’s current capacity to prevent escalation in a number of different potential contingencies is an important way to gauge the alliance’s level of preparedness to manage the escalatory pitfalls in the alliance’s relationship with Moscow.

To this end, below are three possible escalation scenarios that can help analysts better understand the potential implications of NATO’s current policies as well as what NATO could do today to make future escalation less likely. All three scenarios involve nuclear threats (though two of them stop short of actual Russian nuclear-weapons use). The value of this scenario-based approach is that it can highlight escalation risks that are not obvious or that Western analysts have not yet discussed in detail. For example, this approach highlights the escalation risks linked to NATO’s current deterrence policy, which might necessitate the quick reinforcement of NATO personnel in the Baltics in the event of a crisis. If such a move were not properly communicated to Moscow, Russia could inadvertently misinterpret NATO’s actions as the start of a military offensive and consequently choose to escalate the crisis militarily.

Accordingly, the aim is not to describe each and every escalatory step in great detail but to provide enough information to identify lessons that are more generally applicable. Clearly, many other escalation scenarios, besides those described here, can be imagined, and analyzing them could well lead to other important insights. Indeed, one complication of the real world not considered here is the possibility of multiple escalation pathways occurring simultaneously. By side-stepping this possibility, this analysis tends to understate the escalation risks and the challenges the alliance would face in seeking to manage them.

Scenario One: Deliberate Escalation

The first scenario starts with a Russian land grab in the Baltics. To be very clear, this is an extreme scenario; an overwhelming majority of Western experts, including NATO staff, consider it to be a “remote” possibility.1 Nevertheless, there are good reasons to consider this extreme set of circumstances. First, it is a high-risk scenario, based on low probability but with high potential consequences. Second, many allies are worried about it. And third, this scenario might look less unlikely after the Russian use of force in Georgia and Ukraine.

Stage One: The year 2018 sees the return of large-scale protests to major Russian cities. Suddenly, Vladimir Putin’s hold on power no longer seems a given. Only two weeks after the first protests, the Russian General Staff announces a large military exercise in Russia’s Western Military District, close to the border of Latvia. 

Implications: This combination of events would put NATO on notice about the internal developments in Russia and the announced military exercise, and these events would raise serious concerns that Russia’s leadership might be planning to create an international crisis to divert attention from a domestic crisis.
At the same time, however, strong voices within NATO would almost certainly caution against overreacting to these events. They could argue that if NATO were to react militarily—by, for example, deciding to send temporary reinforcements, even perhaps only one additional battalion—to alleviate the concerns of Baltic nations, doing so would risk giving the Kremlin reason to up the ante. Indeed, deploying EFP forces in the region to the border area or even just raising their state of alert might be perceived by Russia as an aggressive move. Given these trade-offs, it is quite likely that NATO would react in a rather reserved way, which would give Russia an important advantage in terms of mobilizing its forces.

Stage Two: Sudden protests by the Russian minority community in Latvia’s easternmost Latgale region spiral out of control with several fatalities. While NATO ambassadors are gathering for an emergency meeting, Putin warns NATO “not to interfere in the internal affairs of Latvia” and assures his domestic audience that “Russia will not idly stand by as Russians are being slaughtered abroad.”

Implications: For the alliance, the sudden occurrence of serious protests in Latvia—whether or not instigated by Moscow—in conjunction with a domestic crisis in Russia and an arms buildup close to Latvia would immediately raise the severity of the crisis. The possibility of Russia escalating the conflict with NATO, which might have seemed rather low at Stage One, would suddenly become more realistic. (Indeed, similar Russian statements about the security of Russians living abroad were made ahead of Moscow’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.2)

For the alliance, sudden protests in Latvia—in conjunction with a domestic crisis in Russia and an arms buildup close to Latvia— would immediately raise the severity of the crisis.

