Welcoming Armageddon

What is our appetite for the end of the world?

My lunch hour was spent debating solo against five coworkers on whether Russian-Ukrainian peace terms were an acceptable concept to even consider. It is a foregone conclusion to them that any concessions to Russia are inconceivable. When asked about how they saw the war ending, I got “either Putin falls from power, gives up, or we end up in nuclear war” and strong, aggressive attitudes against me that implied that not only were these the only choices but that they were the only possible moral stances one could have. It’s painful to be thought the bad guy, but doubly so when the crime I’m advocating for is merely considering the possibility of peace.

The world is playing Russian roulette with the Russians and these are not toy guns. Low probability events do not yield safety when their outcomes are existentially negative.

A bully steals lunch from another schoolyard boy. The victim hits back, and suddenly the bully and the boy are trading black eyes. If the bully would agree to stop fighting if given merely the boy’s apple, leaving him the rest of the lunch, would it be acceptable to accept these terms, or would it be preferable to keep fighting until both their bones were broken and at risk of death?

My colleagues thought that willingness to consider concessions of any territory makes one pro-Russian. But one can be pro-peace without being pro-bully. The bully is in the wrong, just as Russia is. But a deontological commitment against letting the bad guy get away with theft might instead mean that he gets away with a murder-suicide. From a utilitarian aspect, at minimum, continued war means the death and displacement of thousands or hundreds of thousands of both Ukrainian and Russian individuals, and the impacts on their families. It means continued disruption of the agricultural supply out of Ukraine and food shortages for malaffected third-world bystanders. It means Europe runs the risk of not being able to heat their homes for the winter. And it pushes the Russian bully closer to the Chinese one.

They raised objections that “he can’t just get away with it.” But Putin, if he can successfully manage to annex Ukrainian territory, would hardly be unscathed. The Russian military, once thought formidable enough to take Kyiv in two weeks, has been exposed as weak and dysfunctional. His citizens have been exiled from the world stage. His assets and those of his oligarchical friends have been frozen internationally. Putin personally suffers reputational damage and risks history remembering him as no longer just a dictator, but an evil one. His power seems more fragile daily. My hunch says he would not have taken this gamble if he had hindsight. I find the argument that the world was “just allowing it” hard to believe given the multi-domain battles fought against him on the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic fronts.

But if the west isn’t willing to stand up to nuclear threats, then couldn’t the bullies threaten and steal worldwide without paying a cost? What would this mean for Taiwan?

I think this is born from a naive understanding of the physics of world affairs. Aside from the eschatological aspirations of certain religious radicals, the incentive structure of the world is opposed to nuclear war. The game theory of mutually assured destruction means that every threat becomes a game of chicken, but if someone ever actually takes a swing they are at the whims and mercies of real human individuals to adjudicate if they risk their nuclear annihilation in return. This is not a gamble nation-states want to make often, if ever.

We do not know if Putin is willing to make this gamble. Only that he is willing to say that he is. He is put in this position because it is existential for his rule and his country as he knows it. If mutually assured destruction relies on the assumption that neither side wants to be destroyed, that holds only if the alternative does not also spell destruction. If the west does not sweeten the opportunity cost against nuclear war, then we risk the whole prisoner’s dilemma falling apart.

This is not an argument specifically for a negotiation now, but that it merely should be considered inside the Overton window of possibilities that should be taken seriously and not written-off whole cloth. It can turn out that the west can gets all it wants in the end. Maybe Putin is bluffing, maybe he is overthrown, or maybe his subordinates just refuse to turn the nuclear keys. We could find a year from now that all is well, Ukraine is whole, and we made the right choice by failing to cede any ground. This could indeed be a better outcome. But because a gamble paid off does not mean the risk was worthwhile.

Spinning the Russian roulette barrel and pulling a blank does not mean it was safe to play.

Published by Jasper

Aspiring polymath. I do my best to understand all sides of an issue. I read primary sources and opposing viewpoints to get to the truth. I enjoy debate and can change my mind given sufficient reason.

5 thoughts on “Welcoming Armageddon

  1. I agree but in a less intellectual way. He who fights and runs away – lives to fight another day. Throw Putin a bone. Let him keep Crimea. He’ll be dead soon enough. And, if the people in Crimea don’t want to be under Russia’s thumb – they’ll make life difficult. Like the dog that finally catches the car – Russia might not like what they get in the end. But we need to give Putin a way out of this mess he created. It’s not about right or wrong when someone can push a button and destroy humanity.

  2. I find that negotiating in war is different from ordinary bargaining situations because leaders are not only motivated by their own interests but also by the support of their constituents. I do not think it wise to give concessions because such a decision cannot be made in a political void. And as you’ve noted, the majority of the public agree this is an unpopular strategy.

    1. I’m not sure I agree. Ultimately, decisions are made by decision-makers. Constituent desires definitely factor into the incentive structures of leaders, but the calculus is done in their head, and the degree to which they care about constituents is dependent on how much they care ethically or pragmatically for their own ends.

      I’m not sure what political void you are referencing—it’s almost impossible to have a void as any situation with people is one imbued with their political priors. And people are involved here.

      An appeal to the majority is a fallacy—because most people think something is right does not mean it is (i.e., countless examples in history).

      Right now it’s easy for the majority to think that “stand strong, no concessions” is good because we’ve remained non-nuclear. But if nuclear bombs started dropping, and then the 80 year social norm of not dropping nukes was broken, and then China started using nukes in Taiwan, and political ties bring us into nuclear WW3 etc. etc., the majority might think quite differently. The majority only matters if reason is on their side. Most people don’t reason. It could be the exact fact that Putin is failing horribly that drives him to desperate measures.

      The only thing I’ll add since this was written, is that the withdrawal from Kherson last week is an excellent sign that maybe Russia is willing to abscond without resort to nukes. Kherson is one of the four regions Putin’s speech (which I watched in full) claimed as annexed, so that he was willing to withdraw may mean he’s willing to give up those dreams without atomic force.

      Unless, of course, withdrawal is for the purpose of his troops’ safety as he plans to lay Armageddon down. I still think it’s unlikely. I just don’t like playing with this fire. All wars must come to a diplomatic end at some point, all I proffer is we not stay hawkish permanently with no eye towards compromise when it may favor all.

      1. You make a good point. I agree that to say the majority is always in the right would be a grave mistake, but in the case of a democracy (referring to the political climate as opposed to a void), it is often for better or worse in leadership’s best interest to maintain favor with the majority. This of course should not be the ultimate deciding factor for how to generate a decision, but a factor nonetheless, especially when that decision either reinforces or damages the united front of a nation and its allies.
        I too hope for peace and can appreciate the desire to make concessions rather than potentially lose billions of lives at the hands of war. However, in my admittedly limited knowledge on the matter, it appears that the reputation of the United States would be tarnished if we were to give concessions at this hour. Despite the backlash that continuation of this stalemate has had on America’s economy, it seems almost unpatriotic to concede rather than continue to stand for what is right and hold steadfast against the evidently weaker opponent. Patriotism is a virtue worth fighting for.
        As an addendum, I personally do not know Putin nor do I know the true evil he is capable of. My conjecture is that the toll from a nuclear war will be far greater for Russia than for the U.S. but that of course is based on what little I know about nuclear warfare as a PhD candidate in biochemistry.
        I appreciate your reply as I strive to become more informed.

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