You Can't Ignore the Consequences of Great Power Conflict

You Can't Ignore the Consequences of Great Power Conflict

Twelve days ago, Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. In the days since, Andrew and I have tracked relevant forecasts, collected signals, and debated the high-order questions defining the latest chapter in the Russo-Ukrainian War. In today’s newsletter, we’ll begin our forecasting effort aimed at understanding the war and its potential implications. To do so, we need to describe the key elements of the conflict and identify potential outcomes and the relevant constraints of actors.

Before the invasion, the keystone question of the conflict was whether Russia would invade Ukraine. This question captured the relevant dynamics of the conflict and aggregated their potential outcomes:

  1. Was Putin bluffing on his demands?
  2. Would Ukraine meet its Minsk-II requirements?
  3. Would the US provide security concessions in Europe?
  4. Would the West risk conflict with Russia over Ukrainian sovereignty?
  5. Would the favorable structural and environmental conditions for Russia continue?
  6. Would Xi intervene against Russian ambitions?

Although not all these questions are settled (surprisingly #4 and potentially #6), prior to invasion they all had small and diminishing probabilities of resolving positively (except for maybe #5 which carried great uncertainty). Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, is there a singular question which can be used as a replacement guide for the conflict? Maybe. For now though, we’ve chosen four key questions—two forecastable, two predictable:

  1. Will an agreement be reached by all parties in the Russo-Ukrainian War before, or shortly after, the fall of Kyiv?
  2. Will the Russian government collapse before, or shortly after, Q1 is resolved?
  3. How long until Q1 resolves?
  4. Which parties will be involved in an agreement ending the Russo-Ukrainian War and what role will they occupy?

We feel these questions capture the two-sided nature of the conflict, as well as the indicators necessary for identifying signals and shaping constraints.

Independently, Q1 is simple and asks whether the conflict will come to an end before it escalates into a prolonged war (a Ukrainian government based outside of Kyiv, likely Lviv), an insurgency (a Ukrainian government in exile), or an enduring conflict (large scale fighting stops, but larger geopolitical tensions persist). Similarly, Q2 asks whether the cost of the war will become overbearing for the Kremlin such that it collapses in response. Together, questions one and two capture the dynamics of the two-front war taking place, while Q3 and Q4 map out the scale across:

  • The military campaign: Waged by Russia and supported by Belarus, against Ukraine supported by the United States, NATO, and the European Union.
  • The economic and political campaign: Waged by the US, EU, and allies against Russia supported by China.

The Military War

On the military front, the advantage is in favor of Russia despite the dubious feasibility of its end goals. Yes, Ukrainian resistance has been fiercer than expected. But many things can be true at the same time. So while Ukrainian resistance has been better than expected and Russian progress worse than expected, it can also be true that Russia has made considerable progress and Ukraine has taken considerable losses.

On the battlefield, a picture is emerging. Russian forces have made significant territorial gains—particularly in the South, but across the East of the country through Kyiv too. At the same time, Russian forces secured Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant and are moving to secure more energy infrastructure. The crucial question will be to what degree their advance slows, whether by Ukrainian counterattacks, resistance in occupied cities, or logistical difficulties.

Credit: The Institute for the Study of War (@TheStudyofWar)

(There is also an important point to make regarding territory, which is that much of Russian gains have been primarily on roads. However, here too progress has been steadily increasing, and importantly, people live by roads.)

At the same time, however, such gains have come at a cost. Higher than expected, most likely. Yesterday, Ukraine reported that over 11,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the invasion. The day prior, almost 10,000. Moreover, recent US assessments have aligned with the Ukrainian figures (although not always the case). To cap it off, recent numbers from Russia have been roughly in-line with these numbers. In addition, Russia has lost a significant number of aircraft and other expensive military assets, and have so far faced logistical issues and resistance in occupied or sieged cities.

