I can't help but notice that every single one of these arguments equally opposes letting the other side's soldiers surrender on the battlefield and become PoWs in the regular way instead of fighting to the death:

1. DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE considers killing enemy soldiers an actively good thing, allowing them to surrender and be imprisoned is a lesser penalty and therefore wrong.

2. EQUALITY would be concerned that only wealthy countries can afford to treat their PoWs well, and this would give them an unfair advantage.

3. MINIMAL NECESSARY HARM would consider letting people be cowards and surrender to be a fate worse than death. So we must kill them if they try to surrender, and make this widely known so they won't try and will instead die good patriots.

4. WRONG REASON would tag self-preservation as the same kind of low motive that shouldn't be encouraged. You can surrender because you think Russia is on the wrong side, but not merely to save your own skin.

5. ADDING INSULT TO INJURY says that as long as we have our own soldiers being treated less than optimally, we cannot spend any money on the well-being of enemy soldiers. Since taking them prisoner involves a non-zero expense to house and feed them, better to just shoot them where they stand.

I look forward to seeing people who embrace these arguments arguing against the Geneva convention.

Expand full comment

I can think of a few (IMO more plausible) reasons.

1) Most soldiers, economically speaking, overvalue their military worth (i.e., patriotism and the sense of dishonor in desertion may mean you would have to pay them much more than would actually be materially worth it to get them to desert). Only a rarefied few extremely valued, specialized soldiers would be willing to defect for a price that a self-interested, rational agent would be willing to pay (though if you're an altruistic agent who takes the benefit to the bribed soldier into account, it may still be worth it to pay a more or less disposable infantryman to defect more than he's worth for his own sake, even if it's not militarily worth it).

2) This can easily be gamed. People can join the military then immediately desert just to get free money. In fact, if you don't have accurate personnel information on the enemy forces, civilians could put on some fatigues, walk into a base, and collect a check. The enemy government could even exploit this by recruiting large numbers of people to 'enlist' on paper, desert, collect the money, then return to Russia (and who knows, maybe do it again under a different name).

3) There are potential unforeseen downstream responses. E.g., governments may start punishing family members of deserters to counteract the cash incentive soldiers have to desert.

Expand full comment

Desertion is mostly useful when it happens en masse.

If you desert individually, you are replaced with another conscript.

If a whole unit deserts and the enemy surges through the hole in the line then it’s meaningful. You can’t replace the deserting unit fast enough.

But getting a whole unit to desert is a difficult task. It takes more than money. When the Russian pilot that deserted with his plane did so, his two co-pilots were killed because they refused to desert. Not only does the defector need to find the sun high enough, but he must convince others of the same or be willing to do them harm.

Expand full comment

I think you are wrong in your assumption of en masse, one unit at a time, being the only valuable way. The slow trickle of men from multiple units works quite well, too.

When units start having people disappear it has a significant effect on overall morale. Soldier 1 runs off in the night, and soldiers 2 and 3 start thinking "Man, I could do that too..." then they do, and soldiers 4-6 start thinking "Will there even be enough of us left by the end of the week to keep fighting? Why am I staying?" etc.

Deserters are not replaced immediately, but the effects are immediately felt, or at least are felt as soon as people realize there's an empty knapsack. Soldiers are willing to face a lot of hell for their brothers in arms, far more so than patriotic duty etc. One fights for the men on either side of him. When those men clearly decide the fight isn't worth it with the expensive signal of deserting, those that are left lose interest quickly. It is the same reason why routs tend to happen slowly then all at once: no one wants to be the first to run, but once other people are running no one wants to be the last to go.

Expand full comment

The links to your Make Desertion Fast articles are broken.

Expand full comment

The arguments may be silly and obtuse, but they are the arguments of much of the electorate. You need to engage with the arguments to understand - let alone influence! - their votes.

The real shame about Ned's commendable work here is that it's beside the point. I doubt that any of these arguments capture the true objection of almost anyone, any more than "I don't like green food" capture my kids' true objection to vegetables. If I'm right, then engaging with these arguments is a waste of time - instead, we should identify the true objection and deal with that. If I'm wrong, I'd love to have someone change my mind.

Expand full comment

I had the same impression: they sound like the kind of arguments someone might spin up when pressed to give a justification for an intuitive stance they took. Not the reason they took the stance in the first place.

