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It is certainly true that the human loss and prosperity averted by making concessions is important. However, in the long term, I’m not sure the arguments above hold. My impression from historians’ opinion, is that the only reason why Great Britain did ok by conceding to Germany to conquer the Sudeten was that GB was not prepared for a war with Germany. However, what was clear is that Hitler’s demands would not stop there. Similarly, why would Putin stop there if conceded those things? I’m not sure, I think he would keep demanding and imposing a long-term toll on people in Ukraine and other countries.
I agree that concessions 1 and 2 above might be kind of ok, but I think Ukrainians have so much more to lose from not going into the EU than what Russia could win. Eg, economic development.
The war from Russia’s point of view is not going as a triumphal march.
It is possible that this war will cost Putin a lot of reputation. Since it is a dictatorship it may not matter so much in the short term, but I expect this to damage his grip on power.
It should have been Ukraine to decide on concessions, not NATO.
So, I am not very qualified for my opinions, and I am uncertain how to balance the two options that were available. But I think it is possible that imposing these costs on bullies, even if they win once, makes their strategy unprofitable and unsustainable in the long term.
I agree that Putin would probably have an extended list of demands, many of which would not be worth meeting. The question is whether there was a compromise last week that would have been better than the war we are now seeing.
I’m not sure I understand your first bullet point—obviously I’d love to see Ukraine join the EU. But now they won’t anyway. What’s the pathway from this war to EU membership?
I agree in an ideal world Ukraine would decide on concessions, but they have now had these regions taken by force. Is this really a better outcome for Ukranians?
I’m not sure I understand your first bullet point—obviously I’d love to see Ukraine join the EU. But now they won’t anyway. What’s the pathway from this war to EU membership?
I think our disagreement lies in what is the likely outcome of this. I believe you think Ukrainians will have to concede on everything. And while he seems decided to conquer all of Ukraine, I would say some sort of compromise will be reached before that.
I don’t completely disagree with your prediction about the outcome, but it seems highly likely to me that the compromise will be worse for Ukraine (and the West/world) than the concessions I outlined. Eg puppet government in Kyiv, death of Ukrainian democracy. I think Plus, this way thousands of people died from warfare and we carry the risk of nuclear war.
As someone working in U.S. foreign policy as a career, I strongly agree with you. I have watched this debate unfold for the past three months, only to see the fears and predictions of others who agreed with you largely come true. And mostly I feel that the whole ordeal validates my decision to pursue foreign policy—with a focus on reducing the risk of great power conflict—as an EA cause area.
The existence of disagreement in the comments might hint that this area is relatively under-researched or discussed by the EA community, given what a cross-cutting risk factor it appears to be on so many other X-risks, from AI to nukes to bioweapons. From curiosity, would you agree that EA’s strong preference for consequentialism compared to other moral frameworks should incline most EAs to a relatively “realist” approach to foreign policy?
Although the EA forum seems to be literally raising funds for war material, I doubt the uneven reception to David’s post is driven by emotion or ignorance (although I agree it didn’t help that the post initially seemed to favor the Russian narrative).
I think “realism” or “consequentialism” is dominant (whatever that really means).
From that perspective, I don’t think anyone believes NATO had an option to close the door on Ukraine. Also, the characterization of Russian behavior and irredentialism seems incomplete, and the value of the current situation is unclear.
In your other comments, you knocked down some bad takes. While I think you are right, you’ve only knocked down bad takes.
Great power conflict is important and neglected in EA, especially how to better bridge and communicate that peacefully. I’m less sure what that has to do with Russia.
There is a vast apparatus to study Russia already, it would be good to hear clearly what EA’s contribution would be and why it should be increased by these events.
Thanks Andrew—I’m glad you agree. I also agree that consequentialism encourages a high level of realism. That said, I was expecting a higher level of agreement from the EA community on this post, so it’s interesting that not everyone shares my view.
