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 it’s a risky business to tell your enemy you’d like to see them assassinated. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been alarming and may foretell a new era of heightened tensions between great powers, and more bullying of smaller nations by larger neighbors.
I’ve also been very concerned that the current situation could escalate and draw in other countries, ultimately leading to widespread use of nuclear weapons. While unlikely, that would be one of the worst catastrophes to befall humanity in its entire history, so it bears keeping in mind.
To understand the situation better, I wanted to speak with someone who had extensive experience tracking Russia, Ukraine, and the tensions between them, as well as nuclear security issues.
Listeners made a lot of suggestions, and out of those we picked Samuel Charap, for reasons you’ll hear in just a second.
In a brisk hour, we tackle why this war happened, why it happened now, whether Ukraine can win, what NATO is doing right and wrong, no-fly zones, ways the war might escalate out of control, how likely that is, whether there is any path out of the war, and if so how it might be achieved.
Samuel really helped me understand the challenge we face better, even having researched my questions for dozens of hours since the war began.
For future reference, this conversation was recorded on Thursday, the 10th of March, 2022.
OK, without further ado, I bring you Samuel Charap.
The interview begins [00:01:40]
Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking 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 and US–Russia deterrence, strategic stability, and arms control — topics he has been working on for well over a decade.
Rob Wiblin: In the past, Sam has been senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a senior advisor for arms control at the US Department of State.
Rob Wiblin: In 2017, Sam co-authored a book on the Ukraine crisis called Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia. Before that, Sam did a PhD in political science at the University of Oxford, was a visiting scholar at the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kyiv, and was a Fulbright Scholar at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
Rob Wiblin: And as if that weren’t enough to make him the right person for this conversation, he speaks both Russian and Ukrainian. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Sam!
Samuel Charap: Thanks for having me.
Putin’s true motive [00:02:29]
Rob Wiblin: I hope to talk about the risk of nuclear escalation and how to reduce it, but first, there’s been a lot of debate online in the last few weeks about what is Putin’s true motive or reason for launching this war. In particular, there’s been quite heated discussion between those who think a key motive is making Russia’s borders more defensible, and those who believe that that’s not an important factor. What are your thoughts on that question?
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.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess people who don’t like that theory tend to say something like, “Ukraine wasn’t about to join NATO. It wasn’t super likely that was about to happen.” And then also, “Do the Russians really think we’re going to invade Russia? That Russia’s actually under threat militarily?” And also, “Doesn’t NATO already have a border with Russia through the Baltic states?” That’s the kind of skeptical opinions that I’ve heard back.
Samuel Charap: So first of all, 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.
Rob Wiblin: Right. And I guess the reason to start this war now, rather than just bide their time and consider military intervention years from now, is that Ukraine is getting better able to defend itself over time by integrating with other countries and by buying this equipment, such that starting a war in three years’ time could be substantially more difficult than doing it now.
Samuel Charap: That’s right. Yes, exactly. I think it’s helpful to think about this in terms of how prospect theory understands decision making. In other words, when leaders are in a loss-prevention mindset, when they’re thinking about the status quo being intolerable and potentially getting worse, then the emphasis is put on the cost of inaction. So you have to ‘do something,’ and that can drive decisions to act now to preempt potential future threats.
Samuel Charap: And what I was struck by is that after 2015, when the Minsk agreements were signed but subsequently not implemented, Russia seemed to be playing a long game. But at some point — I think in 2020, 2021 — they decided that actually, the long game was not favoring them, and that they needed to act.
Rob Wiblin: So it’s now or never.
Samuel Charap: Yeah. Exactly.
What the West could have done differently [00:07:44]
Rob Wiblin: With the benefit of hindsight, what’s something important that the US or NATO or the EU could have and should have done differently in the past?
Samuel Charap: It’s a tough question, in part because while Putin is unleashing this war, it’s hard to focus on anything other than the Russian actions. And none of this is to excuse Russian behavior, but the policy pursued after the Maidan Revolution, and the subsequent annexation of Crimea, and support for an insurgency in the Donbas was — in my view — never going to be sustainable over the long term.