Expand full comment

I guess the easiest argument against is that it just doesn't seem to work. We offer pretty large bonuses to defect, but few people defect. Maybe they are loyal to their country. Maybe they don't see an opportunity. Maybe they are afraid for their family left behind. Maybe they fear that even if they get out they will be tracked down (that Russian pilot example).

The easiest way to end the Ukraine war is one nobody is going to like to hear. Ukranians already pay a lot of money to avoid the draft and get out of the country. I hear the going rate is $5,000. We could pay the Ukranians to defect and offer a much stronger guarantee of personal safety. The recent $60B package, divided by one million active military personal, is $60,000 a person. Combined with an EU passport and a guarantee of physical safety, this would probably be the quickest way to end the war.

Or maybe not, but if you wanted to bribe people to end the war that's the fastest way.

Expand full comment

This would end the war in Russia's favour. Not the kind of end to the war we would like.

Expand full comment

I am absolutely uninterested in whether the war ends in Russias favor or not. I don't particularly like the Ukrainians or hate the Russians, and I don't think the war does them much good anyway.

But if your invested in a narrative where the resolution of the war matters, it would be hard to convince you otherwise.

Expand full comment

It's puzzling that you are disinterested in the outcome of a war but motivated to speculate repeatedly about a strategy that might help to end it - a strategy that could be used by either side. You imply that concerning oneself with the resolution of a war impairs rational argument - thereby offering yourself as evidence of the claim. A permanent war does not matter? Yes, it would be hard to convince me of that.

Expand full comment

So the suffering of the war is an obvious downside. Ending the war an obvious good.

The counter argument is that ending it on "bad terms" is worse than continuing the war. This would require me to believe that there is some large difference between "bad terms" and "good terms" that would be enough to swamp the damage caused by the war. I don't perceive there being much of a difference. But I have a different narrative of why the war started and what it means then others.

Expand full comment

For the sake of argument, let's assume you are right about the current conflict.

One big problem with ending the war on terms favourable to the aggressor, is that this encourages more wars of aggression in the future.

Even if all you care about is avoiding the suffering of war, this would be an argument that the current war should be ended in specific ways.

(Btw, this argument doesn't say Ukraine needs to win. It would be enough for Putin to lose.

If you want Ukraine to win, you need additional arguments.)

Expand full comment

I don't consider Russia an unsolicited aggressor. I think it is an aggrieved party with rational interest in the situation. If Ukraine's government hadn't been overthrown and the country turned into a CIA base, I don't think this war ever would have happened.

The current stance of the America president is that he wants Putin's government overthrown. There is even talk of breaking up Russia.

At a minimum Ukraine seeks to expel Russia from the largely pro-Russian portions of Ukraine that likely don't want to be a part of Ukraine. If even possible, this would likely take years and cost millions of casualties. Kiev has also floated the idea that they plan to forcefully relocated 800,000 Russian civilians that moved to Crimea since 2014.

Let's say Ukraine succeeds. What lesson would the world learn? That the CIA can color revolution you at any point and get away with it? That we really are hoping to break apart our geopolitical rivals? That we lie through our teeth when negotiating. If I'm China I'm not deterred, I'm freaked out. Even if I'm minding my own business the United States is constantly going to be trying to undermine my regime even within my own country. How could peace be possible under such circumstances?

Expand full comment
Apr 24·edited Apr 24

The important bit is that Putin does not get rewarded for an act of aggression.

We want to discourage that kind of behaviour from him and others in the future.

It doesn't matter whether one likes the Ukrainians. All the territory could go to China or Poland etc for all that matters. (Though as a matter of practicality, opposing Russia largely means helping Ukraine. Since Poland is unlikely to step forward and claim any territory.)

Expand full comment

The people I want to deter from future aggression is American Natsec and the neocons. I don't want them overthrowing foreign governments, turning them into CIA bases, and antagonizing other countries for no reason. If NatSec loses in Ukraine it sends a message for them to stop behaving in such a manner (Nuland being hung would be an even better deterrence).

I have hoped Iraq and Afghanistan taught the lesson but a new generation of "liberals" is OK with dumb needless forever wars as long as its someone they can be convinced to hate.

Expand full comment

I assume you are an American?

It's pretty funny, you can see that the Americans are not the good guys by default. But your narrative seems narrow enough that, if they can't be the hero protagonist, they must necessarily be the villain.

It's hard to fathom that God's own country ain't always centre stage, is it?

Expand full comment

Well, we are the ones providing the weapons, money, and intelligence aren't we. Ukraine would collapse almost immediately without us.

