Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is The 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and whether you can negotiate an arms control treaty with someone at the same time as fighting a proxy war against them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
I interviewed Samuel Charap back in March and the episode was incredibly popular — deservedly so, in my view. Sadly the war in Ukraine seems far from over, and last time I had to cut a lot of questions for time, so I thought the issue was well worth revisiting.
Today I first ask Sam for an update on the military situation on the ground as of the 21 July. I then bring up various opinions he or I expressed back in March and see where we’ve updated our understanding of things. I then ask about various broader lessons we might be able to take away from the situation regarding the right policy response, how worried we should be about escalation spirals in similar situations, and the viability of future arms control agreements.
Finally, we briefly talk about the basis for a possible ceasefire agreement that came up during negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in late March that Sam wanted to highlight as the least unpromising path forward.
We have a few important announcements today, which I’ll mention here then explain in full in the outro of the interview.
Firstly, for the first time since 2020 we are running our user survey. It’s your chance to let you know whether our advice and resources have helped or maybe harmed you in your efforts to do good. You can also just tell us what you’ve liked or not liked from your experience with 80,000 Hours, whether you’ve shifted what you’re up to or not.
It’s one of the main sources of information we use to both adjust our services and figure out which of our products are worth continuing. For instance, your feedback on this show in 2020 was one reason I shifted to working on podcasting almost full time.
I’ll explain more about the user survey in the outro to the episode, but you can reach it by going to 80000hours.org/survey.
This year’s survey closes soon on the 14th August, so please do fill it out soon as we won’t have another chance to remind you before then.
The second announcement is that we’re currently hiring someone to join our marketing team. We’ve begun investing much more heavily in trying to grow our audience this year, and someone in this role would likely work on promoting this show among all the other services that 80,000 Hours offers.
I’ll say more about that position in the outro, but note that applications for the role close 23rd of August. You can find the full job description and how to apply at 80000hours.org/marketer.
OK, without further ado, I again bring you Sam Charap.
The interview begins [00:02:31]
Rob Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking again with Samuel Charap. Sam is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. His research interests include the foreign policies of Russia and the former Soviet states, as well as US–Russia deterrents, strategic stability, and arms control — topics he has been working on for well over a decade.
Rob Wiblin: In 2017, Sam coauthored a book on the Ukraine crisis called Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia. In my view, he’s been one of the most informed voices on the war in Ukraine. And his first episode on the show back in March — episode 123 — got more listeners in its first month than any other episode of the show. Thanks for coming back on the podcast, Sam.
Samuel Charap: Thanks for having me.
The state of play in Ukraine [00:03:05]
Rob Wiblin: Back in March you were obviously in super high demand, and could only spare an hour for us. So we said we’d come back later in the year to check what we’d managed to get right and wrong, and see if we could learn some extra lessons from how things had played out once we had more information.
Rob Wiblin: To open, let’s get a quick update on the state of play in Ukraine at the moment. To me, I have the feeling that the general public has lost a decent amount of interest in the war over the last few months. But in the meantime, it seems like Russia has been making incremental gains across the south and east of Ukraine. In the east it now controls all of Luhansk and most of Donetsk, the two provinces which make up the so-called Donbas region, where there’s the greatest density of Russian speakers. It controls most of Kharkiv region, including up to about 40 kilometres out from Kharkiv city, which was Ukraine’s second-largest city before the war started. And it also controls most of the regions of Kherson in the south and the majority of Zaporizhzhia in the southeast.
Rob Wiblin: How would you summarise the state of play in the war on the ground now?
Samuel Charap: Well, I think the big change came probably just after we spoke, at the very end of March and beginning of April, when essentially Russia decided to dramatically shift its war aims, gave up on taking the capital and taking several other major north and northeastern cities, and concentrated the majority of its war effort on the Donbas.
Samuel Charap: But at that time, it had already taken control over most of the two southern regions that you mentioned: Kherson, which is essentially the first region north of Crimea — so when Russian forces moved north from Crimea, Kherson was the first place they ended up — and they met quite little resistance there. And then they went east through Zaporizhzhia to the first major city where the fighting got intense, which was Mariupol, technically part of the Donetsk region but adjacent to Zaporizhzhia. And the areas in Kharkiv that they still control are, in significant part, lines of communication for their effort in the Donbas.
Samuel Charap: So essentially the war effort really shifted east, but Russia ended up with these two southern regions as well. And I think we’ve seen a fair amount of improvisation in Russian strategy, involving what to do with those two regions. Which is a bit disconcerting, because given that this is the largest-stakes effort of the use of force by Russia outside of its borders arguably since World War II, you’d think they’d want more concrete objectives. But if the objectives were really about the Donbas, as has been stated, at least until recently, then why have these two other regions as well?
Samuel Charap: The Russian effort in recent weeks has centred around taking the final population centres in the Donbas macro-region, which are mostly in the Donetsk province. There are only a few left, but they are extremely well defended, because they’re the areas relatively close to where the frontline was for eight years, and Ukraine had the opportunity to build a lot of defensive positions there. So it’s not going to be easy. In fact, there’s a question as to whether Russia is in a position to really finish the job there.
