Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Warzecha: The risk of an uncontrolled escalation of conflict in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu at Navy Parade. Saint Petersburg, 30 July 2017 (Source: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)

The war in Ukraine has been going on for over six months. During this time, not only did the warring parties’ assumptions about its goals change, but the risk that the actions will spiral out of control has increased dramatically. Such a reflection, however, along with the thought of the consequences for Poland, is almost non-existent in the Polish debate.

Łukasz Warzecha

If this reflection does appear, however, representatives of the pro-war party immediately appear and start shouting about the “Russian narrative”, spouting false historical analogies. This is what happened after the wRealu24 TV debate, during which the DoRzeczy weekly editor-in-chief Pawel Lisicki dared to question some of the war party’s dogma, citing Viktor Orbán’s famous speech at a summer school in Transylvania. Lisicki’s main point, then, was that it is futile on the part of most Polish politicians to expect the rational analysis of the situation that Orbán presented. Rationality is replaced by emotion (the reaction to these words, paradoxically, fully confirmed this diagnosis). He also said that there are many interests at play, and the conflict has its animators in the form of the world’s major powers. Finally, he pointed out that it is not in Poland’s interest to drag out the war, because not only are we incurring huge costs as a result, but the risk of uncontrolled escalation, of which Poland could fall victim, is radically increasing. As if to confirm these words, a few days later Russia deployed hypersonic Korzhal missiles with a range of about 2,000 kilometers in the Kaliningrad region. These missiles are unlikely to be intercepted by our current anti-aircraft defense systems, and almost all major Polish cities, including Warsaw, are within their range.

At the same time, two interesting texts were published. The first, in the Wall Street Journal – an account of a meeting between this newspaper’s journalist and Henry Kissinger. The occasion was the publication of the former Secretary of State’s new book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy”. The book, which Kissinger describes as a sequel to his monumental “Diplomacy”, includes reflections on the policies of six world leaders of the 20th century: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar as-Sadat (Egypt’s leader during the Yom Kippur War with Israel and later architect of the Camp David Accords), Lee Kuan-Yew (Singapore’s first prime minister after the city-state gained independence from Malaysia), and Margaret Thatcher.


The “WSJ” representative’s conversation with Kissinger was an opportunity to discuss the subject of Ukraine. A few months ago, a statement by the former security adviser to Presidents Nixon and Ford, made remotely at the Davos Economic Forum, became the subject of controversy also in Poland. Now Kissinger has diagnosed the problem not only of American diplomacy, but also of Americans in general, explaining that there is a problem in the US with separating diplomacy from a personal attitude toward the adversary. According to the former secretary of state, there is a tendency to see diplomatic negotiations in missionary rather than psychological terms, and diplomats are expected to either convert or condemn those with whom they are in talks, rather than convincing them to change their mindset.

Kissinger, of course, does not follow Polish public life, but he might be surprised at how accurately his observations describe our debate. For any attempt to recreate or empathize with the Russian way of thinking is immediately qualified as justifying Russia. This is completely absurd – if you want to have an advantage over your opponent, you have to try to reproduce his way of thinking, no matter how critical you are of it or how erroneous you consider it to be. This is what both Kissinger and John Mearsheimer, who is also ridiculed in Poland, tried to do.

The latter has just published a text entitled “Playing with Fire in Ukraine. The Underappreciated Risks of Catastrophic Escalation”, on the portal of Foreign Affairs magazine (arguably the world’s most prestigious magazine on international relations). Mearsheimer analyzed the changing goals of both sides during the conflict, considering what confluences of circumstances could lead to escalation.

Here a few observations. First – in Poland, the discussion does not really go beyond the simplest cause-and-effect sequence. It is believed that if Russia were to win (although no one ever admits that this could happen, it would be bad, and if it loses, it would be good. That’s the end of the story. In the logic of war, however, it is not that simple, because war does not take place in a vacuum, the powers have their own interests, and the prospect of either side losing may, paradoxically, lead not to the end of the war, but to its spillover across the continent.

Second – almost the entire Polish political class seems not so much to accept as to overlook the threat that Poland will be drawn into a heated conflict. This, in turn, would inevitably be the result of escalation. And this is undoubtedly not in our interest. This is what Lisicki was referring to, pointing out that the longer the war lasts, the greater the risk for Poland.

Third – it is clear to Mearsheimer, as to any other conscious observer, that Ukraine’s actions are derived from the ambitions and decisions of the Joe Biden administration. We, on the other hand, should ask ourselves whether in this war our interests are in fact 100% aligned with those of the US.

