Game Theory and the Ukraine Debacle...
Are about as much good to me right now as a brand new set of golf clubs
We've been this close to death before,
we were just too drunk to know it
Guess the price of being sober's being scared out of your mind. -- Mike Cooley, Drive By Truckers
The Economist says pretty much the same thing only about the Ukraine, Putin, Obama and plain old reality. "There are influential people in the Kremlin who want an open conflict with the West, in part because it enhances their internal political power. This presents Barack Obama with a challenge similar to the one he faces in dealing with Tea-party Republicans, for whom compromise with the president is in itself a defeat. Mr Obama has not proven himself very adept at dealing with opponents who do not want to negotiate a reasonable deal that secures each side's objective interests." No shit, although this is probably more in his stars than in him.
You can't play the same game if you can't have basic agreement on the consequences; Putin isn't worried about ANYTHING we can do. And, in any contest, the guy who doesn't have to go through a committee or worry about rules and pleasing others will probably win. As the article Game Theory in the Ukraine: Monopoly v. Chess points out, lots of Obama's critics have unflatteringly compared the stand-off over the Crimea and what happens next to Putin playing chess while Obama plays checkers or Fish or something.
Well, that oversimplifies the situation radically, and deserves some revision. Putin is not a chess player; as a kid, he was a teenage miscreant screwing up his permanent record fighting the teachers and the bullies and establishment in school who was admitted into the inner sanctum of the KGB officer corps probably because both mommy and daddy were agency veterans serving through the Winter War in Leningrad. Since he's a Russian, he probably had to learn how to play chess like most American kids had to learn how to play basketball. So he may think he's playing chess.
But, he's playing against himself; and in this case, that's a great advantage. As the Economist explains:
In fact, in game-theory terms, chess is fairly simple: it is a two-person zero-sum game, where one side wins what the other side loses. More complicated games have multiple players and more than one dimension of play. In Monopoly, for example, money and territory are not the same thing, and players may form shifting alliances to maximise common interests. (Of course, in the end, one player gradually sucks up all the money and strangles the others, which may be how Russian nationalists see the West these days.) It might be more helpful to say that the West is playing Monopoly, while Mr Putin is playing chess. Mr Putin has responded to Mr Obama's offer to negotiate a possible trade of Marvin Gardens for Indiana Avenue by advancing his rook and taking an exposed pawn...The West might have preferred to play a non-zero-sum, multiplayer game with Mr Putin, but if he keeps playing chess, we will eventually have to start playing too.
In a recent post about Gettysburg, I commented to the effect that if you can't see the terrain, you
damned well better look at the map. If you take a look at the map of eastern Europe, Eastern Ukraine is pretty much like Poland -- flat to rolling, but with a lovely flat corridor between along the vertical axis from Belarus to Kiev and then south. While there are lots of indications that the problems that plagued the Soviet military continue in the Russian Army, they have the guns, the troops and the ground in their favor. We have moral oppobruim to counter tanks. The German and Russian tanks in the 40s had no real problems here...ate it up, as I recall.
Our tanks, the Brit's tanks, the French tanks, the German tanks are all better. But, our tanks aren't in Ukraine, and our Army isn't likely to be there anytime soon, nor is the EU nor is NATO. If we had the same Army we had in 1989 or even 1995, located in the same places with the same commitments, it would be possible to support both Poland and Ukraine with boots on the ground. But, with the end of the Cold War, we decided that there was going to be peace thanks to Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. Colin Powell sounded a cautionary note, talking about the new reality wouldn't decrease the workload, and in fact, a lot of us who experienced that new reality figured that we'd gone into hyper drive. But, that was then, and this was now.
So, we're left with economic sanctions, and condemnations, and Visa restrictions, and finger-shaking. At least winter is almost over, so the natural gas leverage Russia possesses over Europe is going to be less critical. But, we have an exhausted and downsizing force, the belief that there is no need for a large, land-based force which is starting to look more and more ridiculous, and no desire to spend any money to get there.
The EU and NATO allies started cutting troops and costs long before 1989 and gutted their armies and air forces. Where there were British Divisions, there are new divisions made up of regiments that were divisions under the old structure.
Where Defense once was king in terms of funding, now it's not. That's just a reality; but the economic crisis followed by a crappy economy and the Tea Party ascendancy means that even if we have an appetite for meaningful intervention, we can't pay for it. So, we're playing some complex digital game against a guy who for the moment is playing king of the mountain.
In struggling for my own metaphor, I had thought that Barrack Obama is a digital guy dealing with a digital universe and Putin, the Tea Party, and so on analog guys dealing with reality as an analog creation. This is where current plans to downsize the force, cut weapons systems, avoid troops on the ground and use Special Ops for everything bumps into the base reality, the pre-analog reality. Mind over matter, you don't mind, it don't matter. In Putin world, what we can do doesn't matter.
The article mentions that Gary Kasparov, Former World Grand Champion, Hero of the Soviet Union, and Chess maven who is and has been one of the faces and leaders of the Russian opposition to the point that the Russian have blocked his www.kasparov.ru website since the Crimean debacle began. Kasparov has suggested really stringent sanctions, sufficient to make Putin stop, to the point of some level of force. Kasparov is in exile in Croatia it became impossible for him to live and work in Russia. Kasparov has been pretty clear on the Chess/Checkers thing, telling Fox as its interviewers asked him how he'd checkmate Putin, "I could do that if he was playing chess and playing by the rules. “He’s playing poker. Has he a weak hand but he knows how to raise the stakes and knows how to bluff. And it’s time to call his bluff.” Kasparov sees that best applied through strong economic efforts, seizing the assets of the Russian Oligarchs key to Putin's structure which he compares to the military use of snipers; then seizing Russian government assets in the west, which he compares to using artillery; escalating to seizing Russian government financial reserves in the US. That, in the globalized world, is the nuclear option.
So, let's put the Chess thing to bed. The greatest living Russian Grandmaster has the right to do that. As for calling his bluff, that's for another time.