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23 thoughts on the war in Ukraine
A fundamentally very scary story
I imagine that most of you have been reading and thinking a lot about Russia and Ukraine over the past week. Certainly I have. My thoughts are still a bit scattered, though, and I figured it would be better to present them non-traditionally than to try to strong-arm them into a column format. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about:
A daily Substack newsletter written by a generalist take slinger is not the best place to get up-to-the-minute news about a fast-changing military situation. I’m going to stick to points that I am not seeing made clearly elsewhere, acknowledging that Slow Boring should not be your primary source of information on this topic.
War is a deeply zero-sum undertaking. As I wrote recently, invading Ukraine is a really bad idea and does not seem to be going as well for Russia as they had hoped. Putin is causing the encirclement he hoped to avoid, alienating people (like me!) who hoped the U.S. would seek a rapprochement with Russia, and causing some of the Putin fanboys on the nationalist right to slink away from their prior praise. But none of that means Ukraine will actually prevail. The odds are strongly in Russia’s favor against Ukraine, but Russia itself will almost certainly be worse off.
It really is worth reiterating how perverse this is. Ukraine posed no threat to Russia and doesn’t have any particularly valuable economic resources. Trying to prop up a puppet regime in a destroyed and sullen country is going to be costly in the best-case scenario and a bleeding insurgency in the worst. Initiating this war is gambling with Putin’s own grasp on power. It’s incredibly reckless and stupid.
That recklessness and stupidity is itself terrifying. I think it’s clear that the American government sees a distinction between the real but limited support it is willing to offer Ukraine and the support we would offer NATO members. But is that clear to Putin? Can he judge the odds correctly?
This, rather than Russia’s hurt feelings, has always been the problem with the post-1991 persistence and expansion of NATO. In the Cold War, we believed the Soviets sought to turn the whole world communist and thus that defending West Germany was not an act of charity but an act of prudent self-preservation. And the Soviets believed that we believed that. Putin’s Russia is not like that. The security umbrella we’ve extended to Eastern and Central Europe really is a favor the United States is doing. Which means there are inherent questions about its credibility. Which means trouble.
But trying to undo these unwise security guarantees would only make things worse. We somewhat carelessly committed to defending Estonia and Latvia, assuming that the job could be done with cheap talk, and now we need to be prepared to actually do it.
Over-reliance on strategic nuclear weapons in this regard is risky. Just as the basic idea of a pledge to defend these countries has inherent credibility problems, the idea of an American president ordering a nuclear first strike to retaliate for a fait accompli in Tallinn is so non-credible that it risks being put to the test.
More than sanctions, more than support for Ukraine, what we need now is a real plan for the defense of NATO’s frontline countries. That means the “provocative” moves that have been avoided in the past, including stationing large numbers of troops in the area in question. I don’t want to play armchair general about exactly which troops and where, but I’ll wave in the direction of Ian Bond’s report for the Center for European Studies. The point is that these should be real military deployments and not “tripwire” forces that exist just to be gunned down by the Russians. To avoid a nuclear war, we need a concrete and plausible strategy to fight and win a conventional one.
This is really scary. When I wrote about “Don’t Look Up” and existential risk, I didn’t really mention nuclear war. When Derek Parfit did the original philosophical treatment of existential risk, he had nukes in mind. But as ideas around longtermism, rationalism, and effective altruism gained steam in the 21st century, this particular genre of x-risk had come to feel quaint and distant. But it’s clearly back on the table.
Longtime Russia hawks see this February’s events as vindication of their longstanding views. I respectfully disagree. This downward spiral in U.S.-Russia relations is a genuine disaster that meaningfully raises the odds of apocalypse, distracts the United States from other priorities, and generally is exactly the thing we should have been trying harder to avoid in our thinking around everything from the decision not to disband NATO to our handling of Kosovo. In particular, note that our forceful backing of Euromaidan in 2014 looks in the fullness of time like a successful gambit to weaken Russia but has done the Ukrainian people no favors.
What the United States really needs to do is ultimately hand off the European security portfolio to the countries of Europe. Russia is a big and important country. But Germany and France combine to equal Russia’s population, France is about 60 percent richer than Russia (Germany is richer than that), and France has nuclear weapons. The United States should aim to be open-handed and helpful with European security, but we really need to be minding the store in Asia where our allies are not nearly as strong.
By the same token, the arrangement where Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Ireland are in the EU but not NATO seems very ambiguous and dangerous to me. In the case of Ireland, it doesn’t matter at all in practice, but for Sweden and especially Finland, it really does.
Speaking of allies, note the total uselessness of America’s friends in the Middle East during this crisis. The UAE wouldn’t vote to condemn the invasion in the UN. Saudi Arabia is not opening the oil spigots to stabilize the world economy. Indeed, the Saudis and the Emiratis spent all fall and winter working hand-in-glove with the Russians to drive oil and gas scarcity. From their standpoint, it’s realpolitik, which is fair enough. But make no mistake about the terms of this alliance: the United States of America does favors for these countries, and in exchange, they give money to influential Americans while doing no favors for the American people.