Ceding Ukraine’s separatist regions (Donetsk, Luhansk) to Russian controlCommitting to Ukraine not joining Nato (aka “Finlandisation”)Committing to Ukraine not joining the EU
Ceding Ukraine’s separatist regions (Donetsk, Luhansk) to Russian control
Committing to Ukraine not joining Nato (aka “Finlandisation”)
Committing to Ukraine not joining the EU
I’m pretty skeptical this is practical.
Inside Ukraine, leadership and the people wouldn’t accept this, even before the invasion. Also, there’s many people in those regions who don’t want to live in Russia. Outside the country, there is no mechanism or appetite to compel the country to do this. This would be seen as another Munich.
If you mean if the outside world was a singular hive mind and this would be the optimum play, I’m also skeptical.
While there are very real security concerns for Russia from a NATO aligned Ukraine, Putin’s tactics and rhetoric are extremely hostile and manipulative. This has a particularly treacherous character, where noxious narratives become part of the mixed warfare. This has been honed for decades.
After deleting the truth, I don’t think this behavior should be rewarded by reconstructing a narrative in his favor, and I see these concessions as doing this.
There’s more—Ukraine’s resistance is probably constructively helping to create an independent state, even if this involved Russian occupation in the near term. This could have overwhelming value, in the same way that an independent India, Poland or United States is seen as valuable by those people or the world.
This is partially informed by ‘inside’ views of the culture of Ukraine and the success and vibrance, at least of its wealthier regions. It’s not merely a breakaway region of Russia.
I would find it interesting and rewarding if you could explain how you formed these beliefs or provided links or articles supporting it:
I suspect lots of analysts and even politicians agree broadly with what I have written above, but find it difficult to say publicly because it might look like capitulation to Putin. He is obviously a bad guy, and sadly we lack language and nuance in our politics to recognise that a politician/regime is genuinely evil while also acknowledging the need to engage with them.If the above is true, why haven’t more Ukrainians called for it? Probably a combination of things, including patriotism and (not unjustified) hatred/distrust of Russia. I suspect many were expecting a stronger military/sanction response from the West (e.g. no fly zone), but I don’t think they’ll get it because the West doesn’t want to risk war with Russia. Also, political incentives: Ukraine’s leaders don’t want to be seen to compromise with Moscow.
I suspect lots of analysts and even politicians agree broadly with what I have written above, but find it difficult to say publicly because it might look like capitulation to Putin. He is obviously a bad guy, and sadly we lack language and nuance in our politics to recognise that a politician/regime is genuinely evil while also acknowledging the need to engage with them.
If the above is true, why haven’t more Ukrainians called for it? Probably a combination of things, including patriotism and (not unjustified) hatred/distrust of Russia. I suspect many were expecting a stronger military/sanction response from the West (e.g. no fly zone), but I don’t think they’ll get it because the West doesn’t want to risk war with Russia. Also, political incentives: Ukraine’s leaders don’t want to be seen to compromise with Moscow.
Yes, I agree that those options aren’t super practical (if they were, they probably would have happened last week), but my main point is that they would be preferable to the current situation. I also don’t want to reward Putin, obviously. However he’s currently on course to take the whole country. Surely this is worse for the West/Ukraine, and better for him?
On the last two bullet points: the first is informed by talking to analysts and parliamentary researchers in the UK. I think most people would agree there is political pressure (both domestic and international) not to be seen to concede to Putin. The question is how much of a factor this is and whether it leads to worse.
I think this broadly applies to the second bullet point too. It seems fairly clear to me that Ukraine’s leadership was not in a position to concede to Putin’s demands. To use a slightly facetious example, if China threatened nuclear war on the US in exchange for taking Hawaii, any US President would find it hard to agree to the demands, even if it could be better for the world in an EV/x-risk sense.
There are two points that are huge and aren’t mentioned at all in your posts or replies.
Ukraine’s military performance has been wildly successful, more so than is reported. It even seems like Russia’s offensive with its current deployed forces could fail.
The international response seems overwhelming and seems likely to gravely harm Russia’s capability to conduct future adverse activity of any kind.
My comment you are reading could age poorly (in the worst case, if Ukraine’s organized defenses collapses and the conflict turns into a terribly violent insurgency, and sanctions prove short lived).
But there’s something really off here.
