Time to Terminate Escalate to De-Escalate — It’s Escalation Control
“Escalate to de-escalate” is catchy, it rhymes, and it rolls off the tongue. Unfortunately, it is also wrong — but not for the reasons experts usually focus on.
Since Russia released its 2014 National Defense Strategy, and especially after the publication of America’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, U.S. officials, pundits, and national security wonks have used the phrase either to describe Russia’s strategy, or as a launching point to criticize that description. Buzz phrases like “escalate to de-escalate” tend to spread through officialdom where they are misunderstood and misused as quickly as they are shared. The problem with the term is not that Russia doesn’t have capacity or plans to use calculated escalation (nuclear or otherwise) to contain or terminate a conflict. It’s that such escalation is only one part of a larger strategic approach, and the focus on Moscow’s nuclear threshold risks missing the forest for the trees.
Russia’s approach to conflict is better described as “escalation control,” a concept that was a part of the American strategy lexicon until the end of the Cold War. The United States, facing non-peer adversaries in post-Cold War conflicts, has been able to dominate opponents at any level of conflict where an adversary is capable. Under this framework of “escalation dominance,” careful calculations of thresholds and escalation triggers have been more a matter of preference than necessity for state survival. Russia, on the other hand, has had no such advantage vis-à-vis the West and has instead adopted escalation control — a strategic approach that relies on carefully calculated, proactive measures to ensure a conflict is contained at lower, more acceptable levels. Through this approach Russia can control the level of conflict escalation, dominating the mechanics and circumstances of escalation rather than dominating conflict levels themselves. De-escalating actions are just one tool in this strategy’s larger toolbox.
Russia’s strategy should be addressed in whole rather just the part focused on the nuclear end of the conflict spectrum. To truly appreciate Moscow’s approach, and the variety of tools available at levels below kinetic conflict, the West needs to dust off its understanding of escalation control. Failing to use the correct framework to understand today’s evolved capabilities, and the blurred delineations between military and nonmilitary lines of effort, can lead to miscommunication and, possibly, miscalculation.
Problems with the Bumper Sticker Version
“Escalate to de-escalate” tends to focus solely on Russia’s thresholds for nuclear weapons use, rather than taking a holistic approach to conflict. De-escalatory strikes are essentially an action to deter further aggression — that is, to control escalation – but such actions do not need to take place in the nuclear realm. For instance, Russia “escalated to de-escalate” in 2015 and 2016, when it deployed S-400 and S-300 air defense systems to Syria, against the backdrop of increasing tensions between U.S. and Russian forces operating in close proximity there. As one U.S. official quipped when asked about the intent behind the 2016 S-300 deployments, “Nusra doesn’t have an air force do they?” The United States took note of the possibility Russians might shoot down a U.S. aircraft. The increased risk that both nations would stumble into a conflict forced the Pentagon to avoid sustained unilateral actions against regime forces (limited cruise missile strikes aside) because the potential gains did not justify the risk of direct conflict with Russia. In ZAPAD-2017, another example, tactical nuclear weapons were not incorporated into the exercise scenario, but the exercise nonetheless showed how Russia planned to use overwhelming artillery and rocket fire to change the enemy’s cost-benefit analysis. De-escalatory actions don’t have to use nuclear weapons.
A second, more dangerous problem is that policymakers (and policy wonks) tend to misinterpret the phrase as meaning Russia has lowered its nuclear threshold. It’s easy to mentally reduce “escalate to de-escalate” to simply a strategy of out-escalating the other party, perhaps very early in a conflict, by turning to nuclear weapons more quickly than the United States would. But consider that the United States is able to project combat power to Russia’s backyard, a mere 300 miles from Moscow, holding the country at risk of a mass attack of shock and awe. If Russia responded with nuclear strikes in this scenario, U.S. officials may misinterpret the reaction as “escalate to de-escalate” in action. But in fact nuclear use in this case would have been driven by Washington’s approach, not Moscow’s.
