Ukraine #5: Bits of Information
Rather than attempt a synthesis this time around, I’m going to experiment with the opposite. Over the course of the last three weeks, I kept adding to a long list of sources and interesting things the same way I do for Covid-19 posts, but without an overall update type of post there was nowhere for them to go.
Thus, while this in no way pretends to be complete or to provide a proper synthesis, this is the article form of that giant link bank and associated thoughts, organized in logical fashion.
When going through the list, many of the links from February were no longer relevant, as they concerned things like whether we would give aid, or whether we would impose sanctions and how many and how Russia would react, or whether firms would divest, and other things like that. Then there was a phase shift when it became clear we would sanction and provide aid and the military situation got bogged down, after which new info mostly stayed more relevant.
If I had to summarize the overall picture, I’d say something like this, note that even the summary contains a ton of stuff because there’s a ton of stuff to cover.
Russia’s military campaign has culminated.
It is going to be very difficult or impossible for Russia to progress further.
Russia has huge, potentially fatal, logistical problems.
Russia is out of deployable resources, seems unable to meaningfully further mobilize.
Sanctions are hurting but a quick total collapse will not happen.
Ukraine will still find it difficult for now to make progress rolling back Russia’s gains, but that slowly should change as Russia’s army degrades further.
Russia is a deeply dysfunctional mafioso state.
Russians are largely buying into not only the invasion but future ones too.
Russia does a good job preventing rebellion, but at cost of everything else.
Western approach to solving the problems of Russian Oil and Gas are non-zero but mostly not serious or of sufficient magnitude or physical-world-orientation.
The coming food crisis is mostly not being addressed at all.
If we did want to solve such issues, expensive but realistic solutions exist.
A lot of very large ‘pure wins’ also exist that we are not using either.
Western coalition’s core has become much stronger and more united.
Our game theory seems aggressive and less than ideal, but much better than that which the public would favor, which would be kind of totally nuts.
Escalation risks definitely exist on both sides, remains unclear what Putin will do if he realizes how badly he is losing and we’ve given NATO countries a green light to send troops into Ukraine (but won’t do it ourselves.)
No one takes nuclear safety or issues seriously, so they take nothing seriously.
West is creating a very big ‘penalty for being late’ problem, where any deviation from our agenda, or in some cases even from a very left-wing agenda, results in massive punishments.
This causes those who cannot accept the totality of the system out of the system, weakening its position and strengthening the opposition.
China is trying to be in opposition without provoking the response, so far this is working, but internal propaganda there seems very pro-Putin and anti-USA.
Those in opposition then tend to both cooperate with each other and to converge on a set of models, beliefs and rhetoric that includes many quite false and/or awful things, an anti-pattern demonstrating opposition.
Peace talks may or may not be ‘fake’ on either side especially the Russian one.
If they are real there are three issues: Territory, demilitarization and ‘denazification.’
Any peace soon likely involves some territorial concessions, unclear if a possible deal exists here yet.
Demilitarization will potentially be a Sweden/Austria model. Includes a no-NATO clause and no-foreign-base-or-exercises clause but not no-EU, Ukraine keeps its army.
Denazification will likely be symbolic only, and Russia seems to accept this.
There is always the chance any or all of this is very wrong.
Situation report on 3/19 has Russian forces entering defensive positions, with no substantial changes in past 24 hours. The hope presumably for Russia is that this is an ‘operational pause.’
Here’s a one-week lag map from Ukrainian War Map. Some gains for Russia concentrated in the south by the sea, that’s about it. The only way this isn’t a disaster for Russia is if you think they have inevitability and time is on their side.
Here’s a comparison with America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Early on progress could be considered similar but no longer. If you go to the account’s timeline you can see a remarkably fun (but not enlightening) series of quote tweets of replies to the thread.
This is now five Russian generals killed, I believe out of a total of 20 in Ukraine, six if you count the Chechen general. That does seem like quite a lot. Leading explanation is this is due to failures of Russian communications, forcing generals to move into range of snipers in order to do their jobs.
At the start, many in Pentagon thought Kyiv would fall in two days, as it seems did Putin, who seems to have planned the announcement of a ‘Greater Russia’ after the presumed easy victory, here’s the text via archive.org.
Samo Burja suggests this is due to overcompensation for the bad Afghan government survival estimate, but I do not believe this is the case. This kind of mistake is actually rather common, and we likely outright knew Russia did expect it.
