The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to some anxiety about possible escalation, especially given Putin's use of nuclear weapons as a threat. This shows in some topics here on lesswrong, too. And I find this anxiety in myself, as well, sometimes wondering what I would do, if there was suddenly an extremely bright flash of light.

And I think there is a real basis for this risk, given Putin's rationality is somewhat doubtful at the moment, and the fog of war can lead to all kinds of unexpected and unwanted outcomes. 

But thinking about it for some days I believe there could be some negativity bias (in ourselves, and definitely in media reporting) about this topic. Because, I think, there are some factors in the current events that have reduced the risk of global nuclear war:

a) Baltic states

One way how a nuclear war between the US and Russia could develop is a Russian attack on a NATO country. The most likely scenario here is an attack on one or more Baltic states. 

In the past, Russia has conducted very large military exercises there, iirc without much reaction from the NATO. I think this will change. NATO is in the process of increasing its permanent troop deployments there and I guess in the case of future massive Russian military exercises there NATO will step up its presence on its eastern flank (e.g. deploying additional airforce assets there on short notice). 

At the same time, NATO's reaction to the Ukraine (help but no troops for the Ukraine, troops for the Baltic states) has reinforced its red line. I believe this could have made the Baltic states more secure compared to the time before the invasion (at the same time, of course, it has made the situation for non-NATO countries like Georgia or Moldova even more insecure).

b) Taiwan

I think China is watching very closely the reaction of the Western democracies to Russia's invasion. And if Bejing is a coldly calculating player (which currently is my impression), then they will have updated their prediction about the West's reaction to an invasion of Taiwan, increasing the estimated negative effects of such a move. And a war between mainland China and the US is one of the big risks for a global nuclear war.

Conclusion

I am not claiming, that overall Russia's invasion has reduced the risk of nuclear war - there is a short term hightened risk. But I do claim that the increase of risk is less than it seems at first glance. And if we make it through the next 2 or 3 months then I think we won't live with a substantially higher risk than before, maybe even with a somewhat lower risk. (It can still make sense to be prepared for all eventualities, of course.)

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:38 PM

Putin isn't the only actor that could make bad judgments. We currently have people talking about establishing a no-fly zone within the Overton window.

Given how the information landscape works, there are pressures for people do adopt more extremist positions over time. With COVID we saw both sides of the spectrum adopting more extreme positions over time 

In the coming weeks, we will have constant news of Russian attacks. Likely, including attacks on civilians. At the same time, Ukrainian refugees will meet other Westerns and shift opinion to be more demanding of the Western leaders taking stronger steps. Unfortunately, the forces that push for more extreme reactions toward Russia are stronger than those that favor deescalation. 

John Robb does generally good analysis of how those network effects work

Besides Western radicalization pushing for a bigger Western military response, cyberwar is also problematic. Last year we saw a cyber attack on the Colonial Pipeline that was likely done by private hackers that are tolerated by the Russian state. There's a good chance that we will likely see similar attacks in the future and there's a lot more pressure for Western governments to retaliate against Russia. 

On the other side, Western cyberattacks on Russia are also going up and might lead to events where Russia feels the need to retaliate. 

At the moment 45% of Americans support a no-fly zone while only 20% oppose it. That doesn't automatically result in it becoming public policy, but the strong public support for the no-fly zone pushes it in the realm of the possible.

I don't think that China's assessment will change drastically. The West could essentially sanction Russia because it's willing to bear the limited economic damage and sizeable African starvation the sanctions produce. Sanctioning China would be much more expensive for the West and not possible to the same extent.  

That is a very important point. We don't know how stable or instable the (first) Cold War would have been with social media. How would have been the West's reaction to Budapest 1956 or Prague 1968 with Twitter and Facebook?