Samuel Charap: In other words, the West’s strategic objective, openly stated, was to essentially create a defeat for Russia in Ukraine — to really anchor Ukraine in the West, minimize Russian influence — and that was never going to be something that Russia would accept. So it seemed to me, as early as 2017, a matter of time before something changes here — that Russia would take actions to change the status quo.
Samuel Charap: And there weren’t efforts to really find a sustainable alternative. There was this sense that, “Okay, we can keep the conflict more or less frozen in the Donbas. Russia’s not getting what it wants, but it’s not going to do anything about it.” And I think that was a miscalculation.
Samuel Charap: If I had to point to one other thing, it’s this issue about the principle of a country’s right to make its own sovereign decisions about its foreign policy. That has become a sort of mantra that I think has come to mean things that actually it doesn’t. Ukraine of course has the right to decide that it aspires to NATO membership, but NATO has the right to decide which countries can join its alliance or not. And the reality was — and is — that Ukraine is not on a membership track, that there is no consensus within the alliance for offering it one.
Samuel Charap: So when Russia made this issue centrally about Ukraine’s geopolitical status — its alignment or non-alignment and potential in the future — then we had to focus on this issue of freedom of choice, essentially. As opposed to the reality of what NATO policy is, which is that actually, Ukraine is not on a membership track.
Samuel Charap: I don’t know if that would’ve prevented the war, but it was certainly Russia’s number one issue in their long list — and the one that they said, unless it was addressed, nothing else really mattered. That one struck me as they’re essentially asking us not to do something we have no intention of doing, so it shouldn’t be so hard to talk about. But I think because of this principle and the sort of rhetorical jousting around it, it became…
Rob Wiblin: It made it hard to commit to that.
Samuel Charap: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: What are the aspects of the Minsk agreements that were not implemented?
Samuel Charap: So this was an agreement that was essentially imposed on Ukraine after a battlefield defeat in February 2015. And the short version of what it entailed was that Russia would get an outsized political lever in Ukraine via the sort of hyper-empowerment of these pro-Russian separatist regions, and a renegotiated Ukrainian constitution.
Samuel Charap: The details were left out, but clearly — based on subsequent proposals that became public about what Russia had in mind about the constitutional changes — this was the means by which Russia would essentially achieve a neutral Ukraine, a non-aligned Ukraine.
Samuel Charap: And that political process never went anywhere. You know, the ceasefire, the number of deaths along the line of contact dramatically decreased after the signing of Minsk II, but the political process never moved anywhere. And you could understand why, from the Ukrainian perspective, they would be quite reticent to do that — because it would entail implementing some serious concessions. That was ultimately the sort of stalemate that emerged, and I think Russia became convinced that that process was going nowhere.
Chances of Ukraine holding out [00:11:40]
Rob Wiblin: So Ukraine has been managing to delay the advance of the Russian military, much more than most people expected it to. But in terms of just outright military equipment, they remain massively outnumbered. And from his statements at least, Putin seems really committed to continuing the invasion — even if it drags out and becomes very costly and potentially requires lengthy artillery bombardment of cities, or kind of siege warfare.
Rob Wiblin: What’s the chance that if Ukraine can bog down the Russian military over the next few weeks or months, that growing logistical or financial or social pressures, or pressures within the Russian military, could actually then make it impractical for Russia to proceed, to capture Ukraine bit by bit?
Samuel Charap: The thing that has surprised those of us who watch the Russian military and the foreign policy decision making about this is just how terrible the Russian initial plan was, and how essentially they’ve been unable to recover from those initial operational mistakes — which were based on wildly optimistic assumptions about how weak the Ukrainian government was, and how prone to crumbling the Ukrainian military was.
