Russia and the 16 Steps to Nuclear War

Putin and Nuclear War

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine heads towards 30 whole days, my initial analysis of the whole thing not lasting for more than a month due to how the war is likely draining Russian coffers and resources, not to mention the sanctions and corporate pullouts, is likely not coming to pass. We have now entered a period of uncertainty, wherein we don’t know for sure when it will end and if Putin will actually prevail. I then watched a video by TLDR News on what the future may bring.

I began writing this blog post on a whim, thinking that it will just be a brief post talking about what I learned from the video. It ended up taking me three whole days to write, reaching 4,000 words because I couldn’t stop myself from writing about every conceivable detail on the subject. Suffice to say, I’m quite occupied with this topic.

This is about a theory created by a thinker in the mid-20th century over a decade after the end of World War II and in the middle of what had become the Cold War. Unfortunately, we have arrived at a point in time wherein the threat of nuclear annihilation is once again on the horizon. With the craziness that Russia, and maybe China in the near future, is descending into, we have to look into every possible scenario, including the worst ones.

Disclaimer: I’m neither a historian nor a geopolitical expert, so I may get some things wrong. I’ve done my best to double-check what I think I know and research what I don’t know. If there are any mistakes, please inform me about them in the comments section. Thank you.

The 16 Steps of the Ladder Towards Nuclear War

Herman Kahn's Escalation LadderThis analysis is based on the book Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s by Herman Kahn, futurist and a founder of the Hudson Institute. He was one of the most prominent thinkers when it came to analyzing both the likely consequences of nuclear war and ways to improve survivability.

If you remember having watched Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), you have Herman Kahn to thank for being the main inspiration for both the eponymous character and the “Doomsday Machine.”

Kahn had a 44-rung escalation ladder drawn from an earlier and simpler 16-rung ladder. That was how thorough he was when it came to analyzing how nuclear war can take place.
It was the height of the Cold War, which was a very scary time for the whole world.

Considering that there have been events where we got as close as to a simple button press to a global nuclear apocalypse, then it’s good that such a man with such a mind for it ever existed and shared his thoughts on the matter.

As he stated in the book, “Roughly the higher one is on the ladder, the more intense the dispute.” Also, steps can be skipped while going up the ladder.

1. Sub-Crisis Disagreement

A difference of opinion where both parties may still be polite to one another, but there’s enough reason that it could then escalate to a full crisis. This disagreement can persist for a long time and may either be resolved eventually or slowly heat up until it suddenly boils and bursts.

This one goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union, wherein there has been disagreement with where to draw the lines of Ukraine’s territory. That disagreement had been mostly peaceful for over two decades until it then escalated to a full-blown crisis.

2. Crisis

The crisis comes with a newfound sense of urgency, wherein unless the issue is resolved in the immediate future, it can then escalate up higher rungs of the ladder. Here, the Revolution of Dignity of February 2014 that ousted the pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych is pointed out as the crisis that then led to further escalation. This revolution led to further escalation, wherein Putin saw fit to intervene by annexing Crimea later that year, which is an escalation up to the 7th rung up the ladder — limited military confrontation.

On a related tangent, Ukraine saw a similar protest from November 2004 to January 2005 with the Orange Revolution, wherein people protested the result of the preceding presidential election. Lo and behold, it was also Viktor Yanukovych, who went up against popular candidate Viktor Yuschenko. It looks like they just can’t get rid of Yanukovych, a situation that the Philippines is quite familiar with.

3. Political, Diplomatic, and Economic Gestures

After the annexation of Crimea, neither Russia nor Ukraine did anything to ramp up the military aspect of the dispute. Meanwhile, countries like Canada, America, and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russian and Crimean officials, but there was not much else after that.

That state of affairs would remain for about seven years until 2021 when Russia started amassing tens of thousands of troops and military equipment near the Ukraine border as a show of force to intimidate and whittle down their will to resist, as well as modest mobilization to get them ready to cross and invade.

4. Show of Force

The most common shows of force are military displays and exercises that serve to both hone troops and show off the country’s military capabilities to everyone else. There are also routine fly-bys near the other country’s airspace, something that China likes to do to Taiwan on a regular basis.

There could also be a blatant attempt to scare the other nation to doing one’s bidding. This was exactly what happened when Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy arrived at Edo Bay on 8 July 1853 with small fleet of four “black ships” to ask about Japan being open for trade, fired blank shots from his cannons with an excuse of celebrating American Independence Day, then left with a promise that he will return about a year later.