The most obvious parallel is Israel in 1948, when we didn’t recognize Israel at first because we expected Israel to suffer a quick defeat (and I get why, I mean look at a map), and you could also draw parallels to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, but there is a very very long history of small armies highly motivated to win a defensive war beating back much larger army that did not much care, and in many of the cases the larger army proves remarkably incompetent. We could start this history with Homer’s story of Troy up until that whole horse incident, so literally the founding story of Western literature, continue to Greece defeating Persia and go from there. Russia alone has at least the Russo-Japanese War, the Winter War, and the war against Crimea that turned Muscovy into Russia. Not saying it always goes that way, but at some point it’s your fault when you’re surprised. Yet these predictions have been around for a while.
In the first few days, there were a bunch of seemingly wise threads about how Russia’s movements were about as fast as one could expect, and that we wouldn’t know for several weeks if they had run into actual trouble. The flaw there was that Russia’s expectations were similarly unrealistic, and they planned on that basis. They even had some troops near the Polish border. Now it is three weeks later, and it seems we have our answer.
The cumulation of the Russian offensive seems to be happening right around now. This means that Russia is shifting to what looks like a defensive posture, which will go very badly if its supply lines cannot be secured. It has run out of ability to mount offensive operations and needs to regroup and resupply before it can hope to start again, and likely will need to somehow raise many more troops and/or consolidate its fronts to do so. Washington Post calls the result of cumulation a stalemate, notes Western sources think Russia is taking 1,000 casualties a day. This thread also reaches similar conclusions, expecting remaining Russian efforts to focus on the Donbas region with the goal of setting up a better political settlement.
Famous predictor of the end of history but also insightful political historian, Francis Fukuyama, predicts the near-term end of the Russian invasion in military defeat. Another source asks ‘is Russia going to lose?’ which is disheartening since the answer to headline questions is always no, but the post is optimistic. If you haven’t seen it, this is Kamil’s thesis on why Russia will lose, and his central thread of threads presents his very detailed, very gears-based model of Russia - I don’t fully buy it or anything, but it got strong affirmations all around and clearly has a lot of true and important stuff in it.
Early on Zelenskyy had to provide ‘I am still here and alive’ videos periodically. Now he has calls with heads of state instead. Passed on the ride, got the ammunition.
Samo Burja has been the primary plausibly objective advocate I know about for Russia’s military being competent and for the expectation of a Russian victory, and the only one to back up this claim with a lot of detailed information, as well as predictions that Western sanctions would backfire. He has adjusted to what has happened somewhat but mostly he has stuck to his guns, a few days ago continuing to put a 70% chance of Russia capturing Kyiv and the majority of Ukrainian territory by Day 50, including a (small) bet on this at 50% odds.
His point about Ukrainian bias in our sources is well taken, but I’d actually take the opposite model.
There is certainly a tension between symbolic actions and physically relevant actions, as I have talked about endlessly regarding Covid. There are also generally limited resources requiring choices of focus, and trade-offs when decisions are made. That is all true. But I think that more important than that is the simple dynamic of competent vs. incompetent, of motivated live players versus unmotivated and dead ones, of generally being good at ‘identify thing that needs doing and do it well.’
Ukraine demonstrating unexpectedly strong game in social media to me mostly says that Ukraine has better state capacity and is a more live player than expected, and thus raises my guess as to their other competence, rather than lowering it, provided we don’t see signs of the war being fought in order to win the fight on social media. Which I have not seen - if anything, UA has shown remarkable patience instead and not done anything dumb, although you could argue that this is risk aversion. You do have to adjust for the halo effect of the good social media game, but the game itself is in my model not net worrisome beyond that.
I also disagree strongly, as a player of wargames, with the idea that whoever is gaining territory, however slowly, should be considered to be ‘winning.’ Yes, eventually one needs to get territorial gains, but there are many phases of many wars where that is not the goal, one simply wants to not lose ground too quickly and preserve the places that matter like Kyiv.
It is always good to have a thoughtful advocate for alternative perspectives, but I worry his incentives are strongly to stick to his guns at this point same as everyone else.
Russia definitely seems to be playing the cartoon villain role in Mariupol in particular, this coming after what was already widespread devastation and civilian casualties.
One can say there is little doubt, and there are some things we do know, but as of my writing this there is a lot of doubt. There are so many ways it could get even worse.
Of course, in the world’s least surprising developments, Ukraine declined to surrender the city.
Attrition and Losses
It is clear Russia is taking heavy losses. The questions are how heavy are those losses, and how sustainable. It is not clear the extent to which there are various forms of reserves available on longer time scales.
It seems clear Russia has no easily available reserves left to deploy.
