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Putin in Ukraine: The game is poker, not chess

Written By | Mar 5, 2014

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2014 — Russia’s President Putin has been called “delusional” and a “chess master,” accused of playing recklessly or brilliantly in Ukraine. House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told “Fox News Sunday” that “Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles.”

The truth is that he’s neither delusional, brilliant, nor a great leader. He does, however, know which game he’s playing: The game is poker, not chess. While Putin is playing well, he’s playing predictably and conservatively, like a Russian. His great advantage is that he not only knows the game he’s playing, but he has President Obama’s number.

Angela Merkel’s characterization of Putin as not “in touch with reality” suggests that his behavior is reckless and dangerous. Putin’s behavior has never been reckless; recklessness is not a quality admired in Russian politics. He knows his hand and knows how far he can play it, and he can be relied on to play it safely to his advantage.

Putin is not in Ukraine because he wants a war; he’s there because he doesn’t expect to get one. He doesn’t expect the EU or the United States — Obama — to do anything more than impose some sanctions. Taking Crimea was not reckless or a prelude to war. It was absolutely safe and legally defensible. Crimea was Russian until 1954; its people are Russians, it is home to a large Russian naval base, and given the choice between Ukrainian instability and Russian stability, it is ready to be Russian again. No one will challenge him there.

Americans err when we evaluate Russian leaders by western standards. It should be unnecessary to say it, but Russia is not the United States. Russians don’t share our perceptions or our concerns, and they are not driven by neuroses and our obsessions. They have their own, and one of them is stability.

Russian history is a thousand years of brutality, inequality and foreign invasion. It’s a history of humiliation by foreigners and a sense of spiritual superiority. Russians believe that things are better when the leader is strong, worse when he is weak. The heroes of Russian history aren’t the reformers, but the men who built Russian power and Russian security – the Stalins, not the Gorbachevs. Mikhail Gorbachev, a hero to western liberals, is for Russians the man who destroyed their pensions, destroyed Russia’s status in the world, and threw Russian life into chaos.

The bargain that Russian leaders have struck with their subjects for a thousand years has been to provide stability and security, and eventually a steadily rising standard of living. The promise has never been liberty, equality, and fraternity, regardless of Soviet slogans. Political rights were an aspiration of Russia’s elites, not its masses. The masses wanted bread, and they wanted a Russia triumphant over her enemies.

Putin will keep that bargain. He is not interested in plunging Russia into instability. He’s not delusional and he doesn’t take careless risks. His risks are calculated.

Rudolph Giuliani suggested yesterday that Obama thinks too much. Thinking long and dispassionately is a virtue when the game is chess. Thinking clearly is also important in poker, but a strong reputation and credibility go far to make up for a weak hand; a reputation for indecisive weakness and throwing away strong cards will take away the advantages of a strong one. Obama’s hand may be stronger than Putin’s, but the world expects Putin to go all-in and Obama to fold. Putin is making his own luck and cutting his own risks.

Putin won’t go into eastern Ukraine if he’s not invited, either by the deposed president or by the people there. Viktor Yanukovych was legally and fairly elected to office, he was removed from it by extra-legal means, and Putin can reasonably argue that Yanukovych remains the legitimate president.

Putin won’t invade if he’s not wanted, but as Ukraine’s instability grows — made worse by Putin — it is increasingly likely that he will be wanted. Madeleine Albright might think he’s delusional when he says he’s acting to protect Russians in Ukraine, but she ignores recent history.

Whatever Putin or the rest of the world thinks, the Russians in Ukraine consider themselves at risk. The day after ousting Yanukovych, Ukraine’s parliament changed the law making Russian an official language in all parts of the country with more than 10 percent Russian population. In other former Soviet republics, taking away the legal status of Russian has been a prelude to ending dual citizenship, firing people from their jobs for not speaking the local language, and the eventual impoverishment of Russians as they’re forced to sell their homes and leave.

That’s no justification for an invasion, but ethnic Russians feel vulnerable in the new republics. Ukraine’s instability heightens that sense of vulnerability. Putin offers security and stability, and Ukraine’s Russians will grab for it. He’s making a case, Ukraine’s Russians will be his clients and his witnesses, and Ukraine’s constitution will be entered into evidence when he argues that his support of Yanukovich is legal. Albright is dead wrong; Putin is delusional like a skilled lawyer.

Putin will probably end up with eastern Ukraine. He won’t try to take the entire country. The stakes are too high, and he doesn’t need to. He only needs to convince the rest of the former Soviet empire — both the former Soviet republics and the former client states — that he can and will if he’s pushed. He’s established his reputation; he won’t be pushed.

This is not the beginning of a new cold war. The old one never really ended. The Soviet Union despised the American system of government, but it respected — or feared — the resolve and capability of America’s people and leaders. The Russian attitude toward America was a mix of contempt and awe: awe for our abilities, contempt for what we did with them. They faced us with simultaneous feelings of superiority and inferiority.

The real prize for Russia on the world stage is respect. The end of the Cold War was humiliating, and it wants that taste out of its mouth. The Soviet leadership wanted to be treated as legitimate equals on the world stage, not just as powerful and terrifying thugs. Putin wants the same thing, and so do the Russians.

There are other prizes here. It was bad enough when NATO and the EU began absorbing the outer empire — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other former client states — but the inner empire, the former Soviet Republics, crossed Putin’s own “red line.” Unlike Obama, Putin recognizes the importance of holding those red lines. The former empire is on notice; Russia can and will stop the spread of the west to its own borders. Don’t rely on the EU, NATO, or the United States to help you.

Obama, NATO, and the EU have their work cut out to change perceptions. If it fails to reassure Eastern Europe of its commitment and resolve to protect its friends and members, NATO’s reputation and prestige will be damaged. Putin knows, they say, how to slice a salami. The task now is to convince the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and whatever remains of Ukraine at the end that they aren’t salami, but valued allies. Obama’s foreign policy reputation offers little hope for success.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.