He then returned on 13 February 1854 with twice the number of “black ships” to implore the Tokugawa Shogunate to end their 220-year isolation policy (sakoku) and open Japan for trade. This is one of the most famous examples of a show of force.

5. Modest Mobilization

This step sees each side prepare and assemble their military forces in anticipation of some form of armed conflict. In the case of this war, we have America only making gestures, but they do have military presence in most parts of the world, which is what Putin has been worrying about in the first place. Meanwhile, the European Union is starting to have their own.

The European Union has been taking the next step of assembling their own united army. Military forces of different nations banding together as one, which does have some precedent. The most prominent are the coalitions that fought against France and Napoleon, the Triple Entente in World War I, the Allied Forces in World Wars II.

However, those were merely alliances. The EU is looking to create a military force with soldiers from different countries bound together by one military culture and creed. That’s what makes it unprecedented, and critics may say that it’s actually a new German army that’s augmented with armies from different parts of Europe. Germany hasn’t had a true military ever since the aftermath of World War II, similar to Japan.

Both Germany and Japan has only had defense forces ever since. But with the threat of a new world war due to Russia and China looking to rear their ugly heads to take over the world, these former Axis powers may have to once again militarize almost 80 years after they lost them after the madness of World War II.

6. Acts of Violence

This is usually linked to guerilla warfare, where an opposing force engages in skirmishes and sabotage missions to disrupt and slow their enemies down. It can also relate to border clashes between two disputing countries that have signed a treaty decades ago that forbid them from using guns against each other.

That’s what’s happening right now in the border conflicts between China and India. I even talk a little bit about it here in this video from long ago.

They’re throwing rocks at each other. These are soldiers who are trained to be killing machines and engage in military operations, yet they’re left in these seemingly fringe assignments, tossing rocks at the guys on the other side of the mountain.

Another example of this level of escalation is the aftermath of the Saar Offensive during the early parts of World War II. It was during this time when people were calling it “The Funny War” because it didn’t look like things were actually happening. Battles were basically random skirmishes that went nowhere. It would remain so until the Blitzkrieg.

7. Limited Military Confrontations

One or both sides may go into a “combat alert status,” wherein strategic forces may be dispersed, leaves canceled, and maintenance halted. Troops are now deployed for operations that may involve actual combat.

In the case of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, it wasn’t yet considered an intense crisis or even a local war due to Russian forces going in virtually unopposed to take over the Crimean peninsula by the orders of Vladimir Putin. (I may have to look this up.)

This is the opposite of what happened in the Second Chechen War from 1999 to 2009 and the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. As you may surmise from the names of these events, they went from lingering disagreements to full-on war.

All of these conflicts involving Russia and surrounding regions are due to the ongoing after-effects of the fall of the Soviet Union. All these countries in what became known as the Commonwealth of Independent States were all soviet republics that would, one by one, declare their independence in 1991 once it was obvious that the USSR was dissolving.

Once the chaos of the annexation started to die down, things de-escalated down to the 3rd rung of the ladder — political, diplomatic, and economic gestures.

8. Intense Crisis

When Russia started gathering troops and equipment at the Ukrainian border in 2021, things were quickly escalating to this 8th level, even if pundits, analysts, and diplomats mostly thought otherwise due to how an invasion at this point was seen as a stupidly abrupt decision. However, Putin did not have the same reservations with the idea like everyone else.

Such a sudden escalation from concerning but civil disagreement to intense crisis happens rarely, but it has happened before. When things do start happening, they can go from 1 to 10 incredibly quickly, from a couple of weeks to even practically overnight.

A number of world leaders called on Putin to de-escalate the situation and withdraw Russian troops from the border. However, as Kahn would write, “at this stage, it’s possible that the exertion of pressure has simply provoked counter-pressures.” When other nations are unable to convince the instigating state from starting the fire, there may soon be a roaring blaze.

A prime example of such abrupt escalation was the beginning of World War I. Due to how diplomatic alliances were structured throughout Europe at that time, declaration of war by one country prompted the ally of the target country to then declare war on the instigator, and so on, thus igniting a chain reaction that resulted in a world war.

Another example was the war against Israel by Arab nations in the Middle East. As soon as the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel was made, the surrounding countries immediately threatened war by invading Palestine in order to prevent that establishment and to aid Palestinian Arabs who were being displaced as a result.

Russia had been no stranger to such escalation. The Soviet-Afghan War that took place from 1979 to 1989 started with the Saur Revolution of 1978 that saw Afghanistan’s communist party taking power. The USSR backed that party and the established power structures in the country deeply resented that.