Absolutely. The no-fly zone idea is outrageous, but of course it's harder to remain reasonable when people are dying with absolutely no necessity. I think this war has specially shocked people because most of us thought that the first world had become more cosmopolite so that we wouldn't see a new big war in it. Also the fact that it has one of the most cruel motives since Hitler invaded Poland - it's not driven by unenlightened populaces like ultra-nationalists or religious extremists, but by the erratic whims of probably a single person. All this has made people shocked, and therefore irrational. I think also very irrational is protesting in Russia and risking up to 15 years in jail.

News came that Russia has made its demands to Ukraine to stop the war: change its constitution to become neutral, reduce the military, pledge to never join NATO, and accept the Russian separatists in the East. I think Ukraine should immediately accept it, because, what's the use of all that if not for avoiding a full scale Russian invasion? If it has already happened, then they no longer have anything to lose by making those concessions to Russia. If they don't accept this I foresee a huge conflict with tens or hundreds of thousands dying, not to mention the real possibilities of escalation. (They would return to a puppet regime like pre-2014, which in practice, for the average person, isn't too different from what they are today, and which is also the least bad that will happen if they don't surrender if we are realistic about military power).

Conclusion: excess nationalism is and has always been our downfall. And, to make a connection to our most pressing issue, it might also be our downfall regarding AI safety, because we necessarily have to turn the world into a very strong union to tackle that issue.

I think this war has specially shocked people because most of us thought that the first world had become more cosmopolite so that we wouldn't see a new big war in it.

Economically, the development of Ukraine is not that dissimilar to Iraq and Iran. Seeing Ukraine as first-world but not either of those seems to be either driven by racism or lack of information. 

by the erratic whims of probably a single person.

There's little evidence that this is the case. Putin has strong support of his population and inside the Kremlin.

News came that Russia has made its demands to Ukraine to stop the war: change its constitution to become neutral, reduce the military, pledge to never join NATO, and accept the Russian separatists in the East. I think Ukraine should immediately accept it, because, what's the use of all that if not for avoiding a full scale Russian invasion?

From our perspective, it would be great if Ukraine would immediately accept it. 

Unfortunately, the Ukrainians seem to think they are in a position where they can ask for more. Before the war, they thought that they don't have to give Donbas and Luhansk independence before getting full control of the territory. 

Now it seems they believe that they can actually win the war on the battlefield. As one example see https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/5BwPFu5qhkx2c3cue/help-ukraine (it includes the assumption that Ukraine will win the war sooner if it just gets all the donations it needs)

Well, I should have said the West, not the first world. It's natural that people care more about countries more culturally related, and specially closer to home, in regard that what happens to them is much more likely to have consequences to us.

"There's little evidence that this is the case. Putin has strong support of his population and inside the Kremlin."

It's hard to distinguish between real and forced support in a dictatorship. The populace are brainwashed and afraid to get punished for speaking their mind, and the oligarchs are either also afraid or corrupted. If you remove all that, to get to the real support (i.e. genuine and uncorrupted) then I don't think it would be anything substantial.

In what sense is Ukraine culturally related? I'm not sure of anything in the Western cultural canon that comes from Ukraine. 

The populace are brainwashed and afraid to get punished for speaking their mind, and the oligarchs are either also afraid or corrupted.

Have you spoken to actual Russians? The Russian government doesn't punish people just for saying that they dislike the way it's governed. 

In general, it's always easy to call people who hold other political opinions than oneself brainwashed. Even in the US, many people hold their political opinions because of social pressure from their environment.  

When the US attacked Iraq, Bush had the majority of its population behind it. Yes, that's partly because of US media propaganda but it's difficult to speak about the opinion as detached from that.

Ukraine is part of the West. Maybe it hasn't always clearly been, but as of late it definitely wants to, and so does the West. But this is irrelevant. It's enough that we care about countries closer to home and to our mindsets (liberal democracy).

"Have you spoken to actual Russians? The Russian government doesn't punish people just for saying that they dislike the way it's governed."

Are you serious? The parliament just passed a law that proposed up to 15 years in jail to those who contest the government's official narrative regarding the "invasion". Independent papers are being pressured to never use the word war. And of course, the many journalists and activists who've been arrested and killed along the years for pure political dissidence.

