Workflow for Doomsday: Russia, the US, and Ukraine

I do workflow for health care organizations. Here is my proposed workflow for US policy on Ukraine.

  1. Either we are willing and able (militarily) to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion, or not.

It may be cheating for me to treat “willing and able” as a conjunction rather than as a disjunction, but sometimes, it’s OK to cheat. Treating them as a conjunction ensures that willingness to defend is tailored to ability to defend, which seems to make sense: you should only be willing to do what you actually can do. Right? Aristotle thought so.

Treating “willing or able” as a disjunction leaves open the reverse possibilities: that we might be (a) able but unwilling militarily to defend Ukraine, or (b) willing but unable militarily to defend it.

I exclude (a) from discussion of the first disjunct of (1) because I think it’s more effectively covered by the “not” disjunct.

I exclude (b) because it covers two cases, neither of which seem worth considering at all:

Subcase (1-b-i) The first case-not-worth-discussing is the one in which we wish we could militarily defend Ukraine but know we can’t, and therefore don’t. This is mere wishing without action, irrelevant to a discussion of workflow, which implies doing something.

Subcase (1-b-ii) The second case not-worth-discussing is the one in which we go ahead and militarily defend Ukraine either (*) knowing that we can’t successfully defend it, or (**) in ignorance of our inability to defend it. Option (*) is a paradigm of practical irrationality; option (**) a paradigm of epistemic irrationality. As it would be deeply insulting of me to ascribe either form of irrationality to the men and women who govern this great nation, I exclude these possibilities from the outset, and hope you will, too.

Hence it is that I regard “willing and able” as a conjunction.

  1. Suppose that we are willing and able (militarily) to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion. If so, then now would seem to be the optimal time militarily to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion.

Why? Well, because, as we all know, Russia is imminently poised to invade Ukraine. The White House said so.

Intuitively, the best time to defend someone against an invasion is when you expect an invasion to take place. Ex hypothesi, the more certain you are that the invasion will take place, the stronger the case for defensive action on behalf of the invaded country.

Some may find the pre-emptive quality of (2) troublesome, in which case I’m willing to amend it:

2*. Suppose that we are willing and able (militarily) to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion. If so, then we should militarily defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion precisely when there is a Russian invasion.

Claim (2*) rids us of the problematically pre-emptive quality of (2), replacing it with the comfort that comes from responding to a full-scale invasion after it’s already taken place.

President Biden has adamantly insisted that now is not the time militarily to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion. I infer that we are either unwilling or unable or both to defend Ukraine right now (or really, for the foreseeable future). There is no shame in that: it merely pushes us to the second disjunct of (1) above.

  1. Suppose we are not (willing and able) militarily to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion. This means that we are either unwilling or unable or both to do so.

  2. If we are unable/unwilling/both militarily to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion, it is rational for us to avert or avoid any course of action that would bind us (in any sense of “bind”) to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion.

  3. Ukraine’s becoming a member of NATO would legally bind us to defend Ukraine militarily against a Russian invasion.

  4. Hence (from 3-5) it is rational for us to avert or avoid Ukraine’s becoming a member of NATO.

The conclusion of this argument is highly inconvenient. Unfortunately, we began the process of making Ukraine a member of NATO back in 2008 (remember?), when we issued the Bucharest Declaration (see paragraph 23). That said, having begun it, we never managed to finish it. Maybe there’s something to be said for procrastination, after all?

Now, I don’t claim to know whether the process of accession (as they call it), can at this point literally be walked back and undone, or merely has to be delayed indefinitely into the future, or what. All I know is, if we are unable/unwilling to defend Ukraine against Russian invasion, it is rational for us not to insist very strongly on its becoming a member any time soon. In fact, if we were really underhanded about it, it might even make sense to quietly give up on the idea of Ukraine’s becoming a member of NATO, acknowledging just as quietly that this is exactly what the Russians are demanding as the price of not invading. By the alchemy of diplomatic subterfuge, finesse, and wheeler-dealer negotiations, the highly inconvenient conclusion of the preceding argument could well turn out to be one of the most convenient things ever.

I grant that that may be a little too underhanded and convenient for some tastes. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that insisting over and over, in a belligerent tone of voice, that Ukraine has every right to become a member of NATO, and that we regard its becoming one as non-negotiable, goddammit, does not seem like the rational thing to do. It seems especially feckless and silly if, in the same breath, we insist that we are unwilling and unable militarily to defend Ukraine. Because the preceding combination of claims amounts to saying that while we cannot and will not militarily defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion, we demand that Ukraine exercise its right to join an organization such that when it joins, we will be legally obliged militarily to defend it against a Russian invasion.

The logic here is worth unpacking. It says: voluntarily walking into a war you are unwilling and/or unable to fight is one thing, a stupid thing we would never, ever do. But consenting to be legally bound to walk into a war you are unable and/or unwilling to fight is a totally different thing, a thing we are fully prepared to demand. And make no mistake, we are fully prepared to pay the cost of that demand, as well. And what is the cost? Paradoxically, it turns out to be a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Oh, the irony.

One thing I can’t capture in workflow is a gamble on distant future probabilities. So you might ask: What if we make Ukraine a member of NATO x years from now (where x is a big number), but by that time, become so much more willing and able to defend it against a Russian invasion (and, coincidentally, Russia’s military capacities deteriorate so markedly) that all bets are off: everything I’ve said above becomes totally irrelevant and obsolete? That’s a great objection. And if we inhabited the Magic Kingdom, I would spend the rest of this post discussing it.

