What is Our Risk Threshold?
There is a moral question to consider to inform political and military choices.
In March 1938, the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, met with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler to discuss potential resolutions to the growing unease over German territorial ambitions in Central Europe. According to the historian Michael Burleigh, the “ambassador represented everything Hitler disliked about the British with his tasteful suits, claret-coloured pullover and trademark red carnation.” Hitler told Henderson in no uncertain terms that Britain should not “interfere” in Central European affairs, and pointed out that Germany would not presume to interfere in Ireland, implying what he saw as great power hypocrisy from Britain.
Does the language of “interference” in the ambitions of a despot and apparent hypocrisy from his interlocutors sound familiar from recent weeks?
In ‘Moral Combat’, Burleigh examined the varying moral frameworks within which the belligerent powers during the Second World War operated. Examining war from a moral perspective is challenging, because decisions are made by governments, militaries, and individuals, in real time and without retrospective deliberation, thus engendering a moral component to the conduct of conflict.
Nevertheless, the moral content of the war necessarily informed political and military choices. One example of such a moral dilemma may be seen in the decision by the Royal Air Force to bomb German cities, where the civilian cost was known to both RAF command, the airmen, and the government. An outspoken critic of the strategy to deliberate target civilians and cities, George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, stated in addressing Parliament in 1944:
“The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is ‘Law’; It is of supreme importance that we, who, with our Allies, are the Liberators of Europe, should so use power that it is always under the control of law.”
Anglican theologians differed in their views, however, with the Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, writing: “Often in life there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong; frequently the choice is between the lesser of two evils...”
There is a moral content to the war in Ukraine, whether we want to accept it or not. The question is one of moral responsibility and obligation, and the relationship that any such deliberation has to our perception of risk. If we accept that the invasion is a clear wrong, being executed by an autocrat wielding might over right and threatening both Ukraine and the world with nothing but power, does the West decide that it stands for something greater than power?
There are those that would argue that the West’s hypocrisy should stand it down; after all, the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003 constituted a similar breach of sovereignty and international law. But this thinking falls prey to the colouring of real time decisions with the benefits of reflection. The Allies were clearly on the side of something greater than power during the Second World War, on the morally right side of the sum total of the conflict, but this does not necessarily mean that, for example, Britain acted with moral intent in her wider empire. Germany was wrong in 1939; Western Allies aligning with the murderous Soviet Union was deemed the lesser of two evils, initially, to bring about the end of the Nazi regime. That America was wrong in 2003 does not negate the moral content of the decisions to act, and to what extent to act, against Putin's Russia in 2022.
What is our threshold?
Collectively, what are we willing to tolerate, and how low are we setting our risk perception, in the face of unilateral escalation?
Is there a particular act, or series of acts, which would make us accept that this is a war of international implications, rather than a conflict of local dimensions?
What moral content would inform a recalibration and reevaluation, based on the best available data and intelligence, of the West’s risk aversion and threat perception of Putin, to inform political and military choices?
For example, are there certain types of weapon which, if the Russians began to deploy, we would think they have crossed some arbitrary line? What about if President Zelensky was assassinated? Or, as a counterfactual, what if Russia had invaded Finland or Sweden, would our response be to watch Helsinki and Stockholm be pulverised by Russian rockets and provide some basic military aid because neither are NATO members?
The basic premise to these questions is this: what is the threshold of Russia's conduct we are willing to accept before we deem some arbitrary line crossed? What are we willing to witness on our screens while falling back on a threat perception, which may or may not be an accurate assessment, to justify relative paralysis?
After an initial wave of short-term cohesion and a rush to action across the EU and U.S., the reality is that to date, military assistance to Ukraine has comprised only of shoulder-mounted and surface-to-air missiles, ammunition, and equipment like helmets. We appear to focus more on what the war in Ukraine is giving us, i.e., some renewed sense of collective identity and purpose, rather than what we could give them. And the reality is that, in considering what we could give them - even if it remained in the domain of military aid alone - we are being held hostage to our own thresholds of risk, which are orders of magnitude lower than the Kremlin’s.
These are moral questions, which necessarily inform political and military decision making. These questions are not mutually exclusive, nor sufficient in isolation. The moral question alone is necessary, but not sufficient, for action.
Yet these moral questions are becoming an imperative for the West to find answers to, because there is an uncomfortable truth that has been uncovered not only by the invasion, but by the appeasement and acquiescence that preceded and foretold the invasion. That truth is that there is no imbalance of power at play here; there is an imbalance of threat assessment and risk thresholds, one which plays perfectly into the hands of Putin's aggressive agenda. And will play well in the hands of any future tyrannical ambitions, with Xi's China being a prime suspect.
Before we go any further, let me be clear that I am not necessarily arguing for a full-scale military deployment or reckless mass escalation. In fact, I'm making no assumptions as to what any greater action by the West for Ukraine could be. What I am calling for is to gain lucid moral clarity on the implications for the ongoing destruction in Ukraine, and the wider implications, of our risk aversion and imbalance of threat assessment and risk perception. As stated, to date military assistance to Ukraine has comprised of missiles, ammunition, and equipment. This is the level at which the current risk threshold sits, and yet there are swathes of the Western liberal commentariat assuming that any step above this minimal threshold equates to starting a nuclear war.
But there has, de facto, been ‘escalation’ by the West, in various forms: after the U.S. announced a $350-million military aid package to Ukraine, it has delivered almost the entirety of this package already. But as Amy Mackinnon, national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, has reported, the ground routes for delivery are already being stifled by the Russian occupation. This aid package and its delivery has not resulted in nuclear war.
