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Escalation and Deescalation of Crises, Armed Conflicts, and Wars

  • Last updated: 28 Mar. 2022 11:50

Russian Studies Series 03/2022


by Clint Reach1

Review of:

Escalation and Deescalation of Crises, Armed Conflicts, and Wars

(Voprosy eskalatsii i deeskalatsii krizisnykh situatsii, vooruzhennykh konfliktov i voin; LENAND, 2021, 88 pages)

Andrei Kokoshin, Iurii Baluevskii, Viktor Esin, Aleksandr Shliakhturov

The evolving crisis in Ukraine has generated much discussion about whether Moscow would escalate the conflict, whether in frustration at the slow progress of its military operations, or in response to actions of other states, even possibly resorting to nuclear weapons. But what do Russian sources suggest about escalation? There are numerous Russian language documents and books that help to clarify this. In 2018, for instance, Andrei Kokoshin, who has served in a number of senior positions, including as the Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, and remains a prominent thinker about defense and security matters, published a book, Issues in the Applied Theory of War, in which he presented a conflict escalation ladder. In it, he drew on Herman Kahn’s work on escalation to develop a version that is applicable to the current era of state competition and warfare. While Kahn presented 44 rungs in his escalation ladder, Kokoshin reduced that number to 10, beginning with crisis and ending at strategic nuclear exchange.

And Kokoshin has recently returned to the subject with another book, entitled, Escalation and Deescalation of Crises, Armed Conflicts, and Wars, in which he is joined by co-authors with broad military experience and expertise to revisit and expand on ideas related to conflict escalation. Kokoshin’s co-authors are all highly qualified and experienced policy makers. They are Iurii Baluyevsky, a former Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and now General Inspector of the Ministry of Defense’s Directorate of General Inspectors, retired Colonel-General Viktor Esin, who served as Deputy Commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces and now a Professor-Researcher in the National Research University in the Higher School of Economics, and retired Colonel-General Aleksander Shliakhturov was the Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff and is now also a Professor-Researcher at the Higher School of Economics.

Escalation and Deescalation is a short work of just over 12,000 words whose primary purpose is to include additional detail to the original escalation ladder. The authors also address several well-known debates within the Western and Russian strategic communities, such as the escalate-to-deescalate theory and the plausibility of limited nuclear war. Briefly on the latter topics, the authors echo official Russian denial of an escalate-to-deescalate doctrine and cast serious doubt that limited nuclear war is possible. On limited nuclear war, they note that “many Russian and foreign experts ... believe that the start of the use of nuclear weapons will create such a complex political and psychological atmosphere and an operational-strategic situation that will inevitably lead to a massive exchange of nuclear strikes with the most catastrophic consequences for the existence of states, and for life on Earth”. 

The Escalation and Deescalation volume includes a total of 17 rungs on the escalation ladder (see Table 1). The content of these new rungs is unsurprising given the backgrounds of the co-authors. Information confrontation, gray zone activities in competition and crisis, and hybrid methods in war—all of which were presumably approved by Shliakhturov given his time leading the GRU from 2009 to 2011 – are discussed at the lower rungs prior to the employment of military force. So-called hybrid war, which is the fourth rung, has long been a topic of discussion in Russian military discourse as a way of describing US and Western actions to weaken and undermine unfriendly countries.2 The use of cyber weapons is prominent throughout, with the targets elevating from military to civilian infrastructure as one moves up the ladder.

Baluevskii and Esin likely were influential in the remainder of the escalation ladder, which describes the content of local and regional wars and subsequent escalation all the way to “the massive use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction, including against large urban centers”. Local war, the sixth rung, is the purview of the Russian general-purpose forces, which are defined in other Russian sources as the armed forces except for formations equipped with dual-use launch platforms and strategic nuclear weapons. Presumably, the authors are imagining a situation in which war begins at the local level along Russia’s periphery and then expands deeper into the European theater. In their discussion of local war, the authors highlight the potential for escalation risks of using cyber weapons to threaten the opponent’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons (NSNW).3 They write, “A particular problem is the impact of cyber operations on NSNW due to the presence of dual-use platforms. Many experts believe that it is impossible to distinguish between the use of cyber operations against NSNW assets and nonnuclear means with similar platforms”. 

