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It’s hard to put one in the mindset of a leader who makes a decision to carry out a war like this. I think, unfortunately, understanding that perspective is even more important now — because it’s their mindset that will be making the key decisions, not ours.

But I do think that it’s hard to square what we make of Putin now with what we were making of him two weeks ago.

Samuel Charap

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is devastating the lives of Ukrainians, and so long as it continues there’s a risk that the conflict could escalate to include other countries or the use of nuclear weapons. It’s essential that NATO, the US, and the EU play their cards right to ideally end the violence, maintain Ukrainian sovereignty, and discourage any similar invasions in the future.

But how? To pull together the most valuable information on how to react to this crisis, we spoke with Samuel Charap — a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, one of the US’s foremost experts on Russia’s relationship with former Soviet states, and co-author of Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia.

Samuel believes that Putin views the alignment of Ukraine with NATO as an existential threat to Russia — a perhaps unreasonable view, but a sincere one nevertheless. Ukraine has been drifting further into Western Europe’s orbit and improving its defensive military capabilities, so Putin has concluded that if Russia wants to put a stop to that, there will never be a better time to act in the future.

Despite early successes holding off the Russian military, Samuel is sceptical that time is on the Ukrainian side. Though it won’t be able to create a puppet government Ukrainians view as legitimate, if committed to the task, Russia will likely gradually grind down Ukrainian resistance and take formal control of the country. If the war is to end before much of Ukraine is reduced to rubble, it will likely have to be through negotiation, rather than Russian defeat.

Many hope for Putin to be ousted from office, but Samuel cautions that he has enormous control of the Russian government and the media Russians consume, making that very unlikely in the near term. Furthermore, someone who successfully booted Putin from office is just as likely to be even more of an intransigent hardliner as they are to be a dove. In the meantime, loose talk of assassinating Putin could drive him to further reckless aggression.

The US policy response has so far been largely good, successfully balancing the need to punish Russia to dissuade large nations from bullying small ones in the future, while preventing NATO from being drawn into the war directly — which would pose a horrifying risk of escalation to a full nuclear exchange. The pressure from the general public to ‘do something’ might eventually cause national leaders to confront Russia more directly, but so far they are sensibly showing no interest in doing so.

However, use of nuclear weapons remains a low but worrying possibility. That could happen in various ways, such as:

  1. NATO shoots down Russian planes to enforce a no-fly zone — a problematic idea in Samuel’s opinion.
  2. An unintentional cycle of mutual escalation between Russia and NATO, perhaps starting with cyber attacks, or Russian bombs accidentally landing in NATO countries that neighbour Ukraine.
  3. Putin ends up with his back against the wall and believes he can no longer win the war or defend Russia without using tactical nuclear weapons.
  4. Putin decides to invade a country other than Ukraine.

Samuel is also worried that Russia may deploy chemical and biological weapons and blame it on the Ukrainians.

In Samuel’s opinion, the recent focus on the delivery of fighter jets to Ukraine is risky and not the key defence priority in any case. Instead, Ukraine could use more ground-to-air missiles to shoot Russian planes out of the sky.

Before war broke out, it’s possible Russia could have been satisfied if Ukraine followed through on the Minsk agreements and committed not to join NATO. Or it might not have, if Putin was committed to war, come what may. In any case, most Ukrainians found those terms intolerable.

At this point, the situation is even worse, and it’s hard to see how an enduring ceasefire could be agreed upon. On top of the above, Russia is also demanding recognition that Crimea is part of Russia, and acceptance of the independence of the so-calked Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. These conditions — especially the second — are entirely unacceptable to the Ukrainians. Hence the war continues, and could grind on for months until one side is sufficiently beaten down to compromise on their core demands.

Rob and Samuel discuss all of the above and also:

  • What are the implications if Sweden and/or Finland decide to join NATO?
  • What should NATO do now, and did it make any mistakes in the past?
  • What’s the most likely situation for us to be looking at in three months’ time?
  • Can Ukraine effectively win the war?