Samuel Charap: You saw all these actions that were essentially based on the idea that with a couple of cruise missiles and some airborne force parachute drops, that everything would just crumble and Russia would waltz into Kyiv, and it would be sort of like a somewhat more bloody version of Crimea. And that was just totally off the mark, and as a result, they didn’t have the logistics tail ready for this longer war.
Samuel Charap: So that setback might have proven so debilitating, and the Ukrainians’ brave resistance, that we might already be witnessing a slight modification in Russian war aims. In other words, the way they started out, it would have been hard to imagine the kind of meeting we saw today between the foreign minister of Ukraine and the Russian foreign minister — because it seemed like they were intent on regime change in Ukraine, intent on overthrowing Zelenskyy’s government — but there are indications that that perhaps might be moderating.
Samuel Charap: Now, it’s not 100% guaranteed by any means, but I think the Russian tactical failures might be having an impact on the extent of their war aims, and also the extent of the economic shock that the Western response has created within Russia. So I’m slightly more… “optimistic” is not the right word, but I’m slightly more open to the prospect that Putin might not be 100% intent on pursuing regime change, no matter what the costs. But yes, I think part of this depends on what happens on the battlefield, and part of it depends on what international negotiation is able to achieve.
Rob Wiblin: So it sounds like it’s not that it would become, in principle, impossible for them to continue to conquer Ukraine. But if the costs and the length of time become sufficiently large, they might decide to settle for something less through a ceasefire, basically.
Samuel Charap: Yes, I think that’s right. Hopefully not just on a temporary basis. The costs are rapidly accruing and it’s going to be difficult to pursue this as a long-term proposition, but not impossible. And that’s important to keep in mind, that the likelihood of a Russian military defeat is quite low.
Chances of regime change in Russia [00:14:59]
Rob Wiblin: As you mentioned earlier, a lot of people are now kind of hoping that Putin will be removed from office in a coup or some other event, I guess possibly an assassination. You’ve written that you think that’s both unlikely to happen, and that if it did happen, it would be about as likely to make the situation worse as to make it better. Can you explain why you think that?
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.
The good and the bad from the West so far [00:17:55]
Rob Wiblin: What are the US and its allies doing wrong at the moment, if anything?
Samuel Charap: Well, you’re giving me lots of opportunities to be critical of Western policy. But to start, we should say that a lot of things have gone right.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Samuel Charap: There has been unprecedented coordination between the US, the EU, the UK, and other allies globally on the economic sanctions. The support for the Ukrainian military has been quite robust. Not many people expected the Ukrainian government and military to have survived this long under Russian assault, and the global consensus on the unacceptability of Russia’s actions is quite strong. So there are a lot of things that have been done right.
Samuel Charap: I think where I’d like to see a little bit more effort is on looking for off-ramps. This is not a universal criticism: I think Macron has tried to engage with Putin, as has Schultz at least once, and Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Prime Minister, has actually visited Moscow to try to serve as an intermediary. But we haven’t seen the same from the US president.
Samuel Charap: And I think ultimately, Putin’s the only person in the world who can change the course of Russian behavior. So we need to be trying to talk him out of this madness, and potentially using all the leverage that has been created by these unprecedented sanctions to compel him to change his short-term objectives. If we can use partial, conditional sanctions relief to end the human suffering in Ukraine, that might be something that is worth considering.
Samuel Charap: Now, it might be possible that Putin will stop at nothing, and that the prospect of sanctions relief is uninteresting to him. But this will end with a diplomatic settlement: one of the two parties is unlikely to just collapse completely, and so the longer it goes on before we get there, the worse things are going to be for Ukraine first and foremost, but also for the rest of the world.
Should the West deliver MiG fighter jets to Ukraine? [00:19:57]
Rob Wiblin: A big debate over the last couple of days has been whether Poland and the US or NATO, one way or another, should try to deliver MiG fighter jets to Ukraine. It seems, as of today, that the US has kind of gotten cold feet and maybe Poland has as well — because no one wants to be specifically responsible for doing this, and they worry it might be too escalatory. What do you think of that general proposal?