Samuel Charap: In the meantime, it’s trying to maintain control of those two regions in the south and keep what it has in Kharkiv to supply its effort in the Donbas. So I think what we’re going to see, and we’ve already started to see, is that Ukraine is attempting a counteroffensive in the south, potentially to try to retake the Kherson region. So far there have mostly just been strikes behind enemy lines, small efforts at probing, but nothing big. If we are to believe the advertising, there’s a major counteroffensive to come in the next couple of months.
Samuel Charap: And so that’s where I think we are. Russia is stretched pretty thin, so it’s not impossible that the Ukrainians will have some tactical or even operational success with a counteroffensive if they try one. But it’s also possible that they won’t. We haven’t seen much capacity to retake areas that the other side has taken by force. We’ve seen retreats, but we haven’t seen that kind of force-on-force engagement that really pushes one side or the other back since the very early weeks.
Rob Wiblin: What do you think Russia’s main goal is at this point?
Samuel Charap: Well, the challenge here is that I think it has evolved. At this point, if it were just about the Donbas region, controlling these other areas doesn’t really make any sense, and they seem to be moving towards permanently taking hold of those areas. There’s talk about annexation that just made the Western press in the last few days, but really it’s been floating around in Russian sources for a while now. And plans for political incorporation, the issuing of passports, Russian political managers showing up in these places.
Samuel Charap: So there’s a question as to what the broader objective really is. Is it just about taking the Donbas? Is it about taking the Donbas plus these two other regions? Would territory in itself be enough? There my sense is that it wouldn’t be enough — that Russia has these broader demands about Ukraine regarding alliance membership and the possibility of foreign bases on Ukrainian soil and so on, which we saw when they were actually negotiating.
Samuel Charap: I would bet that if Russia is satisfied with its territorial acquisitions at some point, it then turns back to the table and puts the same political demands that it had been putting forward back in March on the table again. The challenge is that that would then be impossible for the Ukrainian government to agree to. And it might even be impossible today, but certainly, if Russia annexes parts of Ukraine’s south, it would be very hard for any Ukrainian government to agree to a broader political settlement with Russia.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Do we know how much of each side’s original fighting capacity remains operational today? Is either side getting close to being worn down and struggling to carry on the war?
Samuel Charap: Confident predictions about where the sides are in terms of their capabilities have usually been off the mark in this war. The short answer is we don’t really know. We know that the Russians have depleted a lot of their, for example, precision-guided missiles. Although they do have many left, of course. They are fighting with a peacetime military. They have not conducted a formal, broader mobilisation, and that is causing strain. There’s sort of a soft mobilisation ongoing, where people who have gone through their compulsory service are being offered quite large sums to sign contracts and become essentially what we would think of as enlisted soldiers. They are offering incentives to a broader swathe of society, including even inmates.
Samuel Charap: So there’s clearly a manpower issue on the Russian side. How critical it is is another story, and we don’t really know. I think it’s clear that there are limits, given that Russia so far hasn’t decided to move to a broader mobilisation and is going to fight with its peacetime forces. And there is at least some sense that there’s a degree of exhaustion setting in and some diminishment of their actual hardware.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Samuel Charap: On the Ukrainian side, they don’t have a numbers problem because they have mobilised. But you can’t just throw people with a week of training into a war like this, so they’ve got a training problem. They have an ammunition problem, an equipment problem, which is why they’re often talking about getting more weapons from the West. And there’s a question mark as to, with those problems, how capable of force they are in terms of actual manoeuvre warfare and combined arms warfare, given the relative weakness of capabilities like their air force.
Samuel Charap: But clearly they’ve been quite effective in terms of imposing costs on Russia as they take territory — making it quite difficult for Russia in the Donbas, and using these new systems that they’ve been given to impose costs on the occupation of the south. I think the big question for analysts looking at this now is whether their counteroffensive that’s been advertised can succeed. I think there are reasons to think it can and there are reasons to think they’ll struggle. So it’s a big open question.
Rob Wiblin: Does either country seem interested in negotiating a ceasefire agreement at this stage?
Samuel Charap: The short answer is no. I think that there’s a view on both sides that they’re not done on the battlefield yet, and that they at least want to continue to try to push. In Russia’s case, I think it would really want to take some of the major areas remaining in the Donbas. And we’re talking about relatively small cities by population, but they’re just very well defended. That might take a while, and I don’t see Russia stopping before that, if it does.
Samuel Charap: And Ukraine, I think, is going to have a hard time under any circumstances coming to terms with even a de facto acceptance of the Russian control over the south. There’s their economic interest at stake there. So I think there’s a view on both sides that they want to keep fighting.
How things have changed since March [00:12:59]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. OK, looping back to check in on things we discussed in March. Has your theory of what is motivating Putin and the Russian state evolved much since we last spoke?