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80,000 Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore


Putin's true motive

Samuel Charap: I think it’s not 100% clear cut one way or the other. I think the bottom line is that this issue that is Ukraine for Russia has been a near-existential one ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union — that they’ve regarded Ukraine as a core piece of their national security, and losing Ukraine from the Russian elite perspective was never going to be acceptable.

Samuel Charap: I think ultimately it was driven by their threat perceptions and their understanding of national security, and how that manifested itself. Of course, obviously there’s some contingent factors there. It’s not necessarily protecting Russia from some imminent threat, but just this idea that if Russia loses Ukraine to the West — if Ukraine becomes a sort of Western bridgehead — then Russian security is fundamentally threatened. I think that prospect is ultimately what drove Russian decision making.

Samuel Charap: It really doesn’t matter what we think about the probabilities of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO, or the implications of Ukraine’s de facto integration with NATO. It’s what the Russians think — because ultimately, they’re the ones making the decisions.

Samuel Charap: And I think they have ample reason to think that this is certainly on the table. We have promised all NATO allies that Ukraine and Georgia “will become” members of the alliance. Ukraine became an Enhanced Opportunities Partner of NATO last year — which sounds like bureaucratic jargon, but it means that they essentially fully integrated, have the opportunities for full integration to NATO activities, everything short of Article 5. It’s the status that Finland has, which is probably NATO’s closest partner, and most capable one.

Samuel Charap: And the UK was building ports on the Black Sea, the US was providing evermore lethal assistance, the Turks were providing armed drones — and Russia wasn’t getting anywhere on its desired outcome from the Minsk process, which ultimately was about, I think, sort of creating a political lever over decision making in Kyiv.

Samuel Charap: So I do think that the Russian elite saw the prospect of trend lines heading in the wrong direction — that is, over time, basically losing Ukraine — and that is what ultimately drove the decision. Now, none of this is to justify what’s happened. What’s happened is horrible and atrocious, and potentially a war crime — or many — but I think it’s important to understand their motives and what they were thinking when these decisions were taken.

Samuel Charap: So even if it’s not the immediate prospect of NATO membership, it’s the prospect that essentially, Russia would lose its influence over Ukraine over time — and whether or not it’s a de jure member, it might well become so deeply integrated that it does pose that threat. And Russia — or the current Russian government at least — does think that the West would sort of prefer its ouster, and goes about achieving that in various ways. And that sounds paranoid and ridiculous — well, maybe not anymore, because some people are openly talking about assassinating Putin, but it might have sounded paranoid a few weeks ago — but that I think is how they see things.

Chances of regime change in Russia

Samuel Charap: It’s quite tempting to think that, given all the horrible things that have been unleashed by his decisions, that this war will be Putin’s immediate undoing. But the likelihood of regime change in the short term is very low. Putin has total control over the elite, over the information space. There is no organized political opposition in Russia, because he’s just destroyed it or jailed it. And so the outlets for potential avenues towards political change in the short term are few and far between.

Samuel Charap: Now, over the medium to long term, I think Putin has put at risk a lot of the core elements of his own legitimacy — and particularly the relative stability that he brought to Russia following the chaos of the ’90s experienced by most Russians. A lot of those elements of chaos are returning: high inflation, devaluation of the currency, potential default. This is like 1998 all over again. With growing popular discontent, it is possible that there will be political instability, but then we get into the medium term — nothing that’s so short term that it would affect the course of the war.

Samuel Charap: But what happens if there is political instability in Russia? Russia has a massive repressive apparatus and it could get quite ugly. And even if Putin is ousted, there’s no guarantee that the next leader is going to be more amenable to Western sensibilities than he is. That person might be a hardliner, even more hardliner. So I think it’s like trying to win the lottery, thinking that A, you could achieve regime change in Russia, and B, that you could do it in such a way that produces a beneficial outcome.