Samuel Charap: I find it odd that this has become the fixation of the public debate, because it’s unclear how much retooling the Polish MiGs would require to be usable for Ukrainians. First of all, they’d have to rip out all the NATO-compatible avionics and communications equipment that had been installed — apparently the Polish MiGs were modernized in 2013 — and then they’d have to put in equipment that the Ukrainians would be able to use. That could take weeks, if not months. Meanwhile, there have not been, as far as I know, any cases where Ukrainian fighters have shot down Russian warplanes. Most of the warplanes that have been lost, as far as I’ve been able to tell, have been shot down by Ukrainian air defenses.
Samuel Charap: So this seems like we’re focusing on something that is unlikely to be militarily consequential, with potential for escalatory pathways created by the flying-over-the-border dynamic, and Russia potentially shooting them down. So I think it’s somewhat of a distraction: air defenses might be more actually militarily relevant to the Ukrainians right now than fighters.
“No-fly zones” [00:21:32]
Rob Wiblin: Some seemingly serious people advocate shooting down Russia’s planes over Ukraine — which they, to me, slightly euphemistically and problematically refer to as creating a “no-fly zone.” What do you think of that proposal?
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.
Rob Wiblin: Interesting. I guess maybe members of Congress know less about foreign policy, potentially, and so they don’t appreciate the tradeoffs quite as seriously as the military folks or the people at the Department of State would. And so they could potentially try to push the administration to do more than they think is wise.
Samuel Charap: That is often the dynamic. Not necessarily because they know less, but because their equities are different, so to speak. They’re not the ones running US foreign policy; they’re trying to push the executive branch in various ways, and so the consequences are not theirs to deal with. That is often the dynamic here: that we have some more hawkish views or a desire to do more coming from Congress, and a more reticent executive branch. In different parties and different administrations, Congress always seems to be a bit more hawkish.
Chances that this conflict leads to a nuclear exchange [00:26:06]
Rob Wiblin: How worried are you about the possibility that this conflict could result in a major nuclear exchange between Russia and NATO?
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.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. None of the paths to a major nuclear exchange seem likely to me, but there’s various different long-shot scenarios that slightly concern me. I guess, one, you could imagine that some action on the part of NATO is viewed as far more escalatory by Russia than is expected and then you get another cycle in the other direction. Like the delivery of the MiGs might be viewed as very escalatory by Russia, whereas we thought it was merely somewhat escalatory. And then they do something that we perceive as more escalatory than they thought it was in return. And so it goes on.
Rob Wiblin: Another one is it’s possible that Putin could really have a screw loose. That’s not really my perception, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out, that something could be going wrong with him psychologically. And I guess it is possible that in some flight of madness, we do decide to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine at some point, because the public pressure becomes too great. And also cyberattacks could be viewed, again, as more escalatory than is intended, and then they could go out of control. Any thoughts on that?
Samuel Charap: I think it’s important to differentiate between the kind of scenario that I was talking about — which is essentially a deliberate kinetic escalation to a Russia–NATO conflict on the assumption that NATO’s on the verge of intervening, or in fact is intervening — and the scenario that you’re alluding to, which I would call the “escalation spiral.” So that could get us to a kinetic conflict, but I think it would probably start non-kinetically.
Samuel Charap: And frankly, we might already be on the verge of that: 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.
Rob Wiblin: How worried should we be about that? It sounds very concerning to me.
Samuel Charap: Well, it is concerning, and this is going to be a challenge actually for the long term, assuming there isn’t political change in Russia — which, like I said, I think in the short term is low probability. We’ve basically — and you can say it’s perfectly justified — put Russia in a place where it has no stake in its relations with Western countries and increasingly little stake in the global economy. So doing damage to one or both is not as costly as it might have been two weeks ago for Russia. And as I said, in this sort of perceived existential conflict, the need to hit back might be irresistible.
Samuel Charap: Now, what we — the West — do in response to that is another story, and so we have some say in this. But that kind of escalatory spiral is one that I think a lot of policymakers in Western governments are actively contemplating, concerned about, and on the lookout for. So we shall see.