Your post and perspective seem to come from a “realist” perspective. But it’s not addressing these points above (and others as well). This seems really weird to me, sort of walking in an uncanny valley. I can’t really place this and I don’t know what’s going on.
This feels similar to Feb 2020. I know someone who spoke with a staff member at the CDC, and this staff member had a post-graduate STEM degree. They vehemently said that the value of masks for civilians was zero (this was a conversation over several days, and semi-private).
The UK’s intelligence on Russia is excellent, and has been huge aid in the conflict. Presumably the analysts you are speaking to are excellent, especially if you’re speaking to mainstream researchers who are advising policy.
But I don’t know who you are talking to. In this situation I want to learn more about who you are speaking to. I guess the main explanation is that I’m very wrong, but it’s hard for me to see how.
Maybe these people are of extreme talent, and have decades of experience focused on this issue, and it takes a lot of time for me to even see their worldview and judgement.
It got pretty weird: when presented with papers, the staff member got increasingly hostile. This seemed bizarre, especially since they spoke under “color of authority” and seemed to actively resort to it at several stages.
In response to your two points:
Agreed—I wasn’t expecting Ukraine’s military to hold out so well. In the longer run I suspect Putin still has the upper hand, but this isn’t what he wanted. That said I still think the most likely outcome for Ukraine is still very bad, and note that my option would have (hopefully) avoided the loss/suffering/economic collapse that has already happened. Lastly, I could be ex ante right even if this week’s events change our ex post calculations.
I wouldn’t say overwhelming, but I have been impressed with European unity and surprised by Sweden, Switzerland and Germany reversing longstanding policies. I agree that this will make future action for Russia technically harder, though it also backs Putin into a corner which is a bit of a dangerous place for him to be.
I also agree that ‘realist’ perspectives often risk losing track with reality—realism as an approach/philosophy in IR is often based more on pessimism about human behaviour than about how things turn out. But it’s too early to judge.
I’m talking to a range of people. Not everyone agrees. But there are a good number of ‘realists’ including in the EA community who are focused on reducing the chances of nuclear war, and believe that these would have been lower if Russia had been offered some concessions last week, but all of us recognise why this was politically unattainable.
I think that there’s good evidence, including US intelligence claims, that Russia decided on the invasion many weeks ago. This is another point, to the others above, that are contra to the premise of your post.
I’m also skeptical that Putin is backed into a corner or that it’s worth any time reacting to related posturing, as others seem to have.
Russian decisions, starting from weeks ago, through to today are easily rationalizable (if grossly incompetent and murderous). Putin can make his performative actions, but he spends a lot of effort/money on say, his $100M yacht which he carefully evacuated before the conflict or his (probable) billion dollar (!) palace in the Mediterranean climate on the Black Sea.
I think your post is more virtuous and thoughtful than it appears.
The truth is that the Ukraine resistance and efforts on the back of the Ukrainian people, provide enormous value for western and US interests. It’s not clear the Ukrainians are really being “compensated” for this.
(I’m not sure where this fits in with a “realist” worldview but) I see your post as pushing through this to look at the human toll. The truth is probably that human suffering will be a lot higher with the effective Ukraine resistance we are seeing than the collapse that Russia expected.
It’s risky to point this out, in front of many Ukrainians and others close to the events, including those in Poland who have suffered a terrible history of de facto betrayal and perfidy.
Another reason why I’m interested in asking questions is that deep models are rare and it’s good to poke and try to learn more about them.
I think you’re right and I’m wrong about what will happen in the military situation, and this seems important for suffering.
It even seems like Russia’s offensive with its current deployed forces could fail.
I suspect Putin still has the upper hand, but this isn’t what he wanted. That said I still think the most likely outcome for Ukraine is still very bad, and note that my option would have (hopefully) avoided the loss/suffering/economic collapse that has already happened.
Unfortunately, I think you are right that the Russians will win. Also your perspective and post is right and much more virtuous than it seemed.
A perspective of the military situation is given here in this thread:
Basically, the Russian military looks bad right now. But this is because they relied on a light quick attack. However, the Russians are really good at brutal artillery attacks, which they will probably resort to. This may take time but they will use these and other heavy weapons in the following weeks or months.