That said, there would nonetheless still be a real possibility that allies would hold divergent interpretations of these events, and it is unclear whether the EFP would be ordered to immediately leave its base near Riga, at least to patrol the border with Russia.3 Even though NATO insists that the EFP has no role to play in a domestic unrest scenario, some allies might question that logic, given that events may be instigated by Russia as it looked to invade. Debates at NATO Headquarters on these issues could get acrimonious. Some allies would probably worry that such actions as well as NATO preparations to send additional forces to the region could be escalatory. The alliance could well look, and perhaps be, divided. Again, NATO might still wait to avoid giving Russia any pretext to intervene.

Stage Three: Russian forces cross the border into Latvia and occupy the Latgale region. President Putin makes a press announcement that “Russia’s humanitarian intervention stops here and now.” NATO defense ministers meet and issue an ultimatum, demanding full Russian withdrawal.

Implications: At this point, debates within NATO about the severity of the Russian threat would be overtaken by events. NATO would be presented with a military fait accompli. While this situation already would be very challenging to handle, it might be further complicated if Russian forces met only minimal resistance from Latvian forces and perhaps none at all from the EFP. (Given the distance between their base in Riga and the Latgale region, there would be a serious risk that they would not arrive quickly enough to resist Russian forces.) In this case, regional EFP commanders—who, in the case of Latvia, come from six different contributing nations—might be confronted with a choice between engaging immediately in a futile fight that they would be certain to lose or holding back to await further instructions from NATO Headquarters. Worse still, some commanders might even receive orders from their own national commands, bypassing the NATO chain of command and possibly complicating a collective response.

One potential outcome would be paralysis. Conversely, there would also be a real possibility that an EFP commander—having received divergent orders from NATO, the host nation (Latvia), and national lines of command—might decide to engage in combat before NATO’s political leaders have decided to invoke Article V.

Regardless of exactly how the fight was playing out in the theater, the NAC would, at this stage, have to determine whether or not to invoke Article V and whether or not to go to war with Russia in an environment where the scope of the Russian campaign would still look rather limited (as no allied forces from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States would be involved yet). Even if Article V were triggered, certain allies might still advocate for a diplomatic solution. A possible compromise might see allies starting immediate preparations for military reinforcement in parallel with heightened crisis diplomacy.

Stage Four: NATO is ready to deploy the Spearhead Force from Ramstein, Germany, and starts preparations for assembling the rest of the eNRF. Simultaneously, the United States starts flying in additional personnel and equipment to Western Europe and Poland. Putin claims that “NATO is provoking an unnecessary war.” In many European capitals tens of thousands take to the streets, urging Russia and NATO to “end the mutual violence.”

Implications: NATO, having started its military preparations, would face another tough choice. While the Spearhead would be ready in less than a week, assembling the rest of the eNRF would take longer (in all likelihood, a couple of weeks). A decision would have to be made whether to deploy the Spearhead right away, and risk losing it almost immediately in the theater, or to wait for assembling the full manpower of the eNRF. If NATO were to wait, the louder the voices of opposition to any military response could grow. Indeed, large-scale protests in Western Europe, perhaps fueled by subversive Russian propaganda, would very likely further affect and complicate NATO’s political decisionmaking.4

In this situation, some allies might opt out of a military response, while others—the United Kingdom and the United States, most likely—could bypass NATO’s slow mobilization process and move forward with their own deployment plans. This contingency—in which some allies hesitate to engage and others push forward—could effectively paralyze the alliance as a collective decisionmaking entity.

In any case, NATO might well have to deal, at some point, with further Russian efforts to escalate the conflict by targeting critical NATO transportation nodes with precision-guided conventional strikes so as to prevent or at least complicate NATO preparations for retaliation.5 From a Russian perspective, waiting for NATO to muster a force of perhaps 100,000 personnel—which is what would be required to be credible enough to fight a regional war with Russia with the aim of retaking and securing the Baltics or perhaps even extending combat operations into Russian territory—would hardly be an option.6

In any case, NATO might well have to deal, at some point, with further Russian efforts to escalate the conflict by targeting critical NATO transportation nodes.