Samuel Charap: One thing that’s interesting about cyber capabilities so far in this conflict is that they’ve been, up until the last few days, relatively inconsequential. A lot of us would’ve assumed that, for example, there would’ve been huge cyberattacks before the kinetic conflict began. And while there were some, they weren’t as significant as one might have expected.
Samuel Charap: So it remains an open question, but it’s hard for me to imagine that Russia doesn’t take steps to respond. These sanctions, like I said, were not only an 11 out of 10, but they’ve also been imposed in a way that exclusively frames them as punishment, which means that Russia doesn’t have any reason to think that anything it could do could get itself out from under them. So that’s another challenge I think we have going forward.
Rob Wiblin: Another scenario we haven’t even talked about is in previous decades we’ve seen lots of false alarms, where one country thought they were under attack by the other one way or another, and then they decided not to retaliate because they assumed it was a false alarm. But if you got a serious false alarm today, it’s not so obvious that people would give the benefit of the doubt to that and decide to just hold back. You could have an accidental exchange or something that escalates very quickly by accident, basically.
Samuel Charap: Yes. So that deconfliction mechanism that I mentioned, that’s why I’m very glad that it’s been set up, because having that kind of ability to get the other side on the phone and clarify a situation that might have been a mistake is important.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’m not sure whether it’d be credible if you thought the missiles were incoming, but then they’ve called you up and said, “No, they’re not.” I’m not quite sure how that conversation goes down.
Samuel Charap: Well, I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s a sort of tactical question about actions occurring in and around Ukraine — not thousands of missiles flying over the North Pole. But what if one errant cruise missile ends up in Poland or Hungary, and it was just a targeting error and just landed in the forest somewhere. That’s the kind of thing that a deconfliction mechanism can address.
Rob Wiblin: What should NATO be sure not to do in order to avoid escalating the conflict and drawing in more parties?
Samuel Charap: The first thing, which doesn’t seem to be too controversial, at least among the governments right now, is intervening directly — militarily getting involved. There’s been a lot of publicity surrounding the military assistance, which is counterintuitive to me, because Russia reads the papers too. So I think this should be done as covertly as possible and as discreetly as possible, and in a coordinated fashion so that we’re not having these big public kerfuffles like has been the case with these MiGs recently with Poland. Those are a couple of things.
Samuel Charap: I think keeping communication lines open is very important at the political level as well. And clearly signaling the limits of what we’re prepared to do. And I think actually governments have been pretty good about that part at least.
Rob Wiblin: It sounds like if we got into a kind of tit-for-tat using things like cyberattacks that we should try to, like, if they go 1, then we should go 0.8, so to speak — so that we’d lower the risk that they will then retaliate even higher. You want to basically retaliate, but not quite as much, so that it can’t just keep increasing.
Samuel Charap: That’s right. Escalation spirals do involve decisions at each point to hit back harder. It just depends on how serious a potential Russian attack might be. If they take down Wall Street or something, or utilities, it’s going to be hard to resist the demand to retaliate. But if it’s more targeted than that, I think that decision-makers will be inclined to take into account the potential for escalation. We do have some control over this, of course.
What listeners should do [00:36:01]
Rob Wiblin: Do you think it could make any sense for remote workers to consider relocating out of major cities that are highly likely to be targeted if there is a nuclear exchange? Or would that be excessive caution, or more costly than it’s worth?
Samuel Charap: I think in NATO countries, we’re just a long way away from having to worry about that, if ever. So I wouldn’t be making any changes to anyone’s personal lives in really any NATO country at the moment. I think there’ll be a fair amount of warning if things start getting out of control. It’s not going to be instantaneous like that. So I’m not changing anything that I do.
Rob Wiblin: Is there anything listeners to this show can do to reduce the probability that nuclear weapons are used in this conflict? Keeping in mind that a nontrivial number work in government, and some of them work in foreign policy and so on, so they might have some actions available to them that a random person might not.
