80,000 Hours Podcast

#123 – Samuel Charap on why Putin invaded Ukraine, the risk of escalation, and how to prevent disaster

80,000 Hours Podcast

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.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

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. 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.

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.

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

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 the EU and 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-called 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 or even years until one side is sufficiently beaten down to compromise on their core demands.

Rob and Samuel discuss all of the above and also:

• The chances that this conflict leads to a nuclear exchange
• The chances of regime change in Russia
• Whether the West should deliver MiG fighter jets to Ukraine
• 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?

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

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