I wrote this quickly. It may contain errors. Please correct them in the comments after reading this post's special commenting guidelines.
You should ignore the news unless it's of historic import. Russia's invasion of Ukraine constitutes an event of historic import.
Interstate conflicts are inherently political. Politics is a delicate topic on Less Wrong because political topics tend to trigger tribal impulses. Arguments-as-soldiers are symbiotic with soldiers-as-arguments.
I'm writing about this topic because it's at the intersection of two topics dear to my heart: ① responding to rare events ② operating in a hostile informatic environment.
These are our players (in descending order of importance):
- Russia (including its ally Belarus)
- European Union + Britain
- United States
China doesn't care what happens to Ukraine. China primarily cares about preserving its trade relationships with Russia and the West. China would prefer not to impose sanctions on Russia because sanctions are expensive.
The United States
The United States prefers that Ukraine remain out of Russian hands, but the United States cares more about the rise of China than Russia's fading empire. The United States just pulled out of Afghanistan. The United States does not want to get bogged down in another land war in Eurasia.
The United States has provided something around $2 billion in military aid to Ukraine since 2014. A couple billion dollars isn't nothing, but it's insignificant compared to Russian might.
The United States is not committed to defending Ukraine the way it is committed to defending Taiwan, Japan and NATO members. The United States does not plan to use its own troops to defend Ukraine.
The European Union + Britain
The European Union and Britain are allied with the United States. They would prefer Ukraine to stay out of Russian control but don't care enough to deploy their own troops in combat roles against Russia.
Thus, the European Union's (and Britain's) primary option is sanctions. But the European Union and its allies have already been imposing sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea since 2014. Putin has already demonstrated that this level of sanctions will not stop his actions in Ukraine.
Europe (especially Germany) is dependent on energy imports from Russia. Europe ramping up sanctions against Russia would damage the European economy and industry in the short term.
Too little, too late. The European Union does not have the will to stop Russia. Britain, alone, is too weak to act without the European Union. (Except—possibly—by threatening a nuclear attack on Moscow, which they are not going to do to protect a non-NATO state.)
I am making no claims to whether the European Union and Britain should or should not stop Russia from invading Ukraine. It is none of my business. I'm just saying that if you live in Ukraine then you should not count on much more support from the EU than from the US.
The Ukrainian government will fight a total war to defend its sovereignty. It has issued an emergency order allowing its people to buy firearms (they were not, previously, legal to own) but it has not trained its people in guerrilla warfare.
Putin is committed to invading Ukraine.
There is probably going to be a war. Ukraine is probably going to lose. The question is how much, how quickly and on what terms.
Eastern Ukraine is a flat plain contiguous with Russia. If you just look at troop counts then Ukraine would seem to have a chance against Russia. But Russia has superiority of aircraft and heavy weapons. Russia will conquer Eastern Ukraine. The Russian Armed Forces is among the three most capable militaries in the world. The Ukrainian military isn't.
If you live in Ukraine then you might have faith in your government to defend your borders. Don't. Governments consistently lie about how "we will win the war" until days (or hours) before enemy forces march into your city. It happened in World War I. It happened in Nanking in 1937. It happened in Kabul in 2021. It will happen in Ukraine (if it hasn't already).
This is not a criticism of Ukraine in particular. I know little about Ukraine. This is a statement about governments in general, across history. You should expect your government to lie to you and the news to mislead you.
I responded appropriately to COVID because I took extreme measures when everyone in my neighborhoood was acting as if nothing was amiss. You should do the same. Don't be afraid of looking stupid. Be afraid of you and your family dying for stupid reasons.
If you live in Eastern Ukraine, the best time to flee is weeks ago. The second-best time is now. Romania is willing to accept half a million refugees.
Maybe you'd prefer to live under Russian occupation amidst a Ukrainian insurgency and a Russian counter-insurgency than to flee your home. If so that's your choice. But don't just assume everything's going to continue as normal and be okay.
World War III
Three days ago a friend send me a text "It's likely WWIII Eve". I'm not worried about WWIII because the United States, European Union and Britain are not committed to an escalation of direct conflict with Russia the way they were during the Cold War. If their positions change then I will worry.
In the case of cold strategic analysis, you are actively encouraged to point out anywhere you think I might be wrong. My guidelines about speaking in the positive are temporarily suspended.
But any discussion of justice, morality and which side is "right" will be crushed with an iron fist. Advocating what policies democratic governments (especially Western powers) "should" take is similarly off-limits.