However, Poland and the Baltics are members of NATO. A Russian war against Ukraine’s smaller, non-NATO army is very different from filtering directly along with a powerful, nuclear-armed military alliance that has strengthened its numbers in Eastern Europe for several months. It’s a big gamble even for a leader who thinks he’s got the hot hand these days.
What’s more, it would surpass Putin’s own stated goals, maximum as they are: to destroy Ukraine’s sovereignty and restore it as a demilitarized, Kremlin – controlled buffer state between Russia and NATO.
But even if Putin does not intends to go beyond Ukraine, there is still the possibility of a miscalculation that could put Russia and NATO on a collision course. Wars are foggy. Missiles go wrong. The goals are confused. Dogfights can spill into the adjacent airspace. Passenger planes are sometimes shot down by Russian troops.
Both NATO and Russia must exercise extreme caution to avoid an unintentional escalation in the coming days and weeks.
Cyber makes it all much, much worse. Although conventional weapons are screaming all over Ukraine, cyber warfare is also being heated. In the hours before Russia’s invasion, hackers took down several Ukrainian government and banking sites.
An immediate problem is that cyber weapons are difficult to control: as we learned in 2017, a virus released in Ukraine can strike hospitals as far away as the United States and Britain. A fight between Ukrainian and Russian hackers could wreak havoc elsewhere and force governments further away to respond.
But there is a bigger and far more daunting risk when it comes to cyber, says Rafal Rohozinski, Rector of SecDev Group, a cybersecurity firm. In a scenario with an escalating conventional conflict, he warns, Russia and the United States could use cyber weapons to also block each other’s ability to detect and understand nuclear movements.
Talking about nuclear weapons feels like a scary anachronism. But when Putin on Thursday threatened to hit invaders with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” it was understood by many, including Rohozinski, as an implicit threat to use nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the Deputy Secretary-General of NATO last week told Security conference in Munich that a major cyber attack on a member state could be enough to trigger the alliance’s Article 5 collective defense obligations, but no one knows what it would look like.
A major problem here is that when it comes to cyber – unlike conventional war or nuclear war – there are no clear rules, precedents or understandings of what constitutes an attack or a proportional response.
So this conflict is a “petri dish,” Rohozinski says, of how cyber interacts with conventional and nuclear forces in a major war.
Finally, a humanitarian crisis will also cross borders. Refugees are already on their way. Ukraine, a country with more than 40 million, shares borders with four EU member states, including Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. As many as 5 million people could seek security in the EU, depending on the scale of the conflict, and arrivals are already underway.
The good news is that in contrast to the Syrian migrant crisis of 2016, in which the EU shook and many Eastern European capitals refused to accept any migrants at all, Brussels and regional member states have quickly rolled out the red carpet this time. They set up camps and mobilize resources throughout the region.
That, says Mujtaba Rahman, the chief European analyst at Eurasia Group, is because this time there is a “cultural and religious affiliation” with the refugees. They are Christian Europeans, whereas the Syrians were not. Together with “strong Eastern European solidarity with Ukraine,” he says, this makes it much easier for the EU to welcome a large number of desperate people without provoking a populist backlash.