But even if Russia were to shy away from further escalation (it might, for example, decide against striking Western Europe because of the risk that doing so would unify the alliance), NATO’s next move—laying the groundwork for force deployment to the Baltics—would almost necessarily involve escalating the conflict horizontally into Russian territory. Because NATO has decided against pre-positioning heavy military equipment in the Baltics, allies would have to fly in personnel and equipment with large transportation aircraft, which would be easy targets for Russian air defense systems around the Baltic Rim. If NATO wanted to avoid losing much of its first reinforcement wave before it actually reached the ground, it would have to target Russian anti-access and area denial installations, effectively extending combat operations into Russian territory.

Stage Five: NATO receives intelligence reports that Russia is readying some of its tactical nuclear weapons stored in western Russia. Putin warns that “the two sides are on the brink of a nuclear armageddon.”

Implications: Assuming that NATO had decided on a concrete deployment plan by this point, NATO leaders would have to decide whether to move forward given the possibility of Russia escalating to actual nuclear use. That decision would almost certainly cause serious frictions within the alliance and could further delay a military response. If NATO leaders weathered those quarrels and pressed on, NATO might then immediately be confronted with a second serious dilemma, stemming from NATO’s long-standing internal disputes about its nuclear deterrent.

Over the years, Russia might have arrived at the conclusion that NATO would not use nuclear weapons—even in response to Russian nuclear use—in a limited regional scenario. As a result, Moscow might feel tempted to escalate to nuclear use in the hope of stopping NATO in its tracks before it could deploy forces. In this case, all of NATO’s possible nuclear countermeasures—rhetorical nuclear threats; so-called slow nuclear signals in the form of readying NATO’s forward-deployed nuclear forces (which would take a few weeks); or so-called fast signals, such as U.S. B-52 deployments to Western Europe (which could be executed within hours)—could be misperceived in Moscow as mere bluffs. The interplay between Russia doubting NATO’s resolve and NATO having difficulties making its nuclear threats credible would create a number of pathways for escalation through misperception.

One possibility would be NATO proceeding with its deployment preparations absent its own distinct response to Russia’s nuclear threats. In this event, Russia might escalate to nuclear use out of concern that a regional conventional war with NATO could result in a Russian defeat, and perhaps the loss of Kaliningrad or even other Russian territory. According to two Russian military experts, “Strategic deterrence with conventional weapons of a potential aggressor state (or coalition of states) from undertaking a large-scale or regional war is unlikely. It is possible only by the threat of preventive nuclear actions.”7

Stage Six: U.S. satellites detect a small-yield nuclear explosion over a remote area in the North Sea.

Implications: At this point, NATO would face the dire situation of Russia having escalated to actual nuclear use in the form of a single demonstration strike over international waters. The Russian strike would most likely not eradicate the dilemmas NATO would be facing already at Stage Five, when Russia was only threatening nuclear use, but instead make those dilemmas more pressing. In concrete terms, NATO members would now have to decide whether to move forward with the alliance’s deployment plans, stop in its tracks (obviously intimidated by Russian nuclear use), or perhaps respond with nuclear use. The latter option—nuclear use by the allies—in particular would most likely be highly contested within NATO. Given that the Russian demonstration strike would not have been directed against NATO territory, the risk of further nuclear escalation if NATO were to reciprocate, rapidly mounting domestic pressures in Western Europe to “avoid a nuclear holocaust,” and NATO’s (though comparably slow) ability to muster a significant conventional force, the alliance’s members might decide against nuclear use. At the same time, that might only help to reinforce the Russian (mis)perception that NATO really tends to shy away from nuclear use in a crisis. NATO would therefore be hard-pressed to show serious nuclear signals below the level of actual use, such as U.S. B-52 deployments to Western Europe.

In turn, Russia, having just escalated to nuclear use, would face a no less dire situation, given that Moscow might feel that it had played its final card in an escalatory game aimed at preventing NATO from deploying forces to the Baltics. If NATO were to continue with its mobilization and deployment plans, Russia would have little choice other than to escalate the conflict further into NATO territory—perhaps by aiming conventional strikes at NATO’s western transportation nodes or perhaps by conducting additional nuclear strikes—or back down. Either way, Moscow would have to fear that its escalation strategy would solidify NATO’s assertiveness rather than undermine its cohesion.