Rob Wiblin: People have not only talked about hoping that Putin is overthrown, but also about trying to instigate it one way or another. On its face, it seems like that could be extremely risky. It could lead to a very severe backlash from Putin and his supporters. Is that something we should be concerned about?

Samuel Charap: Absolutely. So the challenge right now is that this is rapidly becoming an existential conflict more broadly for Putin and his regime. And when leaders are thinking about things in existential terms, they often make quite rash decisions. Since defeat he could never accept, the likelihood of escalation grows the more desperate and existential the conflict becomes — and that’s where things could get quite dangerous, for sure.

"No-fly zones"

Samuel Charap: Well, if you want to have a war with Russia, that’s your recipe. It is kind of striking that the term “no-fly zone” is applied to actions that would entail taking out Russian air defenses, shooting Russian planes out of the sky, and being involved in a hot war with the country that holds the single largest nuclear arsenal in terms of number of warheads. I think it comes from a place of wanting to do something to stop this, which is totally understandable, but it does not seem to me like a recipe for anything other than an expansion of the conflict.

Samuel Charap: And that’s the balance that Western governments are facing right now: how to help Ukraine without actually enlarging the war, and a no-fly zone clearly would do that. In part, this also has to do with the insistence of Zelenskyy and his government that this is the way forward, but it just does not seem likely to me, nor would it be a good idea if it were pursued.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Because of the risk that shooting down Russian jets over Ukraine would rapidly escalate to a massive nuclear war — or even a massive conventional war — it just strikes me as one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard in my life, one of the most dangerous policy proposals that I’ve ever heard seriously put forward. I guess I’m glad that the closer you get to Biden, or the closer you get to the serious decision-makers, the less keen they seem to be on it.

Rob Wiblin: But should we worry that there seems to be actual support among people who don’t know very much about this issue for this proposal? Is it possible that it could somehow slip through in the future, if there’s a changeover in personnel or something?

Samuel Charap: The professional military would be, in this country at least, against it. I imagine that’s true in most NATO countries.

Samuel Charap: What I think you’re identifying though, is that there is a dynamic going on here where the public outrage about Russia’s horrific actions in Ukraine is driving policy in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Even just the pace of the sanctions: we went to 11 out of 10 in like two days — farther than many expected we’d ever get in short order. And I think the same is true about these military assistance initiatives. We’re just trying to do something because there’s a public demand for action. So that’s what worries me, that the sort of public outrage that’s being channeled in Western democracies through political systems could result in decisions that prove ultimately unwise.

Samuel Charap: I don’t think we’re there yet, and I think it is true that senior decision-makers in the US administration here now are quite sober-minded and conscious of avoiding escalation. You can see that manifested practically with the creation of this deconfliction mechanism — the bilateral US–Russia military-to-military communications channel to avoid accidents in the context of the war in Ukraine — which the Biden administration apparently proposed immediately after the war started. It took the Russians over a week to pick up the phone, but now that is operational apparently.

Samuel Charap: I think there is a danger of governments trying to deal with this public outrage in ways that are gradually getting us to a more and more escalatory place. And maybe in a way, the MiGs were kind of like the way of placating the demand for a no-fly zone. I know in the US right now, the administration’s trying to get ahead of Congress forcing its hand in a number of ways.

Chances that this conflict leads to a nuclear exchange

Samuel Charap: I think the risks of that are obviously more elevated than they were a month ago. However, there are a lot of intermediate steps. So if this conflict is contained to Ukraine, I don’t see it going nuclear, because Russia has a huge number of conventional capabilities that it hasn’t deployed yet or employed — and it’s going to take a while for them to work through all those before they even need to think about nuclear use.

