Is it me or is our solution to every big problem at the moment - climate change, Covid, Russian invasion - to crash the economy for morality points?

Expand full comment
Mar 9, 2022·edited Mar 9, 2022

I am old enough to remember the hysteria in 2003, in large part because I shared in it at the time. We made terrible decisions, which were popular at the time. Those were the early days of the Internet, yet just with blogging, we saw a war frenzy build up. Now we have the much more powerful, drug-like impact of social media. That 2003 crowd phenomenon is something I remember with embarrassment. Also, back then most adults were still products of a time when the prospect of nuclear annihilation was something everybody was aware of, all day every day, in the background of their daily lives. That has not been the case for many years. For the first time in many years I was imagining the flash of light from the explosion over the large city near where I live, and where I would swerve off the road, and how I would try to orient myself so they bulk of the car was between me and the blast wave, similarly, at my desk at work imagining the flash and having a few seconds to get away from flying, slicing shards of glass. People used to think like that all the time, and it’s one of the little details of life that don’t make it into the history books. People are now talking about Russia and Putin with zero thought about Putin’s recent comment that his 500 warheads on board his submarines at sea could completely destroy the United States and NATO, if necessary. Nuclear deterrence held all these years, but there’s no reason that it has to always hold. This is particularly true of people who aren’t giving serious weight to the threat that these weapons present. Very troubling, to say the least!

Expand full comment

This whole debate fundamentally misses the point.

Before the war started, the threat of sanctions was an attempt at deterring Russia from invading. That attempt failed, probably both because Putin did not expect them to be so severe and because he views Ukraine as more important.

Now that the war has begun, the point of continuing to ramp up sanctions is not to deter Putin (too late) or even to expedite the end of the war (though obviously that would be welcome, too). Rather, the point is to:

(1) Show that the US/EU were serious, so that they can hopefully deter future invasions or serious actions contrary to their interests. If you don't follow through on your threats then they're worthless next time.

(2) Hurt the Russian economy, so that they're less able to threaten US/EU interests and NATO members in the future.

(3) Make Russia a weaker partner for China, since all attempts at a "reset" have failed and despite all the fantasies to the contrary, there's essentially nothing the US can do to pry them apart. If the main competition of the 21st century is with China, then better they should be allied with a Russia with a devastated economy than a strong one.

That's it. The sanctions don't have humanitarianism as the primary effect, so it's a mistake to analyze them as such. While the morality is obviously different, from an analytical standpoint the sanctions should fundamentally be viewed in the same category as the Russian invasion itself - as a means of projecting power to enforce interests and shape the international system. What's funny is that the liberal idealists would reject this, preferring to believe the US is necessarily pursuing what's noble and right, while realists like Richard continue to criticize it on what seem to be non-realist moral grounds.

Expand full comment
Mar 9, 2022·edited Mar 9, 2022

Richard, you underestimated the coordinated propaganda power of the government/MSM. They’ve perfected manipulating the American people. A perfect example would be “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” If one opposed the invasion of Iraq, they were defacto opposing the freedom of the Iraqi people. The same rings true for the current propaganda war being waged by the West—if you think Russia has legitimate security concerns or intervention isn’t the answer, you are a shill for Putin and anti-democracy. This is how the machine works—go along with the narrative or risk being labeled a traitor and destroyed. In the land of free speech, dissenting opinions are no longer tolerated.

Expand full comment

I agree that this war will ultimately end through diplomacy between Ukraine and Russia with some involvement from third parties. To this end, I believe the sanctions are just another bargaining chip in that they can be lifted if the US, EU, and their allies find the conditions reasonable or otherwise the sanctions can continue indefinitely.

Further, I agree that Ukraine should agree to abstain from NATO membership. Until recently, I doubt NATO countries wanted Ukraine and their quagmire risking direct engagement with Russia. Even now, I don’t see any clear path to Ukraine joining NATO and therefore it seems like another reasonable bargaining chip to leverage in negotiations with Putin.

Yet, I am concerned about what common ground Putin and Ukraine can find in terms of western economic integration, chiefly EU membership. I get the impression that Putin would prefer another Belarus; a vassal state with pro-Russia leadership maintained through whatever means necessary. And I doubt he’d accept Ukraine going the way of Poland with stronger economic ties to the west and ever growing prosperity and liberal democracy.