This thread from Mick Ryan on 3/14 overviews Russian available forces and their progress so far. He posts a thread per day, usually quite good (assuming baseline accuracy is good). He has consistently offered a picture where Russia badly miscalculated, and has exhausted its available resources. This is consistent with most other sources.
If $800 per captured soldier is enough to bring in a bunch of them quickly, why hasn’t the project been scaled up?
Professionals Talk Logistics
Slightly more than double, I’d presume.
In the South some progress is still being made, presumably due to the Black Sea giving the possibility of resupply, and Ukraine not wanting to confront Russia where their supply lines are strongest. It all makes sense, and very much does not bode well for Russia.
A thread on the sorry state of Russian military trucks, including link to a previous thread on truck maintenance that wasn’t done. War is hell on trucks in the best of times because they are put under extreme pressure. These are not the best of times. I mostly believe the claim that the trucks have not been maintained for a long time and there is little or no effort going towards maintaining them now. I also believe that the trucks are their drivers being pushed hard and overloaded, and all of this is leading to a lot of attrition.
Where I’m not sure is the claim that we are only a few weeks away from the entire fleet of trucks breaking down, as I lack the domain knowledge to know how fast abuse of such vehicles will degrade performance. As they say, huge if true, but I don’t want to endorse without more information.
If it is indeed true, then this means that the correct action by Ukraine is mostly what we are seeing. If Russian logistics are not only bad but going to get that much worse over the next few weeks, then counterattacks and otherwise being flashy are unnecessary except to the extent they relieve pressure on civilians. Much better to wait, let Russia continue to exhaust its logistical capacity and overextend.
It also would mean that there’s little chance of peace during that window. There’s no way that Putin is going to believe the extent of the logistical problems, for several reasons one of which is that I presume there is no one who would dare tell him (or who would be wise to do so). With this much impactful hidden information, there’s no deal it makes sense for both parties to make unless it’s otherwise clear Ukraine had won even without this.
Also, it looks like all rail connections between Ukraine and Belarus have been cut off at least temporarily due to sabotage. By all accounts few in Belarus want any part in this war.
Kamil thread on how Soviets relied on Americans both to build their factories and to provide all their needs during World War II, and how Russia is not remotely self-sufficient. They rely on trade, exporting food and natural resources to get what they need, and will now have to rely on China and hope they are able and willing to come through.
The logistical failures here seem big enough to be fatal to Russia’s war efforts, and I do not think there is much chance of them being fixed. Fog of war and a maximally hostile and motivated epistemic environment make me cautious, but I do not see how the situation does not get continuously worse for Russia unless they can bring massive additional resources to bear and I do not see how they do that either.
Soviet Putin’s Russia
I generally still am willing to compare like to like in such situations. Thus, if the level of crackdown stays static over some period, then one can expect that a change in approval represents a real change, and the relative magnitude and direction of different changes can be observed. The problem is one of the key things we observe is increased crackdowns, which make this approach not work, although we can still learn something because we at least know the direction of the resulting bias - if anything the approval rating will become more inflated.
There seems to have been a 200k person rally in Russia in support of the war, ignored by Western State Media. Not obvious this is newsworthy, but still seems like a data point worth having.
Kamil long thread about the pro-Z demonstrations, claiming they are fully staged and intentionally avoid using anyone who is actually pro-Z because such people care about something and thus cannot be trusted.
This is the ultimate in fear of motive ambiguity. Under this theory, if someone cares about exactly the thing you want then that too is a problem, because now you fall under the category ‘cares about something’ as opposed to ‘will follow arbitrary orders.’ Kamil’s central theory of Russia is that things are structured to systematically promote those not only mafiosos but those who follow orders and don’t care about anything, thus of course leading to huge corruption and incompetence and failure - but in a way that is safe for Putin.
Or: Moloch has an army, but man is it bad at logistics.
Russia bans export of sugar and grain, shortages of sugar already being seen. I’ve seen a few videos of sugar panic buying.
Prediction that Putin can and will survive with 97% probability. Always good to hear both cases.
Early on we saw short videos of lines at ATMs and other signs of bank runs, but haven’t seen anything like that in a few weeks, and the banks seem to not have collapsed, so that situation is presumably stable for now. Was still correct to run the bank at the time, given the risk versus reward.
Speculation from back in February that Putin interpreted his intelligence on Ukraine as an invitation for invasion not only because people told him what he wanted to hear, but because he assumed that Ukrainians were telling pollsters the lies they thought they were supposed to tell. This makes sense under my model of his worldview. This also seems like evidence that we should trust the polls in Russia even less, since Putin thinks they are so fake that Ukrainian polls must also be fake. See the section ‘Good Use of Poling’ for some… interesting polling results.