If this happens, the Russians might level the cities of Ukraine, which are still filled with hundreds of thousands of people and the historical and cultural value of Ukraine.
I’m not really sure but it seems like there is an intervention here that is sort of weird in an EA way.
The idea of this intervention is not that we focus on stopping the war immediately. The “negotiations” that are going on seem ineffective.
Instead, we acknowledge the outcome, the surrender of Ukraine, and we focus on doing things that might result in a ceasefire earlier than it would otherwise occur, and at lower levels of destruction from heavy weapons.
For example, maybe US and NATO concessions can be dangled, or acts of antagonism are discouraged so that it doesn’t entrench the conflict, but I don’t really know what to do.
Another subthread is that the US policy establishment might have a mindset focused on Ukraine’s instrumental value in undermining Russia. Maybe this means that peace and concessions to Russia could be relatively neglected. It seems possible that someone could convince the US that enough has been done by the Ukrainian people.
Again, this intervention is weird because it says that the west will be horrified at some point and move for peace, especially if deaths rise to the horror of tens of thousands. The idea of this intervention is to try to move this point earlier, saving the thousands of lives because of the earlier cease fire.
This is important, since deaths during use of heavy weapons might be extreme.
This seems neglected, since it assumes the dominance of Russian heavy weapons and promotes the surrender of Ukraine.
The US and EU are very sophisticated and active in diplomacy, so this might be (extremely) intractable, or this whole thread superseded in some way.
My main objection is that all of these concessions are things that, morally, should only be offered by Ukraine itself:
Committing to Ukraine not joining Nato
It reminds me of the “fat man” problem:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
My answer is that this is the fat man’s decision to make, not yours. Similarly, even if we knew these concessions would stop Russia (which isn’t clear to me, like it isn’t clear whether a fat man can stop a trolley!), it should be Ukraine, not NATO or EU, who makes them.
If I was Ukraine, I wouldn’t want to unilaterally concede while getting nothing in return. Ukraine could have maybe said “okay, we will give you Crimea and Donbas if you withdraw forces immediately and let us join the EU”.
As for NATO, I wonder if they could’ve offered Russia membership, but letting a dictatorship into the NATO club is a bit of a hard sell...
I am consistently bewildered by how many people seem to think Ukraine’s membership in NATO is something that should be decided by Ukraine alone. NATO is a mutual defense compact: an international commitment involving multiple parties. So it inherently affects the United States and other NATO member nations. For the United States (or France, or anyone) to decline a military alliance with Ukraine—that is, to “shut the door” on Ukrainian membership—would not be a denial of Ukrainian sovereignty, but an EXERCISE of American/French sovereignty. That’s absolutely within the West’s moral right to offer if it feels it would serve their interests (and in my personal opinion, it would be in Ukraine’s interests too).
It’s complicated because seeking NATO membership is literally in Ukraine’s constitution. So even if Zelensky estimated it to be in his interests to pledge neutrality, his mandate does not allow him to do so. The West kind of hung him out to dry by opening the door, except not really, giving them false hope while gratuitously provoking their neighbor. We were the only ones who had the leverage and domestic political situation to close the door these past few months, and we should have.
Either side (Ukraine or NATO) can make the decision unilaterally, but if in fact “it would be in Ukraine’s interests” then Ukraine could rationally make that call. If NATO had said “we’re permanently shutting the door on you and it’s for your own good!”, the world would rightly question the “for your own good” part.
Hmm, I think I disagree. It’s different to the ‘fat man’ case because in that case the fat man would otherwise survive if you didn’t push him. In this case, the regions will be taken anyway. So the trade-off seems more similar to the classic trolley problem where you are diverting the trolley to save the five. I agree, however, that Ukraine should be involved with the decision process. My worry is that Nato allies and Ukraine were too quick to close down those channels last week, and that concessions would have been preferable to the current situation (including for Ukrainians).
