Danger of Escalation Grows as Ukraine Grows Bolder
As Ukraine expands its attacks on Russian territory, peacemaking becomes ever more urgent.
A January 21 shelling of a market center in Donetsk by Ukrainian forces resulted in at least 27 people killed, including multiple children. The gruesome sight is more and more common in the ongoing war, and is representative of the macabre quality that has come to imbue the conflict. As much as Western media may be reluctant to admit it, the carnage is also representative of a pattern on the part of Kiev that is becoming increasingly pronounced.
Unfortunately, that pattern suggests even more future civilian casualties both in Russia proper and in the eastern oblasts of Ukraine that Moscow has annexed. That is not to justify civilian casualties resulting from Russian attacks, but rather to suggest that this trend on the part of Ukraine is likely to exacerbate as the war drags on. And despite the fact that Kiev’s strategic position appears increasingly weak, it also risks greater escalation, especially as the attacks utilize weaponry supplied by NATO countries.
The January 21 shelling comes less than a month after a December 30 Ukrainian missile attack on Belgorod, Russia resulted in over 20 people killed and more than 130 injured. The victims in that incident were all civilians shopping for the New Year holiday. According to unofficial reports by the Ukrainian military, the civilian casualties were the result of the Russian air defense system ostensibly shooting down incoming missiles aimed at military facilities in the area. Moscow, naturally, says otherwise.
Belgorod is located about 25 miles from Russia’s border with Ukraine, and has been shelled daily since the initial December 30 strike. The latter was launched after Moscow unleashed the war’s largest salvo of munitions one day earlier on December 29. Around 40 people in total were killed and 150 wounded in Russia’s massive attack, which struck targets in more than 5 major Ukrainian cities. Although focused on military facilities, civilians also suffered in the assault. Ukrainian President Zelensky claims that the civilian casualties were on purpose, although Russia insists that they were unintentional and the result of collateral damage—similar to Kiev’s explanation for the civilian deaths in Belgorod. Ukraine has yet to comment on the shelling of Donetsk.
Ukraine is reported to have used cluster munitions in the Belgorod attack. The Biden administration had reached the controversial decision to provide Ukraine with such deadly cluster munitions in July of 2023 only after significant internal debates. From javelins, to M1 Abrams Tanks, to F-16s, to HIMARS, to ATACMS, the path of escalation inevitably leads to Kiev requiring greater offensive capabilities to maintain its resistance. The likelihood of such Western supplied weaponry with long range capabilities being used on Russian territory as it was in the Belgorod strike is certain to increase as the war drags on. The probability of increased civilian casualties as a result of those strikes, such as what occurred in Belgorod and Donetsk, will increase as well. There are several reasons for this.
For one, there was undoubtedly an element of retributive justice in Kiev’s decision to attack Belgorod and Donetsk. The war—like all wars—is extremely volatile and has further inflamed contempt between Ukraine and Russia. In an overnight address several days after the Belgorod strike, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the country’s military forces would continue to “work toward pushing the war back” to “where it came from—home to Russia.” In the same speech, he additionally stated that Ukraine “would respond to Russian terrorists for every strike.”
In a recent trip to the Baltics, Zelensky additionally reiterated his warnings about future Russian aggression and the need for collective defense in the service of Ukraine: “He [Putin] won’t finish until we all finish him together.” It is clear that Kiev does not want to simply expel Russia from its current positions and establish the pre-2014 borders, but rather end the Putin regime.
As such, the second reason that one should expect increased strikes on Russian territory is that taking the fight to Moscow is inherent to the maximalist goals of the Zelensky regime and its most ardent backers. The strategic objectives that Kiev holds at present require offensive operations that target military infrastructure and logistical networks within Russia proper. But that would undoubtedly lead to Moscow expanding the scope and depth of the conflict.
Ousting Russia from all of the territory that it has acquired, including Crimea and the four eastern oblasts that it officially annexed in 2022, would essentially be a death knell for the Putin administration and could even lead to the collapse and dissolution of the Russian Federation (as appears to be perfectly acceptable with a significant contingent of the Western ruling class). It is nonsensical to believe that any Russian leader, Putin or otherwise, would allow this to happen (short of a hand-picked Western puppet, who would nonetheless enjoy near zero public support). One does not need to be a foreign policy realist to anticipate significant escalation if the Russian position becomes seriously threatened.