Even with NATO off the table, I don’t think Putin could accept Ukraine falling out of his sphere of influence. With his strong belief in a historical union between Ukraine and Russia, he may even fear that their divergence from Russia could threaten the legitimacy of his rule should Ukraine grow in economic prosperity and democratic freedom.

Further, I don’t see how the Ukrainians could accept vassal state status as another Belarus within Putin’s sphere of influences. Doubly so with the current violence and destruction from Putin’s invasion. I imagine that any Ukrainian government that submits to Putin on such terms would not be seen as legitimate by the people; this could even include a Zelenskyy-led government.

Hence, I worry that we may not see an end to conflict anytime soon. At the moment, I think the best we can hope for is a decrease in the intensity of the conflict. For example, Russia may choose to solidify their hold of some areas and silently withdraw from others to decrease the cost of engagement. Similarly, Ukrainian forces could secede territory. The result would be frozen conflict.

In such a prolonged conflict the extreme sanctions would have the time to continuously increase the relative cost of the war. For example, Russia’s military industries may struggle as their machinery requires maintenance parts and full replacement that can only be sourced through western firms; firms blocked from sales due to sanctions. Russia would be forced to become increasingly autarkic (or dependent on China) and increasingly larger portions of the domestic economy would be focused around the military.

Expand full comment

Sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan was to focus on NATO trap in Ukraine for Putin – a repeat of Brzezinski’s approach of “financing and arming resistance” that created Al Qaeda.

- The 2014 US coup against democratically elected Ukraine government,

- Russia-gate immense and “lunatic” hoax concocted by Deep State and St. Obama, Biden and Hillary, and

- NATO relentless expansion, including into Ukraine and Georgia

All three are VERY closely connected and components of US bipartisan War party strategy for continuing US world dominance. US will fight to the last Ukrainian to weaken capitalist Russia and its alliance with China.

The SAME lying team and key psychopathic players. Remember militaristic bipartisan funeral of John McCain who endorsed Nazi-units in Ukraine.

Expand full comment

I think you are arguing that our virtue posturing with Ukraine, moral condescension to Russia, and overall emotional dialogue does nothing to further improve the political situation and in fact makes us less politically flexible to negotiate and promote our National Self-Interest. Therefore, smart people should stop being emotionally dramatic. I would like to agree.

- However I think you are ignoring one feature of democratic public opinion in an interesting way: Emotional Dialogue and Shared Feelings shift the Overton Window in democracies in very fast and large ways that Cold Rational Self-Interest arguments CANNOT. This makes being **dramatic and emotional is especially useful** in democratic political dialogue when rapid, substantial change is needed. Without emotional dialogue and the resulting social pressure, people will not shift very fast away from the status quo.

- One additional point though is that **Public Opinion is your Starting Offer in diplomacy** (as a ~democracy). As a politician you are semi-dependent on public opinion. This makes your default bargaining position the most emotionally salient opinions of the public, this is your "initial offer" position. Updates AWAY from your "initial offer" gain political points if one goes towards the more powerful position, or lose points if one goes towards the less powerful position. This exchange of the Emotionally Based Public Opinion Political Points is an important part of what you are bargaining with in diplomacy between democracies.

TLDR: Emotional rhetoric shapes public opinion. Public opinion shapes democratic diplomacy. Therefore, if you want to shape policy it is currently rational to use emotional rhetoric. AND horrible and I hate it and I wish we were much more rational.

Expand full comment

This war is not about NATO, Putin will never be satisfied with the sphere of interest, he wants this land back… only people who does not know Russian could be so naive…

For his people Putin is fighting nazists , not NATO…

To ignore his ambitions is foolish… he is looking for any excuse for expansion…

Expand full comment
Mar 9, 2022·edited Mar 9, 2022

Hilarious to me how you think you're the rational one here. You're a fine writer and I enjoy your pieces but - as we say here in Britain - you've completely lost the plot on this Russia issue. It's your tweets and your likes and every other public position you've taken on this issue that *indicate* that you're not neutral. You WANT Russia to win. I will not go as far as trying to guess why but it is fairly obvious to anyone reading and following you. You should consider why that is the case.

