I offer some tips and strategies that could cut chances Russia's invasion of Ukraine spirals into a megadisaster. Post your ideas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, so far, is akin to the first violent spasms of a long-simmering super volcano.
Local impacts are already devastating, with worse coming as the Russian advance on Kyiv intensifies this weekend. The people of Ukraine need aid and protection right now. (Global Citizen explains how, and find more ways below.)
But it's not yet inevitable that this brutish move - a superpower gone rogue - will catastrophically disrupt world affairs.
As with volcanoes, time will tell. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia ended up triggering a "year without summer" half a world away the following year.
The potential for widespread harm from Russia's attack is boundless, including a widening ground war in Europe, volleys of destructive cyberattacks and counterattacks, even nuclear conflict. (I admit I glanced back at my 1985 reporting on "nuclear winter" briefly last weekend.)
The difference between this unfolding geopolitical extreme event and an unfolding geophysical one, of course, is that brains, and decisions, are involved in each step taken by Russia and those who might shape its actions. (Think of China, particularly).
But that difference, of course, isn't necessarily a good thing.
Putin, for two decades seen by many Russians as a strategic smooth operator, has now unnerved even many high-level foreign policy figures in upper echelons of Moscow society. As Anton Troianovski of The New York Times reported on Thursday, "'Everything that we believed turned out to be wrong,' said one such analyst, insisting on anonymity because he was at a loss over what to say. 'I don’t understand the motivations, the goals or the possible results,' said another. 'What is happening is very strange.'"
I mean you and me, not just President Joe Biden and Congress, President Xi Jinping of China, European leaders, the United Nations.
To seek answers I just held a Sustain What brainstorm with two super-smart strategic analysts with careers centered in U.S. intelligence and defense and in environmental and societal resilience and sustainability. The question on the floor was, "What Does Sustainability Look Like in a World with Rogue Behavior at Superpower Scale?"
My guests were Sharon Burke, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense who is the founder and president of Ecospherics, a global consultancy in environmental and national security; and Rod Schoonover, a physicist who served in national intelligence agencies under both the Obama and (for a brief time) Trump administrations and now heads the Ecological Security Program of the Council on Strategic Risks.
We spoke of both practical steps and strategic ones that could limit odds this assault on peace goes global. You can listen to the full discussion below. Here are some highlights.
In the invasion, Russia already deployed a basket of tools and tactics aimed at limiting or confounding Ukrainian defenses and critical systems. U.S. intelligence and cyber warfare officials have laid out a layered set of options for cyber assaults on Russia as a step beyond sanctions, NBC reported Thursday. The NBC report and others noted the administration is denying anything is on the table. One reason, of course, is Russia has demonstrated capability to digitally attack the United States or European allies, as well.
With that in mind, one practical step everyone should take is to hit yes when you get any software update alerts, Burke said.
"If you're getting information from Microsoft or Apple that you need to put in a new patch, a new security update, do it right away because this is definitely in play," she said.
Schoonover and Burke stressed the value of early efforts by the Biden administration to flood the decision zone with facts, declassifying and disseminating not only early data showing Putin's military maneuvers but also insights on Russian propaganda plans and tactics.
In war, this comes with some risks, Burke noted, because revealing intelligence can also potentially reveal, and imperil, its sources.
But all signs so far indicate this process helped sway global opinion away from any support of Putin.
"The information warfare that the Biden administration has conducted has been remarkably effective," Schoonover said. "Giant congratulations to my former colleagues in the intelligence community in the effective use of declassified information to let the entire world know what was going on ahead of time. That doesn't necessarily affect the ultimate outcome, but it helps the rest of the community really realize what's happening."
There are limits of course, as Edward Wong of The Times reported today in a piece showing enduring resistance in China to American intelligence pointing to Putin's rash plans.
In past wars, when carelessness with information could endanger troops, public campaigns stressed the importance of shutting your yap. "Loose lips sink ships" was a key phrase.
These days, the concern of many media and propaganda experts is more about taking care what you share.
Technology Review just published a story by Abby Ohlheiser offering a helpful array of tips for responsible information sharing in the social media age. The piece is an updated version of a primer the magazine has, sadly, had to update regularly, starting with the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and then around the U.S. election later that year.
She notes that engagement aimed at challenging some social content you know is wrong can backfire because your interest signals to the platform (and search engines) that the content is drawing eyeballs, potentially raising its visibility.
"Instead of engaging with a post you know to be wrong, try flagging it for review by the platform where you saw it," she writes. Ohlheiser also references the work of Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington (which also is the home of the fantastic "Calling Bullshit" curriculum I've run webcasts on before).
Caulfield is the developer of a method he calls SIFT: “Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.”
Let's all try to do this more? I still have to catch myself once in a while. I describe some flubs, and offer my own tips, here, including a "backtrack journal" method that echoes Caulfield's "Trace" step: "Tools and Tactics for Seeking Reality Facing an #Infodemic."
It's time for a pause in partisanship and political gaming. It's time for compromise and even sacrifice.
This will be particularly tough given profound cultural and political divisions in the United States and particularly the unwillingness of Republicans to support President Biden on anything ahead of the midterm and presidential elections. But a widened base of unity is essential.
The stakes in conveying weakness right now are simply too high. I was horrified when, on the night of the invasion, Pravda featured our former president's remarks about Putin's genius:
In our Sustain What discussion, Sharon Burke described her deep concerns and hopes related to disunity in the United States facing Russia's ruthless aggression. (I mentioned Fox figures like Tucker Carlson.)
"Having having worked for both Republicans and Democrats in my career, I never thought I would see the current circumstances," Burke said. "A lot of people in Ukraine are really paying the price for Putin's desire. So at the moment, I just want very public Republicans and Fox News to do the right thing. We can sort [the differences] all out later.... But right now, it's just good to hear them saying more responsible things about this really terrible, dangerous situation."
My conversation with Burke and Schoonover also went into how the Ukraine crisis is both shaped by, and shaping, energy policy in Europe, and we touched on what this war means for climate policy. You can explore a rough transcript here or watch and share the discussion on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and YouTube:
It's notable that the next big report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability - is scheduled to be released on Monday. I'll be writing about it here and hosting a special live Sustain What chat with several authors at 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time Monday. The links will be here before showtime.
Circling back to the point I started with, while it's vital to limit risks this war will widen, it's also vital to help those in harm's way right now in Ukraine - along with those helping to convey their stories to the world.
"There are all reputable organizations doing good work," she tweeted, adding "Spread far and wide." I'm donating to several of the organizations.
Ultimately, perhaps, we can all start to tip the balance not just toward stanching conflict and violence but toward fostering the conditions in society that sustain peace. At Columbia University, the Sustaining Peace Project is using science and field studies to clarify the dynamics that do just this.
We simply can't afford not to try. As the team explains:
"Violence costs the world over $14 trillion annually and affects millions of families. Peace research often emphasizes ending conflict, but to promote peace, we need to learn from communities that have sustained harmony over time. We should divest in war and invest in peace."