Why Russia Will Escalate

The war in Ukraine will not be settled by negotiations and is likely to see a further escalation of Russian military involvement. Russia’s war against Ukraine is an outcome of three objectives pursued by Moscow. First, Moscow wants to have Ukraine in its exclusive sphere; second, it aims to destabilize the European political order by maintaining an open conflict on Europe’s frontier; and third, it wants to avoid a protracted war of attrition.

The first goal has been amply examined: Putin considers Western institutions – EU and in particular NATO – as enemies that threaten not just Russia but also the stability of the existing regime in Moscow (and in Putin’s mind the two – Russia and his personal power – are congruent). The second goal is related to the first one. Given that Russia cannot compete with Europe on the basis of economic efficiency and political appeal, it has to do so with the form of power in which it has some advantage: brute force. Finally, the third objective is a negative one. Putin cannot afford to fight a protracted war because of the economic costs (including those imposed by sanctions) as well as political ones (a steady trickle of Russian casualties will do little to shore up Putin’s popularity).

The problem for Moscow is that these three objectives are difficult to align. In fact, the pursuit of one may undermine the ability to achieve another. Continued tensions sponsored by Moscow in Eastern Ukraine will result in even stronger anti-Russian sentiments in the Kiev, and correspondingly deeper aspirations for close relations with the West. Similarly, a war of attrition may be difficult to avoid if Moscow wants to maintain a prolonged presence in Ukraine in order to keep it a source of geopolitical instability generating divisions within the European Union.

The preferred scenario from Moscow’s perspective would be one in which…

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