“Escalate to Deescalate” is one of those Dr. Strangelove-sounding oxymoronic stratagems from the Bad Old Cold War Days when the Nuclear Bomb of Damocles dangled over our heads.
But it’s real. It isn’t from the Cold War. It’s current Russian doctrine and it might be coming as soon as Monday.
For our VIPs earlier on Friday, I wrote how Biden administration officials were playing a “dangerous game” by publicly admitting that American intel has helped Ukraine kill Russian generals and even sink the Moskva missile cruiser last week.
But Russian strongman Vladimir Putin might be about to play a very dangerous game of his own.
May 9 is the day Russia celebrates its hard-won victory over Nazi Germany, 77 years ago this Monday. With the Ukraine War continuing to be a long, hard slog, Putin is expected to take one of perhaps three actions during or soon after Monday’s massive festivities.
By most accounts, the original hope was to have some kind of big victory in Ukraine to celebrate on the WWII anniversary. Clearly, that’s not going to happen, but as the men of Delta House could tell you, “This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture.”
Or a possibly Earth-shattering one. In the literal sense.
Yesterday I covered two possibilities:
Some analysts believe Putin might announce some kind of victory. Putin could “officially” annex the occupied areas of Ukraine, and wind down the war to something much quieter and more like the low-intensity fighting that’s been going on since 2014.
Others argue that Putin will declare an official war. Under Russian law, that’s far more serious than the current “special military operation.” The difference is that a declaration gives Putin the authority to call up the reserves and mobilize the economy.
But there is a third, courtesy of the pseudonymous “Laughing Wolf,” an author who earned his Masters doing open-source spying on the Soviets:
If Vladimir and his clique have an ounce of sense, they will keep any and all attacks conventional. I’m not confident enough to place a bet they will. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on tactical use of special weapons.
Special weapons: Chemical, biological, nuclear.
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
So where does “Escalate to Deescalate” fit into all this doomsday talk?
I’ll answer that right after this brief aside.
ASIDE: America has only two strategic interests in Ukraine, and neither has anything to do with whether Putin takes all, some or none of the country. Our primary interest is to keep the war from expanding. The secondary interest is to help Ukraine hurt Russia badly enough that Moscow is deterred from any future such adventurism.
It’s one of the tragic complexities of geopolitics that our two interests are sometimes at odds with one another.
If Russia rolls over Ukraine, the war will end but Russia will be tempted into further aggression. If Russia is hurt too badly, they might expand anyway to change the parameters of the war into something just as painful for us.
Russia really very quite seriously needs to get NATO weapons to stop flowing into Ukraine. NATO members have vowed only to increase shipments. The Ukraine War, as it stands now, doesn’t look good from Moscow’s position.
Escalating the war in order to force NATO to deescalate could change that.
Putin could, as Laughing Wolf prays, keep things conventional. He might escalate with crippling cyberattacks on NATO countries’ infrastructure. He might crank up the destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure in some spectacular 9/11-scale attack.
Or maybe, after ten brutal weeks of conventional warfare, those special weapons are too tempting to resist.
Imagine a tactical nuclear strike at a vital rail juncture near Lviv in western Ukraine. Imagine instead the use of persistent chemical weapons at transport sites along the Polish-Ukraine border. Or perhaps worst of all, imagine the use of biological weapons — Russia is in violation of every treaty its every signed prohibiting their development — to empty out a few frontline villages recently re-taken by the Ukraine Army.
There are other possibilities raised by Laughing Wolf, including direct action against frontline NATO members like Poland.
Any one of these escalatory strikes would be accompanied by a deescalatory message to NATO leaders: “Things can only get worse from here. You back off the weapons deliveries to Ukraine and we’ll back off from further use of ‘special’ weapons.”
Escalate to deescalate.
Madness? Genius? Both? Whatever you call it, it’s part of Russia’s military doctrine and it could give Putin exactly the break he needs in the Ukraine War.
Or maybe the Biden clique would welcome a wider war to distract from troubles at home.
The Biden administration — hell, every Western leader and probably Xi Jinping, too — ought to spend the weekend in a diplomatic flurry, trying to bring this war to a mutually dissatisfying conclusion.
I doubt we’ll see anything like that. I worry we might see something like we’ve never seen before.