If we weren't involved I wouldn't tell the Ukranians what to do. But if we are involved we have the right to dictate the terms of the involvement. If Ukraine won't agree to those terms, we should cut off aid.

Currently, negotiating with Russia is illegal due to a law passed by the Rada. That law should be repealed. Zelensky, Biden, and Putin ought to sit down and try to hammer out a deal. If that deal involved ceding eastern Ukrainian territory I would be fine with that.

Expand full comment

PS Do we actually regularly offer large bonuses to defectors, and are those bonuses easy to collect?

What evidence do you have for your assertions that we do?

Expand full comment

Per the post, a bonus of $500,000 plus asylum was offered to the defecting Russian pilot. Russia managed to track him down to Spain and kill him.

In theory it would be easier to bribe Ukranian soldiers, as I think it would be very difficult for Ukraine to kill deserters that fled to the EU. If they did somehow succeed, it would certainly shatter the myth of their moral superiority.

Expand full comment
Apr 24·edited Apr 24

A pilot is a very high status soldier with privileges. The plane ain't free either.

How much do they offer common Russian soldiers? And how many has Russia tracked down and killed?

Expand full comment

The one state reward I could find was $58,000 for a defector + a list based on equipment they bring with them. Average yearly salary in Russia is $7,837 a year, so it's pretty good. Comes with EU immigration, which is worth a lot on its own.

Ironic, Ukranians are willing to pay $5,000 to escape the draft, but they will pay Russians $58,000 for the same privilege.

Expand full comment

So that 58k USD doesn't seem to be offered regularly for grunts.

Could you point to any source you can find for even the 58k USD?

Expand full comment

First, I would like to dig this up from the memory whole before the CIA decided to change Ukrainian government.

Gallup Pole from 2008, "Ukrainians See More Value in Ties With Russia Than U.S."


Among Ukrainians: When asked do you approve or disapprove of the job performance of the leadership of the following countries: 73% disapproved of the Ukrainian government, 7 % approved. 53% of Ukrainians approved of the Russian government and when asked the same question only 16% of Ukrainians approved of the United States Government.

"Bilaniuk presented a typology of five main categories of Surzhyk found in Ukraine today. The first type she defined is urbanized peasant surzhyk, which can be attributed to Ukrainian peasants moving to the cities to find work and desiring to speak the more prestigious Russian language. "


The Wilson Institute at Brown also showed a large section of Ukraine in the east of Ukraine wanted to Join Russia as of 2008.


"The correspondent indicated also that most Ukrainians are so "russified" that they do not have a great deal of antagonism towards Russians (15 July 1992.). Apart from western regions of Ukraine, most Ukrainians speak Russian, and there are several cultural similarities. Further, Ukraine has been adopting laws which are balanced and fair in respect to minorities (Ibid.)."


Well desertion is pretty fast, remember Ukraine's soldiers are deserting at a quick rate whenever they can, not necessarily to Russia but they are attempting to leave the country. You have 42 year olds hiding from a draft, which is a pretty good example that the people that would have to die for Ukraine would prefer not to even if it means Russia keeping a portion of their country. There currently are roughly about 1 million Americans of Ukranian decent and you may notice they haven't all jumped on a plane to go fight Russia for their homeland.

Expand full comment

I've heard people say that you'll end up with a lot of people still loyal to Russia pretending to defect who might try to work for Russia.

Most of his complaints could be reduced by offering the right to live and work in the west to all Russians and Ukrainians.

Expand full comment

I'm unfamiliar w/Bryan's oeuvre. Has he proposed similar strategies to deter and/or rehabilitate criminals, encourage legislators to forgo legislating - or, even better, retract existing legislation, sex offenders to perhaps attack each other, etc? How about paying university professors a handsome premium to eschew DEI dogma in their curricula? They are chronically underpaid, right?

Expand full comment

All of those fall resoundingly flat and seem to be a lipsticked pig for pure spite/jealously with a giant helping of sunk cost fallacies. They completely ignore the costs born by the civilian population as a result of a continued war.

I mean I get these were just common objections but let's call them for what they are, pettiness. And know that's not knew and yes law is full of that.

Still I'm glad for the post, was an interesting read. The first one is the only one I'm even remotely sympathetic to but that scenario only works because imperfect enforcement problem, i.e. before it actually starts to incentive new wrongdoers / free riders ala entrapment effectively.

Expand full comment