It wasn’t meant as a direct analogy. A more direct analogy would be, we’ve got a nation of fat men who elect popular leaders who then decide whether (A) some unknown (quite low or quite high) number of fat men will get run over by trolleys, or (B) a large and predictable number will be forced to live under an autocratic regime from now on, reducing the risk of trolley fatalities for at least a few more years. Mind you, I’m told that only 20% of Ukrainians are obese, so even this analogy is a little strained.
I think you should clarify at the top that Putin, not Nato, is to blame for the war.
I have added something—let me know if you think more is needed!
Thanks, that looks good.
I don’t think ceding territory would be a viable solution, as this would be the exact same strategy as appeasement of Nazi Germany (though some have recently suggested Chamberlain’s appeasement may have been a strategic choice to buy time for British rearmament). It failed to stop tyrants before, and importantly—it’s not something you can take back. It’s an extreme version of giving a bully your lunch money before they beat you up—you become a repeat target for life. With NATO neutrality, you can at least take it back (in theory) if Putin misbehaves. Russia has stated that Ukraine NATO membership is a red line for them, so an agreement regarding it seems like something that should have been discussed. I don’t know if it was or if there are certain reasons it wasn’t—I’m not privy to any diplomatic discussions or strategy.
There are many reasons why appeasement and Neville Chamberlain make a poor comparison for most modern conflicts and are wildly overused as a historical analogy. One of the biggest is that Hitler was dead set on taking over the entire world due to idiosyncrasies of his worldview, era, and national history, and arguably capable of it given the size of his armies and absence of nuclear weapons at the time. There are strong reasons to believe that neither Xi Jinping nor Vladimir Putin has such ambitions or capabilities. Even if the United States had “appeased” Putin’s desire to seize Ukraine (which it has not), it is unlikely Putin wants anything to do with further war against NATO countries, that might bring the full force of the American military down upon him. Indeed, part of the reason he’s fighting for Ukraine now is that he knows that, were it to ever enter NATO, it would become untouchable to him.
As importantly, such a worldview would preclude ANY concessions to rival powers threatening American primacy in an increasingly multipolar world, which seems like a maximalist approach incompatible with the give and take of real diplomacy. There are plenty of historical examples of mature diplomacy that involved concessions to autocratic regimes in response to a threat of force. Take the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet Union threatened the United States by placing nuclear missiles on Cuba—and in order to defuse the situation, JFK arguably “rewarded” that threat by agreeing to remove American missiles from Turkey. This seems like an EA thing to have done that did not result in a slippery slope of escalating aggression. Instead of a simplistic “never give in” mindset, we should be mindful of the broader balance of power to keep our ambitions in line with our capabilities, and assert ourselves only when and where we can likely improve outcomes by doing so.
It’s important to distinguish between concessions. Removing missiles that can strike a country in exchange for removing missiles that can strike another country is VERY different than helping a dictator to take over parts of a country when they threaten violence. Once you start, where are you going to stop? The problem also isn’t just Putin, the problem is every tyrant watching the response here. Most of the world is not part of NATO. If Russia succeeds, China’s government may be emboldened to go after Taiwan, for example.
I think the difference with GB/Germany is that the West is unwilling to provide meaningful military support for Ukraine, in the form of troops on the ground. From Ukraine’s perspective I think this is the worst of both worlds, because the West won’t actually stand up the bully, but also isn’t willing to engage with it. This has resulted in war.
This is what I meant by Ukraine being in an unusual position: it is sufficiently West-aligned that it won’t give into Putin’s demands, and he wants to cause trouble, but its lack of Nato membership means that US, UK etc won’t actually provide the support it needs against Russia.
Or to put it another way, I think the current outcome is a form of appeasement because we aren’t actually willing to fight.
I’m not sure I would call giving weapons to Ukraine, sanctioning Russia, and hunting down war supporting Oligarchs’ assets as appeasement. It’s not the maximum response but it is an escalation of response to Putin’s attack. It might be enough to scare elites who support Putin without causing further escalation, which is dangerous since we are dealing with a country that has nuclear weapons, which wasn’t the case with the Nazi regime in WW2.
That’s fair, it’s not appeasement, but neither is it what people wanted of Chamberlain in WW2.