Aiding Ukraine: The pragmatism of principles
The West is skillfully controlling the risks of escalation. It could safely help a lot more.
In a recent article called How to arm Ukraine without starting World War 3, I argued for the strategy:
Don’t send troops.
Do send any equipment that might be useful.
Do message emphatically about the limits (and non-limits) on our escalation choices.
Do tether those messages to clear and general principles.
The case for these views has only strengthened since.
Unfortunately, many observers seem oblivious to the importance of the messaging. Worse, this oversight leads them to misjudge how much practical escalation we should risk.
What really frustrates me is that the problem lies more in analysis than in reality. The West is actually doing the right things to make it safe to aid Ukraine. There is no good reason not to help Ukraine more.
Some underlying premises
Key assumptions include:
Putin is not the only Russian player who matters. (In particular, Putin can’t launch a nuclear strike without the cooperation of his military and/or defense ministry.)
If those other Russians aren’t convinced to escalate, deliberate Russian escalation won’t happen.
The risk of accidental escalation also depends on the Russian military in general.
Russia and the United States have taboos as to which kinds of non-nuclear escalations are forbidden. These taboos result from negotiations that are informal (mainly), tacit (mainly), and longrunning (dating back to the USSR).
Some of the taboos are longstanding and clear, notably “No direct US vs. Russia combat.”
Other taboos are fuzzier, and could conceivably be violated with relative impunity.
To me, these assumptions are pretty obviously correct. Even so, they’re not universally shared. Putin is commonly assumed to be the sole Russian decision-maker. And the Biden Administration, despite all the safeguards it has skillfully implemented, seems afraid to violate any escalation taboos at all.
“I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” – Darth Vader
If you’re with me this far, then my conclusion and advice boil down to two things: a “What” to do, and a “How” to do it. The “What” part is:
Obey the clear taboos – at least for now -- but unilaterally renegotiate the fuzzier ones in our and Ukraine’s favor.
Admittedly, “unilaterally renegotiate” is close to an oxymoron; another term for it might be “break a promise.” So when should you do something like that?
When you’re able to do so, and are willing to tolerate repercussions down the road.
When circumstances have greatly changed, in ways unforeseen at the time of the agreement.
When the other party violated agreements with you first.
All these criteria are met in the case of Russia’s genocidal aggression in Ukraine. So the US and the rest of the West are free to do anything in support of Ukraine that they wish, restricted only by the clearest and most longstanding escalatory taboos.
Now that the “What” is settled, the “How” part of my Ukraine aid escalation advice focuses on messaging*. There are two major parts.
*public or back-channel as the case may be
I’ve described escalation decisions as being subject to “negotiation” as to what is or isn’t allowed. Let’s push that model further, and consider the basic hierarchy of negotiating stances.
(Weakest) Freestanding position.
(Strong) Principles, preferably with a moral element.
When it comes to Russia-Ukraine, the West has a strong set of negotiation support claims. Moral outrage about unjustified aggression and war crimes is widely shared and vehemently expressed. Informed Russians, such as military and political leadership, know these claims are fair, based on conventionally objective information.* They can have little doubt such views are sincerely held by large parts of the Western leadership and general public.
*That’s why they’re inventing fanciful “alternative facts” to try to domestically justify their crimes.
Of course, Russia can still try to keep the West from acting on such beliefs, e.g. via straightforward intimidation (e.g. escalatory threats) or other reliance on pure self-interest (e.g., the costs of doing without Russian gas). But such countermoves would be played from a position of weakness. If the West just declares that they’re giving Ukraine ever more military equipment, then -- dramatic escalation perhaps aside -- there’s little Russia can do.
One possible exception bears mention. There’s a genuine risk of confusion and accidental escalation; Russia could cynically fan this danger to be or at least seem greater than it actually is. Hence, reducing Russians’ fears of Western escalation is doubly important.
Fortunately, the Biden Administration has been very proactive about this, repeatedly reassuring Russia of the limits beyond which we not moving to go. The importance of such messaging will only increase as actual Western escalation creeps upward. Critics who claim that such reassurances somehow weaken the West’s negotiating hand are seriously missing the point.
The West has put everything in place to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses, with minimal risk of drastic escalation. It’s past time to get it done.
But what if Putin escalates anyway?
If Russia is truly committed to a suicidally escalatory path, aiding Ukraine won’t make things worse.
Related links and further work
The first follow-on post to this, revisiting some of its points, is Think like a game theorist.
A more focused follow-on discusses Tacit bargains among rivals. It has a catchy subtitle for those frustrated with Joe Biden’s cautious handling of Russia and Republicans alike.
As of April 13, the US has indeed stepped up what it’s providing to Ukraine. But even more is needed and, as argued here, should be provided.
Sorry. I'm new to Substack and only saw this comment after a couple of months. (Or perhaps the UI changed; there was a notification I've never seen before.) ...
Anyhow, there has been a lot of reporting that James Schlesinger put himself somewhat unconsitutionally into the command chain in the US in case Nixon ordered a nuclear launch, as fears about his alcohol use grew. There's been similar reporting, although perhaps less definitive around Trump. But those moves simply took the US to a de facto status of what is de jure the case in Russia. The burden of proof is on those who claim Putin's orders WOULD automatically be obeyed.
Further, there is vast reporting about corruption and other disobedience in the Russian military.
In other precedents from the US, presidents from Truman to Trump have expressed dismay at the difficulty of getting the military to do what they want. And of course, in many countries around the world, the military has so disobeyed civilian overseers that it simply seized power in a coup.
Just stumbled on this blog, really interesting.. I understand your reasoning, after the assumption Putin isn’t the only key decision maker, but how strong is the evidence for it? (historical precedent, familiarity with how major military decisions are made, knowledge of internal Russian politics…) It’s a reasonable assumption, but you acknowledge it’s not shared by every observer