Samuel Charap: The short version is probably not, although I’m trying to recall exactly what I said back then. I think that what has set in is a degree of strategic incoherence that I would not have anticipated, given the stakes. The lack of a clearly articulated objective, and the way that there’s no coherent linkage between the use of force and achieving that political objective has been surprising. This is more on tactics rather than on objectives, broadly speaking. But I think generally speaking, I haven’t changed my view on the big picture.
Rob Wiblin: In the early days of the war, I felt myself more drawn towards the realist, security-focused explanations for Putin’s decisions. Maybe because they’re just things that make more sense to me as someone who’s not close to the issue at all.
Rob Wiblin: Having learned a little bit more about Eastern European history since then, I’ve learned more about the very long-term history, over hundreds of years, of Russia just consistently being very interested in intervening in other Eastern European countries whenever it got the chance. And maybe its general sense of entitlement, perhaps, that these are countries in its sphere of influence or naturally part of its empire. Maybe, reconsidered, Putin is just telling the truth when he says that he’s motivated by these cultural factors — like thinking that Ukraine is just a made-up country, that the idea that it’s a foreign state is a ridiculous notion — all of that kind of stuff that he says in his speeches, at least in the speeches back in February. Do you have any reaction to that?
Samuel Charap: Sure. It is certainly the case that the current Russian elite’s attitude towards many of its neighbours, and particularly Ukraine, is a big part of the problem, so to speak. They have never fully come to grips with their neighbours as fully sovereign, equal states — there’s a significant imperial hangover in that respect. And you could make the case that this is something of an imperial war, or a post-imperial war.
Samuel Charap: But first of all, I think it’s a bit too deterministic to say that just because there were Russian wars against its smaller neighbours in the past, therefore that is why this is happening. And second, on Putin’s dismissive attitude towards Ukraine, which is certainly present, I think the question is: Is that why he went to war? And is Russia, more generally, willing to fight over that?
Samuel Charap: I think that is where I might diverge from the cultural or imperialistic explanation of Russian behaviour. I do think that that attitude is present, and could be an important secondary factor. But without the primary ones — realist is probably not the right term, but at least these security-driven factors — I wouldn’t see the cultural factors in themselves producing this outcome.
Samuel Charap: And I think that’s really important when we want to think about Russia more broadly. It might have sort of imperialistic dreams, or Putin might fantasise about X, Y, or Z — but the key question is not what he would want in his ideal world, but what he’s prepared to act upon. And in the heat of war, it’s obviously easy to be distracted by the rhetoric that we’ve heard. But that I think is the key thing to focus on: what he’s capable of doing and what he’s willing to use his capabilities to do.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. In March, we were both inclined to say that it would’ve been in Ukraine’s selfish interest to make more painful concessions in order to prevent itself from being invaded. Do you still feel that way?
Samuel Charap: I mean, in an alternative universe where there could have been a bad, from Ukraine’s perspective, implementation of the so-called Minsk agreements — the agreements that were supposed to be implemented following the 2014–2015 first Russian invasion, that would’ve seen the Donbas region reintegrated into Ukraine on Russian terms essentially — I can’t imagine how anyone could think of that as being worse than this war.
Samuel Charap: In other words, that seems like even if it would have been bad, it would have just been politically bad. It wouldn’t have entailed all this death and destruction. And that’s not to say that I would guarantee that that would’ve prevented the war, but if we’re choosing — in this sort of abstract, counterfactual sense — between Minsk implementation and the war, it seems obvious to me which would have been better for Ukraine.
Samuel Charap: If we were talking about, closer to the conflict, dealing with this NATO question in a more definitive way, if that had avoided the war, I can’t see how… I mean, the war has been pretty catastrophic for Ukraine, and we should really not lose sight of that. Catastrophic for its people, its infrastructure, the future of its economy, just even the loss of territory. So it’s hard to imagine outcomes worse than this that were on the table before.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. In April and May, a lot of people I was reading online were expecting Russia to escalate to a full war mobilisation and force more troops on the field, rather than continuing to pretend it’s just doing this special military operation and it’s not at war. But it never actually has done that, and it doesn’t seem like it’s about to. Is there anything to learn from that experience?
Samuel Charap: I think there’s two things. One is that Putin is not prepared to completely risk the domestic order that he has presided over, because a mobilisation would really be a sort of revolution in terms of Russia’s domestic situation. I mean, the messaging in major cities to the Russian public is that nothing has changed, and therefore life goes on as it used to. And that, I think, has been part of the strategy essentially to avoid any sort of domestic unrest. So I think that’s part of it, and that is a constraint. If things got really bad, Putin might change his mind. But barring a dramatic shift on the battlefield, I think we see that basically it’s a self-restraint on how far he is willing to go in terms of using force and the numbers he’s prepared to put to it in Ukraine.
Samuel Charap: The second part of it is that there’s something of a leaving open a window to return to something less than a total state of war after this is over, and having some sort of economy to turn back to. I think it points to some ways in which this has not yet become a total war for Russian society, by deliberate policy steps of the government.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Speaking of the economy, back in March we thought that the Western sanctions had really been turned up to 11 almost immediately. And we thought this would maybe have a massive impact on the Russian economy and normal life for Russians. How has that actually played out?
