Unintended Escalation: 5 Lessons From Israel for the Russia-NATO Standoff
Ever since Russia took over Crimea in 2014 Western analysts and military planners have invested considerable energy in deterring Moscow’s future belligerence. The underlying mindset takes for granted that confrontation with Moscow would stem from deliberate Russian aggression. But today, perhaps a much greater risk lies in the possibility of an inadvertent military clash between Russia and NATO. Some of the factors exacerbating this risk are reminiscent of Cold War dynamics, others are new. While many analysts have cautioned against unintended escalation, few have proposed what to do if it happens. Israel’s experience with just such unplanned military conflicts in 2006 and 2014 has forced its strategists to analyze how events spiraled out of control and to come up with some recommendations for reining them in next time. The Israeli analogy has its limitations, but could unquestionably be useful to NATO and Russia in preparing for one of the biggest global risks of the coming years.
Why Inadvertent Escalation?
Russia’s takeover of Crimea has engendered a fixation in the West on enhancing deterrence regimes. Experts and planners on both sides of the Atlantic have been exploring Russian strategy, crafting deterrence policy, imagining a future war, designing its theory of victory and planning, training and deploying forces for it. Often, common wisdom among NATO members, especially former Soviet satellites and republics, suggests that the best way to deter a Russian attack, for example in the Baltics, is to strengthen military postures and rigorously prepare the alliance for various contingencies. This, the logic goes, will communicate to Moscow that the costs of potential aggression outweigh the benefits, and will dissuade the Kremlin from moving ahead with any such plan.
One of the by-products of this development seems to be a hidden assumption about the inevitability of deliberate Russian aggression, with many in the West viewing this only as a matter of favorable circumstances. The presumed (or, sometimes, explicit) historical analogy under this mindset seems to be to Nazi Germany in 1939. The assumption about Russian belligerence made itself known in the run-up to Russia’s Zapad military exercises in 2017 and quickly proved to be incorrect. If this supposition was wrong not only then but is off the mark more generally, then perhaps the more apt analogies would be to the Great War, which broke out inadvertently in 1914, or to the miscalculations of 1983 that nearly brought Washington and Moscow to an unintended nuclear clash.
In theory, unintentional escalation can arise because of actions taken by one side, deliberately or accidentally, under several circumstances, all of which are easy enough to imagine in the Russia-NATO relationship: Adversaries could misunderstand each other’s escalatory thresholds, or an accident could occur that neither side initially perceives as escalatory; or the process may ensue due to a security dilemma—when work to increase deterrence and reduce expected aggression makes an adversary feel threatened and triggers a response. For example, today, even those who believe that chances of a Russian offensive in the Baltics are low call for NATO reinforcements to prevent this eventuality, assuming that Moscow’s strategic interests may change rapidly and that—in terms of the Baltics’ very existence—the stakes are too high to risk leaving these states vulnerable to attack. Few acknowledge that this logic and posture may in fact trigger Russian aggression; Moscow may perceive them as threatening, especially in light of the Kremlin’s phobias about decapitation and regime change, and also due to Russia’s current vision of war and perception of Western hybrid warfare.
Specific dynamics exist today whose co-occurrence and prominence increase the danger of unintended escalation, for example in the Baltics or the Middle East: Exploring hypothetical offensives has become the new normal on both sides; intentions are deduced from capabilities; exercises are suspected of being preludes to attack (see Zapad above); close air and sea encounters are seen as non-accidental; forces on the ground continue to grow; and frictions persist in the diplomatic, economic and informational-cyber theaters. Misperceptions, miscalculations and miscommunications may link unrelated events, causing accidents to be taken as indicators of aggression. The cross-domain approach to modern warfare (combining military and non-military means), which both Russia and NATO practice, may accelerate a chain reaction leading to a war everyone would have preferred to avoid.
Why the Israeli Analogy?
Concerned experts have been trying to educate leaders on both sides of the Atlantic about the consequences of this dangerous zeitgeist. To illustrate how a crisis can escalate into undesired war, they usually use Cold War-era history and scholarship. This might help to avoid inadvertent escalation, but is less useful if this eventuality materializes. This is where the Israeli experience comes in handy. The Second Lebanon War (2006) and the Gaza Operation (2014) are two cases of inadvertent escalation that offer useful insights for dealing with a crisis once it turns into major unintended fighting.
According to Israeli practitioners who have closely studied this phenomenon, three main factors, in addition to the canonical reasons mentioned above, rapidly turned tactical accidents into major hostilities in the above-mentioned conflicts: real-time media coverage putting public pressure on politicians and forcing them to make quick decisions; fragmented political leaderships with factions that used the accidents to promote their own positions, often encouraging resolution by force; and a conviction, on both sides, that a certain degree of military friction is affordable. Once escalation gathered momentum, however, the fighting took on a form and scale totally unexpected by both sides, and leaders claimed retrospectively that they surprised themselves by doing what they did.
