Why the Chess Metaphor for Putin Is Wrong
The problem with Russia is not a game.
By Daniel B. Baer, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision in late 2021 to amass more than 100,000 soldiers on the Russian border with Ukraine and then to send thousands more into Belarus last month—ostensibly for exercises—has seized the West’s, if not the world’s, attention. The precedent seems clear: In 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine, purportedly annexed Crimea, and set up a proxy occupation of two regions in Ukraine’s east, fueled by Russian money, directed by Russian officials, and supported with Russian military and intelligence personnel. Now, he looks poised to come back and take another, even bigger, bite out of Ukraine.
The menacing move has triggered multiple vectors of diplomacy, with Washington offering Moscow serious talks about security concerns while simultaneously rallying partners and allies to be prepared to impose costs—an effort to deter a possible invasion but also to ensure it does not happen with impunity. So far, Putin’s behavior has not encouraged confidence in a diplomatic outcome. In December 2021, the Russians published demands to, effectively, rewind the clock on most of the last quarter century of developments in European security. Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister responsible for representing Russia in talks with the United States in mid-January, had no authority to engage on any topics at all unless Russia’s maximalist demands were accepted ex ante. That isn’t the position of a diplomat who has come to do diplomacy; it’s the position of a guy who’s part of a setup.
All of this—and the attempt to avert an invasion—has set off a new round of guessing at what Putin’s objectives are and subsequent conjecture about how to mollify him in an acceptable way. It has become a kind of parlor game in Washington, Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris to unravel a presumed multistep play, where they imagine Putin hived away in the Kremlin and calmly managing a complex strategy, always half a dozen steps ahead. An endless analysis of ulterior motives by the pundits gets mixed in: Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union, prevent Ukraine from pursuing a European future, draw a red line around NATO, drive a wedge into the West, distract from his failings at home, respond to a genuine—if unwarranted—sense of threat, make things difficult for U.S. President Joe Biden by bringing back former U.S. President Donald Trump, or any combination of the above. Add a few references to the Cold War and its long-game complexities, and it’s easy to see why the chess match metaphor is never far away.
But, as political scientist Eliot Cohen has eloquently noted, the cliche of Putin as a master chess player thinking multiple steps ahead—and the metaphorical corollary of his Western counterparts playing mere checkers—is tired. If anything, it was never apt at all, in no small part because it attributes to genius what is better attributed to base thuggery. And the thing about thuggery is it doesn’t take enormous amounts of strategic thinking to make it effective. It is essentially opportunistic and asymmetric.
Putin exercises power in international politics by destroying things. He invades and occupies countries. He throttles the supply of gas to threaten freezing European families in the middle of winter. His diplomats at the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are clever international lawyers enlisted in a cynical mission to sabotage the efforts of more responsible countries to build international institutions and tackle common regional and global challenges based on universal human rights. The infrastructure of world peace and prosperity takes time, patience, and skill to build. Knocking the pieces over is easy.
Putin’s genius as a strategist is often overstated. But there are two additional flaws in the chess metaphor that lead to even more consequential analytical mistakes. The metaphor—and others used to describe the high-stakes interaction between Biden and Putin—risks distorting not only the search for policy solutions but also the world’s understanding of the stakes.
The chess metaphor also obscures the moral stakes. Indeed, the discussion in the United States and Europe about the current standoff often seems dangerously detached from any moral worldview. It approaches with intellectual remove the question of whether some sort of agreement can be reached and implicitly encourages indulgence in moral relativism as if the two sides were moral equals. Strikingly, the most powerful condemnation in recent weeks has come—with immense courage—from inside Russia, when Russian human rights activists, artist, and intellectuals signed a public petition to condemn Putin’s threats to invade, stating: “Promoting the idea of such a war is immoral, irresponsible, and criminal, and cannot be implemented on behalf of Russia’s peoples. Such a war cannot have either legal or moral goals.” The petition is an important reminder that what Putin is doing is morally outrageous. He is threatening to kill even more Ukrainians than the 14,000 individuals who have already died since the 2014 conflict began. Ukraine has not threatened Russia or its citizens. Putin is threatening a war of aggression. (https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/02/05/putin-chess-metaphor-russia-ukraine/)