From 26 February a threat by Russia’s Medvedev to pull out of START treaty. I don’t understand the claim this would lead to an ‘arms race’ unless we went for missile defense - what good are 60k nukes above what you get from 6k nukes?
The Penalty for Being Late
This essay made the rounds, arguing that Putin has effectively already lost the broader battle even if he militarily wins, that the war will catalyze a united Democratic front and growth of American power, and that China needs to side with the West and cast Putin aside before it is too late. In this model, the sides will be Democracy vs. Authoritarianism, and one would not want to be on the wrong side.
China, in particular Xi, clearly did not choose this path. Reports from inside China consistently show them spreading Russian propaganda and riling up their public, and they have also supported Russia rhetorically in public. American officials are warning that China is considering giving direct aid to Russia, potentially causing sanctions to be applied to China, and relations between the West and China are coming under strain.
Here is a thread about discussions among Chinese residing in Australia, and the rhetoric they are using. Quite the pro-Putin fest.
The US government claims Russia requested assistance from China, and also claims they are considering providing it. Among the requests, we claim, were MREs, or meals-ready-to-eat, which seem to be in short supply (or sometimes very long expired) among the Russian army. The hope presumably was that food wouldn’t be too provocative an ask, and also it seems Russia is incapable of feeding its army, with a lot of reports of soldiers living off the land.
The danger is if China actively chooses to fight this battle, championing the side of the Authoritarians against the Democracies. Trade might be severely disrupted, and areas with valuable natural resources tend to end up on the Authoritarian side, which could be big trouble, especially if they can bring India along.
The central question of the Convoy was: What is the penalty for being late? The danger is if the West effectively penalizes anyone who violates any of its many rules with effective death, then it will have a hard time maintaining any sort of coalition or getting anyone to trust it not to cut someone else or another country off on a whim, perhaps even the whim of left wing advocates who hold commanding cultural heights.
Then we have seen the pattern where many of those in exile seem to converge together on a collective set of nonsense, no matter the original issue.
This has fully been extended to countries. Russia is getting cut off to an unprecedented degree. If a country isn’t worried about that happening to them and guarding against it, they’re not being responsible. Yes, it is very clear why Russia is getting cut off, and it seems like a highly justified case. But once this principle is established, who knows what the rules might be in the future?
It also extends to citizens of Russia. If a Russian is on our side, they are on our side. This goes for Russian soldiers, Russian citizens, and even oligarchs. We need to be able to take yes for an answer, especially when it takes forms like ‘express my horror and plan to sell my four billion dollar pride and joy and donate the money to Ukraine relief.’ Instead, we are putting the hurt on Chelsea FC and greatly decreasing its value. That goes double now that Putin has announced his intention to purge those ‘whose hearts are in the West.’ Well, then, welcome.
I seriously have never, ever, ever understood the thing where Unknown Person gives money to Good Cause, then Unknown Person turns out to be Bad Person for some reason, and then Good Cause decides to give the money back to Bad Person. Even if it is true and Bad Person is indeed quite bad, money is fungible, giving the money away means Bad Person no longer can do Bad with it, and Good Cause is good. Take the money. Forgiveness is optional, but take the damn money.
Meanwhile, our administration hopes others will learn the lesson ‘from the carcass of the Russian economy.’ There are advantages to this, but it seems rather too far.
Oil and Gas
Thus, in this context: China announces a $10 billion contract with Saudi Arabia to build refineries in China to be supplied by Russian oil. Samo Burja described this as ‘a new bloc is forming.’
There are at least some signs Chinese companies will respect the sanctions but it has been difficult to tell to what extent this is happening.
Long term, it makes perfect sense for Russia to want to sell its oil to China (and India) to avoid problem with the West, and oil is largely fungible so it makes sense to build the appropriate infrastructure. Would be rather crazy to do anything else.
Given how quickly this happens, my assumption is this particular thing would have happened anyway.
An obviously correct but impossible proposal to impose a punitive tax on Russian oil and gas rather than a ban. It is essentially never correct to ban when one can tax. Because short term supply is inelastic, the tax incidence would fall mostly on Russia, so we would get a lot of benefit and they would get little profit, and you drive the price of oil down. Whereas with a ban you drive the price up, so even if they find a way to sell at a discount they could still get a good price.
USA Shale continuing not to boost production. As I understand it, we have
Oil prices that are too high slash a shortage of oil.
A strategic oil reserve sufficient to deal with the shortage for a year or two on its own.