The Israeli analogy has its limitations. Primarily it differs from the Russia-NATO dynamic because of a weak self-deterrence element: The absence of a nuclear factor makes conventional escalation relatively affordable and threats of deterrence easier to disregard. However, in a Russia-NATO conflict that stays below the nuclear threshold, and is viewed in the context of a protracted strategic competition, the Israeli examples of repeated deterrence failures and intra-war coercion are helpful.
Lessons from Israel
From their experiences with Hamas and Hezbollah, Israeli strategists have distilled five major lessons on how inadvertent escalations emerge, unfold and end. These insights might stimulate the thinking of experts who imagine this eventuality within the Russia-NATO standoff.
- Adversaries tend to demonize each other and see one another as intentionally challenging the status quo. When the situation began escalating from tactical accidents to major operation, both sides perceived the other as the aggressor and attributed to each other much more ambitious combat aims and operational intentions than they actually had. This reciprocal demonization became obvious only retrospectively. In real time, however, each side saw its own actions as pragmatic and reactive and those of the other side as unreasonable and bellicose. Once the sides realized they were engaged in a major military event, presumably deliberately initiated by the adversary, each one exploited it to advance its own previous strategic agendas, by executing generic preplanned contingency scripts.
- Intelligence-based early warnings proved irrelevant. Unintended escalation is neither an aggressive intent nor a war plan. Therefore, it can neither be deterred nor anticipated, and preparations for it are nonexistent. It can only be registered and then managed in real time. However, it is not easily recognizable even when the conflict breaks out. In 2006 and 2014, it took both sides weeks to realize that they were not acting within a preplanned act of aggression, but within an inadvertent escalation. The ability to qualify the intensifying fighting not as an act of deliberate aggression matters greatly: The sooner this strategic diagnosis materializes, the better the chances of shortening and terminating the conflict.
- Escalation was not slow and gradual, but rapid and full-blown. The quick transition to an explosive spasm of warfare was due to the “use it or lose it” logic that drove both sides. Hezbollah and Hamas sought to employ upfront their most important assets—long-range missiles, offensive tunnels and ground maneuvers. These strategic capabilities in their view had a short “shelf life” since the Israel Defense Forces sought to destroy them upfront, curtailing their potential danger and the adversary’s ability to dominate the escalation ladder. Israel also resorted to maximum power straightforwardly, in order not to waste high-quality targets on which it had meticulously collected intelligence, and which, during the hostilities, were turning into moving targets, significantly complicating their further detection and destruction. In addition, seeking to shorten inadvertent hostilities, each side sought to suppress the other on the escalation ladder as quickly as possible.
- The termination mechanism leading to de-escalation was cumbersome, as an awareness that the fighting is unintended is a necessary but insufficient condition for de-escalation. Once both sides realized they were in a process of inadvertent escalation, it took them weeks to figure out how to get out of it. Since the hostilities started unplanned on both sides, without clear entrance points, neither side possessed a clear exit point either, and had to formulate it while fighting. The designation of war aims and their constant adjustment in combat extended the hostilities. Lacking positive goals, even when they had extracted some benefits from the fighting, both sides sought to have the last word in the exchange of blows and then to translate it into a narrative of victory. Eventually, locked in the escalatory dynamic, both climbed the escalation ladder in a strategically aimless effort.
- Hamas and Hezbollah adopted a theory of victory epitomized by a formula of “winning by not losing.” The goal of this approach was not to win ultimately on the battlefield, but to demonstrate the adversary’s inability to dominate the escalation ladder, mainly by firing till the last moment of hostilities and then self-attributing the image of victory. Even if these strikes do not produce significant damage, they communicate capability and a resolve to keep on fighting and the impotence of the other side. Similarly, Israel also sought to claim the image of victory, by trying to have the last word through massive blows. Thus, although the IDF achieved most of its tangible results in the first couple of days, the 2006 Lebanon war turned into 34 days and the 2014 Gaza Operation into 50 days of useless hostilities. A fixation on dominating the escalation prolonged the conflict and turned it into an uncontrolled loop of chain reactions. Only the exhaustion of both sides terminated it.
The main takeaway from the Israeli experience for decision makers on both sides of the Russia-NATO standoff should be a demand to constantly cross-check their assumptions about the adversary. Acknowledging in advance the risks of inadvertent escalation, understanding its mechanisms and recognizing a particular outbreak of hostilities as such in real time are the basic conditions for sound strategic management in crisis. Policymakers often don’t imagine how they might react when an inadvertent conflict breaks out and retrospectively are surprised by their own responses. A useful way to deal with this in advance is to be aware of one’s own and the adversary’s strategic cultures and military instincts. This may help anticipate impulsive moves, by oneself and one’s opponent, and the risks their interplay may bring.
Updated: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2006 Lebanon war lasted 51 days instead of 34 days and that the 2014 Gaza Operation lasted 32 days instead of 50 days.
Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky is a professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel.
Photo by Israel Defense Forces shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.