However, cost does not equal defeat nor a shift in the larger strategic picture. While little has been released about casualties suffered by the Ukrainian military, US officials and analysts we follow have described them as “significant” and we remember one source identifying a ⅔ ratio of losses relative to Russia. In addition, Ukraine has likely suffered greater material losses than Russia. On March 2, CNN reported that US officials assessed Russia lost 3-5% of its military assets inside Ukraine, while Ukraine had lost 10% of its total capabilities. These numbers are old, and some signs indicate Russia is losing perhaps more significant amounts of equipment.

Given the desperate pleas for a No Fly Zone by Ukraine and efforts by the US and others to supply the country with fighter jets, one has to assume Ukraine is continuing to suffer significant material losses too. Still, Western military aid has been and will continue to be a crucial variable at play. More than 17,000 anti-tank weapons, among other aid, have been delivered to Ukraine, and there are no signs of it stopping. There are also some indications that the issues facing the Russian military are being experienced by Ukraine too.

Finally, there are some other factors to consider, such as troop exhaustion and morale. While both have been cited as present or potential issues, their effect or likelihood is unclear. We are still tracking these as potential signals given the potential of this stage of the conflict to persist for months (with the fall of cities such as Kharkiv taking weeks and Kyiv potentially months).

Questions & Objectives

As we follow the military war, our key questions are:

  1. Will shifts in the Russian operation (shifting from weeks-long to months-long posture; deployment of further assets from inside Russia [but not troops]; the potential use of conscripts; etc.) alleviate Russian issues on the battlefield?
  2. Will Western aid and assistance continue to be sufficient in propping up Ukrainian resistance (most likely requiring an escalation in terms of scale)?
  3. Will Ukrainian resistance increase or decrease as more cities fall under Russian occupation, both in occupied and unoccupied territory, and more people flee the country?
  4. How will Russia respond to questions 2 and 3? How will the West counter?

These questions we feel will shape the strategic trajectory of the battlefield war. And given the the situation and the questions posed above, we can consider the objectives of the various actors as:

  • Ukraine: Resist Russian aggression and facilitate further Western involvement.
  • Russia: Secure territory across the Southern coast, across the East, and through to Kyiv as quickly as possible.
  • The West: Prolong Ukrainian resistance while avoiding direct conflict with Russia.

Russia wants to win this stage of the military war before they lose to the economic and political one, while Ukraine and the West want to extend the former to win the latter.

The Economic & Political War

On the economic and political front, the advantage is in favor of the West and Ukraine. Prior to invasion, this war was the one waged by Putin as he pressured the Zelensky regime into implementing Minsk-II, sought binding international agreements by various parties on security guarantees, and sabotaged the Ukrainian economy with the threat of force. Since the invasion began, however, this war has been escalated by the West who now hold the advantage over Russia. The key question is will it be fought hard enough and won fast enough?

In response to Russian aggression, the United States, European Union, and their associated allies have waged a great economic and political campaign against Russia. The actions taken included cutting out a number of Russian banks from the SWIFT system, freezing Russian reserves in foreign countries, and isolating Russia from the wider international world.

As a result, the Russian economy has been severely harmed. JPMorgan projects Russian GDP will contract 35% in the second quarter of 2022 and 7% for the entire year. The Russian government has limited capital withdrawals from the country and kept financial markets closed. The country has also faced growing protests at home, including some politicians and oligarchs speaking out against the invasion. As a result, Russia has cracked down on the remnants of independent media and passed legislation aimed to silence dissidence. Moreover, Russia has become increasingly isolated, resulting in a large-margin condemnation by the United Nations and the departure of many multinational corporations. However, will the steps currently taken be sufficient to take down Moscow before Kyiv falls?