We also have producers not increasing production because they are worried about future price levels being too low or risky.
The solution seems obvious. The ‘guaranteed purchase’ option certainly exists, but can’t we skip the guarantee and go straight to the purchases? We sell oil from the strategic reserve, and we buy the same amount as futures at cheaper prices. This causes production to increase because producers see higher prices and can hedge with them, which in turn causes expected supply to increase, which takes pressure off, and also we sell now which also takes pressure off. Government solves problem, turns profit, what am I missing here?
Meanwhile, this anecdote seems to match broad experiences that trying to decarbonize even a single home, let alone build large scale renewable energy, is a huge nightmare of rules and permits. Looked at the right way, this is great news. We already know how much decarbonization is happening, and this means we could likely get a lot more, very quickly if we removed these barriers. Which is more than free.
We also need to focus a lot more on heat pumps and how to make them happen.
A thread of changes being made to ‘accelerate Europe’s energy transition.’ These are all non-zero changes, but it’s hard to not come away with the idea that these are not serious attempts. They seem like symbolic actions, they’ll help but this is very much not what one would call a ‘war footing.’
Belgium delays nuclear power exit by ten years, which is substantial, but it is still ‘we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot slower’ rather than ‘we are going to treat this bullet hole in our other foot.’
Germany strikes gas deal with Qatar, fast tracks two LNG terminals. Again, potentially a substantial move.
Could Europe have simply ‘ripped the band-aid off,’ cut off Russian gas and dealt with it? Presumably this is an option, and March is the best time of year to be doing it, but it would require reacting to the situation for real not only with real sacrifices but real and huge physical action, not marginal little steps or calls to do things by 2030. My guess is that if they threw their cap over the fence now, and gave everyone a summer to prepare, it wouldn’t be not ugly or anything but it would turn out better than people expect if they freed the private sector to react. They almost always overperform in these spots.
Things Worth Doing
I forgot one important pre-existing policy proposal, repealing The Jones Act. The Jones Act is a ludicrously bad piece of law that essentially cripples our ability to transport between two American ports.
For nearly 100 years, a federal law known as the Jones Act has restricted water transportation of cargo between U.S. ports to ships that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-crewed, U.S.-registered, and U.S.-built. Justified on national security grounds as a means to bolster the U.S. maritime industry, the unsurprising result of this law has been to impose significant costs on the U.S. economy while providing few of the promised benefits.
I do think this belongs on the list of ‘things sufficiently obvious and one-sided and helpful that if you have looked into it and are on the other side, I have no charitable interpretation of your position. None.’ And while I did get some examples of objections to scaling up nuclear power (none of which I felt survived any scrutiny of the physical situation) I am going to be very surprised if I hear a semi-plausible defense of The Jones Act.
The world is facing a potentially devastating shortage of wheat that could lead to higher food prices and even famine in many places. It was pointed out that it is soon planting season and the United States has a cropland reserve explicitly for one-year additional planting in such an emergency. I can’t think of a reason not to deploy this reserve as quickly as possible, and to generally reverse any and all payments to farmers to not plant crops this year.
We also subsidize ethanol production on land that could be used to plant wheat, I very much like the framing here.
It is always an issue when there is a purely terrible policy that suddenly gets that much more damaging and dangerous, that the argument that the policy is terrible was not sufficient before, so what will make us change course now?
Another option of course is to use the corn as corn if the problem persists. It still means corn rather than wheat and logistics might get tricky, but substitution is a thing. There should still be time for a while.
Game Theory and Decision Theory
What does it mean to ‘support’ such a move? Presumably not that we would honor Article 5 based on an attack on Polish troops that are on Ukrainian territory, that’s not how ‘we don’t want to escalate this into a war with the United States’ works. But what happens when Russia responds to troop deployments by striking inside Poland, a country that (see Good Use of Polling section) a majority of Russians claim they want to invade?
Then what does it mean that we ‘support’ them here? If all we meant was ‘we are not going to tell them what they are “allowed” to do’ then I don’t see why one needs to say that out loud. If anything, I’d want to reiterate my defensive commitments but publicly distance myself from the move rather than give it approval, so the move is less escalatory.
Russia’s nuclear forces are supposedly on some sort of alert after getting orders from across the long table, but it is not clear this cashes out in anything concrete and is mostly or perhaps entirely bluster.
Part of Russia’s strategy appears to be to give the impression that they might actually prefer nuclear war to losing the war in Ukraine, to claim they view the war as fully existential. Which throws the whole idea of reasonable deterrence very much into question.