Yet as Kiev’s strategic position continues to deteriorate, the prospect of achieving its maximalist goals is increasingly bleak. That brings us to the third (and perhaps most consequential reason) for the likelihood of an increasing number of strikes on Russian territory: desperation.
The intensity and frequency of Moscow’s ballistic missile attacks on Ukraine have significantly increased over the last several months. The massive December 29 barrage was followed several days later by yet another series of Russian strikes nearly as destructive. Large-scale assaults on military facilities in Kharkov, air bases in Poltava, and strikes on Odessa have also continued over the past several weeks.
Moscow’s targeting of military infrastructure and industrial capacity seems intended to make it increasingly difficult for Kiev to continue maintaining a conventional defense. Equally important to this strategy is that Ukraine is using its supply of Patriot SAMs in the attempt to intercept the munitions being employed in these strikes.
The current war of attrition favors Moscow’s massive industrial capacity as well as its ability to mobilize significantly more men. Even the most ardent Ukraine hawks have dropped any speculation that Moscow’s long-range arms supplies are running low. Russia’s production of cruise missiles now exceeds 100 a month, surpassing pre-war levels. This includes the hypersonic Kinzhal ballistic missile.
U.S. supplied Patriot systems are integral to intercepting the latter arms. But the surface-to-air missiles are difficult to produce, and the United States has significantly diminished its own stocks in order to supply Ukraine. This past December, Tokyo stated that it would tap into its own store of Patriot SAMs (Japan is allowed to build the weapon system under a license from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin) to help Washington replenish its now depleted supplies—an extremely worrying state of affairs for U.S. defense in itself.
Yet continued U.S. support for Ukraine is now less certain than before. Geopolitical turmoil in other parts of the world is diverting attention and much needed funds. Gridlock in Washington also puts future aid flowing to Kiev in question. A continuation of the present circumstances ensures Russian victory. Meanwhile, victory in line with Ukraine’s current goals is not possible without significantly expanded Western aid, both in the form of more advanced weapons systems, as well as operational support—if not more direct involvement of its forces—in attacks on Russian territory.
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Kiev thus needs to escalate the conflict if it is to achieve its objectives. This is especially the case as Zelensky’s position in power becomes increasingly tenuous. Strikes on civilians could be intended to do exactly this, forcing a change in strategy on the part of Moscow that strengthens the case for more aid to Ukraine. While Western media glance over attacks such as that on Belgorod or Donetsk—the New York Times did not even initially report that the casualties in the Belgorod strike were civilians—one could see how a retaliation on the part of Russia could easily be used by the international press to generate greater public outrage. The commitment of Ukrainian leadership to defeating Russia should not be doubted, and as its position becomes increasingly dire, progressively drastic measures become likely.
In tandem with Kiev’s desire for retributive justice, its maximalist strategic goals, and the reality that the latter will almost certainly not be achieved, is the fact that the war has become increasingly defined by ethnic hatred between the two sides. Moscow argues that it is conducting its operation in the interests of ethnic Russians within Ukraine; Kiev states that it is the target of racial annihilation by a foreign people. When the stakes are perceived to be as high as they are—one side believing that it is attempting to liberate ethnic kin from a cancerous ideological virus, the other seeing itself locked in a war for national survival—the likelihood of further civilian bloodshed seems highly likely. Even if not officially authorized, the possibility of rogue actors on either side taking it into their own hands to inflict as much physical and psychological pain on the other increases as well.
Given these reasons, it seems very likely that attacks on Russian territory will continue to expand. This is just as probable whether Ukraine is winning or losing, although the latter increasingly appears to be the case. Western weapons will undoubtedly be used in those attacks, but that does not mean that the conflict needs to expand beyond the point of diplomatic resolution. For those who do not believe that such escalation is in the interest of the United States (let alone the rest of the world), it is apparent that using all levers available to push for a negotiated settlement to end the war as soon as possible is the only reasonable path forward.