a.k.a. "mistake theorists vs conflict reality"
After following Ukraine signals (etc) for awhile, I've been thinking that something that would be deeply helpful would be (1) to find a way to send credible, factual information to Russian troops that would encourage them to leave their posts, (2) desertion visas (e.g. defect from the Russian Army and you get a free pass to live in the EU[*]), and (3) related measures (e.g. airdropping prepaid phones for private conversations between the two sides).
Russians are heavily propagandized by Putin's government, and although young people (as soldiers often are) are affected by it less strongly, perhaps due to their use of social media, still, most Russians have been persuaded to support the "special operation", and I'm convinced that state propaganda is responsible for this (today's Kremlin disinformation: 1 2). Indeed, some of the sanctions applied by the free world (especially voluntary ones that hurt the Russian middle class, or that look like cancel culture) are probably making Putin's propaganda work better by suggesting that the West hates Russia, so Russia needs protection from NATO, which in turn "proves" that the "special operation" was a necessary way to acquire much-needed land to "buffer" Russia against NATO. Sanctions send a signal, but I'm doubtful that the signal will work as intended, especially given our experiences with Ayatollah Khomeini and Kim Jong Un.
I’ve seen a few pieces of evidence that Putin’s propaganda turned rank-and-file Russian soldiers into cannon fodder, because they were told about the Ukrainian military being weak, about Ukraine being run by “Nazis” (though the president is Jewish), and about Ukrainians being their kin who would welcome new leadership. And most of all, because these delusions went straight to the top: Putin's invasion force had only prepared for an environment where that propaganda was true, and they suffered fairly heavy losses in the first few days by being wrong about basic facts. Consider how this Russian POW describes his experience. Or this thread. All this suggests that Putin believes some of his own lies.
The Russian army was sent to fight under false pretenses, but perhaps most of the soldiers don't realize it yet. Some of them will be sympathetic to the idea that the war is unjust and they are fighting on the wrong side; others won't be able to believe it. Depending on how many of them can be influenced, sending them relevant information, presented in the right way could be a valuable intervention (by causing them to desert, surrender, or to stop trying to kill the "enemy"). On the other hand, if good information is too hard to deliver, or if it's not feasible to demonstrate credibility to the target audience, this kind of intervention may not be tractable. If the message isn't well-crafted (e.g. if it tries to shame the Russians, or is not tailored to the part of Ukraine in which it is received), or if there is no reward for desertion (e.g. desertion visas), or if soldiers can't find a personal exit strategy, then it won't work very well.
I assume Ukraine already has an "information warfare division", but in my experience, most people just aren't very good at talking to their "enemies"[**] so I wouldn't count on them doing a good job. So I have some questions... feel free to take a stab at any or all:
- What interventions are plausible along these lines?
- How important, neglected, and tractable do you think the best intervention is?
- Can EAs plausibly do anything to make something happen (and should they)?
- What's the expected value of causing a desertion?
Note: for earlier intervention ideas, see this thread (and this). And of course, let me know how I might be wrong about the basic premise of Russian indoctrination and the feasibility of counteracting it.
[*] Edit: I see Bryan Caplan goes a step further and suggests a $100,000 reward+EU citizenship, which is far cheaper than normal defense costs.
[**] keeping in mind that before Feb. 22-24, Russians and Ukrainians were not enemies, though Putin's 2014 ops strained relations
The soldiers can just be officially "MIA" while in reality with Ukrainians, I don't feel it's such a problem. There is always a solution :)