Once the Mujahideen started fighting the newly-established government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the Soviet Army was deployed to fight a guerilla war against them. When you hear the words “Afghanistan” and “guerilla war” in the same sentence, you should know that it’s almost always a spoiler — the outside forces usually lose.

Afghanistan would therefore be called “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam War,” and Ukraine may end up being Putin’s if things continue to not turn out his way. I don’t think it will immediately result in Putin’s ousting, but it will likely result in Russia following their Chinese ally’s footsteps in being increasingly cut off from the rest of the world.

Putin would make the decision to ramp things up and hopefully escalate the situation all the way to the 11th rung on the ladder — a spectacular show of force.

9. Limited Evacuation

The next two levels won’t be too long as I have limited knowledge in them. Please bear with me.

Whenever there’s threat of war, there will always be some form of evacuation, usually to a bomb shelter. At first, this was likely what was going to happen in Ukraine. That was certainly what happened in the 2014 crisis.

However, this time, with the invasion so widespread from such a big part of the country, practically half of it, there was no way evacuation could ever be limited. This one called for complete evacuation, with around 6.5 million Ukrainians internally displaced and 190,000 civilians evacuated, and those numbers are still climbing.

I was about to finish this blog post when I watched this video by TLDR News on the ongoing Siege of Mariupol. He mentions the evacuation of 20,000 civilians around two weeks before the invasion proper. This certainly counts as a limited evacuation due to escalation of conflict.

10. Super-Ready Status

This is usually whenever a country’s government puts out an orange or amber alert. That’s likely where Taiwan is now, and both South Korea and Israel are in this state for well over half a century at this point.

Whenever there’s mandatory military service in a country, that’s usually an indication of a ready status as they need to conscript in order to keep their militaries prepared for any sort of conflict.

But a super-ready status is whenever there’s an urgent need to be ready for impending conflict. This is when a government has to be hypervigilant in order to prepare for what may seem inevitable. This is certainly how Ukraine was in the weeks leading up to the invasion.

11. Spectacular Show of Force

What separates an ordinary show of force and a spectacular show of force is that the latter threatens conflict escalation at the drop of a hat. That threat is meant to create fear, enough that the other country would then capitulate and give into their demands.

This was what Putin aimed to do when he finally had Russian troops cross the border in the early morning of 24 February 2022 to invade Ukraine. Around 190,000 Russian troops, along with 20,000 from the Russia-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and 14,000 from the Luhansk People’s Republic came in from the north, east, and south.

However, when the Ukrainians resisted and held back the invasion, it was no longer just an invasion, but a controlled local war. It’s safe to say that Putin went overboard by sending in an overwhelming force in order to exert pressure.

After all, a cornered rat will fight back to survive. Ironically enough, there’s a legend of Putin himself was attacked by a rat he cornered during his youth, and he was said to have learned from this experience. However, it seems like he forgot this lesson, perhaps due to his now-advanced age.

With the invasion now dragging towards its first full month, Putin may be forced to do something drastic — another spectacular show of force in the form of a limited nuclear strike. But at this point, with things already escalated to the 14th rung on the ladder, it likely won’t help much.

After all, if the nuclear strike doesn’t devastate a population since that population is already evacuated, then you just wasted a nuclear warhead on either soldiers who knew they were going to die anyway or thin air. That will just alert all other nations to descend upon Russia.

With the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) in place, it will only take true madness to take things that far and guarantee our own apocalypse. Why wage a ware where you not only completely destroy your enemy, but also yourself and your own nation? Only sheer madness.

12. Controlled Local War

At the dawn of 24 February 2022, Putin did what seemed unthinkable to most analysts looking from the outside, but citizens within the country already knew — he launched the invasion. Troops were sent in across the eastern half of the country’s borders, looking to shock them into submission.

But as the Ukrainians seemed to already anticipate the invasion, they resolved to fight back and defend their homes. That escalated the invasion into an actual war on Ukrainian soil. That very soil known for nourishing grain is now being irrigated with blood.

That was quite melodramatic, but it hits the point home that while this conflict continues, Ukraine can’t go about its business of being the bread bowl of Eastern Europe. As this drags on, with crops not being tended to and harvested, things are going to get dicey for the country — 1933 sort of dicey. Even if it’s not having the NKVD take their crops, they’re still being threatened with death and starvation.

