The tensions between Russia and the USA have reached an unprecedented level. I fully agree with the participants of this CrossTalk show – the situation is even worse and more dangerous than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both sides are now going to the so-called “Plan B” which, simply put, stand for, at best, no negotiations and, at worst, a war between Russia and the USA.
The key thing to understand in the Russian stance in this, and other, recent conflicts with the USA is that Russia is still much weaker than the USA and that she therefore does not want war. That does not, however, mean that she is not actively preparing for war. In fact, she very much and actively does. All this means is that should a conflict occur, Russia you try, as best can be, to keep it as limited as possible.
In theory, these are, very roughly, the possible levels of confrontation:
2) A single military incident, such as what happened recently when Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 and Russia chose not to retaliate.
3) A series of localized clashes similar to what is currently happening between India and Pakistan.
4) A conflict limited to the Syrian theater of war (say like the war between the UK and Argentina over the Malvinas Islands)
5) A regional or global military confrontation between the USA and Russia
6) A full scale thermonuclear war between the USA and Russia
During my years as a student of military strategy I have participated in many exercises on escalation and de-escalation and I can attest that while it is very easy to come up with escalatory scenarios, I have yet to see a credible scenario for de-escalation. What is possible, however, is the so-called “horizontal escalation” or “asymmetrical escalation” in which one side choses not to up the ante or directly escalate, but instead choses a different target for retaliation, not necessarily a more valuable one, just a different one on the same level of conceptual importance (in the USA Joshua M. Epstein and Spencer D. Bakich did most of the groundbreaking work on this topic).
The main reason why we can expect the Kremlin to try to find asymmetrical options to respond to a US attack is that in the Syrian context Russia is hopelessly outgunned by the US/NATO, at least in quantitative terms. The logical solutions for the Russians is to use their qualitative advantage or to seek “horizontal targets” as possible retaliatory options. This week, something very interesting and highly uncharacteristic happened: Major General Igor Konashenkov, the Chief of the Directorate of Media service and Information of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, openly mentioned one such option. Here is what he said:
“As for Kirby’s threats about possible Russian aircraft losses and the sending of Russian servicemen back to Russia in body bags, I would say that we know exactly where and how many “unofficial specialists” operate in Syria and in the Aleppo province and we know that they are involved in the operational planning and that they supervise the operations of the militants. Of course, one can continue to insist that they are unsuccessfully involved in trying to separate the al-Nusra terrorists from the “opposition” forces. But if somebody tries to implement these threats, it is by no means certain that these militants will have to time to get the hell out of there.”