Samuel Charap: Basically it is accurate to say we went to 11. It’s just that, in the meantime, I think we’ve been filling in four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, in terms of steps on sanctions. If you compare the seventh EU sanctions package that is now on the table, it’s way less significant than the first. So I guess by talking about things going to 11 immediately, we skipped a lot of intermediate steps.
Rob Wiblin: I see.
Samuel Charap: And in a way, the gradation of this, it just got a little bit…
Rob Wiblin: Out of order.
Samuel Charap: Yes, indeed. One thing that is certainly the case is that the energy revenues, and Russia’s taking in something like a billion dollars a day in energy revenue, have compensated for both the freezing of the Central Bank assets and some of the broader economic dislocation that the sanctions have caused. There’s no question that even in the short term, these measures — combined with the self-sanctioning of Western corporates that have exited Russia en masse — will have both a short- and especially a medium- to long-term effect on the Russian economy. The Russian economy will slow between 5% and 10% this year, by all measures. But over the longer term, Russia’s ability to grow will be significantly limited.
Samuel Charap: So the sanctions, maybe they were so unprecedented, and by that measure extreme, that we were in uncharted waters then. What has been striking is the overall resilience of the Russian economy, and the extent to which basically any short-term shock has been managed by Russia’s very competent macroeconomic policymakers. But over the medium to long term, there’s no way that they can continue to put band-aids on this. So there’s going to be an impact for sure. And we’re seeing it. It’s going to start with specific sectors and areas where certain technologies can’t be imported. Where on certain oil extraction projects, like in Sakhalin, they were reliant on their Western partners who’ve now exited. They can’t now get the oil out of the water.
Samuel Charap: So this is going to be felt across the economy, and Russia will end up as a much more primitive economy. Though we should think about countries like Iran, where collapse, although predicted many times, has never occurred. So this will be painful, for sure.
Rob Wiblin: There’s a lot of ruin in a nation. Or it can take a long time for a country to fall apart.
Samuel Charap: Yes, exactly.
Has Russia learned from its mistakes? [00:23:40]
Rob Wiblin: In the first few weeks of the war, I think everyone was taken aback by how kind of blundering Russia’s military strategy seemed to be. Is it fair to say that Russia has learned quite a lot from its early mistakes, and adopted more realistic goals and a military strategy that might actually be able to accomplish them?
Samuel Charap: The Russian military was so wrong-footed by the terrible plan that they were told to execute, essentially. Where they were prepared for a three-day war and it didn’t turn out that way; where there would be minimal resistance from the adversary military, and this would just be about sort of taking the capital and installing a different government. That obviously was a total catastrophe. Of course, what they have done, arguably since maybe May, is fight like they train. And that has had a pretty devastating effect, because the saying about the Russian military is that it’s an artillery military with lots of tanks, and they have used that artillery to devastating effect in the Donbas. And yes, I think basically they have put themselves in a position to take advantage of their strengths.
Samuel Charap: Now, they were so wrong-footed by that initial mess that they put themselves in that they really lost a lot of equipment. And the morale factor I think has been pretty big in all of this, because we’ve learned that soldiers didn’t even know that they were going to Ukraine until they were in Ukraine, and the narrative around why they were doing this was not really coherent. So that has had a lasting impact. But yes, I think that they’ve adopted a more sensible approach. There seems to be more senior leadership and coordination.
Samuel Charap: That it is no guarantee of success. And we’re also learning some things — and this is still to be examined more deeply once we have a better sense of what’s actually going on — about the limits maybe of land warfare, and maybe it’s harder than we thought.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Makes sense. Back in March, you thought that Finland and Sweden joining NATO while the war was still ongoing would be risky and potentially quite provocative. I think you said it would likely be a mistake. How do you feel about that with the benefit of hindsight?
Samuel Charap: Well, it’s happening. And what has been interesting is that I talked to Finnish people, and it went from a sort of shift in public opinion to a shift in policy in like weeks, after decades of having a different policy. So in Finland, really the shift was quite rapid and profound. And the president, who previously had been the sort of guardian of this policy of nonalignment, really embraced and rode the wave of public opinion, I guess.
Samuel Charap: What has been interesting is that Russia has been quite specific about what would be a problem in this context for Russia. In other words, they focus less on membership per se, and more on deployments and infrastructure in Finland and Sweden. And frankly, this will pose challenges for NATO. It’s going to be a whole lot more of a border to defend, and the question about how to defend it is going to be a big one.
Samuel Charap: And whether Finland is going to be prepared to, say, undertake the kind of self-restraint commitments that Norway has as a NATO member — where Norway voluntarily doesn’t accept foreign forces permanently stationed on its territory, and no nuclear weapons also, and essentially de facto limits the forces that it positions along the border with Russia in the far north. So there are going to have to be a whole new set of procedures.
Samuel Charap: It’s too early to say whether there will be significant risks from this in the future. What I would say is that it’s happening and we need to adjust accordingly. And I think one thing that is true is that Russia has been more singularly focused on Ukraine than I would have expected in this context. In other words, they have not sought to sort of horizontally escalate, even using non-kinetic means, and I think they don’t want to open a second front right now.