The content of regional war, the seventh rung, will be familiar to close followers of Russian military discourse and operational concept development. Regional war involves multiple countries pursuing significant political changes to the status quo – a war in Europe between Russia and several NATO countries, for example. In this scenario, air, land, and sea operations are conducted, and critical civilian infrasture is destroyed. The authors envision large impact on the global economy due to the disruption and destruction of supply chains. Kokoshin and his co-authors are skeptical that a regional war between great powers could be contained at this level and likely would approach, if not cross, the nuclear threshold.  

Rungs 8 – 11 of the escalation ladder depict continued escalation of conventional war. Satellites are attacked, cyber weapons expand beyond military targets to critical civilian infrastructure and state administration centers, and conventional long-range precision-guided munitions (PGMs) are used to disrupt life in urban centers and destroy chemical factories and nuclear power facilities. These kinetic courses of actions have been commonplace in Russian military writing for at least the past 30 years. In the Russian view, the primary value of conventional PGMs, when they do not exist in large quantities, is their ability to hit targets whose destruction would have cascading effects. The same appears to be true of cyber weapons. 

The imminent risk of nuclear conflict appears at rung 12, and the upper rungs see continued escalation up to massed strategic nuclear employment. Prior to nuclear use, nuclear weapons are an “instrument of direct political and military pressure”. Interestingly, the next rung involves intentional or unintentional destruction of nuclear-missile arms submarines (SSBNs), potentially by “an unidentified third party”. Perhaps the authors are envisioning a scenario in which an unmanned submersible destroys an SSBN, but it is not clear what they have in mind in the reference to the third party. 

The first use of nuclear weapons – a demonstration in an uninhabited area – occurs at rung 14. In keeping with other Russian literature on limited nuclear use, the authors in rung 15 assert that non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) would be used against exclusively military targets.4 Kokoshin and his fellow authors also highlight a 2019 article by General-Major Sterlin from the Main Operations Directorate which argues that NSNW could be used against energy supply infrastructure, an oft-discussed target in Russian military discourse.5 In the next-to-last rung, a counterforce (counter-military) operation is conducted with strategic nuclear weapons “to avoid the destruction of the civilian population and important infrastructure of the enemy’s economy”. The final step is the countervalue operation with strategic nuclear weapons, and “other types of weapons of mass destruction”, against large urban areas.

The final section of the work highlights recent events in American nuclear force planning and examines crisis management to avoid nuclear escalation. The authors describe a STRATCOM exercise in early 2020 in which low-yield nuclear weapons were exchanged during a conflict in Europe. They suggest that the American side was thinking through procedures for employing the W76-2 warheads deployed on Trident submarines. More broadly, the authors see a dilemma for the United States in dealing with a conventionally inferior adversary like Russia that has escalatory options at its disposal. They note that this is reverse of the situation that prevailed in the late Cold War, when NATO commanders thought they would have to request permission to resort to nuclear weapons in the face of Soviet conventional overmatch. Some American officials, such as  Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly have balked at the idea of responding nuke-for-nuke with the Russians, while others, such as former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, have argued “the rejection of nuclear retaliation in such a situation would destroy the entire system of security guarantees for US allies and break up alliances on a global scale.”6

To avoid stumbling into war with a possibility of nuclear escalation, Kokoshin and his co-authors advocate standing communication mechanisms to avoid misinterpretation of the other sides’ actions. The authors express concern that a few seemingly small events could coincide to produce an undesired war between nuclear powers. To preclude escalation at the earliest levels, “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of constant contacts between professional military personnel of various levels (starting from the level of the Chief of the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces)”.

