Putin and the Game of Kings:
Are We Really Looking Forward? Or Are We Just Reacting to One Move At a Time?
In chess, “tempo” is controlled when a player is able to continue making moves which force their opponent to put their own strategy on hold, obligating them to respond to the players’ actions first. It’s an incredibly important and potent tool; it compels your opponent to play a reactionary game, never having a moment to impose their will. And once a player finds themselves losing tempo, they would be well-served to gain it back as quickly as possible, or they will find themselves helplessly spectating as the game slowly slips away from them.
In this way, chess “tempo” seems to have stark parallels to one of the major mainstays of the Putin playbook: the “escalation strategy”.
Escalation for De-escalation.
The “escalation strategy” has been a constant element in Russia’s international behavior for the last twenty years. Stemming from the well-known “escalation for de-escalation” principle that first appeared in the Russian Military Doctrine of 2000, it made the long journey from being a pure deterrence tool during the years of Russia’s (conventional-weaponry) inferiority to gaining more and more coercive functionality, especially after the Russian-Ukrainian crisis of 2014… in layman’s terms, it’s a dangerous game of chicken, where two men drive their cars at one-another at high speeds until one man concedes defeat by either turning their car away from the imminent head-on collision, or by jumping from their own vehicle. Except when Putin is driving one of those cars, he seatbelts himself in, aims the wheels straight, locks the doors, and plants his foot to the floor. And unfortunately, he’s been giving us examples of this ever since the most-recent Ukraine confrontation started.
Russia loses tempo: Ukraine announces that they wish enter talks with NATO – an intergovernmental military group consisting of 30 countries which was established in the aftermath of World War II, in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union – to possibly gain entry into that alliance.
Russia regains tempo, using escalation to deescalate: Putin mobilizes 100,000 troops and tanks to Ukraine’s doorstep, and demands that these talks end.
Russia loses tempo: Ukraine refuses to rescind their requests to join NATO.
Russia regains tempo, using escalation to deescalate: Putin invades.
Russia loses tempo: The US and other allies place tough financial sanctions on Russia and Putin.
Russia regains tempo, using escalation to deescalate: Putin issues a directive to increase the readiness of Russia’s nuclear weapons, raising fears that the invasion of Ukraine could lead to nuclear war, and causing the US and NATO to second-guess any actions they might take to aid Ukraine.
Russia loses tempo: Ukraine puts up a fierce and unexpected resistance.
Russia regains tempo, using escalation to deescalate: Putin rolls out thermobaric vacuum bombs, and attacks and captures Chernobyl.
Russia loses tempo: More and more offensive and defensive weapons flood into Ukraine from sympathetic nations and NATO.
Russia regains tempo, using escalation to deescalate: Supersonic missiles, war crimes on civilians and threats of chemical warfare abound. Children are targeted and killed.
These actions and reactions prove that Putin will attempt to retain “tempo” at all costs. He will deescalate your actions by escalating his own. He will not lose this game of chicken, and he will keep you on your backfoot, acting reactively instead of proactively, far too nervous about how Putin might respond to do anything but take half-measures. This is his M.O., and it has been since the beginning of his rise to power. He will not – ever – take a step back. This was outlined in the biography "Vladimir Putin: Life History", where Putin is quoted as saying that he learned through neighborhood fights as a child that "you have to fight to the finish line in every fight[…] you need to assume that there is no retreat".
So, with all of that in mind, what happens when a man like Putin is backed into a corner? Eventually this situation is going to materialize, as the only possible outcomes of this invasion are:
1.) Ukraine holds Kyiv
2.) Putin takes Kyiv and continues to move West, towards multiple NATO countries who’s combined might far exceeds his own
3.) NATO steps in preemptively, or in a manner in which Putin believes that they have now entered into the conflict as wiling participants
4.) Putin decides that the amount of assistance that’s been given to Ukraine has created a no-win situation for him, changing his perceived outcome of the war
5.) Someone in Putin’s inner circle removes him from power
What then? Outside of the longshot outcome number five happening and ending this war for us, what will Putin do to regain his tempo? How will he “escalate for de-escalation”? And why is he unphased by his stock market collapsing, the heavy sanctions we’ve imposed, and his quickly-diminishing reputation on the world stage?
I think we all know the answer: when nuclear warfare is in your back pocket, and it’s a card that you intend on eventually playing, everything else is just noise.
According to the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review of 2018, the Russian nuclear strategy calls for “the early use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict with NATO to coerce a major adversary to step back from interfering in a regional conflict”. Rebekah Koffler – an English-Russian bilingual U.S. intelligence expert on Russian doctrine and strategy who worked with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service – had this to say on the matter: “Russian military doctrine envisions use of nuclear weapons in a first use scenario if it is losing a conventional conflict. Ukraine is exactly the scenario for which this was developed… they fear U.S. intervention in Ukraine because they fear we are conventionally superior, and if they interpret our actions as offensive rather than defensive, that is when the viability of Russian statehood would be threatened, in accordance with the Russian national security concept and military doctrine”.
Now, typically when someone hears the words “nuclear warfare”, they tend to think of a sky filled with ICBM missiles, inevitably ending with a nuclear holocaust. But Russia owns around 2,000 tactical nukes – nukes which can travel short distances, and take out large groups of soldiers and civilians. And those will be the ones he uses first, most likely in Kyiv or Western Ukraine.
So, what now? How do we, or NATO as a whole, handle this situation? And how does it not end in a nuclear holocaust?
The scary thing is, I’m not sure anyone knows the answer to that question. And that’s the real issue here… are people truly, seriously preparing for these possibilities? Or do these possibilities seem so abstract to a world 77 years removed from Nagasaki and Hiroshima that it’s just too incomprehensible of a reality to rationally prepare for?
Either way, there is one thing that we do know: Putin has a counterstrategy lined up for any situation that plays out. And if we have any hope of changing course – of steering clear of the actions and reactions that will put us inside the event horizon of this nuclear black hole looming in front of us – there is no more time for half-measures and sanctions. We must regain the tempo and move decisively and aggressively to end this game.
Russia is not a bear; it’s a nuclear boa constrictor, and it suddenly has the world in its grip. Every time we move, be it with sanctions, armament support or condemnations, the snake tightens its grip, making it more and more difficult for us to find a way out.
It’s time to either cut the head off the snake, or lose consciousness and pray that it doesn’t swallow the world whole.