Finally, I have read Putin's 7,000 word essay from June 2001 a couple of times. It is not possible for any reasonably intelligent person to read that essay and still insist that NATO expansion is the cause of Putin's aggression. It is not just possible. So my only conclusion is that you have either not read it or you're being disingenuous by bringing it up here again.

Expand full comment

I call it Twitter-mob diplomacy. It appears to me to be even worse than what our various interest groups and policy experts would come up with.

Expand full comment
Mar 9, 2022·edited Mar 9, 2022

* With respect to European sanctions

Russia's admirers have long praised the macho strength of the Russian state, which Weak Western Men and countries purportedly had little chance of standing up to. The unprecedented show of unity and strength by liberal democracies is an effective rebuttal to that narrative, and signals strongly that they are done getting pushed around. A big difference with earlier acts of Russian aggression is also the fact that it was called out weeks ahead of time, allowing European opposition and resolve to crystallize well in advance of Russian action. Without this prelude to war, a successful Russian Blitzkrieg (possibly following some kind of false flag) would have almost certainly caused a comparably muted response from the West, more akin to 2014.

As an aside, it feels disorienting to watch the same people deriding the West for its cultural weakness now attack it for its show of strength; this double speak, where Russia is simultaneously a poor victim and a 5-D chess mega-masculine grandmaster, feels incredibly dishonest.

* With respect to sneering at angry people:

I find it frustrating to see you react to international norm breaking with 'look at all those idiots getting upset over the international norm breaking'. Like it or not, there is value in signaling unity through sympathy and support, and your derisive sneering doesn't make you better, or more rational than the rest of us. Rather than the emotions themselves, it is the irrational response they elicit that could be criticized, but that is of course more work than saying 'u mad bro?'

> But there is nothing that can be more unsatisfying to those who would rather engage in moral posturing than think in terms of costs and benefits.

A strawman (frames the western response as moral posturing), a crude dichotomy (expressing emotional support vs. making correct geopolitical moves) and an insult (thinly veiled: those people are sheep and idiots) in one convenient package. You're better than that.

Once again, it hurts to see how low Newsweek has fallen since its desecration by IBT media.

Expand full comment

It seems like there are a couple factual questions that seem relevant (if possibly unanswerable):

- To what extent will sanctions physically impair Russia's ability to wage war in Ukraine, and how quickly? The possibility that Ukraine successfully repels the Russian invasion is hard to estimate but looks somewhat greater than zero, and if sanctions increase these odds substantially, that's a point in favour of sanctions. This is not a usual situation when looking at other situations where sanctions are used.

- Did Russians demand any form of demilitarization as part of negotiations (I've read directly contradictory things about this) and does "neutrality" include not buying weapons and the like from the west. "Please disarm so we can invade you more easily the next time you piss us off" is a demand the Ukrainians might genuinely be better off rejecting.

Both points are irrelevant if you assume that Russia will successfully conquer Ukraine in the next few weeks in the absence of a negotiated peace. That's possible but seems non-obvious to me (and to Metaculus).

Expand full comment

"I agree with John Mearsheimer, Robert Wright, and others who say that we should be taking Russian security concerns seriously and negotiating on that basis."

The reason why the national security state doesn't do that is because the Obama administration tried that for eight years and it did not work at all. Mearsheimer now glosses over that period of history.

Expand full comment

I read that Netflix cancelled a production of Anna Karenina so I’m now reading the novel. I guess this must mean that I hate democracy and support Putin.

Expand full comment

I'll wager that in 15 years many of the people who want the west to be more aggressive with Russia will conveniently forget their hawkish proclivities, just as we all forgot our support for the Iraq war.

Expand full comment

In what _possible_ way does the secession of Donbass aid Russia's national security? Makinc Belarus a vassal state didn't do anything, two more won't either.

Additionally, in responding there is not just the present war to think about: there is also the next war. Russia has shown itself weak, but so did Ukraine in 2014, and it corrected the error and reformed its armed forces. China is watching, and it may be strong enough now. Other regional powers may be watching too. In decision theory, one must sometimes take self-destructive actions to reduce the likelihood of situations occurring, even once you are already in that situation.

Expand full comment