In its description of the content of modern warfare and escalation within it, Escalation and Deescalation, is squarely within the Russian mainstream. For example, Russian military experts take as a given the destruction of sensitive targets – from satellites to a wide range of critical civilian infrastructure – in regional war. The debate among leading Russian experts seems not to be about the destruction of sensitive targets as an asymmetric means to overcome NATO conventional superiority, but the means with which to do so.

Some, like in the authors of this work, suggest NSNW are likely best suited to engage hard military targets, while Sterlin and co-authors raised the possibility of targeting civilian infrastructure such as energy supplies. In any case, Russian military officers and analysts appear to worry that they could be overwhelmed by NATO’s conventional strike capacity and forced to escalate with NSNW. Consequently, preserving sufficient dual-use capacity to escalate to nuclear use is a persistent Russian concern given NATO’s potential to threaten these means with conventional and, according to these authors, cyber weapons. 

The discussion of nuclear first use in Russian writing leads to a certain level of confusion for Western analysts. On one hand, Russia continues to emphasize that it does not have a formal “escalate-to-deescalate” policy. Setting aside that any country escalates to win or end the war, this boils down to a debate about semantics. Russia’s military doctrine allows for nuclear use in response to conventional attack. It is not called “escalate-to-deescalate”, but nuclear first use is present in Russian doctrine. US planning rightly prepares for a situation in which Russia is being overwhelmed conventionally and resorts to nuclear use against a military facility (such a scenario is described in Escalation and Deescalation)But the key point that is often missing from the Western discussion is that Russia likely imagines resorting to nuclear weapons against a nuclear peer in a dire situation in which it is losing militarily on the periphery and the existence of the Russian state is called into question. The United States and allies have often launched strike campaigns deep into adversary territory (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya) that ultimately led to the overthrow of the regime, so this possibility for Russia and probably informs their thinking on nuclear escalation. 

Escalation and Deescalation adds to the growing body of evidence detailing how Russian military experts think about modern warfare and conflict escalation and deescalation. The primary goal is to deter the mutually destructive war in the first place. Communication at senior military levels is a vital means to avoid undesired escalation. The war is all the more important to avoid because it will be very difficult to contain at the local or even regional level once the forces of escalation take hold. In the unlikely event of war, this work, and other similar sources, suggest that Russia is prepared to consider the engagement of a host of sensitive targets as viable courses of action. In this escalation ladder, the disruption of large urban centers (targeting water supplies and electricity are examples found in other Russian texts), and the destruction of nuclear power plants and chemical factories are explicitly mentioned in the conventional phase of the war. Nuclear weapon employment occurs after such destructive acts and initially is focused on NSNW targeting of military facilities prior to strategic nuclear use.

Table 1. Rungs of the Escalation Ladder in Escalation and Deescalation


Aggravation of the situation, including the intensification of information confrontation, information operations to destabilize the internal political situation of the opposite side, economic sanctions, etc.


Exchange of threatening statements about the possible use of military force, including to protect friends and allies.


An escalating political crisis with an increased intensity of information confrontation, demonstrations of military force in the gray zone (including the intensification of the behavior of military exercises of various scales, flights along the borders of strike aircraft, showing the flag by warships of the sides, etc.), but still without combat use. In general, the activation of confrontation in the gray zone, which also implies a horizontal escalation.


Hybrid war, an integral part of which is the limited combat use of military force (especially special operations forces, as well as mercenaries (proxies), private military companies, etc.) along with the large-scale use of political, information-psychological, economic, and other means characteristic of hybrid warfare. In this regard, hybrid warfare can be placed on the escalation ladder even below a political crisis with an increased intensity of the demonstration of military force (confrontation), and a limited (local) conventional war without the use of weapons of mass destruction.


Intentional or unintentional provocation (incident) in the interaction of great powers, which caused deaths and serious damage to military equipment.