Samuel Charap: Public pressure for escalatory steps is quite significant right now, and advocating against them doesn’t have the same moral context, perhaps, as advocating for them. In other words, trying to help the Ukrainians seems like the right thing to do right now, but nonetheless there are efforts to call for moderation, and those are the kinds of things that people can support. So maybe joining public calls for moderation might be one thing to consider.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It sounds like the most important people are in the White House. It’s a little bit hard for the general public to participate in this.
Samuel Charap: Well, yes, but like we just discussed, the White House is responsive to pressure from Congress, and Congress is responsive to pressure from its constituents.
Rob Wiblin: So it does matter that the general public as a whole has a broad understanding of the risks that they’re taking if things are escalated.
Samuel Charap: Absolutely. And I have a feeling that’s probably true in other Western governments as well — that parliaments do matter, at least in terms of the kind of pressure they can bring to bear.
Chances of biological or chemical weapons use [00:37:59]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Russia recently is claiming falsely that during the war, they found a joint Ukrainian and US biological weapons facility, or some research going on of that kind. Should we worry about Russia using biological or chemical weapons, perhaps in an attack that they then blame on the Ukrainians? Because as I understand it, they’ve done things along those lines during the Syrian civil war.
Samuel Charap: This is very, very concerning and is really a red flag. I would be quite concerned about what Russia does in the coming days in this context, and be very wary of any Russian claims about Ukrainian WMD use, because they don’t have any. This whole US labs conspiracy theory thing is something that the Russian state has spent a lot of time building up within Russia in recent years. It was even more disconcerting that China has publicly sort of supported it.
Rob Wiblin: Indulged it.
Samuel Charap: Yeah. So, I think this is a cause for a lot of concern. This is the thing that is not implausible, because the failure of the initial Russian military operation basically incentivizes these kinds of escalatory steps to end it faster, because…
Rob Wiblin: They’re feeling embarrassed.
Samuel Charap: Because of how badly they screwed up the initial… Not just embarrassed, but the military setback created by that initial failure I think is proving hard to recover from.
Best realistic outcome from here [00:39:29]
Rob Wiblin: If you were an ordinary Ukrainian living in Ukraine, what realistic outcome would you hope for from the war?
Samuel Charap: Well, what I would hope for in the short term would be a ceasefire and an end to the active fighting. I think that really needs to be a top consideration at the moment. Of course, I’d want my elected government in control of my country, and I would want Russian troops out. But if it takes, from my perspective, some sort of alternative non-alignment arrangement to get that, that would seem at this point like a deal worth taking.
Samuel Charap: I don’t know if it’s out there, because Russia seems to have more far-reaching objectives than just that. But average Ukrainians are suffering a lot right now, and their country is being destroyed, so I would imagine if I were one of them, and my friends there, they want this fighting ended, and they want not to have a Russian-imposed regime.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. OK, let’s talk about that for a bit now, because I feel a little bit like the fighters on the ground are being let down by the lack of strategic realism, or the lack of consideration of actually just being completely pragmatic and saying, “What deal can we strike to end this war and produce a peace that Ukraine can live with, even if it’s not what they want exactly?”
Rob Wiblin: It seems like the ideal outcome would be some kind of stable settlement that would be good enough from Russia’s point of view, that they’re not going to invade Ukraine again in the future. Because after all, Russia’s still going to be around, still going to have a massive military, still going to be on the border of Ukraine for the foreseeable future. So the question is, is there any room for a negotiated settlement between Russia and Ukraine that both parties would find acceptable? At this point, is that imaginable?
Samuel Charap: I agree that there’s a war optimism that is setting in among some in Ukraine, and of course there’s an effort to boost morale here too, but it’s caught on in the West as well. And I think that that is problematic, because the longer this war goes on, the more Ukrainians will suffer. And frankly, I don’t think the odds of their victory becoming more likely is increased over time — I think it’s the opposite. But I fear that some believe that time is on the Ukrainian side — and the consequences of that assumption are a protracted, bloody, brutal war.