Further, focusing on whether Russia will resort to nuclear use risks overlooking other actions taken intentionally below NATO’s escalation thresholds. In 2014, Russia could have virtually guaranteed a decisive military victory over Ukraine by displaying its modern military advancements and dominance, sending multiple divisions across the border, supported by thunderous artillery and heavy bombers. It did not, of course, choosing instead to try and achieve as many of its goals operating at as low a level of conflict as possible, and doing so quickly, to avoid NATO intervention.
Additional spin-off terminology has aggravated the problem. The commander of U.S. Strategic Command recently described Russia’s strategy as “escalate to win,” but this term is unhelpful as it leaves open the definition of “win” in a given conflict. If winning means achieving strategic goals, then that’s just every conflict in history and is too broad to be useful. If the definition of win becomes flexible, then the possible goals become too varied to pin down in a universal rule. The phrase also doesn’t account for examples of Moscow using restraint to keep the conflict below levels that invite reciprocal escalation — which is encompassed by the more holistic and useful term “escalation control.”
Another variation is “escalate to survive,” mentioned on a recent War on the Rocks podcast on this subject, meaning escalatory actions taken to preserve the existence of the state, or perhaps return to a status quo ante. But again, this term doesn’t account for more aggressive actions at lower levels of conflict where the existence of the Russian state is not at immediate risk, such as in Ukraine. By focusing on escalate to de-escalate, escalate to win, or escalate to survive, the West may fail to see what actions Russia might take at lower thresholds — and to understand why it is doing so.
Escalation Control: A More Useful Term…
Escalation control is the concept that best accounts for the range of military and diplomatic actions the Kremlin has taken in recent years. This framework, specifically applied to Russian strategy, outlines a proactive approach to controlling the process of escalation rather than militarily defeating the adversary at any given escalation level. It requires Russia to maintain the initiative in a conflict, an area in which it has excelled. In Ukraine, Russia tried a number of methods — at incremental levels of engagement, rather than at higher levels requiring decisive combat power — to achieve measured success before NATO could interdict and escalate the conflict to a level unacceptable for Moscow.
Generally speaking, Russia has controlled the pace and scale of the conflicts in Syria as well, forcing American-backed forces to react to Russian-backed forces’ actions. Since Russia first intervened in Syria in 2015, a number of incidents have raised tensions between Russia and the United States: cruise missile strikes in response to chemical weapon use, harassment and encirclement of At Tanf, and the massively successful U.S. strikes on alleged Russian mercenaries. In each case, Russia has set the tone for what happens next, kept the conflict from escalating beyond its means or desires, and remained on track to have a sustained military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Escalation control also requires a confident understanding of the adversary’s escalation thresholds. This was clearly a consideration for the Kremlin in Ukraine, where it consciously chose to incrementally increase direct action in the country’s east without escalating to decisive combat power (and probably not because it was deterred by fear of Ukraine’s military). Rather, Russia applied and refined its understanding of NATO thresholds for intervention, taking care to avoid inviting conflict. In this way, Western deterrence worked at one level of conflict but failed to some degree at another. Russia’s incremental increases were not de-escalatory actions, designed to create shock and compel and adversary to back down. Instead, they were intentionally constrained to avoid NATO intervention thresholds. This is consistent with a model of escalation control, but is not “escalate to de-escalate.”
…But an Even Tougher Problem
The nuance between “escalate to de-escalate” and a strategy that includes de-escalatory actions in its toolbox might seem like a matter of semantics, a little like knowing the exact size of a boot that is kicking you in the face. But this difference has significant implications for how the United States deals with the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, de-escalatory nuclear strikes — the victim of the “escalate to de-escalate” misnomer — are neither the only nor the most likely level of conflict that the West will see from Russia, as Ukraine and Syria have shown. Escalation control can be applied with any weapon system, including nuclear weapons, and it’s not even Russia’s idea, at least not originally. “We may seek to terminate a war on favorable terms using our [remaining] forces as a bargaining weapon-by threatening further attack … our large reserve of … firepower would give an enemy an incentive to avoid our cities and to stop a war.” This might seem like a quote from a Russian Military Thought article, but in fact it was U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1962 explaining U.S. strategy to use limited nuclear strikes to de-escalate a conflict using “deliberate escalation,” specifically in a situation where NATO non-nuclear forces could not successfully defend against a Soviet attack. What was old is new again.