Since it has only been a month, things aren’t going to get that bad just yet. But as this controlled local war drags on, things are going to gradually snowball. More people die, more things get destroyed, and even more things get neglected due to more urgent concerns.

This controlled local war has also resulted in much of the civilian Ukrainian population, mainly the women and children, embarking on complete evacuation.

13. Limited Non-Local War

There was a map that was shown by the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko that showed something like arrows towards Moldova. It was being pointed out as evidence that the Russian ally may have had talks with Putin on an invasion of Moldova once they’ve fully taken over Ukraine.

If this happens, then the conflict escalates to the 13th rung on the ladder — limited non-local war. That’s when the war truly becomes international and the European Union will likely take things a lot more seriously.

If things do go over the edge in the near future, the only thign we can really hope for is that things don’t escalate all the way to the 15th level — all-out war throughout the world.

14. Complete Evacuation

At this level, “one is on the verge of or actually in a war.” Such a critical situation may likely see cities being evacuated, the deployment of local military forces and militia, and the declaration of martial law.

Ukraine indeed declared martial law during the leadup to the invasion. Women and children got out of the country and entered neighboring countries like Poland and Moldova as refugees, with the city of Lviv to the west as the main point of supply and evacuation.

Meanwhile, able-bodied men ages 18 to 60 were ordered to stay behind and serve as army reservists to defend the country. Famously, Ukrainian professional boxers Oleksandr Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko returned to the country to defend their hometowns.

Former heavyweight world boxing champion and current mayor of Kyiv, Vitaly Klitschko, as well as his brother and fellow former heavyweight world boxing champion, Wladimir Klitschko, also stayed behind to defend.

And most importantly, President Volodymyrr Zelenskyy refused the offer by the US to evacuate him from the country, famously stating, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

However, evacuation and declaration of martial law may not be done on both sides. Russia may be at war, but it’s business as usual back home, or at least as close to usual as sanctions sink in and western businesses have been pulling out.

15. All-Out War

Russia and Ukraine may be just a few notches away from this level, especially if Russia decides to ramp things up in a stupid way. The situation is now at the very edge of the previous level, and things may take a turn for the worse if Putin decides that he needs to step it up instead of capitulating and negotiating.

While practically no one in the world can truly read Putin’s mind, we may never know for sure what’s in store for Ukraine and the rest of the world in the coming weeks. However, from his recent actions alone, we can surmise that he’s certainly using the threat of further escalation to his advantage.

While Russia is being bled dry from the outside, he’s looking to establish the country in the same way their ally China has — the only thing that should come in is their money.

What Putin is looking to be doing is using the threat of an escalation to all-out war and a horrific aftermath in the hopes of de-escalation while still getting what he wants.

16. Aftermath

We’ve had world wars end and their aftermaths documented. This level is reach after a total war so devastating and all-encompassing has rendered one or every side unable to fight, leading to surrender, capitulation, and armistice.

But in this particular case, it’s an even more devastating war — nuclear war — which leads to an aftermath where there’s no choice for all sides other than to either stop fighting or mutually assure each other’s destruction.

Perhaps the only historical precedent that we can draw from is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We all know what happened there, but what truly needs to be seen are the experiences of people who survived that ordeal, which are well-documented.

Or if you can’t stomach that much factual stuff, you can watch works of fiction based on that event. The film Black Rain (1989), directed by Shohei Imamura, is about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing and its effects on a surviving family.

You can also watch Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the animated film known to break even the most stone-faced of men with its depiction of the final months of World War II in Japan from the perspective of children who were starving to death.

That could be in our future if this madness never ends.


I was inspired to write this blog post due to wanting to better understand what may happen in the near future if things don’t calm down. It’s something that tends to happen throughout human history, but I can’t blame you if you thought that since World War II, there’s no way a war of such a global scale can ever happen again due to the existence of nuclear weapons.

As comic book writer Alan Moore wrote in Watchmen, “The wars to end wars, the weapons to end wars, these things have failed us.”

By knowing more about how these big things can turn out, perhaps we can foresee potential futures that may not be that conducive for living peaceful and productive lives. Then again, these things are a lot bigger than us. But as we’ve seen throughout history, such situations tend to overwhelm people and take them to wherever it may lead, whether they like it or not, much like a tsunami after a big earthquake.

Here’s to hoping and praying that our world won’t descend into such madness. In the meantime, whatever your problems may be, give your loved ones a hug and tell them that you appreciate them right now, as we speak. We all should. If things do go south, we may never get another chance to do so again. Let’s not take what we have now for granted.

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