Dominic Cummings on nuclear deterrence and the failings thereof, along with many fine rants. Recommended, although long. The people who most need this stuff hammered into them are exactly the people not reading it, but perhaps this can then happen via proxy somehow. Top ten bullet points:
Nuclear safety is super important.
No one takes nuclear safety seriously.
Which is one way to see they take nothing seriously.
We are very lucky to have survived the cold war without a nuclear war.
‘Rational deterrence’ assumes things about enemy that are often false.
Often those like Putin read America/West as unwilling to sacrifice at all.
The classic almost-nuclear-war examples (Petrov and company).
NATO/USA deterrence theory was totally wrong about Soviet intent.
Soviets planned for extensive nuclear use in event of European war.
Missile defense is necessary, our refusal to pursue it madness.
I’m totally with him on numbers one through nine. Ten is more complicated.
What I centrally agree on is that the underlying logic of mutually assured destruction and deterrence is going to increasingly not work going forward, if it ever worked. The failure rates on such systems are importantly non-zero even in normal times. We all need to think a lot more about such things. One thing that is clear is that America and the West value the status quo and things not going to hell quite a lot, and it is not necessary to threaten Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (or even Los Angeles) in order to provide a credible threat - it is abundantly clear that in event of conflict, even economic conflict alone - everyone loses big, and ‘winning’ doesn’t win you much. Given that, it seems clear we shouldn’t want there to be these huge nuclear arsenals that can’t be answered.
During the Cold War, it made sense to think that the USSR might launch a nuclear war for fear we would gain missile defense. Is that still credible now? If not, then it comes down to whether defense is practical, especially a defense on the level of ‘stop North Korea’s ICBMs.’ One downside is that the equilibrium with China where they have a reasonable amount of deterrence and consider that enough is valuable, we’d like to keep that.
Again, I’m still pivoting to all of this. It’s not like I haven’t thought about it before, but still, I don’t want to make too-strong statements too quickly.
What I do know is that the dynamics of nuclear threat in this war have made it clear that our old thinking isn’t going to cut it.
This is one of many people claiming that the West is Failing Game Theory Forever, and that they know how such things work and what should have been done. I am no stranger to this class of argument, as I spent a full post arguing our decision theory (and thus our game theory) here is deeply flawed.
This particular argument is centrally that war is a ‘bargaining failure,’ and that we showed weakness in negotiations by saying what we wouldn’t do, when the correct thing to do is to always exaggerate your resolve. So Putin’s brinksmanship and threats are ‘brilliant.’
I do not agree that war is always and everywhere a bargaining failure. I talked about this a bunch in Blackmail - once a bad outcome is placed on the table (e.g. war, or even nuclear war) it is impossible to ensure it never happens. Which is one reason one must severely punish the placement of strongly negative-sum possibilities onto the table.
Then there is the question of credibility and exaggeration. One equilibrium is everyone constantly lies about how tough and fearless and escalatory they are and how they’ve made all these commitments, and none of it is credible. Or you can actually maintain credibility, which is generally the right move for the non-mafioso.
Maintaining ambiguity around how we would have defended Ukraine would have not only hurt our credibility with NATO, and our credibility if we choose to make other threats or commitments, which instead has been greatly strengthened. It would also have created a distinct possibility that popular opinion and other pressures would have actually caused an intervention that led to overall war, potentially a nuclear one.
It also of course could have prevented in the invasion in the first place, in theory, but it also could have caused it. If we go back to February, and the West does what it did, then the West’s commitments remain credible and its commitment to keeping its commitments credible is also credible.
Whereas if the West maintains ambiguity, then Putin could easily think that was an opportunity. He would correctly know we were probably bluffing and/or be willing to further escalate if it came to that, and also expected a fate accompli. And now invading Ukraine means we weaken NATO’s credibility? That makes this path more attractive, not less.
Claim by NPR that the attacks on at least one of the nuclear power plants were actually rather dangerous and insane. Tyler Cowen explained the game theory behind this idea. We have all moved on, but we should remember that this happened.
Ukraine is offering one million dollars for Russian pilots who defect with their aircraft, and five million Rubles (at the time ~$50k) to ordinary soldiers. It has been pointed out that, while a great start, this is insufficient. The promise should come from a Western country the Russians can trust if possible, either the USA or the EU, likely be somewhat bigger, and also the big thing that Russian troops need is a way out. Yes, pay them (and ideally pay them somewhat more than this), but more than that get them the right to live somewhere far, far away. Argentina has been suggested, and has a classic history. Ideally of course we’d offer America or the European Union as well.