Fourth – Mearsheimer aptly shows that the initial goals of the war were maximized, which virtually eliminated the possibility of a compromise in the foreseeable future. Initially, Russia intended – according to its logic – to neutralize Ukraine and make it a buffer country. Today, it intends to at least deprive it from a considerable portion of its territory. Ukraine, on the other hand, initially only set itself a goal of deterring the Russian assault, primarily against the capital. When it succeeded, Kiev, but especially Washington, raised the bar significantly. Now the stated goal is not only to regain all the seized territories including Crimea, but also to weaken Russia in the strategic plan, as clearly signaled by members of the US administration. With such a disparity of goals, an agreement seems impossible to attain.


Mearsheimer points out that escalation can happen in three cases: first, one or both sides will trigger it deliberately to win; second, one or both sides will trigger it deliberately to prevent their defeat; third, the escalation will be the result of a coincidence, not a deliberate tactic. Escalation can take many forms. As a last resort, it could even mean Russia will use its nuclear arsenal, however Mearsheimer considers this scenario relatively unlikely. However, different levels of action are possible here as well. It could be the use of tactical nuclear weapons against limited military, or civilian, targets in Ukraine alone. A nuclear response by the United States is then highly unlikely, for it is possible that this would dramatically increase the pressure of Western societies, terrified by the vision of a nuclear war, to end the war. This would mean Russia achieving its goals. It would be naive to think that Moscow is not considering such an option.

In the movie “Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark” there is a fantastic scene in which the protagonist confronts a local assassin armed with a sword somewhere in the Middle East. The opponent is very skilled, he waves the sword menacingly before Jones and it appears that the latter has no chance against him. However, the archaeologist simply pulls out a revolver from his holster and shoots the swordman dead on the spot. This is an excellent illustration of the situation that can occur during a war in Ukraine. If one side decides that it has no chance of winning if it continues to fight with its existing means, it can reach resort to a higher level of weaponry.

Above all, however, when we look at the war through the eyes of an American academic, we see that what we may hope for, i.e. Ukrainian successes, may paradoxically bring the prospect of a widening conflict closer. For Russia may decide that if Ukraine is making too much progress, the war needs to be escalated. The possibilities and pretexts are many. We have, for example, the actions of the Baltic states headed by Lithuania, which Moscow sees as unequivocally provocative. After the attempt to block the transfer to the Kaliningrad region, there is now the issue of the non-recognition by all three Baltic states of Schengen visas of Russian citizens. The actions of the Baltics are somewhat reminiscent of a scrawny toddler who, standing behind a stronger colleague, every now and then peers out and spits over in the direction of a buff thug. And then he hides behind the back of the stronger colleague again. Of course, when the thug loses his temper, he will direct his punch at the stronger colleague, because the latter blocks access to the instigator.

The repeated attacks on Crimea are also dangerous from this point of view. Although it remains formally part of Ukraine, Russia considers it its own territory, so attacks on targets there are considered by Moscow to be attacks on Russian territory. This, too, could be a reason – not a pretext, but precisely a reason – for deliberate escalation. Mearsheimer also points out that the Ukrainians themselves may want to escalate the situation in such a way as to provoke an escalation by Moscow, such as an attack on targets in Poland or Romania, and this in turn would force the West to respond and get directly involved in the war. Which, after all – it’s hard not to see it – was the goal of the Ukrainian authorities from the very beginning.

Finally, there is the huge risk of escalation by chance. As Mearsheimer points out, under the current circumstances, all it would take is a collision between NATO and Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea.

The U.S. analyst concludes that if anyone thinks that the course of the war can be easily predicted and one can be sure that it will continue only in the area of Ukraine, they are strongly deluded. “Wars are governed by their own logic”, he states. And he recalls the words of Carl von Clausewitz, who pointed out that nationalisms make modern conflicts take on the most extreme dimension, especially when the stakes are high on both sides.


Both Mearsheimer and Kissinger acknowledge that things have already gone so far that there is virtually no going back to the initial concepts of peacemaking. Kissinger says that after the war, Ukraine, if only informally, will have to be treated as a member of NATO.

In Poland we should constantly ask ourselves not about Ukrainian or American interests, but our own, Polish ones. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly to weaken Russia as much possible, so as to remove the threat of its next military actions to the greatest possible extent. On the other hand, however, it is certainly to postpone the risk of the war spreading beyond its current territory, because then Poland will be in a completely lost position. If Ukraine will eventually have to pay its price for achieving the latter goal – tough. Foreign policy is a ruthless game.