Key Takeaways

  • It is not clear what role NATO forces, particularly the EFP, could or should play in an internal crisis scenario in one of the Baltic states coupled with a Russian buildup in very close proximity to Baltic borders.
  • There is a real, if remote, possibility that Russia could stage a military fait accompli aimed at taking only a small portion of land in eastern Latvia without pulling the trip wire, that is, without the EFP getting engaged in combat.
  • NATO’s political decisionmaking process regarding additional conventional force deployments to the Baltics in a crisis might be considerably hampered by diverging opinions about Moscow’s potential reactions. Domestic protests in Western Europe could further increase the pressure on certain allies not to “overly provoke” Russia.
  • NATO’s process of preparing for a military response would be very slow because relatively few NATO forces are rapidly deployable. This would give Russia additional time and opportunities to affect NATO decisionmaking in its favor. Moreover, deploying only a few forces, such as the Spearhead Force, would be very undesirable because of the risk that they would be destroyed rather quickly in combat.
  • NATO’s ambiguous stance toward its own nuclear deterrent might lead Moscow to doubt NATO’s resolve, opening up potential pathways to escalation by misperception.
  • The necessity of retaking the Baltics through massive force deployments, once initiated by NATO, would put the onus on Russia to escalate further, perhaps even to nuclear use.

Scenario Two: Inadvertent Escalation

The second scenario focuses on a domestic crisis in Latvia that spirals out of control to the point that Russian leaders feel compelled by domestic pressure to threaten to intervene. The Kremlin has to react on an ad hoc basis to a foreign policy crisis involving ethnic Russians in one of its neighboring states—as it did prior to its interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. Having said that, in this scenario, Russia has already escalated general tensions with its neighbor Latvia over a long period of time through very low-level, nonkinetic operations, including ongoing propaganda efforts.

Stage One: On May 9, commemorations of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany lead to isolated ethnic clashes in Riga, resulting in two fatalities. Fueled by social media rumors, crowds of angry ethnic Russians take to the streets the next day.

Implications: Given the attention that NATO policymakers are already paying to Russia’s influence campaign toward and potential manipulation of the Russian minorities in the Baltics,8 this scenario would ring alarm bells in Brussels. While there is not much NATO leaders could do at that stage, they might urge Latvian authorities, in bilateral communications, to diffuse tensions and keep a lower profile to avoid further escalating the protests. At the same time, NATO as well as Latvian authorities might have difficulties assessing whether Moscow was behind the protests or whether they were really spontaneous. If NATO wrongly thought that Russia were behind the protests, there would be a greater risk of escalation.

Stage Two: The protests grow in the following days. While there is no official reaction from the highest echelons of the Kremlin, Russian ultra-nationalist groups start their own protests in Moscow, demanding that Putin “come to the help of our brothers and sisters.”

Implications: For NATO, the surge in protests coupled with the clamor in Russia would increase the urgency of the situation. On the one hand, the mere existence of continued protests would underscore the risk that the Latvian authorities might lose control of the situation. Some NATO members might argue for deploying the EFP battlegroup to “show presence” at the Latvian-Russian border. Latvian authorities might order exactly that but could face resistance from EFP commanders who may receive contradictory national orders.

On the other hand, NATO might well struggle to interpret the mixed signals from Moscow and debate whether Moscow was creating the pretext for a crisis with NATO or whether the Kremlin was in danger of losing control of the situation.9 In the latter case, NATO would probably be well advised to offer Moscow some sort of off-ramp to defuse tensions. Some allies might therefore urge NATO to pursue immediate backchannel diplomacy with Moscow, while others might instead argue for lower-level military preparations than EFP deployments.

Stage Three: NATO deploys the EFP battlegroup to patrol Latvia’s border with Russia. The following day, the Russian military starts large-scale military readiness drills in the Western Military District.