In the first few days, Russia demanded Ukraine surrender as a precondition of talks, which is another way of refusing to talk. For a while they refused to acknowledge Zelenskyy was the President of Ukraine, which they have now effectively done. Then they had ‘talks’ that were an achievement simply for happening at all. Things certainly have changed.
On March 15, reports that Kyiv offered the Swedish model of neutrality, keeping their army but agreeing not to join alliances or host foreign military assets or bases. Moscow has also indicated willingness to accept this.
Essentially there are three things to be decided.
On territory, report is that UA is pushing for 2014 boundaries, meaning they are willing to give up Crimea and some parts of Donbas but not the whole region. Given where Ukrainian public opinion stands it seems like this is the most they could agree to and have the deal hold, if they can even give up that much which isn’t clear.
On demilitarization, it seems the sides are pretty close. They agree on commitment to no NATO and no foreign presence or exercises, so the question is whether Ukraine will get defensive agreements in case of another Russian invasion. Since I do not believe such promises are worth much I expect this not to end up being a dealbreaker, so long as Ukraine indeed gets to keep its army at full strength, which they’d be nuts to consider not doing. EU membership could be a sticking point.
On ‘denazification’ it sounds like Russia’s demands are down to superficial stuff, so that shouldn’t be an issue.
It is not clear to me there exists a ZOPA (zone of possible agreement) due to the issues with territory or the EU, but this is remarkably close to a deal if the talks are real.
If they are indeed real, this looks like the only practical solution and also the correct one.
Ukraine has proven that if it keeps its army Russia would be foolish to invade, so it does not need NATO and it seems clear NATO doesn’t want Ukraine anyway to avoid provoking Russia - Boris Johnson for example explicitly said Ukraine isn’t joining any time soon. Ukraine is demanding ‘security guarantees’ as part of the deal that I am thinking they should actively not want, because they are not worth the paper they are printed on and that failure then weakens credibility. As it is now, either invading Ukraine again would create a broader war or it wouldn’t.
That still leaves potential membership in the European Union (which may eventually have its own army as well), and the fates of Crimea and Donbass.
There are always lots of details to work out as well, of course, in case one side or the other wants to ensure no agreement is reached. This means until the agreement is signed we can never know that either side was serious, and truly nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. My presumption is that neither side especially wants a deal now, but that both want to work out what a deal would look like if there was a deal. This then allows a deal to be made quickly if the situation changes and either side wants to sue for peace.
Good Use of Polling
Grumpy Economist comes out in favor of a no-fly zone as part of a ‘whatever it takes’ policy. I do think that if it was clear such a zone was what it took, as in Ukraine loses without one but wins with it, the question would become non-obvious, but I think the military impact would be minimal.
A potentially good use of polling (paging FiveThirtyEight), also ignore the polls.
Also a poll of sorts: This map, file under ‘America sometimes does exceed our expectations, which indicates reasonable calibration, perhaps?’
25 February overview of the situation from Bret Devereaux of Acoup, mostly stuff you probably know already.
In case you missed it, A very good speech to the Russian people by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As everyone knows by now, White House briefed Tik-Tok stars about the war. My surprise here was limited to the implications of competence involved, otherwise I’m confused what was surprising. In contrast to, for example, our continued letting Tik-Tok get installed on everyone’s phone, unless it suddenly stopped being Chinese spyware. Which has given me an easy way to have the discipline not to install something I’m better off avoiding anyway for attention reasons.
Google Maps restaurant reviews used to tell Russians what is going on in Ukraine. Remember to give the full five stars.
Sarah Kendzior has been screaming about Trump and Putin and how awful they are since before the 2016 election to whoever will listen in the maximum possible terms. At first I found it useful, after a while I couldn’t even anymore. I don’t feel like I need such a perspective in the mix right now but she comes by it honestly, got there early and it is there if you need her.
I don’t know what happened with this attempt to claim leadership of Belarus but I assume it went nowhere.
Ukraine is using Anduril’s technology, which seems way better than what Russia is doing.
Finland’s public support for joining NATO is very high, this seems likely to happen. One complication is the need to do it at the same time as Sweden, but I am guessing the Metaculus markets on this happening are too low. Given the risks of an interim period if it does happen it will presumably happen very quickly - ideally the moment we know about it, it’s already done.
On 3/20, Zelenskyy bans activities of pro-Russian political parties until war is over. This does not seem like either great optics or like it is good for Ukrainian democracy, and no I wouldn’t have known this (at least right away) without a Russian-oriented source. He also combined all the television stations and forced them to broadcast only State Media, all in ways that sure seem like they shut out the opposition. I’m pretty sad about this. Not terribly shocked, mind, but sad.
