Poland and Slovakia are arming Kyiv with fighter jets. Russian warplanes are forcing American drones out of the skies. Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Moscow in a show of support for Vladimir Putin while Chinese companies are shipping assault weapons and body armour to Moscow’s troops. Putin’s war in Ukraine is headed into dangerous waters, and the potential for escalation with the West is higher now than at any point since the initial invasion.
While Nato has remained committed to avoiding direct confrontation with Russian forces, its support for Ukraine is what has enabled Kyiv to hold out. As Putin becomes increasingly desperate, the potential for escalatory threats and actions in an attempt to force the West into backing down is growing. Any miscalculation in such an environment could lead to catastrophic consequences.
All the elements for an accidental escalation are there. First, Russia is facing horrendous losses on the ground. The Ukrainian armed forces are grinding down Russian troops and Wagner convicts in and around Bakhmut. Armed with Western weapons and training, they are inflicting daily casualty figures that would make other military leaders baulk.
Second, the West is increasingly bold in its actions in support of Ukraine. On Wednesday Polish president Andrzej Duda announced that Warsaw would send four Soviet-era MiG-29s to Ukraine – the first Western nation to send fighter jets to Kyiv since the war began. As they are replaced over this year, we may well see all 28 of Poland’s MiGs head to Ukraine. Slovakia has also committed planes.
These actions were rejected last year for fear of escalation. Ukraine’s Nato allies had restricted their actions to providing spare parts for Kyiv’s fleet of Soviet jets as supplying actual airframes could be viewed as direct participation by the Kremlin. Now this line has been crossed, and Finland and the Netherlands could well follow suit.
With greater Western willingness to arm Ukraine and cross Russian red lines, with victories thin on the ground, Moscow may find itself backed into a corner. And with the survival of his regime at stake, nothing would be off the table for Vladimir Putin.
We’ve already seen a dangerous new development in the clash between a Russian jet and a US surveillance drone. Despite operating in international airspace, Moscow felt entitled to intervene. These intelligence-gathering platforms have provided a significant battlefield advantage to the Ukrainian war effort, and it’s not entirely surprising that the Kremlin is now sending warning shots.
Sensing that this incident may have been a one-off and opportunistic attack, Washington has avoided any further escalation save a diplomatic dressing-down for Moscow’s ambassador. But in the absence of any harder response, Moscow may now see attacks against Nato unmanned vehicles as fair game: no loss of life, legally ambiguous, and of significant battlefield advantage.
Any further incidents in a contested airspace could have real potential for drawing far harder military responses, and with them, the well known risks of miscalculation, miscommunication and potentially disastrous escalation.
This is particularly true given the announcement of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Putin in Moscow, taking place next week. While Beijing has attempted to pitch itself as a neutral negotiator, the revelation that Chinese state-owned defence contractors have been sending military equipment to Russia has shredded this attempted deception. Far from peacemaker, Beijing is attempting to become kingmaker. Now that the gloves are truly off, who knows where Chinese military support for Russia could ultimately lead? Emboldened by greater support, Russia may well begin to assert itself against the West, just as China is doing over Taiwan.
This pattern of escalation has real potential to draw in further British and Nato efforts to a point where conflict past Ukraine’s borders no longer remains unthinkable. We must do everything in our collective power to help Ukraine win, and as soon as possible.
Robert Clark is the Director of the Defence and Security Unit at Civitas. Prior to this he served in the British military.
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