Samuel Charap: So what could a settlement look like? Well, I think we’re seeing some glimpses of that. One of the Russian demands that had been put out there is the non-alignment neutrality issue, which seems to me the easiest. And in fact, Zelenskyy has basically said that he’s willing to contemplate it.
Samuel Charap: The other pieces are harder. Russia has been demanding Ukrainian recognition of the Crimean annexation and the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It’s harder for me to see how any Ukrainian government could agree to that, because the Russians are demanding essentially that those regions be “independent” within their full regional boundaries, which go far beyond the line of contact as it was before this war began on February 24.
Samuel Charap: So if the Russians are willing to moderate their goals somewhat here — I mean, the Donbas seems to be the hardest nut to crack, but there’s going to have to be some concessions. And the Russians are going to have to also be willing to let go of some of their most ambitious aims in terms of ousting the Ukrainian government and taking control of the country. It just doesn’t seem like that’s likely to happen right now, even if they were to apply much more firepower.
Samuel Charap: I’m dancing around this because I don’t really have a good answer, and I think it’s going to be painful for many Ukrainians to see these kinds of concessions being put on the table, but I see little alternative. One other way that potentially we get the Russians off their maximalist goals is to provide incentives — not just disincentives in the form of the military consequences of their actions, but namely graduated sanctions relief in return for Russia accepting, I don’t know, Ukraine’s control over at least up to the line of contact as it was before, if not all of Donetsk and Luhansk. I’m just throwing something out there.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Samuel Charap: We, the West, do have a lot of leverage now because of the sort of stranglehold that we’ve created on the Russian economy. And so if it takes deploying that leverage to achieve a sustainable settlement that avoids more human suffering and displacement, I think that would be better than a protracted brutal war.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’m not Ukrainian, and I haven’t had to live with the threat of Russian invasion my entire life, or throughout the 20th century. But 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.
Rob Wiblin: I guess both the Ukrainians and people in the West didn’t want to make this deal before, I think in part because they thought that Russia was bluffing. But now knowing what an incredible price Russia is willing to pay in order to extract that kind of concession, it seems like it’s just not worth the cost to avoid it, at least not in the short run.
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.
Rob Wiblin: I see.
Samuel Charap: 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.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Samuel Charap: And even today, I think there are worries that any lessening of the pressure that’s being put on Russia would again be rewarding aggression. So I think we’re in this trap a little bit — of Russia’s creation of course — about that, because they’ve decided to take such extreme measures to pursue their interests. But it doesn’t make the consequences any less significant, the fact that they are taking these extreme measures.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It seems easy to get stuck at a gridlock, where one side perceives any concession as rewarding aggression and extortion, and the other side views not accepting something as basically showing weakness and capitulating, and showing that they’re a weak country that doesn’t stick up for their core interests. And then neither side is willing to give up because of these broader signaling and reputational concerns, and so you end up in a war.
Samuel Charap: Exactly. That’s sort of a recipe for escalation. I would also say the Russian perception is that not only would giving in be capitulation, but that they tried everything else from their perspective. We can disagree with that, but that they spent seven years trying to implement an agreement that they thought would be enough for them to militarily withdraw from Ukraine, and couldn’t get anywhere, and so they felt the need to act. That does not justify what they did by any means, but I think that was their perception. Unfortunately, the political and strategic demands on both sides, you can’t really see the Venn diagram at the moment.
Keeping the broader conversation sane [00:49:29]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Something that really has troubled me over the last few weeks is that I feel like a few weeks ago, people were able to talk calmly and rationally about what they thought Russia wanted and what might appease them. And it seems like that conversation has become much more difficult — that people are unwilling to have that conversation because they’re worried about effectively being accused of being Putin sympathizers, or Russia sympathizers, for laying out what rationalist goals they might have for the war. Is that something that you notice or are worried by?
