This publication to date, summarized in a single tweet thread
With lots of links
On May 20 I posted a tweet thread that summarized this publication’s Ukraine/escalation arguments to date. Most of it is reproduced (lightly edited) below. The main points are those I outlined in previous articles. However, this version tackles potential counterarguments more directly.
The tweet thread, lightly edited
1/ The West wants to help Ukraine drive the Russians out, but doesn’t want Russia to start a nuclear war. When it comes to reconciling those goals, almost everybody is asking the wrong questions – so the answers they reach are sub-optimal too.
2/ The West should publicly and unambiguously claim the right to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion by any conventional-weapons means – other than directly participating in combat – planes, rocket systems and targeting intelligence not excepted.
3/ Would that antagonize Putin? That’s the wrong question in two respects. The right question is to ask HOW we can convince THE RUSSIAN MILITARY not to retaliate in a nuclear way to such moves, and indeed be comfortably confident that they won’t crazily or erroneously do so.
4/ To see why, think like a game theorist. Start by identifying the key players. The Russian military has a de facto veto on any nuclear escalation Putin wants to try. And while they may be evil, incompetent and corrupt, they’re rational even so.
5/ Putin can complicate things with all the “Madman Theory” kinds of bluster he wants. But Russian officers are unlikely to play along with that. So by focusing on them, we can pretty safely assume we’re in a standard kind of nuclear (non)escalation game.
6/ Doves and hawks alike misanalyze that kind of game. In particular, those who just debate “What can we get away with in helping Ukraine?” are aiming too low. They should instead be considering how to CHANGE the answer to that question in desirable ways.
7/ Here’s the crucial frame: Given a shared imperative among the opponents not to blow each other (and thus also themselves) up, the nuclear (non)escalation game is basically a big negotiation as to what each side is allowed to get away with in non-nuclear military actions.
8/ That is analogous to a labor negotiation, in which both sides know they have to agree on the biggest issue (ending the strike), but are jousting as to which lesser issues they can each get their way on. And similar strategies and tactics indeed apply.
9/ The most crucial part of the analogy is in how to “name and claim”. Each side wants to establish some nonnegotiable positions, but all unilateral declarations are not equal. In effectiveness, moral principles > other general principles > interests > naked positions/ultimatums.
10/ Fortunately, the West can invoke principles galore: Russia launched a conventional war of aggression, including brutal war crimes. Ukraine has an unlimited right to conventional self-defense, including cross-border attacks as expedient. The West wants such defense to succeed.
11/ Other relevant principles boil down to relying on long-established rules of the game: For ~60 years the US/NATO and USSR/Russia have been careful not to attack each other DIRECTLY -- but almost anything else (conventional weapons only) has been allowed.
12/ An old lawyer’s joke says: “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither is on you side, pound the table.” In this case, principles favor the West, so the West should pound the principles.
13/ That leads to my most specific suggestion in all this: A speech, given by a senior official such as Secretary of Defense Austin, whose real target is the Russian military, designed in line with the observations above. A written article might work too.
14/ Either way, it should be something Russia military and intelligence officers would deem worthy of wide internal circulation. It should drop BEFORE Putin goes much further in annexing Ukrainian oblasts and trying to draw red lines against taking them back.
15/ But why would a speech make it safe to provide help to Ukraine that wasn’t safe before? Or, since we don’t really know that it wasn’t already safe, how could the speech make it SAFER? Simple answer: By reducing dangerous confusion, thus averting unjustified Russian fears.
16/ We have little to fear from aiding Ukraine except Russia’s fears themselves. And how do you keep somebody from dangerously misunderstanding your intentions? Above all, you communicate your actual intentions, as clearly and persuasively as you can.
17/ In this case, our intentions are to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, by any conventional-weapons means available, provided their use is limited to the [Ukraine + Russian borderlands] theater of war. And we’re keeping out own (US/NATO) troops out of the war area.
18/ That’s simple, clear, plausible and, best of all, actually true. Putin can fulminate all he wants, but his officers will understand that we’re not pursuing total war, and that we have every incentive to keep the conflict professional and, in non-escalatory terms, safe.
19/ Since we won’t be doing anything the Russia military thinks warrants using nukes against, we should do our best to ensure they realize this. Nuclear escalation would be THEIR choice, and we know that’s a choice sane Russians really, really, really, really don’t want to make.
20/ OK. That finishes the main thread. Articles supporting these claims are collected in the Implicit Games Substack archive. Below are some footnotes, adding context, or showing contrast to other theories and ideas.
21/ @maxseddon notes former Russia President Medvedev “is not threatening the world with a nuclear strike” even as he tries to raise fears of “full nuclear war”. i.e., Russia political leadership is content to play the traditional (non)escalation game.
22/ There’s more evidence every day of Russia intending to annex parts of Ukraine. This is even clearer in the Kherson oblast than in Donetsk or Luhansk. So Putin’s desired “red lines” are already being sketched in.
23/ @christogrozev has been quoted as suggesting a Putin order to launch nukes would be disobeyed. (I don’t know whether the unnecessarily dramatic story supporting that citation is really his reasoning or just a reporter’s interpretation.)
24/ @paulmcleary writes Ukraine desperately wants Multiple Launch Rocket Systems to attack Russian positions inside Ukraine. But US is concerned that they could reach some 10s of miles into Russia, for fear of Putin’s response. Classic flawed reasoning.
25/ In fairness on that point, @EliotACohen reports the HIMARS/MLRS will probably eventually be sent … but as discussed above, the escalation debate really shouldn’t even be happening any more.
26/ The New York Times editorial board still takes the classic dovish view – Ukraine must be forced into a partial loss, because otherwise Putin might threaten to use nukes. Blech. Total misanalysis of the situation.
27/ Michael McFaul is a great and prominent hawk when it comes to Ukraine military aid …
28/ … but even @McFaul makes the mistake of focusing his nuclear warfare concerns personally on Putin.
29/ @Avindman (yes, THAT Vindman), another great and prominent hawk, makes the same mistake of Putin-centricity.
30/ @PhillipsPOBrien cites poor Russian military morale, and ties it to a lack of eagerness to follow orders.
31/ And of course the Pentagon said much the same thing.
32/ Twitter’s top source on Russia’s internal divisions, including political vs. military vs. intelligence, may be the prolific @kamilkazani. And he sees a lot of division, even noting that Putin regularly purges top military leadership.
(Warning: There’s a lot of material at that link to wade through, much of it really interesting.)
33/ @igorsushko offers supposed letters from inside Russian intelligence, which haven’t been conclusively debunked. Igor is no stickler for logical consistency, but anyhow -- his source claims major military/political/intelligence divisions too.
34/ A scathing article about Russia’s military by @MassDara paints Russia’s military leadership as uncaring toadies. I believe the arguments in this thread are robust against such claims (which are common), but some people might disagree.
35/ By the way: If it’s important to you whether or not I have credentials to expound like this – I do, but they’re old. I taught game theory at Harvard. I can legitimately drop names like Tom Schelling, Lloyd Shapley, and Howard Raiffa. I’ve done well-paid political speechwriting too.
36/ I was probably the first person to teach game theory to Andrei Shleifer. (He took my class as a freshman.) His citation for the John Bates Clark Medal praises him for some of the same mindsets suggested in my recent article “Think like a game theorist”.
Additional tweets are occasionally added beyond those cited above.