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Assessing the Risk of NATO Russia Escalation

The War in Ukraine has travelled through many travesties of uncertainty, be it conventional, sub conventional or nuclear escalation.

One more has arisen with reports of two personnel killed and several injured in Poland by what was initially reported as a Russian missile.

Now as Washington Post reports NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has clarified on November 16 that the explosion in the Polish town of Przewodow, “was probably caused by an errant Ukrainian air defense missile launched in response to Russian strikes”.

This was also confirmed by Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Thus, the incident has turned out to be accidental firing of an Ukrainian air defence missile.

Ukraine President President Volodymyr Zelensky however insists the stray missile was not Ukrainian. “I have no doubt that it was not our missile or our missile strike,” he said.

While NATO Secretary General and the Polish President have both blamed Russia for creating an environment for escalation and accidental misfiring Washington Post believes that a direct conflict between Russia and NATO is now unlikely.

This is a positive development as given multiple geopolitical and geoeconomic crisis that have been caused by the war between Ukraine and Russia, the devastation in many forms that could have resulted from a NATO Russia war on the European Continent would be unimaginable.

Why Potential of Escalation Could be Low

Nevertheless, the potential of such escalation always remains low Russia which has been blamed as the aggressor in Ukraine by a large section of the international community has been careful in avoiding escalation that could result in a direct conflict with the collective security organisation that was during the Cold War and ranged against it.

While Russian war objectives are in the larger perspective recreating former Soviet Republics of common ethnicity in Europe, these do not extend to a confrontation with NATO.

The military operational difficulties that Russian Armed Forces have experienced will render such an objective even less so in the future as their vulnerabilities have been exposed by the armed forces of Ukraine.

More over NATO is a 30 member alliance of nations in the Euro Atlantic which, “has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations under the, “collective defence clause of NATO's founding treaty - Article 5 of the Washington Treaty….”

However, NATO is also committed to, “peaceful resolution of disputes”. Thus, an opportunity for de-escalation will always be welcomed by the grouping.

Basic Factors Denoting Low Escalation Possibility

Apart from the situational, there are also basic factors that denote possibility of escalation is low.

Firstly, in the geo-political context in general two rational actors will attempt to avoid a war. Russia continues to demonstrate a degree of rationality in engaging globally even though the act of launch of, “Special Military Operations,” has been questionable.

Secondly, high officials on both sides are maintaining communication to prevent escalation. This has been indicated several times during the past few months.

For instance, in the last week of September, British Chief of Defence Staff contacted his Russian counter part in a case of accidental firing of a missile by Russian Su 27 fighters in a contact with British surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea.

Similarly in November, Wall Street Journal reported that United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held talks with top Russian officials - Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov and Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev in the hope of avoiding rise of spill over of the war in Ukraine including in the nuclear domain.

It is not clear if during the recent incident in Poland these contacts were established to avoid escalation.

When Escalation Can Occur?

Despite the truisms indicated above there is a scope of escalation under two circumstances.

Firstly, in the case of an accident or miscalculation at the tactical level, where this results in mass casualties, national leadership may be forced to act if strategic communications at the highest level fails.

Secondly, where irrational actors take over the escalation loop for a short period or makes claims escalation is possible.

This occurred in the Indo Pakistan scenario in February 2019, when after Pulwama suicide attack on a bus carrying Indian central police forces which resulted in over 40 fatalities, the Jaish e Mohammad internationally proscribed terrorist group claimed the attack. This led to pressure on the Indian government to act leading to targeting of the groups training base in Balakote in Pakistan.


While speedy investigations and sage leadership by NATO and Poland has avoided an escalation for now, the factors that could lead to one will remain a concern until there is at least a cease fire between Russia and Ukraine the possibility of which remains remote for now.


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