Samuel Charap: So in a way, the war played differently than I would’ve expected, or I anticipated, or I feared — in that by raising general tensions and then taking a step that is sort of potentially threatening in an environment of increased tensions, that causes things to happen that potentially wouldn’t have happened otherwise. That was the scenario that I was concerned about. In the event, Russia is so bogged down that I think it’s not willing to open up.
Rob Wiblin: It’s not keen to take on more projects.
Samuel Charap: Yeah.
Broader lessons [00:28:44]
Rob Wiblin: Back on March 10, with Russia doing really quite poorly militarily, I was worried about all kinds of different ways that things might possibly get a whole lot worse, including Russia using tactical nuclear weapons; possibly attacking another state like Moldova or Lithuania; Russia accusing Ukraine of using biological weapons as a pretence to use them itself, which it’s maybe seemed to be preparing to do; and also the possibility of really damaging cyberattacks going in both directions. I didn’t exactly think any of those things was especially more likely to happen than not, but it seems like none of them happened. And indeed, I’m not really sure that any of them were in fact super close to happening. Is there anything we can learn from that experience?
Samuel Charap: I think this entire process, and particularly with the weapons shipments, has been a learning process about the nature of what potentially drives escalation. In a sense, we’ve learned that nuclear deterrence works, that Russia is deterred from attacking NATO countries, even when they do things that end up killing a lot of Russian soldiers. We’ve also learned that it works the other way around, and that NATO countries are restrained in what they’re prepared to do in terms of getting involved — although we are far more involved than anyone would have imagined back in March, in terms of the quantity and quality of weapons being delivered.
Samuel Charap: The narrow takeaway in terms of what might prompt escalation that I would tentatively make from all of this is that essentially, so long as Russia is winning — from Russia’s perspective — their incentives to really dramatically escalate aren’t there. I think that they would really have to be in a position of desperation to do that, given the consequences of horizontal escalation, particularly involving NATO. And they’re not.
Samuel Charap: And I think that that gets at the way in which ultimately, when we say words like “deterrence” or “escalation,” we’re talking about psychology here — the psychology of the decision-makers and where their mindset is, essentially. And what we’ve learned is that there’s an extent to which so long as things are broadly going well from Russia’s perspective, they’re not going to dramatically rock the boat. At least that’s where things are right now.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. One thing I maybe take away from this is that it’s maybe in Russia’s interests, and indeed often in adversaries’ interests, to kind of psych you out and make you think that they might be capable of doing all kinds of other stuff in order to just make you worry and make you cautious. And it’s really hard to tell — it’s almost impossible to tell, if they’re doing a good job — whether they are sincere with those threats or whether it is an act, just a menacing act. Possibly in the future, I might take things like Russia claiming to have found imaginary bioweapons facilities in Ukraine as a bit more of a matter of theatre than a presage to actually using biological weapons themselves, for example.
Samuel Charap: Yeah. I think that there’s a bit of that. But keep in mind that back in March, it was not entirely clear at all that NATO wasn’t going to intervene directly; it was a relatively new conflict. So you could have interpreted a lot of the Russian posturing as trying to signal about that. And in a way, that kind of deterrence has worked. If you recall, it seems like a million years ago, but there was a quite serious at least public discussion about a no-fly zone, which has totally dissipated — although sort of similar ideas came back with this idea of using force to take the grain out of Ukrainian ports. In other words, like trying to find a way of not using the direct “Let’s go to war with Russia” sentence.
Rob Wiblin: While still doing so.
Samuel Charap: Hiding that under things like “no-fly zone” or “freeing ports.” The thing I would say, though, is that just because this hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about it. I think escalation concerns rightly remain top of mind certainly here in Washington, and I imagine in other NATO capitals, because as much as there is a drive to assist the Ukrainians and to push back on this Russian aggression, there’s also a view that we just don’t want to have a conflict between Russia and NATO come out of this. And I think that does factor into decision making, and that’s to the good, I would say.
Rob Wiblin: Is there a standout policy change or a change in activities that you might like to see from the US or NATO countries?
Samuel Charap: So, big picture, and we haven’t talked about this, but I can’t see how we’re heading towards a sort of good outcome right now. As time goes on, and if the war continues at this relative pace, not only do we see Russian moves to make some of the areas that are currently under its control more permanent, but there’s a lot of death and destruction being wrought on Ukraine every day. And this is in part driven by the Ukrainians’ openly stated desire to continue the fight and requests for more means to do so, so this is not coming from nowhere. But there’s a bit of complacency about the war — not in the sense that people don’t think it’s a problem, but that there’s no urge to bring it to an end soon.
Samuel Charap: And in my view, the longer this goes on, the worse it is for Ukraine and for the interests of the United States and its allies. Not necessarily because we should be stopping doing anything we’re doing on sanctions or military assistance, but I’d like to see a track — maybe I don’t see it, but I have a feeling that it doesn’t exist — of channels of communication kept open on the terms of a potential ceasefire. Not because we need to have one right now, but because I think we need to be trying to identify the space for potential compromise. There’s just nothing by way of negotiation going on right now, and that does concern me. Of course, that’s a two-way street, and if the Russians aren’t willing to engage…
Rob Wiblin: There’s only so much one can do.