While Western sanctions have crippled the economy, there’s an argument to be made that these actions could lead to a loosening of monetary policy which would mute or reverse many effects. Moreover, while China has called the situation in Ukraine as a war and reiterated their claim that Russia was a “strategic partner” and not an ally, China has stepped in to fill many of the gaps caused by the departure of Western multinational companies and will likely be crucial in ensuring Russia evades the harshest implications of sanctions. Without escalation on this front–either through the intensification of the sanctions themselves or their enforcement–it appears unlikely for the present state to seriously threaten the short-term stability of the Russian government and could even strengthen it.

There are many issues with polling, particularly when dealing with a country such as Russia. With that caveat in mind, a poll conducted by Levada Center before the invasion found 60% of respondents blamed the US and NATO for the escalation in Ukraine while 14% blamed Ukraine (translated). In November, those numbers were 50% and 16% respectively. The same pollster found Putin had a 69% approval, 29% disapproval rating before the invasion, compared to 61% and 37% respectively in August. A poll conducted after the invasion by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (state-run) found 68% of Russians approved of the “special military operation” while 22% opposed it (translated). Another poll by a Russian opposition group found 59% approved of the invasion while 34% opposed it (translated).

Will a Russian population–facing increasing oppression by their regime, human tolls imposed by the war in Ukraine, and economic devastation by Western actions–turn on their regime or the actors they have been predisposed to fault? Especially when actions have led to the global exclusions of Russians.

The answer remains unclear as the Russian media and government integrate the war into their narrative, however we find it likelier than not to help the Russian regime, at least in the short-term. Moreover, much has been made at the anti-war protests. Andrew and I do not discount these as a signal. They are important. The fact that their size appears growing and that they take place under increasingly growing risk cannot be ignored. Over 4,300 people were arrested this past Sunday. But while the New York Times describes them as the largest “single day of protest in recent memory,”  over 5,100 people were arrested on the January 31, 2021, Navalny protests.

Questions & Objectives

As we follow the economic and political war, our key questions are:

  1. Will the West increase their sanctions on Russia, including a ban on gas and oil, which would significantly hamper the Russian economy?
  2. Will domestic sentiment in Russia start to blame the regime more than others as the war wages on and can the Kremlin contain the fallout?
  3. Will the West be able to convince China to join their side in pressuring the Russian government and preventing their evasion of sanctions despite considering the country a threat to the same world order they are now defending?
  4. As the cost of sanctions on the West increases, either due to rising wheat, semiconductor, and other commodities prices, will domestic audiences in the West continue supporting extreme sanctions?
  5. What role will potential Russian counter-sanctions and cyberattacks play?

We can consider the objectives of the various actors as:

  • Ukraine: Inflict rising human costs on Russia.
  • The West: Inflict as much economic and political damage as Russia, while limiting the damages they face.
  • Russia: Resist domestic collapse.
  • China: Avoid publicly picking a side.

Outcomes & Constraints

In summary, the conflict in Ukraine is taking place on two fronts, with each side racing across the finish line:

  • Military: Russian forces supported by Belarus are trying to conquer (at least temporarily) Ukraine which is supported by the United States, NATO, and allies.
  • Economic / Political: The United States, European Union, and allies are attempting to collapse the Russian government via the economy and isolation (Tarek Mansour, the co-founder of Kalshi, explains this well here).

Which brings us back to the four questions posed at the start. As a reminder, they were:

  1. Will an agreement be reached by all parties in the Russo-Ukrainian War before, or shortly after, the fall of Kyiv?
  2. Will the Russian government collapse before, or shortly after, Q1 is resolved?
  3. How long until Q1 resolves?
  4. Which parties will be involved in an agreement ending the Russo-Ukrainian War?

Questions one and two map out the potential outcomes in this stage of the Russo-Ukrainian War, while three and four capture their dimensions.

Row 1 captures the outcomes where Russia is able to capture Kyiv while managing internal struggles and isolation. This would mean that should a peace deal occur in the conflict, that Ukraine and the West would likely be the ones who surrender–although the degree can vary depending on duration (Q3) and parties involved (Q4).

