'Escalate to de-escalate': Experts say Putin's strategy may be to get more aggressive in war on Ukraine

Fox News Flash top headlines for February 28

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As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, some experts warn Russia might escalate the conflict further either in Ukraine or against the western nations supporting it, with the goal of forcing those nations to capitulate to its demands. 

This strategy, former Defense Intelligence Agency officer Rebekah Koffler told Fox News, is called “escalate to de-escalate.” It has roots in Russia’s planning for a war against the United States, Koffler said, but similar thinking is now standard throughout Russia’s military planning. 

During a theoretical war with the U.S., Koffler said, Russia would strike first by “popping a low yield tactical nuke thinking that it’s going to be such a psychological shock that the conflict would end.” 

In the context of the Ukraine war, that might mean that Russia would move to flatten cities like Kyiv with traditional weapons as long as Ukrainians continue to resist their invasion, according to Koffler. 

Vladimir President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine only eight months after TIME magazine billed President Biden as ready to take on the Russian leader. 
(Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin could also use mercenaries to go after Ukrainian leaders, commit progressively worse atrocities against civilians or even use a nuclear-capable missile armed with a conventional warhead to strike Kyiv. The latter move would be aimed at confusing western countries and showing Putin’s resolve to win the war. 

Koffler also said Putin’s increase in Russia’s nuclear threat level may have been part of a strategy to intimidate Ukraine’s western allies, and that Russia may a wage cyber-warfare campaign against the West. 

All of this would be with the purpose of breaking the wills of Ukraine and the West until they capitulate to Russian demands and de-escalate. 

A Ukrainian soldier passes by houses in the village of Novoluhanske, Luhansk region, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.
(AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

“They believe that the pressure on our population will cause the Biden administration to back out and put pressure on Zelensky and say, ‘You need to give up.’ He believes that the American people have a low threshold of tolerance for inconveniences, especially for something like Ukraine,” Koffler said. 

“That’s what the term means,” she said. “He escalates, we de-escalate.” 

Former senior Pentagon official James Anderson told Fox News he believes there is a real “potential for escalation” in the Ukraine war, “either by design … or by accident.” Anderson said that is very possible in cyberspace.

“There is a real danger of escalation. … Given what he’s already done invading a sovereign nation, I think this is well within the realm of possibility,” Anderson said. “The potential for Russian cyberattacks against the United States and its allies creates kind of an added level of uncertainty in this crisis.”

Surveillance footage shows a missile hitting a residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 26, 2022, in this still image taken from a handout video. 
( Vitali Klitschko via Telegram/Handout )

That would be part of a strategy to “try every trick in the book to try to demoralize the West,” Anderson said. That could also include short-lived ceasefires and on-and-off diplomacy aimed at lowering morale, according to Anderson. 

Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station chief Dan Hoffman, however, said he is not so sure Putin is following a typical escalate, de-escalate playbook. 

“It’s not quite so simple as stick it in the traditional basket of escalate, de-escalate,” Hoffman said. “He did that by putting 190,000 troops on the border. He could have de-escalated and got everything he wanted pretty much. He didn’t do it.”

“There’s no de-escalation. Ukraine is fighting for their freedom. Where are we going to de-escalate? What would you like us to do?” Hoffman added. “De-escalation is on him. He’s got to stop the invasion. … We’ve mounted massive economic measures against him. We’re providing military assistance to the Ukrainians. We can’t stop that.”

Hoffman added: “So the issue is for the Biden administration to give him an off ramp that at de-escalates for him. … That’s up to them to figure that out. That is a wickedly complex challenge. You convince Russia that this war is not worth fighting.” 

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