To have a measured, data and intelligence-driven assessment of threat and establishment of acceptable thresholds of risk, it is critical that we pull back from the hysterical rhetoric that has gripped certain segments of Western liberalism in recent years. This worst-case-scenario-inevitable determinism has paralysed some Western liberals, from Covid to climate change to the present conflict in Ukraine. We cripple our capacity to gain clarity on what exactly the implications of the current status quo are, if the primary assumption is that the West even twitching amounts to pending nuclear holocaust or ‘World War Three’.
And reasoned discourse around acceptable risk thresholds, and related political and military implications, requires consideration of the necessary moral component. That moral question is this: what are the acts, or series of acts, perpetrated by Putin's Russia that would make the West offer more tangible, meaningful assistance? How much destruction of Ukraine and slaughter of Ukrainians are we willing to witness? Because right now, the answer appears to be that there is no threshold at which we would deem a line crossed by Russian action, so long as it occurs within the territorial confines of Ukraine’s borders.
We are in a state of bizarre double-speak rhetoric where the West is acknowledging there is a war, but it is a war in Ukraine, i.e., it is a war, but not our war. And it can't be our war, because the warmonger himself is unhinged and we need to accede to his perception of reality. Not a single ultimatum has been posed to Putin with regard to his escalation. Instead, the West is walking on eggshells regarding what we think Putin may perceive as escalation against him.
This is a grossly distorted imbalance in threat perception. Russia annexed Crimea. Russia launched a proxy war in Donbas and Luhansk. Russia amassed 190,000 troops on the border of a sovereign nation. Russia invaded. Russia is pulverising historic cities into rubble and murdering civilians. And with the wave of hand, Putin can paralyse the West into little more than shipping some missiles, helmets, and thumbs-up emojis. Because he can tolerate the risk: we can't.
At the very least, we could have the intellectual honesty to admit it; that Putin's knowledge of how low our risk tolerance is relative to his despotic ambitions puts him firmly in control. Even as his first-wave military attack flounders in the face of heroic Ukrainian resistance, and even as economic sanctions cripple his economy. For all the Western talk about lofty principles - democracy, freedom, self-determination - we’re happy for principle to be bound up in technicality, which renders it little more than empty rhetoric.
Take the recent pragmatic proposal by Poland that they would give all of their MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, and would sort out replacements with the U.S. The U.S. balked because of how it could be perceived by Russia that the MiG's came via the U.S. and NATO bases. The merits of the proposal can be debated. What this serves to highlight is the level of minutiae scrutiny the West is giving to how any of its movements would be perceived by Russia. I'm just curious, as a corollary: how exactly is it that we perceive maternity hospitals being targeted and destroyed with Russian missiles? Russia has fired 710 missiles into Ukraine in two weeks. Do we perceive this as an “escalation” from 190,000 troops sitting on the border? Does Putin appear concerned for how we perceive his conduct and the conduct of his military in Ukraine?
Allow me to posit a simple historical counterfactual that is relevant to the present predicament: name an example from history when a despotic autocrat was convinced by their opponents restraint to act with restraint themselves?
What the West is clearly communicating to the wider world, with China no doubt paying earnest attention, is that the lofty ideals of freedom, democracy, and self-determination, become very malleable once the right threat is levelled. That these principles can easily be held hostage by veiled threats, and that the imbalance between our perception of risk and the threshold of despotism we're willing to accommodate within that risk perception can easily be manipulated for malevolent ends.
Does anyone truly believe this hasn't been anything but encouraging of China's ambitions for Taiwan? Lessons: keep the conflict local, act unhinged, and keep saying the ‘N’ word (nuclear) while you roll your tanks across borders and aim cruise missiles at civilians. There are wider implications for the response to Ukraine that, worryingly, stack firmly in favour of autocrats and demagogues.
The moral implication, whether anyone will say it or not, is that the current status quo is to watch Ukrainians fight and die to repel the Russian invasion, to watch Ukrainian cities be reduced to rubble, and to watch Ukrainian civilians be indiscriminately murdered. Have at it, Putin, just keep it within Ukrainian borders. We'll applaud those brave Ukrainians, we'll sanction to no avail except economic hardship to ordinary Russian people, and our corporations will roll out their usual performative antics, the Ukrainian flag replacing the BLM fist as quickly as they adopted it in the first place. We'll raise a toast to Ukrainian blood being spilled in the name of principles we like to think we care about.
This is the moral question: the imbalance between our perception of risk and the threshold of despotism we're willing to acquiescence to before we deem the principles we think define us become operative.
This is why the moral question is imperative. And it is how the moral question feeds into the political and military deliberations. Because if we accept that what has come to pass is already unconscionable, then we can begin to have the deliberations and assessments of what strategies are worth risking in support of restoring Ukrainian independence and sovereign integrity.
But, if the answer to the question is “this is unacceptable...BUT, Putin will start WW3/fire nukes so we can't do anything more, shame really...”, then de facto the real answer to that question is that there is no amount of Putin’s wanton murderous ambitious that Ukrainians will experience which warrants the risk of more deliberate intervention to their aid. We should be crystal clear with ourselves about what it is we are actually saying by acceding to that line of thinking. We can, as individuals and societies, at least be honest that this is the position being adopted.
If we're to continue with the status quo and accept policy-making predicated upon mitigating the risk perceptions of our own collective actions, then at the very least the Ukrainian people deserve some honesty in admitting the moral implications of that position: that we're willing to watch them die for our ideals, ideals which a tyrant is holding hostage at the whim of his own threats to escalate a conflict which went beyond “escalation” two weeks ago.