American News

Coming to Terms With the Game Being Played on the Russia-Ukraine Border

Does anyone in the West understand the “play” in the so-called “Russian playbook”?
Russia news, Russia news today, Russia Ukraine news today, Ukraine news, Ukrainian news today, Vladimir Putin news today, Vladimir Putin latest news, Joe Biden latest news, Biden news today, Peter Isackson

An illustration of Vladimir Putin. © TPYXA_ILLUSTRATION / Shutterstock

January 26, 2022 09:59 EDT

Over at least the past two months, US President Joe Biden’s White House has successfully inculcated in nearly all of the corporate media its firm belief that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has made the decision to mount a military invasion of Ukraine. Most of the articles published on the subject at best wonder about only two things. When will the invasion take place? And how far will it go?

The Pentagon’s Latest Glorious Failure


Since the question of whether he will invade has been put aside, the pundits are asking themselves a different question. It concerns President Putin’s motives. Does Putin feel he needs to overthrow the Ukrainian government and reestablish a friendly regime that will serve as a buffer state between Russia and Europe? Or will he simply be content with controlling the Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine, effectively destabilizing the current regime and thus preventing the possibility of the nation’s integration into NATO?

Given the apparently Beltway mantra that an invasion is imminent and that the West insists on Ukraine’s right to do what it wants, including joining NATO, it was therefore surprising to read in The New York Times this week that people in the White House — in this case, people who usually are removed from communication with the media — may have made a different assessment. In an article whose title “War May Loom, but Are There Offramps?” is an acknowledgment of the level of uncertainty that surrounds the current geopolitical standoff, David E. Sanger reveals that “even President Biden’s top aides say they have no idea if a diplomatic solution, rather than the conquest of Ukraine, is what Mr. Putin has in mind.”

Embed from Getty Images

Like most Russians, and unlike most Americans, Putin knows something about how the game of chess is played. Geopolitics for Russians has always been a game of chess. Curiously, Western commentators instead seem to believe that the game logic Putin respects is similar to that of American football or basketball. They incessantly talk about Russia’s “playbook.” These are sports where you assign roles, plan actions and then try to execute. However complex the configurations may come, plays in a playbook follow a logic of going from step one to step two. Chess requires a different form and level of thinking.

It is reasonable to suppose that the Russian-American AP reporter Vladimir Isachenkov has a good understanding of Russian politics and Russian culture. Here is how he describes the current situation: “Amid fears of an imminent attack on Ukraine, Russia has further upped the ante by announcing more military drills in the region.

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Up the ante:

A metaphor from poker that when used correctly means to increase the initial stakes of a game, the amount that must be advanced by each player to enter the game. It is often used incorrectly as an equivalent of another poker term: call the bluff.  

Contextual Note

Isachenkov predictably foresees the invasion authorities in the West almost seem to desire, and not only in Washington. This week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson forecasted Putin’s “plan for a lightning war.” Translated into German, that means Blitzkrieg, a term Johnson preferred to avoid using, though the innuendo was clear. The point of the entire effort to predict a Russian invasion is to instill the idea that Vladimir Putin is Adolf Hitler.

Russians, however, are not known for practicing Blitzkrieg. Chess players prefer to construct their game patiently through a series of maneuvers that look at a long-term evolution. They challenge their opponent’s understanding of an evolving situation and are extremely sensitive to the layout on the chessboard, with the intent of making a checkmate inevitable. Americans, in particular, tend to go for strikes and are always hoping for a lucky strike.

Perhaps because Isachenkov believes Americans may not understand such strategies, instead of looking to the subtlety of chess for his gaming metaphor or even to Putin’s documented experience of judo, he draws his literary inspiration from another quintessential American game, poker. He tells us Russia has “upped the ante.” In so doing, he misinterprets not only the meaning of Putin’s moves but even the practice of poker itself. Isachenkov appears to interpret “up the ante” as meaning “increase the pressure” or “raise the temperature.” He didn’t realize that poker offers a better metaphor for Putin’s actions: calling Biden’s bluff.

No respectable Western commentator would frame the situation in those terms. It would mean acknowledging that the US resorts to the ignoble art of bluffing. Bluffing implies hypocrisy. The US has only one goal: to make the world more equitable and to help democracy prevail. Secretary of State Antony Blinken defined the mission in these terms: “It’s about the sovereignty and self-determination of Ukraine and all states,” before adding that “at its core, it’s about Russia’s rejection of a post-Cold War Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.” And, just to make things clear: “It’s about whether Ukraine has a right to be a democracy.”

Isachenkov points out that Russia “has refused to rule out the possibility of military deployments to the Caribbean, and President Vladimir Putin has reached out to leaders opposed to the West.” He calls this “military muscle-flexing” but perhaps fails to see this for the theater it is meant to be, coming from the president of a nation that gave us Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov and Gorki. Evoking the Caribbean is Putin’s way of alluding to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It may especially be meant to call Americans’ attention to the idea that powerful nations do not look kindly to discovering an adverse military nuclear presence at its borders. If John F. Kennedy could force Nikita Khrushchev to back down 60 years ago, Putin should be allowed to do the same to Biden today.

Historical Note

If Vladimir Putin is calling Joe Biden’s bluff, what is the nature of that bluff? In the simplest terms, Biden’s bluff is the latest version of what President George H.W. Bush, after the demise of the Soviet Union, proudly called the “new world order.” After defeating Donald Trump, Biden announced to his allies in Europe that “America is back,” which was his way of saying “my version of America is great again,” the version that uses its military reach to protect its business interests across the globe.

In a New York Times op-ed dated January 24, national security expert, Fiona Hill, who served under presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, claims that Putin’s aim is not just to annex all or part of Ukraine. He isn’t looking at taking a pawn or even a bishop. He has the whole chessboard in view. Hill is undoubtedly correct about Putin’s real purpose, that he “wants to evict the United States from Europe.”

Embed from Getty Images

“Right now,” Hill writes, “all signs indicate that Mr. Putin will lock the United States into an endless tactical game, take more chunks out of Ukraine and exploit all the frictions and fractures in NATO and the European Union.” In other words, the current posture of the United States is offering Putin a winning hand (poker) or setting itself up for a checkmate.

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who knows something about the stakes associated with warfare, makes a complementary point concerning the nature of the risk for the US: “It is another thing altogether to speak only of the pain sanctions would cause Russia, with little thought, if any, to the real consequences that will be paid on the home front.” If events get out of control, as is likely if there is no diplomatic solution, the effects on the West’s economy will be far more dramatic than any damage that can be inflicted on Russia through sanctions. 

The US has refused to listen to the arguments not just of Putin, but also of foreign policy wonks such as John Mearsheimer. They believe that even the daydream of linking Ukraine with NATO crosses the reddest of lines, not just for Putin but for Russia itself. Failing to take that into account while insisting that it’s all a question of respecting an independent nation’s right to join a hostile military alliance represents a position that makes war inevitable.

In a 2021 Geopolitical Monitor article with the title “Do We Live in Mearsheimer’s World?” Mahammad Mammadov cited “Mearsheimerian realism,” which he claims “sees Ukraine’s future as a stable and prosperous state in its being a ‘neutral buffer’ between multiple power poles, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold War. Accordingly, Russia is still a declining power with a one-dimensional economy and need not be contained.”

That seems like a solution most people in the West could live with… apart from the military-industrial complex, of course. And Democratic presidents seeking to prove they are not weaklings before this year’s midterm elections.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member