March 28, 2022

How to arm Ukraine without starting World War 3

When it comes to fears of catastrophic escalation or stumbling into World War 3, I claim:

Primary targets for such messaging are Russians other than Vladimir Putin, for Putin can’t start a nuclear war unless other Russians are willing to help.

Almost nobody else argues exactly this position. Many “doves” want to stop more or less at current levels of aid. Most “hawks” don’t acknowledge that we need to be careful about messaging our escalations. And neither side seems to have worked out which potential Russian escalators we should most worry about.

The fears and why they’re exaggerated

There actually are multiple kinds of dangerous escalation to worry about, via combinations of two main categories:

Most discussion is around the top-down scenarios. But the thing is – Putin has much less power to cause those kinds of problems than it might initially seem. Unless the escalation orders made sense to those whose agreement was needed, they would likely be disobeyed. So the challenge isn’t to keep Putin from escalating; rather, it’s to keep the Russian military from wanting to.

Asserting limits on Putin’s power may sound like an extreme claim, but I’m mainly just synthesizing a variety of well-known and typically well-accepted ideas. Nuke-focused ones include:

More generally, Putin and the military have massive mutual disdain and mistrust.

How to help Ukraine safely

So increased military aid to Ukraine should not trigger runaway escalation, provided it meets three criteria:

For both the “carefully” and “red lines” criteria, let’s go to a bit of game theory. To avoid catastrophic outcomes in a situation of military escalation, it helps to have agreements that certain formally possible “moves” are in fact taboo to play. These agreements are not necessarily explicitly negotiated, but are at least tacitly understood even so. For example, the two most obvious Russia/US “red line” taboos are:

Prudence dictates that “red lines” that would be immediately catastrophic to break should be:

And so they should be simple and obvious, like the two examples above. If an alleged “red line” is hard to assess, it probably isn’t a true red line at all.

That’s not to say that true red lines are the only taboos. Indeed, we can regard the sides as engaged in never-ending bargaining as to which actions are or aren’t allowed. And of course, sometimes in a bargaining situation you simply declare how one aspect of the disagreement will go.

To continue with that analogy: Dictating a new escalation non-taboo – such as “We’re giving MiGs to Ukraine and there’s nothing you can do to talk us out of it” – is roughly like introducing a firm, non-negotiable demand into a more conventional negotiation. The main tips for how to do that are:

That’s where careful messaging comes in. I’d specifically suggest something like:

If communicating and living up to messaging like that isn’t enough to avert World War III, no other approach was going to stop it either.

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