(Unless you'll say something like "A-ha, wait, I only said that the government doesn't punish people just for saying that they dislike the way they are being governed, doesn't include actually voicing a contrarian view." That would be a poor gotcha for obvious reasons.)

Both issues are just common sense really.

"In general, it's always easy to call people who hold other political opinions than oneself brainwashed. Even in the US, many people hold their political opinions because of social pressure from their environment."

True, but to a (very) different degree. As with everything in life.

"When the US attacked Iraq, Bush had the majority of its population behind it. Yes, that's partly because of US media propaganda but it's difficult to speak about the opinion as detached from that."

There had always been a very vocal community anti Iraq war, specially among Democrats and alternative media. In Russia that's way harder to manifest, regardless of people's opinions.

Most importantly, I enterily agree that it's difficult to speak of opinion as detached from external pressures, like you say. That's why I spoke of a probability (I said that the war is an erratic whim of probably a single person). Only you spoke of certainties ("Putin has strong support", aka we can neither be sure of that).

Are you serious? The parliament just passed a law that proposed up to 15 years in jail to those who contest the government's official narrative regarding the "invasion".

In that environment where that's the line, there's still nobody forced to express support of Putin. 

The media environment of Russia is less free than that of the US and even less free than the UK (where you are comically not really free to criticize Russian oligarchs) but it's not totalitarian.

We know that Russia is very nationalistic from the success of companies like Yandex or VK. Supporting Putin fits very well with nationalist sentiment. If you think that kind of nationalistic sentiment that leads to supporting strongmen can only happen in an unfree media environment, support for Erdogan is a good counterexample. In Germany, a majority of those with Turkish heritage support Erdogan despite German society disliking Erdogan. 

Great points! There are things about the recent invasion of Ukraine that increase the chances of nuclear war. And as you point out, there are also things about the invasion that decrease the chances of nuclear war. My sense is that the former outweigh the latter, but it's not the sort of thing that seems immediately clear and obvious. It's difficult to enumerate and weigh all of the factors.

One thing you didn't point out for the latter category is the possibility that it'd lead to society in general, or even just specific sub-groups taking existential risks more seriously.

Previously I saw the situation as all bad, and the question is just how bad exactly it is. I hadn't had the thought that there are some benefits to it as well. Realizing that is nice, so I'm glad you brought it up.

Sorry but I don't see how you can arrive at such conclusion. First, your pre-factors a and b are weak and ambiguous, at least for now.

Second, this is the start of a new cold war. Even if the current (hot) war ended today, the relations between the West and Russia have greatly deteriorated. Plus, Ukraine and Russia will always remain great adversaries, at least for decades. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, you have a country leader threatening the world with nuclear war if we don't let him to what he wants. He threatened us when he invaded Ukraine, and threatened us again when there was the proposal of establishing a no-fly zone in Ukraine ("the consequences would be catastrophic for the entire world"). I don't have memory of any other leader of a big nuclear power threatening the world with nuclear war if we meddle with their business, i.e. willing the risk world anihilation to accomplish his objectives.

What I've really been observing in all these nuclear predictions is positivity bias, not the opposite. I believe that people want to feel re-assured. (And this is also a poke at AI safety.) Be careful.

Second, this is the start of a new cold war. 

The current cold war didn't start with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Maybe with the invasion of Georgia or of the Crimean peninsula or with the constant threats against the Baltic states. 

But now the West has clearly realized it, and my point is that this has some potential to reduce the threat.

He threatened us when he invaded Ukraine, and threatened us again when there was the proposal of establishing a no-fly zone in Ukraine ("the consequences would be catastrophic for the entire world").

During the Cold War nobody would have come up with a proposal like a no-fly zone during a regional war of one of both sides. The US didn't even dream of proposing a no-fly zone over Afghanistan when the Russians invaded. The Soviet Union didn't think of a no-fly zone over North Vietnam, either, I believe. Because both sides understood perfectly well the implications of such an act. It wasn't necessary to make an explicit threat.