Perhaps putting the football coach from Auburn University in the United States Senate might have been a mistake, his understanding of the situation seemed to have been ‘Russia is a communist country that cannot feed its people and needs more land.’
Report that Russian soldiers are shooting themselves in the foot, literally, with Ukrainian ammunition in order to go home. Probably not too often, but still.
Russia destroys important metallurgic plant in Mariupol, reports are it will be impossible to repair. Given the tactical situation, the choice to destroy economic infrastructure indicates either they know they have lost and want purely to inflict damage, or they don’t know this and want to inflict damage either way, or they think doing such things gives them leverage because of the Cartoon Villain effect.
Computer chips are a key limiting reagent in many things these days. Intel committed $88 billion towards building up manufacturing capacity in Europe. This seems very right. One of the big mistakes that has been allowed to happen is that if Taiwan gets invaded then the world will have an extreme chip shortage, so some other-location manufacturing seems wise. America is good, so is Europe.
The case that Putin might use very small tactical nuclear weapons if things go sufficiently badly, as an escalate-to-deescalate strategy. Such a use would be a violation of their doctrines unless the ‘very existence of the state’ was threatened. However, it’s not obvious whether Putin considers failure to own Ukraine a threat to the very existence of the state, and it’s not clear that doctrine matters.
Worth noticing the argument but this seems very wrong to me, and not simply because it violates ‘doctrine.’ Using even a tiny nuclear weapon would have many huge risks and costs, among them large risk of full escalation and that it would likely force China and other ‘neutral’ players to fully pick a side in a situation where they are unlikely to pick Russia, potentially in a dramatic way, even if things don’t militarily escalate. But it’s a (low single digit percentage) risk.
If Putin did want to launch a nuclear weapon, what is the chain of command required? It looks like the Defense Minister and the General Staff would have to cooperate for the crews to be able to then fire, and there are a bunch of physical defenses to prevent launch without full approval.
Trump admits he was surprised by the invasion of Ukraine, thinking it was all negotiating tactics. That makes sense given that if it had been Trump it would have been negotiating tactics (and likely would have utterly failed at that). I do think Trump is being honest here, if he had expected the invasion he would not have been so pro-Putin in his statements right before the invasion.
Right before he was surprised, Trump was praising the recognition of breakaway regions followed by sending in the Russian army as ‘peacekeepers’ as ‘genius’ and suggesting that we could do something similar for the Mexican border. This gives credibility to his being surprised by the full invasion, and also tells you what kinds of things Trump thinks are genius ideas.
Whereas The Daily Beast warned about all this a year ago, so I suppose Bayes points are in order, with the warning in their model that this is likely to go nuclear, and all (again, in their model) to save Putin’s presidency. So not clear how many Bayes points.
For those who don’t remember, it is good to remember that Trump has something of a history with Ukraine, such as taking military aid to Ukraine out of the Republican platform in 2016 and then the whole impeachment thing was about him ‘allegedly’ trying to bully Zelenskyy by threatening to withhold sales of Javelin missiles. Some would say the writers got this one a little on the nose.
Thread previewing a potential battle of Kyiv from March 16, saying it would be extremely hard to pull off and Russia is not close to ready to try, yet seeming like it is downplaying how difficult this is going to be.
For the prize of Ukraine. To the death, I presume. Very good trolling. It doesn’t ‘make sense’ that this makes Putin look weak, but I think it actually does.
If this somehow happens I am opening Elon as the favorite. Putin a while ago would clean his clock to be sure, but he is clearly not well.
That’s not as important as giving Ukraine access to Starlink internet, but it all helps.
The Russian insider’s letter that predicts disaster that circulated a bunch, consensus seemed to be that it was probably genuine but that does not make it accurate.
By all accounts this account of Chechnya is accurate, and it is essentially a tribal culture with lots of young men used to fighting and a warlord’s private kingdom within Russia, but whose leader (as I understand it) has enough internal enemies that he can’t survive (or thinks he can’t survive) without Putin. Short term that seems like a good way to have additional firepower. Long term it seems like big trouble.
I do think there’s one mistake, I would label Belarus something like ‘Sort of Russia.’
Soldier versus door, choose your fighter.
Miscellaneous cancellation idiocy watch: Montreal symphony. Threats against publishing platforms. The mustard museum. A pro-Ukraine chess player. Dostoyevsky (reversed on appeal). Facebook allows calls for violence against Russians.