Row 2 captures a multiulde of worlds. Prolonged conflict ranges from a peace treaty signed by a puppet government (which likely leads to continued isolation and economic warfare by the West) to a prolonged war where the Ukrainian government continues its fight from Lviv to an insurgency based in Poland (as discussed by the US and UK governments).

Row 3 captures the outcomes where Ukrainian resistance withheld Russian forces long enough for the West to defeat Russia through its economic and political warfare such that it sued for peace and "lost"–although the degree seems quite varied.

Row 4 captures a very uncertain (or dark) set of worlds where somehow the West's economic warfare worked (perhaps achieved through a coup?) which led to the contiuation of fighting. This can range wildly to a Putin replacement who doubles down to a larger confrontation with China due to the West's attempts to engage them in this conflict.

The goal for Russia is to end up in row 1 or settle for row 2. While for Ukraine and the West it is to end up in row 3 or settle for rows 2 and 4 (the latter is likely preferable). Ideally, we could try to find a middle ground between rows 1 and 3 which are preferable to all sides by reducing the gains / losses for both sides. The questions are, however:

  • What are the minimum terms both sides would accept?
  • How do those minimum terms change as the conflict continues?

We'll touch on the first point in the next newsletter so get subscribed (it's legit free!). For now we'll focus on the second question.

The Constraints on Peace in the Russo-Ukrainian War
The factors driving the likelihood of a peace deal.

As the duration of the conflict increases, so too do the costs. As a result of human, economic, and political costs, the gap increases between what the East (Russia, Belarus, probably China) and the West (Ukraine, US, EU, NATO, JP, etc.) will accept. Not only as a result of time, but as Q4 increases in terms of scope (Will Belarus officially enter the military war?) and clarity (China in the economic and political?). The more people involved (which also increases costs), the more interests and constraints need to be accounted for, the further the gap between rows 1 and 3.

Ukraine’s Constraints

  • Domestic opinion: Critical for defending nationality. One poll indicates 88% of Ukrainians believe their country will prevail. 76% want to join NATO and 86% the EU; these numbers are up from 54% and 58% in December (when only 12% of respondents appoved of the Minsk-II agreements [translated]).
  • The West: Critical for increasing the duration of the conflict (arms, intelligence, aid, economic / political warfare) and securing Ukraine the most beneficial terms possible.
  • International support: Important for protecting Western unity.
  • Zelensky: Does he stay in the country until the end with Bush levels of approval rating or leave to fight a prolonged conflict? Will he be a dealmaker in a peace deal or a roadblock as he manages domestic opinion.

Russia’s Constraints

  • Cost of invasion: Human, economic, political
  • Relationship with China
  • Domestic opinion
  • Battlefield situation

Starting with the last constraint, as Ukraine continues to resist Russia’s military, the conflict will become exceedingly protracted, raising Q3. As this conflict extends, protests in Russia could grow, forcing Russia to fight battles at home and abroad. This will also come at a cost, increasing the key constraint of Russian economic stability. Finally, as all of this takes place, Russia’s relationship with China will also come into focus. China does not want to bail out Russia – it is going through its own domestic economic and political struggles, and only wants to maintain regional stability. They likely also want a diplomatic outcome to this conflict. Will Russia risk angering China by continuing this conflict, creating more instability, and incurring greater costs by the day which China may, at some point, at least partially be on the hook for?

China’s Constraints

For China, there are only three real constraints: regional stability and (ideally) avoiding economic warfare with the West. The tension between these two constraints will be a key focus for us. While China does not want to take a side, their actions and words indicate they are more likely to support Russia than help in their demise.

Western Constraints

And finally, for the West, constraints are unfortunately rampant. Most integral to this discussion, is the West’s willingness to continue supporting Ukraine and risk greater conflict. This constraint is driven by others.