Samuel Charap: Where nuclear use comes in, I think, is if Russia perceives NATO potentially planning to intervene in the conflict in Ukraine. And I think a point to make here is that the very fact that Russia has lost so much of its combat-ready forces in Ukraine — and has expended so many conventional missiles — then if there is to be a conflict with NATO, it would make escalation to the nuclear level happen earlier, because they have fewer other options. Most of their combat-ready military and even their navy is engaged in this.

Samuel Charap: It’s the Russia–NATO escalation dynamic, I think, that could bring in the nuclear piece. That would start, I think, with nonstrategic nuclear weapon use — which is another term for battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons — of which Russia has at least 2,000 warheads, and a lot of its missile platforms are dual-capable. So that’s what worries me, because Russia sees itself as the weaker party vis-a-vis NATO, and if NATO were to enter the conflict, I think the sense that they would need to resort to that would increase. Getting to a strategic nuclear exchange would be a few more rungs up the escalation ladder, but what I worry about is the nonstrategic piece.

Rob Wiblin: I see. That they could feel a need to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield for some reason, and then that could escalate.

Samuel Charap: Not in Ukraine, but to preempt a NATO intervention that they see as imminent, or to respond to a NATO intervention that actually occurs, those are the kinds of scenarios that I would imagine would prompt that. I don’t think they’re looking to start a war with NATO. That’s an important point to make. Russia right now is not in a position to be fighting one. It’s not going to seek that out. So what I worry about is their perceiving that NATO would be on the verge of intervening and taking steps preemptively.

Samuel Charap: It would be very surprising to me if Russia did not retaliate for the sanctions in some way, and that could certainly begin with non-kinetic actions like cyberattacks. I mean, if a criminal ransomware gang can shut down the largest pipeline on the US East Coast for almost a week last summer, I presume that the Russian state can do a whole lot worse. And cyber is the means by which Russia can affect Western homelands in the same way that our sanctions have dramatically affected their homeland.

Samuel Charap: Then you could see things spiraling out of control from there, because we’ve seen that cyberattacks are hard to contain, and there might be retaliation against Russia, and then Russia might retaliate again. And then you could see how this could escalate out of control, given that everyone is on alert and looking to see if the other is going to take the first move. It just creates an environment that’s ripe for that kind of tit-for-tat escalatory spiral. So that does worry me as well.

Is there a deal that all sides would accept?

Rob Wiblin: My guess is that if I was Ukrainian, I would be willing to settle for some agreement to basically not join, not make an association agreement with NATO or with the EU, nor join up with some Russian organization, in order to reduce the risk that my country is reduced to rubble and nonfunctional for the foreseeable future. That seems to me like a trade probably worth making.

Samuel Charap: Yeah. I think the Zelenskyy government would take that deal, but I’m not sure that the Russians are going to settle for that now. They’ve put more on the table, and having taken this really unfortunate step of recognizing the independence of these separatist republics…

Rob Wiblin: It’s hard to walk back.

Samuel Charap: Exactly. That is a nut that seems quite hard to crack. I think if it were just on the neutrality issue now — if Ukraine were to have non-aligned status and everything would go back to the way it was, in terms of Russian withdrawal and Ukrainian territorial control — that might be somewhat plausible. But it’s the demands beyond that, that I think are probably the big sticking points.

Rob Wiblin: It seems like Ukraine — well, multiple parties here — might have messed up in the past. If there was an agreement that could have avoided this war, that ultimately might even be preferable from multiple people’s points of view than what is even achievable now, that maybe those demands should have been taken more seriously. And maybe if we’d realized that Russia was actually fully committed to an invasion of this kind, we might have taken them more seriously.

Samuel Charap: Well, before the war I thought that. Based on the way the Russian military was preparing and the rhetoric of the Russian leadership, this seemed quite likely to me. It seemed likely to me since the end of November. I wrote back then that if implementing Minsk is all it takes to avoid this outcome, we should do it, and push the Ukrainians to do it.