And I don't think the Ukraine really thought it could get a no-fly zone. I see this more as a negotiation tool in the sense of requesting something huge that the other side is probably not willing to give in order to then get something smaller, which is a very effective tactic.

I don't have memory of any other leader of a big nuclear power threatening the world with nuclear war if we meddle with their business, i.e. willing the risk world anihilation to accomplish his objectives.

Nixon comes to mind, Operation Giant Lance. It is hard to tell to what extent Putin is irrational and to what extent Putin projects irrationality as a tool, as in Nixon's Madman Theory of foreign diplomacy.

And furthermore, there is a distinction to be made between different levels of change in the risk for nuclear war:
a) How likely was a nuclear war before Russia's invasion? How likely is it now? That is what I have tried to adress.
b) As how likely was a nuclear war perceived before the invasion and as how likely is it perceived now? 

It is quite possible that the risk for a nuclear war has been stable or even decreased, and that, at the same time, the widespread perception of a hightened risk is correct in the sense that on average the current risk assessment is more realistic than the risk assessment was before the war.

"But now the West has clearly realized it"

Exactly. And it's also a question of magnitude. So we can effectively say that the "real" start is now, despite some precedents.

On no fly-zones, true, it would be out of question for NATO. Only Ukraine proposed it, desperate as they are. However, what matters is not the proposal, but Putin's nuclear threat, and the ease with which he keeps making them.

I confess I didn't know about Nixon's madman theory and Operation Giant Lance, but firstly we can still say that we hadn't had this type of behavior for half a century, second and more importantly, Nixon's game with that specific operation was way less dangerous, since according to Wikipedia:

"The operation was kept top secret from both the general public and higher authorities within the Strategic Air Command, intended to only be noticed by Russian intelligence.[4][5] The operation lasted one month before being called off.[4][5]"

So, it was kept top secret and only lasted a month. Whereas with Putin he's openly threatening the whole world and his endeavors have lasted way longer - and more importantly, we don't know HOW LONG they're gonna last, i.e. if he'll actually end up invading a NATO country. Totally different orders of magnitude.

So, yes, I agree he's definitely playing madman theory. The problem is (obsviously) - it's a dangerous game. It necessarily implies risking nuclear war to achieve your objectives, even if you're indeed bluffing. The opponent can call your bluff, and then nuclear war starts. I.e., Putin invades a NATO country like one of the Baltics, thinking "ah, those Westerners are too pussy to care about these poor economies here, they won't wanna go to war to defend it, so I can just take it". But then NATO maybe goes like "well, we don't care much about the Baltics indeed, but if we don't stop him now he's never gonna stop" so WW3 starts.

That's why in my opinion your argument doesn't really contradict mine.

On your last point on nuclear risk, maybe it is true that current risk assessment is more realistic now, but that doesn't change the fact that it can still have significantly increased with the Ukrainian war. I mean, in my view the reason is pretty simple, it's that you can't compare Putin's last invasions, say Georgia and Crimea, with Ukraine. The West could afford to tolerate those. With Ukraine, totally different: 1) it's gonna be a lot more bloody (Georgia and Crimea barely resisted), causing much more of a humanitarian catastrophe and global instability, 2) it's a buffer state, with a great size and population, with much more strategic importance and affinity to Europe. So it's definitely a turning point, to deny this is over indulging in skepticism in my view.

You say: "On no fly-zones, true, it would be out of question for NATO. Only Ukraine proposed it, desperate as they are."

Unfortunately, not true.  From https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/poroshenko-no-fly-zone-1.6370760

"Retired general Rick Hillier, former commander of the Canadian military, has described a no-fly zone as a necessary response to Russian aggression."

Other people who ought to know better have also advocated for a no-fly zone. And the general tone of much commentary has the logic of going from "the invasion is a horrible crime of aggression" to "we must do whatever is necessary to stop it", without stopping to consider that in this world it is not always possible to achieve anything close to the maximally desirable outcome.