First, with the forthcoming midterm elections in the United States, the French presidential election in April, and other elections in NATO and EU countries, domestic support and politicization of this conflict will be central to decision-making. Leaders will be focusing on pleasing their bases, and if those bases turn from supporting Ukraine, these countries’ willingness to continue support, especially in an inflated global economy, may go down. This may lower the odds of Q1, while raising the results of Q3.

Second, Western interest in supporting Ukraine is also beholden to Western unity and cohesion in decision-making. As we have witnessed, Putin’s actions have ironically begun to strengthen Western unity through multilateral organizations. This cohesion has been key to fighting Russia on the economic and military fronts. This cohesion will need to continue if the West wants to keep supporting Ukraine. This also ties into ideological constraints which the West is facing, and the larger implications for great power politics.

The West has long painted itself as a purveyor of human rights and democracy throughout the world. It has held up a rules based order for states to abide by, and has, at times, used both hard and soft power to enforce this system. The rules based order is an ideologically-driven framework, and relies on winning in the marketplace of ideas to garner support.

So, as we enter this next chapter of great power politics and work to set frameworks and precedents for interaction between nuclear powers in a multi-polar world, clear and consistent ideology will be a constraint to the West’s response. It still has to win the hearts and minds of its own citizens as well as other countries, and cannot look like it is straying too far from the principles it purports to be preserving as it supports Ukraine. Ideology from the West, and the nature of precedent-setting with Russia will be very important constraints to any decision-making that the West engages in.

Forecasts & Predictions

We forecast a 20% likelihood that an agreement will be reached by all parties in the Russo-Ukrainian War before, or shortly after, the fall of Kyiv.

The impact of economic sanctions from the West, and growing domestic dissent in Russia are both growing constraints on the country’s military Ukraine in Russia. With China as a backstop, and Putin having deep expertise in quelling domestic upstarts, however, the impact of these constraints is not prohibitive…yet. Moreover, given the chasm between what all parties would accept from a peace deal given other constraints, we give the odds of a peace deal at 20% for now, with a range of [10%, 33%].

We forecast an 8% likelihood the Russian government collapses before, or shortly after, the above question is resolved.

Russia’s economic ailing, upset oligarchs, and domestic squabbles are all pressures on the preservation of Russia’s government. But Russia does have allies (for now) including a very powerful ally in China. The regime has also withstood pressure from both the international community and from within before. Collapsing a government with the history and the size of Russia is not an easy task, and so while we might be on the road to government weakening, our current forecast is 8%, with a range of [5%, 12%].

  • 03/10/22: ? 6% (-2) [5% (+0), 8% (-4)]
We predict it will take three months for the first question forecasted will be resolved.

Given the plodding pace of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, and the endless faucet of aid streaming in from countries in NATO and the EU, this conflict seems destined for a protracted timeline. Add Zelensky’s role in Ukrainian sentiment to keep fighting, and Russia showing no signs of giving up, three months seems like a reasonable timeline before either further escalation or an agreement. Although Metaculus gives the odds of Kyiv falling by April at 32% and 45% by June, so we may be off here and we are undercounting the risk of Russian governmental collapse. Conversely, forecasters could be discounting the potential for a collapse in Ukrainian resistance as cities fall and stay occupied. We would put our range at [1mo, 5mo].

We predict the following countries will take part in the agreement mentioned in the first question forecasted: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, United States, European Union, NATO, and China.

Given the implicated parties to date, it makes sense that Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the EU, NATO, and (likely) China will need to agree to a peace deal. They may not all be signatories, but will have a hand in the terms of any deal to be struck between these countries or need to participate in the de-escalation of tensions (e.g., reducing / removing sanctions).

Crowd Forecasts & Resources

Forecasting Resources for the Russo-Ukrainian War: Crowd Forecasts, Newsletters, Information Sources
Crowd forecasts, expert / superforecaster predictions, and useful resources about the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Escalation & Implications

Yesterday, I wrote on Twitter that I was in disbelief by how casually the West has climbed the escalation ladder. I was not (and am not) arguing that Western actions have been wrong. I am inclined to agree with Andrew, that such actions were necessary due to how events shape larger themes.

