Rapid escalation of Ukraine crisis fuels fear of armed confrontation between Russia and the West

WASHINGTON - Russia, careening toward economic crisis under the weight of devastating Western sanctions, has put its nuclear forces on alert as the Kremlin’s siege of Ukraine intensifies.

The United States and its NATO partners have sent thousands of troops and advanced weaponry to harden defenses in the alliance’s eastern flank while funneling billions of dollars worth of military hardware to Kyiv - moves met by the Kremlin with threats of “consequences.”

There is no deconfliction line - nor, according to U.S. officials, does Moscow seem interested in one.

The rapid escalation, observers say, has made the once-theoretical risk of direct confrontation between Russia and the West a tangible possibility with little hope of the tension subsiding, maybe for years to come.

“My worry is that there’s a miscalculation, a misunderstanding, an accident, a mistake” that touches off more widespread conflict, said Jim Townsend, who managed Europe and NATO policy at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

“How long could we have this kind of risk? . . . I don’t see it ending.”

Russia’s advance through Ukraine has brought the Kremlin’s forces closer to NATO’s borders. Should those troops remain, in Ukraine and Belarus, the “contact line” would shift “significantly west,” said Sam Charap, a Russia expert with the RAND Corporation. “And that changes the strategic landscape.”

“Poland has relied on Belarus to serve the function of a buffer,” he added. “If that’s no longer there, that’s just a totally different ballgame.”

Russia’s moves compelled Western officials last week to activate the NATO Response Force and its Very High Readiness Joint Defense Force for the first time in the alliance’s history. The mobilization, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, is meant to deter a Russian attack and prevent the war in Ukraine from spilling over into any NATO-allied country.

President Joe Biden has ruled out putting U.S. troops in Ukraine, but he has authorized the deployment of an additional 14,000 military personnel along with elite F-35 fighters and Apache attack helicopters to allied countries in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, a sign of how seriously the United States hopes to ward off the Russian threat.

Yet while gestures and statements such as Stoltenberg’s and Biden’s are designed to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from intentionally challenging the alliance’s resolve, some wonder whether the message is getting through.

Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, said the Russian leader may be “ready and willing” to test the alliance’s commitment to its collective defense. She pointed out that NATO’s 40,000-member response force “pales in comparison to Russia’s military capabilities” in the region; the Kremlin currently has about 150,000 troops in and around Ukraine.

Russian forces have a history of playing dangerous games in NATO border areas. Recently, Russian fighter jets have conducted low or near-pass flights over U.S. ships in the Black Sea and U.S. surveillance aircraft flying over the Mediterranean. The potential for such maneuvers to result in a collision or confrontation - and for that incident to then spiral into a greater fight - grows exponentially greater amid an active war.

Ukraine’s land borders with four NATO countries - Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania - have also emerged as potential hot spots. Observers are particularly concerned about the potential for humanitarian calamities as more than 500,000 refugees use those routes to flee the country.

Absent a peace deal, few expect that Ukrainians will lay down their arms even if Russia assumes formal control of their country. The resulting insurgency would make the business of occupation “rough” for Russia, Townsend said, noting that Russian soldiers patrolling the country’s borders will be operating “on a knife’s edge . . . because they’re expecting a Ukrainian insurgent behind every tree.”

But it would take a “really serious incident” to touch off a wider war, cautioned Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said the casualty count would need to be so high or seem so deliberate that NATO could not dismiss it as a mistake.

Ukraine and its border territories are also not the only places that could precipitate the sort of direct conflict with Russia that the United States wants to avoid. The intensity of the Russian onslaught in Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden, which share borders with Russia in the Arctic Circle and have long adopted a neutral posture, to publicly contemplate joining NATO - a move that Russia warned last week would precipitate “military consequences.”

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, meanwhile, exist in a constant state of geographical vulnerability to assault, due to shared and often snarled borders with Russia and Belarus. Certain roads crossing Estonia dip in and out of snippets of Russian territory; the Baltics as a whole, meanwhile, could effectively be cut off from the rest of Europe via the Suwalki Corridor, a 65-mile stretch of Lithuanian-Polish border that lies between Belarus and the tiny Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea.

All NATO members, meanwhile, remain potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks, which Russia has proven in recent years to be adept at manipulating to its advantage. The NATO secretary general has said cyberattacks could trigger the alliance’s collective defense pact, but it remains unclear what type or magnitude of assault it would take to warrant such a response.

How likely Russia is to pick battles along new fronts may depend on how long Ukraine can keep up its resistance. The more Russia is worn out from the fight there, experts say, it becomes less likely Putin will want to pursue other ambitions where the long-term risk of failure is far greater.

The moment of truth will come if and when a NATO member decides to call upon their allies to help battle back any direct Russian aggression. The collective defense pact has been invoked only once in NATO’s history, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. It is untested when it comes to a war in Europe.

“The credibility of the alliance is on the line,” Townsend said. “If our credibility is found wanting, if NATO proves that it’s not quite able to do the things that we’ve talked about being able to do, then that is a win for Putin.”

Yet even if the 30 NATO member nations are able to maintain the unity that they have found in recent weeks to stave off further Russian aggression, it is almost impossible to avoid some spillover effects from the Ukrainian experience thus far, observers say.

While officials are downplaying the risk of Russia’s recent nuclear threats, nobody knows what kind of backlash the free-falling ruble could create in a nation of 144 million people, most of whom receive their information through pro-Kremlin media. There are also global implications for financial markets that are often an afterthought in national security discussions, such as the agricultural sector, where Ukraine and Russia together produce over a quarter of the world’s wheat supply.

“No matter what happens now, there’s going to be some forms of spillover, whether . . . general instability arising from refugee flows or broader global implications because of Ukraine’s key role in some of these export markets,” said Polyakova of the Center for European Policy Analysis, predicting there will be “more conflicts that the United States and Europe have to manage.”

“That’s the reality we’re looking at already,” she added, “regardless of what exactly the outcome in Ukraine is going to be.”