Actually, there is another cost involved here. Suppose, as per the second disjunct of (1), that we don’t bother with a full-scale military defense of the Ukraine. We might then content ourselves with the imposition of sanctions against Russia–harsh, severe sanctions, indeed, the Mother of All Sanctions. Sanctions have a long, spotty history, and though painful for the target country, are unlikely to deter an invasion or dislodge one after it takes place. They may impose a cost on Russia, but probably not one that the Russians haven’t predicted and prepared for.

But never mind all that. Let’s just say we go ahead with them. Then, the stronger the sanctions, the better the likelihood of success, but the stronger the sanctions, the higher the likelihood and the greater the intensity of Russian retaliation, particularly cyber-retaliation.

Suppose then, that we really sock it to the Russians. We then have to expect that they’ll really sock it to us. That gives us (7).

  1. Either we are prepared for a Russian retaliation, or not.

Suppose we are. Then we have nothing to worry about! Sock it to em!

Suppose we’re not. Then we have a lot to worry about.

I started this post by telling you that I do workflow in health care. In other words, I spend my working days dealing with hospital information systems and the like. Judging by what I see every day, and by the Russian dress rehearsal for their retaliation against us, I am supposing that we are not prepared for Russian retaliation.

I leave the next inference as an exercise.

Thanks to Roman Altshuler, John Holt, Mary Josephine, Tom Malinowski, Hilary Persky, and Chris Paglinco for engaging with me on this topic. At least four of them will probably hate what I say here, but hey–that’s democracy for ya.

(I corrected a minor logical mistake after posting.)

4 thoughts on “Workflow for Doomsday: Russia, the US, and Ukraine

  1. Given the absolute hash that “the men and women who govern this great nation” made of withdrawing from Afghanistan, a policy for which they actually had general support from the people (before they did it), why would you suppose that they have any ability to foresee the consequences of sending troops to Ukraine or imposing sanctions on Russia?


    • When I said, “I hope you will…” what I really meant was: “I hope you will realize that I’m joking about the rationality of the men and women who govern us, because I actually find their irrationality so hard to fathom and process that I don’t really want to go there right now.”

      The sad truth is that our foreign policy elites seem to be lost in confusions related to subcase 1-b-ii: they are literally “willing” to gamble on impossibilities, as long as other people are tasked with bringing them about in reality. Ned Price is himself a walking, talking paradigm of both practical and epistemic irrationality. But these are the people complaining about Russian disinformation.

      I recently moved to the 12th Congressional district in New Jersey, but until recently used to live in the 7th. So I’m more attuned to the doings of my former Representative, Tom Malinowski, than my current one. Malinowski is, on this topic, a perfect example of virtually every irrationality and confusion one can name or imagine. Adamant that we are not going to send troops to defend Ukraine, he is equally adamant that Ukraine absolutely, positively must be admitted into NATO.

      The overriding senselessness of this combination of claims doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. Confronted with anyone who challenges his “position”—let’s “support” a country we don’t intend to defend in order to be forced to defend it—he brings up the evils of Tucker Carlson, demands patriotic “unity,” and starts to hint that the critic is parroting the line of Putin, RT, and the SRV. It amazes me that these people have the audacity to regard McCarthy as a villain. How different are they? McCarthy was dishonest, but was he this incoherent?

      After decades of brutal but pointless sanctions on North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, and Iran, there’s something touching about the Biden Administration’s faith in the power of sanctions. What I don’t see is any realization that the SolarWinds debacle was a dress rehearsal for a full scale Russian retaliation against those sanctions. This country is not even close to ready to deal with the actual performance. But it’s full of tough talk about sanctions. Well, you live and learn, right? To paraphrase Reagan: “Trust, but back up your files.”


  2. Malinowski on Ukraine:

    It would be as if somebody put a loaded gun to your head and then blamed you for stoking tensions by complaining about it.

    When the Israelis pointed loaded guns at people on the other side of the border in Gaza in 2018, pulled the triggers, and shot hundreds of Gazans, Malinlowski had nothing to say in defense of Gaza, but plenty to say in defense of Israel. The Israelis have occupied Palestine for 50+ years, but he’s against sanctions for that occupation. But sanctions here are a categorical imperative. If there’s a principle at work here, I’ve missed it.

    But that’s mere inconsistency. The deeper nonsense s saying that the Ukrainians are not asking us to fight for them while they’re demanding to join NATO. That’s just Orwellian. It’s as though Article 5 of the NATO charter either didn’t exist, or could indefinitely be ignored. But the hard fact is if someone is asking to join NATO, they are ipso facto asking you to fight for them. They may not be doing it right now, but the request is undeniably there: instead of asking for immediate military intervention, they’re asking that you sign onto to an IOU for one in the future. But whether they want it now or they want it then, the request is, precisely: please send US troops to bail us out of a Russian invasion.

    Malinowski proceeds as though he had no responsibility whatsoever to address that issue. We’re just indiscriminately supposed to add treaty obligations to our list of obligations, and defer thought about their implication until the day before or after an invasion. I doubt there’s one American in a million who would be willing to fight for Ukraine. No matter; let’s just get Ukraine into NATO so that we can send a million soldiers there someday to “do the job.”


  3. Pingback: Ukraine: A Reprise | Policy of Truth

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