But this sidesteps the larger point I was trying to make. A war is being waged in Europe. One side is a nuclear-armed former superpower, and both sides have shown they will go to war in pursuit of their objectives. The United States said they would not go to war. NATO and the UK too. Now let's examine a brief timeline of escalation.

Instead of going to war, we outlined a package of potential sanctions...and then immediately did more than expected, with a few cherries on top.

The initial SWIFT sanctions on Russia included work-arounds, in part to allow countries to purchase Russian energy. 12 days later?

U.S., European allies discuss banning imports of Russian oil
The United States and European allies are exploring banning imports of Russian oil, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday, and the White House coordinated with key Congressional committees moving forward with their own ban.

Already US lawmakers have taken steps to move forward the idea. For now, German Chancellor Scholz has rejected the idea, but throughout this crisis we’ve rejected ideas and made a complete-180 a few days later. Will this be different? Or could it reveal cracks in the West's unity?

On March 1, 2022, Poland and other countries announced they would not send Ukraine fighter jets for fear of escalation:

Polish President Andrzej Duda joined the chorus on Tuesday. Speaking alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the Łask Air Base in Poland, Duda said his country is “not going to send any jets to the Ukrainian airspace,” arguing “that would open a military interference in the Ukrainian conflict.”

March 6?

U.S., Poland Look at Providing Soviet-Era Aircraft to Ukraine
The U.S. is exploring a deal in which Poland would send Soviet-era aircraft to Ukraine in return for American F-16 jet fighters, U.S. officials said. Poland’s prime minister’s office dismissed reports of a potential arrangement.

All of this–and more!–by day 12 in a conflict which could last months or years.

Consider these three questions:

  1. What happens if the steps we’ve taken so far constitute a red line for Russia down the line that currently do not? Do we stop then, or live with the consequences?
  2. What happens if the current economic sanctions are not sufficient to collapse the Russian economy and government? Do we increase the sanctions further, find a way to co-opt China into the scheme, and shoulder the costs as inflation continues to rise?
  3. Should NATO eventually send the jets, what happens when the 70-or-so MiG and Su aircraft they have run out? I assume we first try to find more, but then what? Do we fly planes for the Ukrainians, like the Soviet Union did in the Korean War for the North? In that war, American and Soviet pilots shot and killed one another. It didn’t lead to war then. But if our desired outcome is to collapse the Russian government (which is either our explicit or implicit goal by shaping the terms of a potential peace deal), will the past repeat itself here? Or do we train and base Ukrainian pilots out of Poland? What happens if Russia attacks those airfields, since they’ve already called that participation in the conflict? Do we go to war? Shrug off the losses and keep supporting Ukraine? Or maybe when we run out of fighter jets do we just give up on Ukraine and thereby practically force their surrender? Would Ukraine even give in then? After rising costs on Russia and then bailing on Ukraine, would we expect a peace deal to be more favorable to Ukraine than in the world prior? What would that say about the Liberal International Order?

Every action we in the West take in response to the war has impacts on all four questions we mentioned at the top. My point is–our point is–we are not seriously considering the actions we are taking. And we aren't considering the degree to which the other actors involved are willing to climb the escalation ladder.

Andrew agrees that it is critically important to think through the cost-benefit calculus of engaging in sanctions warfare with Russia. Especially as it pertains to the human cost of suffering in Ukraine and Russia, as well as at home. He also believes that clear and resolute communication from the United States and the West on its stance towards Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine is paramount. Similarly to the West’s expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, this sanctions response sends an ambivalent message to Russia and other potential annexors around the world; there has not been a clear message that Russia can or cannot have Ukraine. As touched on above, decisions made today will have significant impacts on how nuclear powers interact moving forward, and I do not envy leaders debating how to extend a rules based order in a multi-polar world still dictated by many realist principles. But these are the questions we are faced with, and so in my opinion any decision made should be with Ukraine in mind, yes, but also the future of the world order. And any decision with that much weight attached to it must be consistent, resolute, and loud.

