This is a guest post by Stanislas Richard. Stan is a research fellow at the Dr. Rachelle Bascara Foundation and is visiting at the Central European University. The post discusses his thoughts on the role of enticements to desert could play in war.

Should we pay soldiers to desert? Should we, for instance, give financial incentives to the Russian soldiers currently invading Ukraine to lay down arms? And what role should such Enticements to Desert (ED) play in peacekeeping and de-escalation policy? This post sketches some answers to these questions.

What are Enticements to desert?

Following the Russian aggression, the Ukrainian government has promised to grant every Russian soldier an amnesty and a 48 000 USD lump sum if they surrendered. American economist Bryan Caplan – of Open Borders fame – has recently criticised the proposal as unlikely to work, since each deserting soldier would have to bet on a Ukrainian victory. He then develops his 2.0 version of ED: NATO countries should offer Russian soldiers a European passport on top of the grant. Russian deserters could then simply leave the conflict and rebuild their lives in the EU.

Why does Caplan’s proposal work better?

  • Most Russian kontraktnikis (professional soldiers) face grim economic perspectives in the corrupted, highly inegalitarian Russian economy. They enlisted mostly because they have little else to do with themselves. Obtaining a German or French passport would change that. Even a Ukrainian passport would be enough since Ukrainian citizens can enter the Schengen area without a visa.
  • All wars are unpredictable and difficult to plan. Carl von Clausewitz famously called this fact ‘the fog of war’. By drastically lowering the cost associated with individual desertion, ED makes war even more unpredictable and difficult to plan than it already is. The Russian high command would never know whether a unit’s effective strength matches what it is on paper. Monitoring costs would significantly increase, and overall morale would decrease.

These two features, changing the incentives faced by the individual soldiers and thickening the fog of war, are the features of a successful ED scheme since they increase the costs of waging war.

Problems with Caplan’s proposal and ED 3.0.

The problem with Caplan’s proposal is that he treats ED as a part of the military strategy available to belligerent armies to weaken their adversary. And while it is easy to see its appeal for the ongoing war in Ukraine, I fear however that it will lead to unjust results in many other cases. Take for instance the Vietnam War, which is another example of arguably unlawful aggression. Most American soldiers would be unlikely to accept a Vietnamese passport in exchange for desertion. While it would serve justice-in-war in the case of Russia/Ukraine, ED 2.0 would have favoured the imperialist aggressor in the case of US/Vietnam.

I would like then to propose an alternative ED scheme that will not be just another way to wage war, but a way to make war more expensive for the aggressor only.

Here is then ED 3.0: For every war, the United Nations, or any relevant international and neutral organisation, should set up camps around the conflict area that would welcome deserting soldiers of any of the belligerent sides, who would be able to get the passport of their choice and a cash grant.

Why is ED 3.0 better?

I see three main reasons ED 3.0 is better than ED 2.0.

First, the effectiveness of the scheme does not depend on the wealth of the belligerent. Take again the Vietnam war. About half a million soldiers deserted or dodged the draft from the American military during the war, and many fled mostly to Canada and Sweden. Imagine how many would have taken this choice if they could also get Canadian or Swedish passports? The discrepancy between the American and the Vietnamese economies would have mattered little.

Second, and most importantly, if ED 3.0 makes wars of imperialist aggression expensive, it leaves the costs of defensive wars unchanged. Imagine Borduria invades Syldavia. What is at stake for individual soldiers on each side? For the Bordurian soldier, very little. He is an invader in a foreign land, if he deserts, consequences for his country are unlikely to be negative. The worst that can happen is the Bordurian army comes home and thinks again. Now, flip sides. The Syldavian is defending his family and home. His desertion, and a Bordurian victory, would have real consequences: his city destroyed, his beloved ones under threat, his motherland humiliated.

This example shows why ED 3.0 would work for Russian soldiers in Ukraine and American soldiers in Vietnam but would probably have little effect on Ukrainian and Vietnamese soldiers respectively. As long as the package offered to both sides is the same, ED 3.0 will be a pain for the aggressor and a non-topic for the defender, because the price of desertion is always lower for the former than for the latter.

Finally, and related, ED 3.0 makes unjust wars expensive. Just war theory identifies the following conditions for a war to be just: just cause, competent authority, right intention, and probability of success. ED 3.0 lets the individual soldier decide whether these conditions are fulfilled.

Take the first condition: ED 3.0 forces all potential belligerents to take a bet on their troops’ assessment of the justness of the cause.  Soldiers are more likely to risk their life if they believe in what they fight for. If they believe in the cause, they will put a higher price on desertion, and ED 3.0 is unlikely to be a concern for their superiors.

However, if they don’t, the price they will put on desertion will be lower and this will make ED 3.0 immediately more tempting. The scheme is therefore particularly punishing for those who wage wars susceptible to be considered unjust. The same goes for whether the war is waged by a competent authority with right intentions and with a decent probability of success: ED 3.0 leaves the assessment of this matter to the individual soldiers.

In short, ED puts a price on war that is paid by those who wage it. It should be used to wage war on war itself.