Escalation or Reconciliation: Options for Ukraine


Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service


29 May 2022 – The conflict centering in Ukraine has continued for an extended time with increasing casualties, financial costs , weaponry and threats. The two grandest nuclear super-powers are in conflict. The model for this conflict is one of increasing escalation pursued during the Cold War. The dangers involved in this case merit a stepping back to trying an alternative conciliatory model.


Wars are initiated over specific grievances, real or believed. The particulars of each case often cause a neglect of long-term and overriding factors.  During times of escalating conflicts, one is tempted both to up the level of threat and to blame the adversary’s behavior as the reason why this new level is necessary. Typically, each new level of threat or act of aggression is described as a moral outrage against an incorrigible and dangerous opponent. Civilian populations are bombarded with images of the enemy and criticism of one’s own increasing military build-up, and intervention is viewed as weak and giving in to a tyrant. Increasing the ante is presented as the needed path to create an enemy back down.  This thesis was articulated at the height of the cold war by strategist Herman Kahn’s theory of escalation dominance. Kahn described an escalation ladder in which 44 gradually increasing moves would be prepared for and enacted until the enemy got the message and gave up.

A report by the Rand Corporation reviewed Soviet, Western, and other national concepts of escalation (Concepts and Models of Escalation, ND). The generalized model is purportedly related to gaming or decision theory. Game theory is a mathematical theory of rational choice.  The theory classifies situations according to specified properties: e.g. Are the payoffs a constant sum in which the winnings of one side add exactly to the losses of the other? Is full information available, as in chess, or is chance, or probability, involved, as in poker? Some controversial applications of the theory, culminated in Kahn’s 44-Step Escalation Ladder. Steps ranged from modest critical notices to embassies through threatening military provocation, and on to the actual use of nuclear weapons targeting cities of the adversary (Kahn, 1965).

During times of active military conflict, we typically witness countering narratives as to who are the responsible parties? In the current Ukraine crisis, Russia claims support for its military actions by previously occupied portions of Ukraine and blames a threat posed by the US and other NATO nations. The provision of extensive military and economic aid to Ukraine by NATO has been used to argue that we are dealing with a proxy war following a model in which the US and Soviet Union empires fought wars by assisting factions of other nations in order to buy influence and allegiance.  The clearly illegal Russian incursion in Ukraine does not preclude aspects of the conflict that justify the designation of a proxy war reflecting a long- term strategic and economic conflict. The two empires appear embarked upon steps in the escalation model. Russian steps have included armed action, bombing of infrastructures and threats of military action against NATO members. US steps have included announcements that Putin is guilty of genocide and must be replaced, providing weapons to Ukraine authorities. enacting economic sanctions against Russia, and providing logistic information used to target high ranking Russian military officers and Soviet warships. The escalation playbook is in operation.  Where will it lead?

The escalation model has been subject to serious criticism. It can be played by both parties in `a conflict. It holds no assurances that the opposing party will back down despite the severity of the costs. In fact, the pain inflicted can become a rallying cry to seek retribution in the form of new steps. Actual application of the escalation model would require a formal quantitative evaluation to measure the pain associated with the particular move. Such measures, however, are highly subjective. Moreover, such assessments during time of war are likely to be wrong. Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war, described the “Fog of War,” — the propensity to misjudge the true effects of tactics and strategies amidst a blinding array of life and death details. This fog hid the failure of the escalation model and the need for deception to pursue a failing model of military escalation in Vietnam (Blight and Lang 2005). That deception was detailed by an examination of The Pentagon Papers (Pentagon Papers National Archive, nd) revealed by whistle blower Dan Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers and Watergate Trials, nd). A similar documentation of deception sustaining war-time escalation occurred over twenty years reported in the Afghanistan Papers (Whitlock 2021).

The escalation model is not the only alternative for the conflict in Ukraine or elsewhere.  An alternative, Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction, (GRIT), An Alternative to War or Surrender was proposed by Charles Osgood (Osgood, 1962)). The model called for one party to initiate small conciliatory moves on a unilateral basis. The moves would be pre-announced. If reciprocated the magnitude of the conciliatory moves would increase, leading, if successful to a détente (Lindskold, S. (1978)).

A controlled laboratory test affirmed some efficacy for the GRIT model. A partial test was made of the hypothesis that a renewed strategy of small conciliatory moves, preceded by honest prior announcements, will induce reciprocation from an adversary, even after a deadlock of distrust. The task was a version of the prisoner’s dilemma extended to permit gradations in cooperative response and cast in the simulated settings of an arms race. False-feedback conditions permitted the experimenter to contrast the effects of the conciliatory strategy with another group who played against a foe with a tit for tat strategy. A control group of natural pairs was left to make their moves without experimenter intervention.  The effects showed the efficacy of conciliatory moves and honest communication of intentions against both matching strategies and natural sequences of play (Pilisuk & Skolnick,1968.)

The potential danger of the escalation model applied in a conflict involving the two countries most capable of using nuclear laden ballistic missiles defies imagination. Wars frequently involve; by accident or intent, levels of destruction greater than decision-makers had conceived as possible. The combined effects of blast, firestorm and radiation produce a destruction of people, habitat and the possibility for recovery. The absolute horror of nuclear war contributes to a denial of the possibility. Some measure of this denial is present among the defense professionals and military suppliers whose life meanings are derived from proficiency in waging war.

The risk of escalation toward nuclear war calls for a time to step back and consider conciliatory policies that might lead the world in a safer direction.  Small moves that might lesson the hostile language, promise of full international media coverage of all offers for dialogue arrange for safe passage of civilians, safe return of soldiers, promises of reductions in nuclear weapons in Europe, announcing a “no first use”  policy, assuring international monetary relief to cushion the economic consequences of transition from fissile fuels or of making universal the availability of vaccines.  Initiatives call for creativity and patience. They could become steps toward building a world with better outcomes for all parties.


Adams, R. and Cullen, S. (2005) The Final Epidemic: Physicians and Scientists on Nuclear War. IL: University of Chicago Press

Blight, J. G. and Lang, J. (2005)

Robert MacNamara, The Fog of War

Lanham, MD.  Rowman & Littlefield: First Edition (March 25, 2005)

Concepts and Models of Escalation – RAND Corporation 114 pages › dam › rand › pubs › reports

Kahn, H. (1965). On Escalation Metaphors and Scenarios. Westport, CT: Prager

Lindskold, S. (1978). Trust development, the GRIT proposal, and the effects of conciliatory acts on conflict and cooperation. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 772-793.

Osgood, C. E. (1962). An Alternative to War or Surrender. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Pentagon Papers National Archive

Pentagon Papers and Watergate Trials-The Ellsberg Archive Project (1971) Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.

Pilisuk, M., & Skolnick, P. (1968). Inducing trust: A test of the Osgood proposal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8 (2, Pt.1), 121-133. (psycinfo database record (c) 2017 apa, all rights res)

Whitlock, C. and the Washington Post The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the Afghan War.(2021) New York: Simon & Schuster


[1] A prior abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Basel Peace Office, Switzerland. May 16, 2022]


Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, professor emeritus at the University of California Davis, and a faculty at Saybrook University, Berkeley, California. He is the author of 10 books and more than 140 articles over an academic career spanning five decades including a 3-volume anthology, Peace Movements Worldwide, with Michael Nagler (Eds) Santa Barbara, 2011; and The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War, with Jennifer Achord Rountree, 2015. He was a founding member of the first Teach-In, The Society Against Nuclear Explosions, and The Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a past president of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence. Among his recognitions is the Howard Zinn Award from the Peace and Justice Studies Association. Email:

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 May 2022.

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