So when we take steps, we have to ask what are the associated costs? Risks? How do our actions shape the potential futures that currently exist? Do they do so in a way which reflects our desired outcomes relative to our risk and cost tolerances? What are our desired outcomes and how do they relate to the desires and constraints of others?

TL/DR: My issue is that there are too few signs we are grappling with these questions when taking actions.

We are standing up for democracy, protecting Ukrainian sovereignty, and crushing an evil regime run by a fascist dictator. Emotion and ideology should not guide our response. They are (to some signfiicant degree), but they should definetly not. Which is dangerous, especially when the goal of one side (i.e., Ukraine) wants to get us directly involved.

It's especially dangerous when "we" find ourselves glued to a late-night YouTube live stream, watching a drone capture a Russian attack on the largest nuclear plant in Europe, while at the same time the Ukrainian foreign minister tweets about an ongoing fire which could lead to an explosion 7-10X the size of Chernobyl and that's why we need a no fly zone right now and miss the Twitter threads pointing out why a meltdown would be nothing like Chernobyl in terms of scale...before the live stream ends minutes before firefighters were allowed on the scene.

Source: Times of Israel (Kuleba deleted the tweet, but it should still be viewable at the link)

Before we conclude, two more points.

The first is that we should seriously think through our responses to potential (eventual?) retaliatory actions from Russia now. As the pressure increases on the regime, as we increase the probability of Q2, this becomes ever more important. How will we respond to:

  1. Above ground nuclear weapons tests?
  2. Atmospheric nuclear weapons tests?
  3. The use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
  4. The use of strategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

Whatever we decide should be the response is the one we stick to. With this risk, we can't pull a SWIFT one on them.

The second is that, if our goal is to take down the Russian regime, we should probably be very honest about the seriousness of the task and acknowledge the risks and costs associated. I'm not opposed to the idea. A lot of short-term risks for the potential of a lot fewer future ones. It's not a bad tradeoff in theory.


On December 22, 2021, I forecasted a 72% likelihood Russia would invade Ukraine in 2022. Sixty-one days later, on February 21, 2022, at 13:00 GMT, I had seen enough. (Forecast stats here.)

But on April 19, 2021, when Russia was amassing troops and equipment on Ukraine's border, Andrew and I forecasted a 51% likelihood of renewed conflict in the Donbas before October. At the time, the Metaculus community was 42%. We grappled with whether the build up was indicative of conflict or other objectives. On balance, we gave slight odds to the former due to the mixed opinions of our expert follows and the base-rate.

Three days later, Russia announced a withdrawal of its troops–something they followed through on, despite leaving substantial amounts of equipment behind.  We lowered our forecast to 15% (community: 41%), before adjusting slightly again on the 27th to 20% (35%). We made our final update on June 21, 2021, to 16% (20%).

But in 2022, the signals never changed:

  1. The odds of Putin bluffing rather than issuing ultimatums on NATO / EU membership for Ukraine, including a neutral or pro-Kremlin orientation and security concessions in Europe to boot, were small and diminishing;
  2. The odds of the US providing Russia with legally binding guarantees on Ukrainian NATO membership (also likely Moldova and Georgia) and seriously grappling and addressing Russian security demands were small and diminishing;
  3. The odds of the US and NATO directly involving themselves in the conflict were small and diminishing, with the odds for sanction severity indicating the present regime was unexpected;
  4. The odds of Xi intervening were miniscule.

On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Understanding how we got to today is critical in finding the best way out. We'll dive into this story more over the coming newsletters as we update our forecasts and understand the potential worlds we can achieve.