Implications: NATO’s deployment of military forces would be far from the protesters and with a clear defensive aim. However, Russia’s readiness drills could cause some headaches at NATO Headquarters. Some allies might interpret the Russian move as a mere reaction to NATO’s response, providing another argument for trying to deescalate tensions and avoid any further NATO military action. By contrast, other allies might read Moscow’s actions as part of a larger Russian plan to intimidate NATO or perhaps prepare to intervene. Assuming the second reading of events were to prevail within NATO, allies would presumably decide to start preparations for assembling and deploying the Spearhead Force. But doing so without simultaneously readying the additional forces of the eNRF would create the risk of losing the Spearhead if Russia were to really attack Latvia. At the same time, readying all forces of the eNRF could be misinterpreted in Moscow as preparations for an offensive against Russia.

Stage Four: While NATO is in the middle of preparing to deploy the Spearhead, the Russian military starts mustering roughly 40,000 personnel close to the Latvian border. Vladimir Putin, who has publicly maintained a low profile so far, declares to the press that “any NATO attempt to send forces to Latvia would be seen by Russia as an act of hostility that would have severe consequences.”

Implications: NATO, confronted again with a Russian decision to up the ante and still in the dark about Russian intentions, would face a tough choice. Declining to send the Spearhead might deescalate the situation, but Russia might instead interpret that as a sign of weakness that would perhaps invite Russian escalation. By contrast, sending the Spearhead could underscore NATO’s resolve—perhaps deescalating the standoff—but doing so could also increase the pressure on Russia to escalate before NATO reinforcements arrived. Indeed, if NATO members were to decide to deploy the Spearhead, they would also have to make an almost immediate decision about preparing the rest of the eNRF for deployment, given its low level of readiness.

Stage Five: NATO issues a statement that “the deployment of the Spearhead will continue without delay.” Only a few hours later, the Russian Ministry of Defense announces a nationwide emergency drill of its nuclear forces.

Implications: This strong Russian nuclear signal could create different escalation pathways, depending on NATO’s reaction. If Moscow’s signal was intended to prevent allied reinforcement out of fear that NATO was staging a larger campaign against Russia, NATO’s decision to halt deployment of the Spearhead could well deescalate tensions. Conversely, if Moscow’s signal was intended to prevent allied reinforcement as a test of allies’ resolve, NATO’s compliance could trigger a Russian military intervention. But whatever Russia’s real intentions, if it were to fail to achieve its goal of deterring NATO from deploying the Spearhead, Moscow might feel compelled to raise the stakes further.

One important aspect of this scenario is the possibility that NATO might interpret the Russian signal as not credible, given that NATO would not yet have sent reinforcements to the Baltics, let alone inflicted military fatalities on Russia. But that interpretation might well be incorrect; the early use of a serious nuclear threat would be perfectly consistent with the Russian strategy of conflict.10

In any case, a possible NATO response-in-kind to Russia’s nuclear threat might be drills with U.S. and British (and perhaps French) nuclear forces. However, and given domestic public pressure, that would be a decision fraught with political disagreements within NATO about how and under what circumstances to flex alliance members’ nuclear muscle. A slower response, perhaps intended to break the rapid escalation cycle, could be to start raising the alert levels of NATO’s forward-deployed nuclear forces.

Key Takeaways

  • NATO and Russia might find it difficult to deescalate a crisis during its initial stages and instead get drawn into a vicious action-reaction cycle, even though neither deliberately initiated the crisis nor wanted it to spiral out of control. Critically, each side might incorrectly think the other was seeking a crisis.
  • NATO might find it challenging to identify when a crisis needs a military response and what response that might be—that is to say, not starting to escalate too early or waiting too long.
  • NATO’s reliance on reinforcement in the event of a crisis would create incentives for deliberate Russian escalation early in a crisis designed to gain an advantage before the Spearhead arrived. This also would create room for misperceptions—such as Russian fears that NATO would stage a major campaign against Russia—once NATO actually considered deployments and started preparations to assemble all forces of the eNRF.
  • NATO might not assess early Russian nuclear threats as credible, given their apparently disproportionate nature; misreading Russian resolve in this way would perhaps create the possibility for escalation.

Scenario Three: Accidental Escalation

The third scenario involves an accident in international waters, after which tensions between the United States and Russia spiral out of control, making crisis diplomacy very difficult.11 As in the second scenario, Russia is forced to react to an ad hoc crisis that it nevertheless helped create—this time by continued acts of military brinkmanship. In this scenario, however, it can be assumed that Moscow did not anticipate its actions would result in a major crisis.