Samuel Charap: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. We’ll come back to a possible path we might imagine towards a ceasefire in a minute. But as recently as January 2021, the New START treaty between the US and Russia was extended for five years. This is this super important treaty that caps how many nuclear weapons each country can have deployed at any given point in time. It can’t be extended again in 2026, so a new treaty is going to have to be negotiated. Ideally a new treaty will be negotiated to replace it before then. Is there anything we can do to make that more likely?
Samuel Charap: Well, actually that relates to the previous question, believe it or not, because there’s no way that negotiations can begin so long as fighting is continuing at this level. So I think the first step towards getting a follow-on to New START is to end the fighting to create the political space to begin talks on this. The Biden administration came in and took an expansive view on dialogue with Russia on strategic stability, and wanted basically to have a strategic stability dialogue that would be broad and extend over the course of potentially a couple years — to get to the point where we would know exactly what we wanted and maybe have multiple agreements and so on.
Samuel Charap: That is just not in the cards now, and the time scale is clearly much more limited to negotiate something new before New START expires. So there’s going to have to be a pivot — if and when there is a ceasefire or some sort of settlement — to opening up that channel and beginning those talks, because it’s unlikely that the parties are going to be interested in just copy-pasting the existing treaty. And it’s going to be hard, frankly, to get a treaty ratified in the US context. So this isn’t going to be easy, and beginning talks sooner rather than later would be the first step to getting us there.
A possible way out [00:37:15]
Rob Wiblin: So we would like to see the fighting end for all kinds of reasons, and this just adds more urgency to it, because we’re running out of time to start these negotiations. To that end, in June you wrote an article for Foreign Affairs titled “Ukraine’s best chance for peace.” In there, you promote a proposal from the peace negotiations that Russia and Ukraine were engaging in back in March in Istanbul. It’s an idea that both sides seemed at least lukewarm to, or possibly open to, at the time, which you think might be our best shot at ending the war and preventing it from just starting again at some point in the future.
Rob Wiblin: The key pieces in the proposal are that on the one hand, Ukraine agrees not to join NATO and not to allow foreign militaries to operate on its territory. And in return, for remaining neutral in this way, Ukraine gets agreements from the US and Europe that they will help it if militarily attacked, and Russia accepts that promise, basically. Russia will also in principle drop its opposition to Ukraine joining the EU. On the potentially really hard sticking point of accepting territorial annexation, the proposal doesn’t require Ukraine to accept Russia taking its territory, but it also wouldn’t apply to the areas that Russia already controls, so it wouldn’t require them to leave necessarily either. Why do you think this is a promising starting point for a possible agreement?
Samuel Charap: Well, first of all, because the parties themselves came up with it and made positive noises about it themselves, so it wasn’t a sort of peace plan that I came up with, sitting here in DC. So that’s the first advantage. I think the second is that it offers a potential vision for what a settlement could look like that Russia has bought into. One of the key challenges with any settlement is to ensure that this [kind of aggression] doesn’t happen again, and that Ukraine is able to recover without threats to its security that undermine any economic recovery. And if Russia is determined, no matter what kind of territory is taken, to threaten the rest of Ukraine, then its long-term economic viability is going to be a serious challenge. So getting Russian buy-in to the settlement, as counterintuitive as that might seem — because of course Russia has committed war crimes; it is the aggressor here — is potentially the way you get to a settlement that really produces stability over the long term.
Samuel Charap: And it [the March Istanbul proposal] seemed to be an innovative approach whereby every party can kind of claim victory in one way or another. Ukraine gets these security guarantees. Russia gets this commitment, including international legal commitment, to Ukraine being a permanently neutral country. The West gets a green light for Ukraine’s eventual EU membership, and thus, I think, really a fulsome exit of Ukraine from Russia’s so-called sphere of influence.
Samuel Charap: So you could see how everyone might come out of this thinking that they had gained something. Of course, this was before the war crimes around Kyiv in towns like Bucha became public. This was before the rocket attacks on other Ukrainian cities that have occurred in the last few weeks and the really brutal fighting in the Donbas. And the parties have walked away from it to a certain extent. But I think it was important to just bring it forward, because it was this moment when they were actually talking and they did produce something that might be at least incorporated into something that could be used in the future.
Rob Wiblin: Have there been any signs of interest in this idea since you wrote the article, or are they just not talking to one another, so it’s hard to say?
Samuel Charap: Well, they aren’t talking. But that’s what’s on the table, so if they ever do return to the negotiations, in theory it would be where they would pick up from. There have been recent noises from both the Russian and the Ukrainian sides that they would be taking a much more hardline position.
