Winning the Russian Game

Putin at annual news conference.

The “Russian Game” is a chess opening first popularized in the mid-19th century by chess master Alexander Petrov, a symmetrical strategy that allows attacking opportunities for both sides. After gaining tempo, one side gains the upper hand through a well-placed Knight. The Russian Game alternates between offense and defense, offering both sharp (symmetric) and blurred (asymmetric) lines of attack. Victory results in as little as six moves.

Viewing European politics as a chess game, Mr. Putin is certainly aligning the board to his advantage. His diplomatic, informational, military and economic strategy demonstrates how the Russian game can be won. The West, comprised of NATO and its allied partners, must outsmart Putin’s diplomacy, win the battle for the narrative in the information campaign, outsmart Russia’s military moves, and unite against his economic assault. If it can outmaneuver these four Putin moves, the West wins.


Smart Diplomacy

Mr. Putin arm wrestled his way into greater regional influence with friendships in surprising corners. Alliances with both Islamic (Turkey) and Jewish nation states (Israel) upped his game and increased regional influence. Mr. Putin’s “turning of the cheek” to Mr. Obama’s eviction of 35 Russian diplomatic staff, modeled constraint-through-kindness to US counterparts and leveraged an even more positive image to the world. Pro-Russian election victories in Belarus and Moldova further legitimatized Mr. Putin’s Game. Add to this a newly rediscovered Western European populism with potentially European Union-destabilizing elections in Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Should the European chessboard suffer the loss of vital members, Germany is left as the last bastion of traditional European liberalism. The West must stick together, prolong, and win the diplomatic game.


A Focused Information Campaign

Despite the ongoing debate over Russian denials of hacking the US election process, Mr. Putin’s information capabilities are much greater than singular, repeated cyber attacks. Russia’s slick 24-hour news and information source RT (Russia Today), complete with legitimatized Western reporters and foreign correspondents reporting from the “field,” is prime-time showmanship for his informational “battle for the narrative.” Judging from its popularity with Western audiences unaware of its propaganda value, Mr. Putin leverages his Russian game through professionally delivered, tidy sound bites. Mr Putin’s media slant has thousands of eager listeners in the ethnic Russian populations in former Soviet Baltic, Black Sea and the Balkans breakaway Republics for whom Western cultural and economic reforms proved wanting. The West must up its information game, overcome Russia’s battle for the narrative, and win the media war.


A Strategic Military

From subs in the suburbs of Stockholm to air raids in Aleppo, the Russian Game is certainly on the offensive. An increase in Russian military activity is noted along Russia’s western flank as well as a military buildup in Kaliningrad, the tiny Russian Republic sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. Yet the West’s response has been neither fast nor strong. Cat and mouse-like, in the Russian Game Mr. Putin makes a move, NATO reacts. Mr. Putin rattles his sabers in the Baltics. NATO garners a show of force through allied and partner exercises in the region. Mr. Putin bombs Aleppo, emptying half of the country in the form of European migrants, advancing asymmetric power across other real estate on the board. NATO responds appropriately but too lethargically, from the 2014 Wales Summit (Eastern European assurance) to the 2016 Warsaw Summit (Russian deterrence). The West must earn bonus clock time by completing its “military Schengen zone” efforts and speed-of-assembly initiatives to win on the military front.


A Calculated Economy

With the two-punch combo of Western sanctions and low worldwide demand for gas and oil exports, theoretically Russia’s economy is crippled and Mr. Putin contained. Yet does this limit the Russian Game? Certainly not. If Mr. Putin cannot outright win the game, he can still force a draw. His Syrian strategy emptied half of the country. Conversely, Western Europe struggles from negative interest rates, lethargic economic growth, and high unemployment. On top of this, the economic burden of two million migrants pouring through its open borders. Millions more wait not-so-patiently for Turkey to open the gates.  Small stress fissures on government support systems are likely to crack infrastructure, breaking apart an already overwhelmed system. The West’s Queen is taken, the noose is tightened and the remaining players struggle to cover the King: Check. Conquering and dividing, the Russian Game continues to knock the European chessboard further off balance. Intelligence estimates could declare the winner. One to three percent of innocent migrants are likely to become radicalized, increasing Europe’s terrorist population by10,000 to 30,000. After recent attacks and the rise of populist politicians, the European Union will most likely look smaller and more fractured as 2017 draws to a close. At this point the West’s King could very well be boxed in: Checkmate.

NATO and its allied partners must remain united, encourage open borders, and promote free trade to win the economic war.

The Marines say: “Hope for the best and plan for the worst.” The Russian Game, as in chess, allows for countless potential diplomatic, information, military and economic interactions and outcomes. Hoping for the best means the West stretches out the game to outright win the match. Planning for the worst means declaring a draw. It certainly beats losing a game after four moves.


The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect any official position of

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