To be sure, during and after the Cold War, incidents like the 2015 downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey (a NATO member) were successfully managed even though they took place amid heightened tensions. It would be unwarranted, however, to conclude that accidental escalation is impossible, particularly in light of the high number of incidents taking place over the Baltic region.

Stage One: A Russian fighter jet accidentally crashes into a U.S. guided-missile destroyer operating in the Baltic Sea, killing forty-two crew members. The Kremlin claims that the Russian jet crashed because it was shot down by the U.S. vessel. An emergency meeting of the NATO-Russia Council cannot take place since Russia refuses to participate. Bilateral crisis communication channels between Russia and the United States (such as the U.S.-Russia hotline) remain silent.

Implications: From the outset, there might be divergent interpretations of such an incident—not only between NATO and Russia, but within NATO as well. Determining whether it were an accident, whether the Russian plane were on a pre-planned intercept course or whether the U.S. Navy fired first might be impossible, at least for a couple of days, if not weeks.

Especially if general tensions between Washington and Moscow were already high prior to the incident, the U.S. administration would immediately come under enormous domestic pressure “to do something,” even though clarifying events might take time. Domestic pressure could, therefore, clash with the necessity of having enough time to properly examine events. While NATO allies in Brussels might unsuccessfully seek direct talks with the Russian personnel at NATO Headquarters to ease tensions and shed light on the event, Washington would probably decide to go it alone already by that point.

Stage Two: The U.S. president accuses Russia of “belligerent behavior” and announces efforts “to deny Moscow any further misconduct in the Baltic Sea.” That night, two additional U.S. destroyers and an aircraft carrier are dispatched to the Baltic Sea.

Implications: U.S. decisionmakers would be unlikely to want to wait for the uncertain and probably slow process of forming a NATO position and acting collectively. For its allies, Washington’s unilateral decision to increase its naval footprint in the Baltic Sea would create a twofold problem. On the one hand, not having been consulted by Washington would damage their political credibility in the eyes of Russia and undermine their efforts to establish a communication channel with Moscow. On the other hand, not supporting the U.S. move would risk further undermining alliance unity.

Stage Three: The Kremlin announces that it would view the U.S. vessels’ presence as “an open provocation that cannot go unanswered.” The next day Russia mobilizes its conventional forces in the Western Military District.

Implications: For NATO, the spat between Washington and some of its allies might make it much more difficult to reach consensus about Russia’s intentions. Some allies might argue behind closed doors that the Russian reaction was somewhat understandable, given that the U.S. naval deployments would carry significant fire power that Russia must consider, and given that Washington would not have told even its closest allies how long it intended to keep the vessels in the Baltic Sea. Others might argue that Moscow was using the crisis as a pretext to create exactly the kind of military fait accomplithat NATO planners had long warned about. Whatever the outcome of this debate, given the heightened tensions between Russia and the United States, the lack of a NATO reaction to Russia’s move might be as risky as preparations to send in the Spearhead Force.

Stage Four: NATO decides to assemble the Spearhead Force. The Russian ambassador to NATO tells the press that “Russia can fight a war with NATO at any level—including at the strategic level.” That night, Russia sends an unusually high number of nuclear-capable bombers on patrol over the Baltic Sea toward the Atlantic.

Implications: Allies would now face a difficult choice. Akin to the two scenarios above, the Russian nuclear threats would again raise tensions. This time, however, the Russian nuclear signals might drive an even bigger wedge between allies. Not only might allies reach different conclusions about the severity of the Russian nuclear threat, but the specific mention of the “strategic level” could cause certain allies to publicly question the U.S. decision to send in its navy. Other allies might argue that their response was exactly what Russia sought—splitting the alliance to render it politically obsolete.

Stage Five: The U.S. naval convoy is now only one day away from entering the Skagerrak, the strait between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that separates the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. The Russian General Staff issues a “final warning” urging Washington “to turn back or incur massive costs.” Washington sends a number of long-range bombers to the United Kingdom.

