Smoking at the gas station – Ukraine vs geopolitics

Actors are driven to take higher risks in a environment that becomes more dangerous while the consequences of their actions are not clear.

The crisis in Ukraine has domestic and regional sources, but most of all it reflects (and is to a large part the result of) the deepening rivalry between the USA and the Russian Federation (RF). From a wider perspective: the rivalry between NATO and non-NATO.

In a nutshell: ‘Rivalries between superpowers’ and ‘their distrust / risk-averse strategies’ form a mutually reinforcing momentum (security dilemma, arms race). This trend complicates attempts of cooperation and coordination on the issue of international security (non-exclusive common good…) between rivals, leading to overlapping zones of interests (Ukraine, Sudan/South-Sudan), followed by regional power vacuums (IS, Al-Shabab).

In this frame, the conflict in Ukraine is a side effect of negotiations; some sort of ‘controlled escalation’ since there is no understanding at the green table. This seems to me the one and only reason for the 5k dead in Ukraine. Killings will stop within days as soon as there is a solid understanding between the USA and the RF in respect of Ukraine and if there is a strong commitment to conflict resolution. This option of conflict resolution expires if the escalation of USA and RF deepens or if the puppets cut their strings.

Processes inside a magma chamber are slow, constant, mighty, imperceptibly on the surface. In this frame, the conflict in Ukraine is smoke and ashes coming out of the crater, but it is by no mean comparable to the potential underneath.

I don’t think ‘Cold War’ is the right term for the present geopolitical climate. The world is different, the conclusions that were drawn from the Cold War period do not necessarily provide useful explanations or guidance for the present. Ignoring the lessons from past Cold War between USA and USSR is no good strategy either.

Have a look/click at this 50 years old picture (Herman Kahn, On Escalation, 1965). It’s a scenario (or framework) of a conflict between USA and USSR showing paths and steps of escalation. A outtake of the more detailed escalation ladder (or doomsday ladder) is at the end of this post. I would estimate that USA vs RF is around seven or eight in these days.
Herman Kahn, On Escalation
Frameworks like that have a side effect. They create the impression that escalations are predictable, that they follow a certain order, causality of events, a chain of command. And so on. Today, such conceptions of ‘conflicts which follow the rules’ are still predominant. The believe of predictability encourages to take higher risks.

Conflicts are hard to predict. There is still no solid model to predict the outbreak of future conflicts – it’s complicated and the object of investigation is changing all the time. There is plenty of research explaining past conflicts, but looking into the future is still a lot of guessing.

So… we are driven to take higher risks in a environment that becomes more and more dangerous while we don’t really know the consequences of our actions. The unintended outcome is that the situation is getting out of control while everyone tries to control as much as possible. Rising geopolitical tensions don’t help to solve the conflict in Ukraine and the conflict in Ukraine is fueling geopolitical tensions.

That might sound pessimistic and that’s just alright. It needs at least two parties to have peace while it needs only one party to start a war. Once again: peace requires cooperation, it’s a achievement, it’s not natural.


Herman Kahn, On Escalation, 1965.


Subcrisis Maneuvering

1. Ostensible Crisis
2. Political, Economic and Diplomatic Gestures
3. Solemn and Formal Declarations

Traditional Crises

Don’t Rock the Boat Threshold

4. Hardening of Positions — Confrontation of Wills
5. Show of Force
6. Significant Mobilization
7. “Legal” Harassment — Retortions
8. Harassing Acts of Violence
9. Dramatic Military Confrontations

Intense Crises

Nuclear War is Unthinkable Threshold

10. Provocative Breaking off of Diplomatic Relations
11. Super-Ready Status
12. Large Conventional War (or Actions)
13. Large Compound Escalator
14. Declaration of Limited Conventional War
15. Barely Nuclear War
16. Nuclear “Ultimatums”
17. Limited Evaluations (20%)
18. Spectacular Show or Demonstration of Force
19. “Justifiable” Counterforce Attack
20. “Peaceful” World-Wide Embargo or Blockade

Bizarre Crises

No Nuclear Use Threshold

21. Local Nuclear War — Exemplary
22. Declaration of Limited Nuclear War
23. Local Nuclear War — Military
24. Unusual, Provocative and Significant Countermeasures
25. Evacuation (70%)

43. Controlled General War
44. Spasm/Insensate War


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