Now more than ever! Any pundit worth his salt argues that the right solution to any crisis is to the stuff they’ve supported all along:
— Size and economic strength matter; One Billion Americans!
— Domestic energy production is incredibly valuable. The focus should be on zero-carbon sources first, but trying to strangle domestic fossil fuel output while we’re still relying on it is risky.
— Pushing hard to speed up the pace of electrifying everything is really good.
— The people who’ve been pushing, successfully, to turn off nuclear plants are a menace to the world.
— Investing in useful things is better than spare fiscal capacity. Germany’s long years of low deficits do absolutely nothing to get them out from under the Russian natural gas squeeze. They could and should have been spending the past decade building an alternative.
When tossing out ideas, it’s worth trying to be clear about what your idea is intended to achieve. Hurting Russian national power, hurting Putin and members of his regime personally, and helping Ukraine are three different goals with some tension among them. Thinking about refugees from a humanitarian standpoint, the best thing to do is resettle lots of Ukrainians in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York. But from the standpoint of sticking it to Putin, we want to invest in building large refugee camps in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania near the border with Ukraine that can serve as centers of agitation and insurgent activity. Deciding what’s actually best requires some thought, consideration, and clarity about the goal.
Left-wing critics of the American foreign policy establishment get a lot right, but one trend that needs to die is the habit of seeing contemporary Russia through a lens of Cold War hostility to American capitalism. Putin’s speech on Russia was very clear: he’s a right-wing Russian nationalist who sees his country as the heir to the pre-Soviet Russian Empire and himself as the standard-bearer for the old formula of autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality.
Conversely, the populist backlash era has given us the bizarre idea that there can be some kind of international brotherhood of nationalist movements all united by an agenda of lib-owning. This doesn’t work. Russian nationalism and Ukrainian nationalism make incompatible claims about Donbas and Crimea and NATO but also about the historical significance of Kievan Rus’ and the existence of an East Slavic dialect continuum and a million other things. A dose or two of patriotic feeling is healthy and proper. But “nationalism” doesn’t answer questions or solve problems absent strong buffers of liberalism.
Note that if you tone down the “nationalist international” by like 20 percent, you end up with a much more reasonable agenda — immigration causes changes that some people don’t like, and the governing authorities in the European Union have made a lot of bad calls. That’s different from saying that Italian and French and Hungarian hard nationalism can collaborate productively under the auspices of Russian revanchism. That doesn’t make sense.
Tyler Cowen has a piece on Putin as a man of ideas. Specifically, Putin’s ideas are those of the 19th century Slavophiles who have now rebranded as “Eurasianists” to acknowledge that Poles, Croats, etc. want nothing to do with this. They were opposed by the westernerizers who saw Russia as part of a larger set of European countries whose publics were suffering from a lack of liberalism and democracy and modernity and economic development.
The westernizers were right then and right today. The high points of Russian culture — Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bely, Bulgakov, Tchaikovsky, Eisenstein, etc. — are firmly part of the western cultural tradition. Liberal democracy now has firm roots in places as far afield as Japan and South Korea, and there’s nothing about the orthodox soul that prohibits it from blossoming in Omsk and Perm and Nizhny Novgorod. Despite its considerable natural resource wealth, today’s Russia is poorer than Latvia or Lithuania. With reform, peace, and integration into the European mainstream, Russia would be a richer, better place to be. On its current course, it’ll be the junior partner in an alliance with a China that has its own nationalist schemes.
Things change. Like a lot of Jewish Americans, I have family roots in Eastern Galicia, which was long part of the Habsburg Empire, then ended up in Poland between the world wars, and is now in Ukraine. I think my great-grandparents would have found the idea of a Jewish comedian leading a Ukrainian nationalist movement to be absolutely insane. Even the idea of Polish and Lithuanian and Ukrainian nationalists all cooperating effectively to check Moscow rather than fighting over Vilnius versus Wilno and Lviv versus Lwow would have seemed far-fetched. China and Russia used to be allied (with China as the junior partner) because they were both communist. Then China aligned with the U.S. Now Russia is with China and they’re both right-wing nationalists. Life is weird. But note that injections of liberalism allow for cooperation rather than conflict and let Ukraine leverage the talents of its Jewish citizens rather than expel them.
If you find yourself doomscrolling, ask what you could be doing instead. These are not strongly partisan issues, so any calls you make to your members of Congress will make a difference. And even more so than on climate, your personal consumption decisions matter here. I don’t think Joe Biden and Olaf Sholz should pull a Jimmy Carter and urge everyone to put on a sweater and turn down the thermostat. But I’ll say it: if you’re doomscrolling and your home is heated with gas, turn the thermostat down a degree instead. Walk somewhere instead of driving. People elsewhere are making much bigger sacrifices.
Off ramps. We can’t just escalate and escalate. There has to be some goal in mind that counts as a win and lets people back down. Right now, I’m not sure what that is.