Samuel Charap: Yeah. I think the horror of what Russia is doing is clouding a lot of people’s judgments. We’re in a situation where an actor that three weeks ago was an adversary, but a country that we were negotiating with and interacting with in a number of different ways — from joint ventures between BP and Rosneft, to arms control, et cetera — to basically saying that this is a man who wants to recreate the Soviet Union and subjugate his neighbors at all costs. There’s a bit of a mismatch there. I mean, did everything change in a week?
Samuel Charap: But 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 yes, I do think that it’s hard to square what we make of Putin now with what we were making of him —
Rob Wiblin: A month ago.
Samuel Charap: — two weeks ago, yeah.
Why not promise to remove sanctions? [00:51:05]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Why haven’t the US and other countries promised to remove the economic sanctions if Russia withdraws from Ukraine? It seems like we’re missing out on an opportunity to create a strong incentive to end the conflict by not doing that.
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.
Pros and cons of Sweden and Finland joining NATO [00:52:53]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Makes sense. Would it be good for the world for Sweden and/or Finland to join NATO?
Samuel Charap: I think doing this in the context of this war would be a mistake. That said, over the medium to long term, well, this is a real tough balance here now. From what I understand, the war has essentially caused a domestic political crisis in Finland related to this issue. The problem is that it’s easy to see how Russia would respond to that militarily, and Finland would be particularly vulnerable in the period between when it decides it wants to do this and when it becomes a reality — when it doesn’t have security guarantees. And Finland and Sweden would want to do this together.
Rob Wiblin: Sounds hard.
Samuel Charap: Finland is actually a quite capable military, so it would add in the abstract to the alliance’s capabilities. So it’s a really tough question. I think the potential for it to spark escalation is real, but the Finnish people wanting this now is totally understandable.
The most likely situation in 3 months [00:53:58]
Rob Wiblin: OK, final question. Setting aside what we would like to happen or what we think would be rational to happen, what’s the most likely situation for us to be looking at in three months’ time in Ukraine?
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.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. My prejudice — which I guess is easy for me to hold, because I’m not Ukrainian and I don’t have to live with it — is that this war is just so destructive and wars are so destructive in general, that people should be willing to make more concessions to avoid them than they are tempted to do. I guess there’s a lot of resistance to that, because of these reputational issues and issues of honor and not wanting to seem like you’re weak and vulnerable.
Samuel Charap: Yes, and also not wanting to set precedents that could be used by other potential aggressors in other parts of the world.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, it’s a difficult one. All right, I know you’ve got a million demands on your time at the moment, so we’ll let you go. You’ve been very generous to talk with us for this long. This has been super informative, and more broadly, I’m just super grateful for your online presence and your presence on Twitter and the articles you’re producing. I think you’re a voice of sanity on this topic and I’ve learned a lot from reading your content, and I’m so glad that there’s people like you who’ve been working on this topic for a very long time — and not just people like me who arrived at it two or three weeks ago. The difference in quality of analysis is very clear.
Samuel Charap: Well, I really appreciate that. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
Rob Wiblin: My guest today has been Samuel Charap. Thanks so much for coming on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Samuel.
Samuel Charap: It’s been my pleasure.
Rob’s outro [00:57:14]
Rob Wiblin: At least to me, that was a fairly depressing, or at least sobering conversation.
To me it’s not clear how this war is going to end, which means it could drag on for months, or God forbid, years. In the meantime, so long as it continues there are many ways it could escalate to involve weapons of mass destruction.
In my opinion, we need to keep up the pressure on Western governments not to take grave risks, and instead stay the course on the measured approach they’ve been taking so far.
It’s also essential to understand what is going on in Putin’s head as much as possible, as he’s the only person who can currently put an end to this volatile situation. It seems to me like Sam’s experience in this area gives him a much better ability to guess at that than folks who lack Russia-specific domain knowledge.
We’ll likely have more episodes on this conflict and the threat of war more broadly in the coming months.
All right, The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering and technical editing by Ben Cordell.
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.