Samuel Charap: And the key issue that the Istanbul Communiqué — the proposal that I analysed — didn’t address was the question of territorial control. And it’s hard for me to see, and I was alluding to this earlier, how this kind of a settlement could be implemented if Russia annexes big parts of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government’s not going to be in a position to say, “OK, we’ll sign up to this deal after you’ve taken another chunk of the country.” So that makes me pessimistic about the prospects of any settlement. There are other ways wars end, but the settlement path is seeming less and less likely.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Can you explain how a similar proposal to this one was useful in the case of Belgium in the 19th century? I didn’t know this history, and I think it’s pretty interesting.
Samuel Charap: Yeah. So, Belgium was granted independence in a series of treaties signed between 1831 and 183 by the Concert of Europe — so the major European powers — and the Dutch, who were then essentially ruling Belgium and the Belgians revolted against them. Basically the treaty that granted Belgium its independence also enshrined it as a permanently neutral state and the parties to it fixed their guarantee. So basically Belgium’s independence, its permanent neutrality, and its security were sort of tied together in this treaty — the Treaty of London, as the key one was known.
Samuel Charap: And this is most remembered today for its failure, when of course Germany invaded Belgium as the first major military operation of World War I. That was what, of course, brought the UK into the war, because of its guarantee to Belgium. But the 75 years of peace that it did have was three times as long as Ukraine had as an independent state.
Samuel Charap: And the model that it provides of sort of geopolitical rivals guaranteeing the security of a neutral state, in which they all have stakes and their security is all affected by it in different ways, was the key analogy. Belgium seems kind of like a geopolitical backwater today, but for France and Germany at the time, it was this key area through which they invaded each other, and because of the topography of that part of Europe, it was the low areas that provided the clearest invasion route. It was also a quite fertile area, something of an agricultural powerhouse. It was important for its ports, for the UK, and maritime security, given its closeness to the Channel. So, all the powers had some stake in seeing it belong to none of them, so to speak. And that, I think, was the analogy and an interesting historical parallel.
Rob Wiblin: The main thing that worries me about this proposal is that ultimately, that did break down, and was implicated in the start of World War I. In principle, this would mean Russia signing up to the US providing security guarantees to Ukraine — saying it would intervene if Ukraine is invaded, or it would help Ukraine. Of course, if Russia at some point in the future has a crazy leader or just thinks that that commitment isn’t credible and does attack Ukraine, then it more strongly implies that the US needs to directly intervene, and it could lead to a shooting war between the US and Russia. Do you think that’s maybe the main drawback here?
Samuel Charap: That is certainly the key strategic risk involved. To take a step back, of course Germany did invade Belgium in order to invade France, right? This wasn’t just a sort of isolated thing, where if Britain hadn’t responded by invoking its guarantee that everything would’ve gone away. By that point, the war was kind of an inevitability.
Samuel Charap: But the key question that you’re getting at is whether Western countries — the US and its NATO allies — are going to have to take risks if they want a settlement that produces long-term stability, and that ensures that this doesn’t happen again. It might be the case that we do have to take risks. And frankly, the consequences of this war have been so severe that there’s a case for taking risks to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Samuel Charap: So, I think the question that you raise about if that agreement were implemented and Russia were to do this again, it would imply that the US would actually come to Ukraine’s assistance with its own military: yes. But it also presumably would affect Russian decision making accordingly, right? Russia would be loath to risk that. Yes, of course if someone crazy comes to power in any country, all things go out the window. But this gets to some of the things that we should be thinking about, about what we’re prepared to put on the table to ensure that this ends in a way that creates longer-term stability. Commitments of some kind are likely to be part of the picture. The question is what kind and what risks they create.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What’s the reaction been to your article among your colleagues in the foreign policy establishment in the US?
Samuel Charap: Mixed, of course. I think models for how this might end and some thought about settlements and ways out are welcome at this point. I wasn’t proposing this as something that could be taken off the shelf and used right now, and I do see a lot of problems with the proposal. Why I think it shouldn’t be forgotten is that it’s the only path I’ve seen that gets us to a comprehensive settlement. The other ways out of this are going to be much more potentially short term and short lived, or they just won’t resolve the underlying political issues and will leave us with significant tensions that could explode again in a couple years.
Samuel Charap: So if it’s not going to be a settlement, and the war actually does end, it will be something like an armistice or a ceasefire that is potentially of limited duration and doesn’t resolve any of the underlying security issues — and thus leads to continuous Russian threats to Ukraine, a continuous crisis of European security, continual economic dislocation from all of this. So even though there are a lot of reasons to be sceptical that we’ll ever get there, we should be at least thinking about what the best case could be, based on where the parties were, at least at one point. I think that idea has gotten some good reception. Of course, others have different views, let’s put it that way.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I saw on Twitter that whenever people start talking about making a deal with Putin, many people just find that abhorrent, because they hate what he’s done so, so much that the idea of coming to the negotiating table and conceding anything is just very difficult emotionally.
Samuel Charap: Totally. And that’s completely understandable, particularly for Ukrainians. Not that I tend to pay attention too much to what’s said on Twitter. Usually people don’t read whatever they are criticising on Twitter. But this wasn’t my idea; I was just analysing something that actually the Ukrainians came up with. They might have walked away from it, but it’s not like I’m thinking up something and imposing it on them; this was their proposal. So people have problems with it — so do I, right?
