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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: 

  1. What interventions are plausible along these lines?
  2. How important, neglected, and tractable do you think the best intervention is?
  3. Can EAs plausibly do anything to make something happen (and should they)?
  4. 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




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Potential issue: desertion is deliberately hard in most militaries, by creating conditions akin to Prisonner's Dillema or The Tragedy of the Commons - what's rational for the group to do (desert) is very risky and irrational for an individual to attempt alone (any one soldier trying to desert, if they do it alone, risks getting caught and executed).

In Russian military the case is even more difficult - most of Russian soldiers probably have their families back in Russia, and it's very likely that deserters' families would be harassed, given that there are already many human rights' violations going on there.

Case in point - https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/13/world/europe/13hazing.html - one of the Russian soldiers lost his legs in (peacetime) brutal hazing. His family was pressured with bribery to drop the charges against the army (they didn't). It's not hard to imagine similar, albeit brutal pressure put on families of deserters.

[comment deleted]2

Before I begin, note that the Russians have military radios, so a very cheap intervention involves broadcasting on military frequencies, but it's not clear to me who (if anyone) in the military is likely to hear unencrypted signals. It sounds like there's already substantial cacophony on a certain frequency already.

Bearing in mind Michael's point about desertion being a capital offense, I still feel like a communications experiment would be a worthwhile thing to try. At least it's cheaper and safer than killing Russian soldiers (e.g. one Javelin missile reportedly costs US$175,203, and though there are plenty of cheaper weapons, they all have the drawback of people dying).

For rapid deployment, something very simple is needed. Maybe:

  • Low-end Android phones with long battery life
  • Can use drones camouflaged against sky to drop off phones near stationary Russian forces in a location with working 3G/4G internet
    • Package phones in a small sky-blue or light-gray box (for camo against sky)... but with something to attract attention on the ground, e.g. glitter or a beeper. The phone itself should be small and ordinary.
    • Includes a friendly message on paper, indicating that the phone is from Ukrainian civilians who want to talk to Russian soldiers. Include a satellite photo within the last 24 hours to indicate "we already know where you are, so this phone doesn't give away your location"?
    • Drones could also drop cheap AM/FM radios and factual propaganda leaflets
  • In occupied cities, phones could be delivered by hand, greatly reducing cost while increasing deployment speed. This could also work in locations visited by soldiers, e.g. stores near military convoys; probably works best if some rapport is established first.
  • Software/data:
    • Contact list with several anonymous Russian-speaking Ukrainian volunteers in a nearby city (not to encourage desertion, but to create a human connection and discuss what is happening; Skype/Messenger/etc for video calls. Of course, such a person could also facilitate desertion after highlighting the risks.)
    • Locally-stored analysis videos about why Russia's invasion is going poorly (demonstrating Putin's delusions), about the 2.5+ million refugees, etc.
    • Other locally-stored messages, e.g. details of Ukrainian opinion polls showing how each Russian incursion has decreased support for Russia and increased support for NATO; UN vote in which only 5 countries supported Russia (all dictatorships) including only 1 of 14 of Russia's neighbors IIRC; pictures of cluster munition casings in a nearby city together with pictures of casualties and geolocation evidence (e.g. Google maps before & after damage); details of Moscow's disinformation operations (see Bellingcat).
    • Links to independent Russian-language news (Meduza, BBC....)
    • There are a wide variety of materials that could be shown. (1) offline messages must be well-tailored for the audience, so the right people are needed to craft offline and paper messages, e.g. people who care about Russia, former Russian conscripts, and people like me who are familiar with how messages backfire or fail to be convincing. (2) use A/B testing: vary which items are highlighted on the home screen and in what order.
    • Disable Google Play Store and most apps, to reduce unintended consequences
    • Disable GPS to prevent military use if Russian forces don't already have GPS (as implied by Ukraine's campaign of road-sign destruction)

Back-of-envelope: if the phones cost $127 plus an overhead cost of $40, and free internet is donated by Ukraine, and if sufficiently long-range remote drones cost $1000, and if one drone can deliver 6 phones before being shot down or otherwise lost, then 3,000 phones can be delivered for $1 million. Many of the phones will not be picked up - if only 1/3 are picked up and used, that's $1,000 per phone that gets used. Cost efficiency is improved by increasing phone usage, decreasing drone losses, using cheaper drones/phones, or by relying on (more dangerous) hand delivery.

As for the benefits, this is not at all clear, since AFAIK there is no precedent for something like this; consider it an experiment. I am thinking that as soon as phones start being dropped in large numbers, high-ranking officials will hear about it and order everyone not to pick up the phones, and to confiscate all phones that have been picked up already. So probably there is only one shot at a large-scale operation, though a small experiment might go unnoticed. Also, I assume the local commander (corporal/sergeant) is likely to confiscate any given phone, but there's a chance he will use it himself, potentially influencing the whole team.

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The current Russian forces seem to be performing poorly, and are now hampered by new Ukrainian attacks.  

At the same time, many thousands of anti-Russia fighters and weapons are being readied in western Ukraine.

This suggests a difficult conflict for Russia, if Russia continues to use the currently deployed forces and the same level of weapons. 


There is a recent report that Russia may be creating a pretext for higher levels of violence.

Also, in the last 48 hours, there appears to be some positive signs toward peace, such as narrowing negotiation demands from Russia and Ukraine.

Russia has narrowed its demands to focus on Ukrainian “neutrality” and the status of its Russian-occupied regions, and declared on Wednesday that Russia was not seeking to “overthrow” Ukraine’s government. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Tuesday suggested he was open to revising Ukraine’s constitutionally enshrined aspiration to join NATO, and even to a compromise over the status of Ukrainian territory now controlled by Russia.

However, peace may be a long time away. It seems like one path to reduce violence would be to avoid escalation or use of extreme weapons or tactics. 

There are some EAs involved in policy in NATO countries. Maybe if they judge it worthwhile, they can explore actions to encourage conditions conducive to peace, even if the effects take several weeks to realize.

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