Samuel Charap: I should stipulate that it might be the case that Putin decided to do this, and there was nothing that anyone could do, once he made that decision, to talk him out of it. That might be the case, but I don’t think we’ve really fully tested that proposition. The things that seemed unacceptable prices to pay to avoid this outcome, now, from my perspective, are a pittance compared to the costs of this conflict. And not just for Russia and Ukraine, but really for the world. I mean, this is going to create not only economic, but global waves that will be felt for… I mean, I can’t imagine.

Rob Wiblin: Decades, yeah.

Samuel Charap: Yes. I mean, I don’t even know what the international system looks like if a player of Russia’s significance is essentially North Korea-izing itself.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, it’s a nightmare.

Samuel Charap: I don’t know how the UN functions. There are a lot of things that are unclear about how the world works after this, in the international system at least. So the costs were going to be tremendous.

Samuel Charap: Now, the counterargument to that that I got, was that that’s essentially giving into extortion: that Putin was basically pointing a gun at Ukraine’s head and saying, “Pay up or I’ll shoot.” It is true we were being extorted, but sometimes you have to pay to avoid the hostage-taker killing the hostage.

Why not promise to remove sanctions?

Samuel Charap: That has been said in asides, essentially, that if Russia fully withdraws… But the problem was, I think that we tried to do something different here, which was that we really tried to do sanctions as deterrents, which entailed being quite transparent about what the threat was. A deterrent threat is a threat that needs to be realized if the other party takes the action you’re trying to deter, but the other party needs to know what you’re threatening so as to weigh the costs.

Samuel Charap: So the US particularly was very transparent about what was on the table in terms of these technology sanctions, the potential for going after the Central Bank, and the other big state-owned banks. And deterrence failed, clearly. But then we were in a situation where once deterrence fails, what you’re doing is punishment, by definition of how you do deterrence.

Samuel Charap: And if it’s punishment, it’s hard to frame that as leverage or to link it to particular conditions — because normally you implement sanctions in order to lift them because you’re trying to achieve a change in another state’s behavior. Here, we’ve implemented sanctions because of something Russia did that it can’t really undo. It can’t un-invade Ukraine. It can withdraw, but…

Samuel Charap: So that has been the challenge, and now that these things have been linked to Russian actions that can’t be undone, it’s hard both to credibly communicate the conditions for sanctions relief, and to explain to your publics why you’re letting up the pressure on somebody who did all these horrible things, or a country that did all these horrible things.

The most likely situation in 3 months

Samuel Charap: This is the challenge that I’ve been struggling with myself, which is that I can’t see what a stable endgame looks like — both in terms of what happens inside Ukraine, in Russia, and globally. In three months from now, I mean, a Russia-imposed political order is not going to be a stable one in Ukraine. That’s clear. Is something short of that likely to emerge? It is possible. In other words, some negotiated settlement. But how then you deal with the Russian military presence that’s already there — in at least the previously occupied areas in the Donbas and in Crimea — I’m having trouble computing all of that.

Samuel Charap: And then we get to the question about Russia in terms of stability. These sanctions are really extraordinarily significant in terms of their impact on Russia. It’s not going to make Russia implode, but it will create significant economic dislocation, which could have political knock-on effects. And by the way, not just the sanctions, but the sort of self-sanctioning of Western companies who have divested or closed their operations and so on. It’s hard for me to see what a stable economic situation in Russia looks like 3, 6, 9, 12 months from now.

Samuel Charap: Then there’s the question about the international system. What will relations with Russia look like in three months? It’s hard to picture right now, given that we’re basically banning any interaction with Russians of any sort. But if that is the policy, then what happens to international institutions? What happens to even bilateral, multilateral mechanisms that ensure stability? It’s hard to compute. And getting back to why I thought every effort should be made to try to make a deal before this happened: the consequences of this are sort of mind-boggling, and hard to get your head around.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Samuel Charap’s research:

Other useful resources Rob used trying to make sense of the Ukraine situation (24 February – 9 March, 2022):

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The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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