Implications: Assuming that these events were to take place against rapidly mounting protests in Western Europe, it is not far-fetched to assume that some allies would now publicly blame both Russia and the United States for “unnecessarily racing toward a war,” while others might accuse those allies of “stabbing NATO in the back.” The problem for Washington and Moscow at this point would be the potentially extreme political difficulties of agreeing and implementing some kind of face-saving solution to deescalate the crisis. And even if both sides were able to agree on a solution, NATO would be left with significant political damage due to its inability to remain united in its response to the initial incident.

Key Takeaways

  • European NATO members might prefer to deal with such a military incident as an alliance, whereas Washington would probably prefer not to. As a result, NATO might end up severely weakened by a lot of infighting.
  • Domestic politics might play a big role in tackling an accidental crisis, and diverging domestic preferences (pressure in the United States to escalate versus peace protests in Western Europe) might greatly complicate a unified NATO response.
  • The existing crisis communication channels between NATO and Russia might not be used to prevent escalation in the wake of an accident.
  • Escalation might unfold more rapidly than efforts to clarify what occurred and to deescalate the crisis.


1 See, for instance, the full statement of Fabrice Pothier, former head of policy planning in the office of the NATO secretary general. Pothier, “An Area-Access Strategy for NATO,” 76.

2 Similar statements by Russian officials about the protection of Russians abroad, however, not directed at NATO, have been made in the past in conjunction with the Russian military interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. See Jim Nichol, Russia-Georgia Conflict in August 2008: Context and Implications for U.S. Interests (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2009),; William W. Burke-White, “Crimea and the International Legal Order,” Survival 56, no. 4 (2014): 65–80.

3 At the time of writing, little was publicly known about the process and scope of devising rules of engagement for the four EFP battlegroups.

4 Such a reaction is not far-fetched, given that polls have shown that, particularly in Western European NATO states, enthusiasm for defending eastern allies against a Russian attack is quite low. Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Jacob Poushter, NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2015),

5 NATO’s ability to protect its vital transportation nodes against Russian precision strikes, that is by point defense systems, is rather limited in Europe.

6 Shlapak, Deterring Russian Aggression in the Baltic States.

7 V. I. Polegaev and V. V. Alferov, “O Neyadernom Sderzhivanii, Ego Roli I Meste v Sisteme Strategicheskogo Sderzhivaniya,” [On Non-Nuclear Deterrence, Its Roles and Space in the Strategic Deterrence System] Voennaya Mysl’ [Military Thought], no. 7 (July 2015): 9, quoted in Johnson, Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s Approach to Conflict, 42.

8 “Latvia’s Victory Day Shows Security Tensions,” Al Jazeera, May 14, 2014,

9 Russian ultranationalists have received support from the Kremlin in recent years, but they have also been subject to legal pressure as the Kremlin tries to hold on to its monopoly on Russian nationalism. See Mansur Mirovalev, “Behind Russia’s Ultra-Nationalist Crackdown,” Al Jazeera, September 23, 2015,

10 According to a report published by the European Leadership Network and reflecting, inter alia, views of senior NATO officials, “traditional linear concepts of gradual escalation (including from conventional to nuclear) and the escalation ladder may be ill-suited to describe Russia’s approach to a potential conflict in Europe, in which a threat of nuclear use might be issued at an early stage.” Kulesa and Frear, NATO’s Evolving Modern Deterrence Posture, 9. See also Johnson, Nuclear Weapons in Russia’s Approach to Conflict, 68. Such an approach would also be in line with Putin’s personal thoughts on impressing an opponent through swiftness and decisiveness. Recalling his childhood memories, Putin in an early interview explained how he got impressed and overwhelmed as a boy by a rat and how that taught him a lesson about resolve under the condition of being cornered. “There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered. There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs.” First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2000), 10.

11 I recent years, Russian fighter jets coming extremely close to U.S. war ships on several occasions in both the Baltic and Black Seas. Borger, “Russian Attack Jets Buzz US Warship in Riskiest Encounter for Years.”