Whether de-escalation actions take the form of deploying advanced air defense where U.S. aircraft are operating or launching a demonstrative nuclear strike, they achieve their desired aim not through the actual effect of the weapon, but by increasing the risk of what could come next. Deterring further escalation through these actions only works if the possible consequences are both credible and undesirable, which is why it can work at many levels of conflict. Escalation control proactively uses that risk to keep more capable adversaries deterred at lower levels of conflict.
Critics of escalation control often point out that escalation is not something that a party does, but rather is something that happens, and therefore no party to a conflict can actually control escalation. Indeed, some critics make the case that Russians don’t believe they can control escalation. often focus on the higher ends of the conflict spectrum, in this case on nuclear first use thresholds, where the stakes are higher and there are fewer rungs left to climb on the escalation ladder. But at lower levels, the Kremlin has in fact successfully controlled conflict escalation in two theaters with the potential for U.S./NATO intervention in the last four years.
Moreover, Russia’s approach takes full advantage of this fear that escalation is uncontrollable. If an adversary believes that no one can control escalation, increasing the risk of a larger-scale conflict at lower levels can deter even lower-level intervention. Uncertainty increases risk, and the shared risk of escalation into a direct large-scale war can deter lower level confrontation. Through proactive and calculated escalatory actions, Russia can use the risk and uncertainty of potential escalation to enhance its deterrence of adversaries at these lower levels of conflict.
No matter the interpretation, escalation control is a more difficult strategy to counter than just “escalate to deescalate.” It can work for many desired outcomes, whether it’s to win, simply not lose, maintain a frozen conflict, or solidify a new status quo. It relies on forward-looking detailed planning focused on a limited number of adversaries. It is flexible and responsive to emerging and dynamic situations
Russia is relying provocative, lower-level actions that use escalation risk to deter United States and avoid getting into a conflict it doesn’t want. This approach does have a weakness: It relies on a reactive adversary with known or accurately predicted thresholds. The United States has to decide which escalation thresholds it wants to communicate clearly, and which ones it wants to keep ambiguous to deter Russia. This will be complex, since it requires accounting for newer domains and means of conflict. It will also require making some tough internal calls about what is important enough to the United States to justify certain actions and certain risks, and then deciding how or whether to communicate those thresholds. Communicating to Russia that any malign act will result in direct military action is not credible. The lines need to be drawn, at least internally, and then the United States needs to decide whether those thresholds are best served by communicating clarity or ambiguity to Russia.
It’s true that this intentional ambiguity about escalation thresholds will also create an environment for miscommunication while both sides adjust to their opponents’ thresholds and posturing. But if Russia and the United States are going to have miscommunication it should happen at the lowest levels of conflict possible, rather than one party getting backed into a corner where large-scale retaliation is required. If the United States doesn’t think through its policy and posturing before a crisis occurs, it may feel compelled to act, to do something, rather than capitulate. Foresight and clarity about Russia’s approach to controlling escalation can give the United States hard choices early rather than impossible choices later — and that starts with finding the right language to describe and understand Russia’s strategy.
Jay Ross is an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton supporting the Department of Defense, and a U.S. Army Reserve Nuclear Weapons Officer, currently assigned to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He has 16 years of military and defense experience focused on nuclear technology, weapons, and strategy, and on Russian strategic military issues. This article does not reflect the views of Booz Allen Hamilton, the Department of Defense, or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.