Samuel Charap: But yes, I think more broadly what you’re getting at is a key political dynamic that is very acute in Ukraine, and limits the extent to which the Ukrainian government is going to be able to negotiate with the Russians. Because there’s a lot of anger, as you might understand, given what Russia has wrought. And that anger and emotion exists in Western publics as well. It will be hard to imagine any Western leader ever sitting down with Putin again, and that complicates diplomacy, to put it mildly. That’s just a fact.
Samuel Charap: So I don’t know how to fix this problem, but the idea that Russia will be forced into accepting an outcome through coercive means exclusively seems low probability. That doesn’t mean some element of coercion won’t be part of the picture, but that it will be compelled to accept an outcome without getting anything seems low probability. So we’ve got to think about ones that are more within the realm of the probable, even if they are unsatisfactory or unsavoury.
Rob Wiblin: Totally. I know you’ve got to run in a minute, but the final question is just, no one would wish for this, but I guess to some extent, as an expert on Russia and Ukraine, this is kind of your moment — as possibly a year when you might be able to have more impact or do more to help people than you might at any other time in your career. How are you hoping that your work might be able to contribute to among the least bad outcomes that’s imaginable here?
Samuel Charap: To a certain extent, some of my work — which can be quite in the weeds on researching, and now also researching this war and doing the kind of detail that probably would be boring for our listeners, let’s put it that way — might not have the direct impact that you’re referring to. But what I’ve seen as my role, at least, and doing this a lot on sort of my own time, is trying to think about the ways that this can end with minimal consequences for particularly Ukraine, but also the rest of the world, and trying to put out ideas.
Samuel Charap: If think tanks are there for anything, they should be there to put new ideas into the public discussion and to foster debate. At this point, I see to a certain extent that it’s my duty to keep that up, and I hope to be able to continue to do it. Although obviously, the spotlight is not something I would wish for, because of the consequences of it. But I do feel something of an obligation to try to push for better outcomes, given that I have more of a microphone than I would have otherwise.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s really hard to see what the path out of this is, but we still have to dare to dream. So keep up the good work. Hopefully, at some point a path out will become visible. My guest today has been Sam Charap. Thanks so much for coming back on the podcast, Sam.
Samuel Charap: Thanks for having me.
Rob’s outro [00:51:28]
Rob Wiblin: OK, I’ll now explain in more detail our user survey and new marketing role which I teased in the intro.
So as I mentioned, we’re currently running our user survey, which is one of the main ways we figure out what among all the things 80,000 Hours does are most helpful and which are not useful or even harmful. You can find it at 80000hours.org/survey.
The team has to be constantly thinking about what to write next, what roles to hire for, which podcast episodes to produce next, and so on — and your input can help with all that.
We have a fair few things going on at 80,000 Hours, including this show, our other show (80k After Hours), our job board, our various different kinds of research articles, our one-on-one advising, and our marketing efforts to reach new folks. So prioritisation can be a challenge, and there’s a lot of topics you might be able to give feedback on.
Normally we do this once a year, though we skipped it in 2021 so we could stay focused on just delivering our projects — which means we’re particularly keen to know how things have shifted over the last two years.
If you’ve filled it out before, it’s very likely that your plans and opinions have changed since then, so if you’re open to filling it out again we’d really appreciate that.
We’re keen to hear how 80,000 Hours might have affected your plans for doing good, both in your career and otherwise, and also to get feedback from anyone who has engaged with us and hasn’t changed their plans.
On average, people take 25 minutes to fill it out — if you were moving fast or had simple things to say, you could probably get through in 10 to 15 minutes, while someone with a complex story and subtle things to communicate would take longer.
However much you write, I can promise you every entry gets read all the way through by multiple people.
Again, you can find it at 80000hours.org/survey.
Second, we’re hiring someone to join our marketing team to help more people find out about this show as well as the other services that 80,000 Hours has to offer.
From the start of this year, we’ve begun investing much more heavily in getting the word out about how we can help folks have more impact, as reaching more people is a pretty obvious way we can do more good as an organisation.
Since then, we’ve found a few things that we think are working, and so want to try doing more of them — but to make that happen, we need more people on the marketing team than just Bella Forristal.
Someone who’d be right for this role would be pretty excited about effective altruism or 80,000 Hours’ mission, and might have a background in marketing (especially digital and influencer marketing) — but our experience is that that’s not essential, and we want to hear from people without jobs like that on their CV as well.
This isn’t exactly a traditional marketing position, since we’re a nonprofit and we’re not selling anything at all, so we’d love you to apply even if you aren’t otherwise thinking of yourself as a marketer per se.
The role is full-time, ideally it would be done in person at our office in London, and it would pay around £60k, assuming you have little to no prior experience — but more if you do.
If that piques your interest at all, you can find plenty more about the role at 80000hours.org/marketer and applications close on 23 August 2022.
All right — The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering and technical editing for this episode by Ben Cordell and Ryan Kessler.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.