Local conventional warfare with limited political goals of the opposing sides and limited use of military force in time and place, without the use of weapons of mass destruction and without the large-scale use of combat cyber operations in relation to civilian targets, with the involvement of only a certain part of general-purpose forces and conventional weapons. Combat cyber operations are carried out only in relation to the general-purpose forces used in such a war, without their impact on the state administration system, strategic nuclear forces and early warning systems, and civilian infrastructure. A particular problem is the impact of cyber operations on non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) due to the presence of dual-use platforms. Many experts believe that it is impossible to distinguish between the use of cyber operations against NSNW assets and non-nuclear means with similar platforms.


Regional war with combat operations on land, in the air, at sea without destroying spacecraft, with combat cyber operations on a larger scale than in the case of a local war. Such a war—in the context of an increasing level of interdependence in the global economy, in the production of industrial and agricultural products, in energy, etc.—is fraught with a radical destruction of supply chains, disruption of trade routes, shocks to financial markets and, in general, a global economic crisis of enormous proportions. Many experts believe that already at this stage of escalation of the military confrontation between great powers, there is a threat of further intensification of hostilities because it will be extremely difficult to keep the conflict within certain limits. In such a conflict, neither of the opposing sides will want to admit defeat and will move toward further escalation up to the nuclear threshold.


Limited conventional warfare with defeat (physical destruction or functional defeat) on one scale or another of spacecraft without destroying satellites of the missile attack warning system.


Large-scale conventional war without destroying large urban centers, chemical industries, nuclear power plants, etc., with the use of cyber weapons only against military targets both in the theater and beyond.


Large-scale conventional war with combat cyber operations aimed at disrupting the state administration system and destroying important civilian infrastructure of the other side.


Conventional war with the disruption of large urban centers, with the destruction of chemical industries and nuclear power plants (at the same time, the defeat of large chemical production facilities, nuclear power plants with large-scale chemical and radiation contamination, could lead to the death of many people, which can be equated to the use of weapons of mass destruction).


Nuclear conflict – a crisis in which one or more nuclear weapons states are involved, and the confrontation reaches the level when one or more sides begin to use nuclear weapons as an instrument of direct political and military pressure. A nuclear conflict can arise abruptly, without going through the stages of local conventional war, regional war, etc., noted above.


Intentional or unintentional destruction by conventional means (ASW means) of SSBNs of one of the great powers (including by an unidentified third party).


Demonstration use of nuclear weapons in a desert area without hitting people, military, and economic infrastructure.


War with the limited use of nuclear weapons against military facilities, the armed forces of the other side.


War with the use of strategic nuclear forces in a counterforce operation with an attempt to avoid the destruction of the civilian population and important infrastructure of the enemy's economy.


War with the massive use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction, including against large urban centers.

1 (back)   Clint Reach is a Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan global public policy research institution.

2 (back)   The application of economic sanctions is commonly understood to be part of hybrid war methods.

3 (back)   The authors do not elaborate on how this could occur.

4 (back)   Burenok and Pechatnov, in their book on strategic deterrence, envisaged a similar purpose for Russian NSNW. Sterlin’s suggestion of targeting energy supplies with NSNW was a bit of a departure although not a significant one.

5 (back)   A. A. Danilevich and O. P. Shunin, “O neiadernykh silakh sderzhivaniia”, Voennaia mysl, No.1, 1992. A key argument by Sterlin is that the numerical requirements to achieve desired damage to such targets are such that as of 2019 they were not a suitable replacement from NSNW. A. E. Sterlin, A. A. Protasov, and S. V. Kreidin, “Sovremennye transformatsii kontseptsii i silovykh instrumentov strategicheskogo sderzhivaniia”, Voennaia mysl’, Vol.8, 2019.  

6 (back)   The authors cite the following book in their recounting: F. Kaplan, The bomb: presidents, generals, and the secret history of nuclear war, NY, Simon & Schuster, 2020. p.242.