I recently heard a commentator (forgive me, I can’t remember who it was or where I heard it, but I did hear it) describe the situation in Crimea as a game. He said that Vladimir Putin was playing chess but President Barack Obama was playing checkers. It was a clever line, but I think the commentator was wrong on two fronts. One, I don’t think President Obama is much to blame for any of this. Sure, he has shown a level of weakness internationally, but none of that has much bearing on what Russia is doing.
The commentator was also wrong in his game analogy. Putin is not playing chess.
He is playing poker.
In 2008 he put his ante into the game with the aggressive actions Russia took toward Georgia in 2008. That was when he sat down at the table, so to speak. The recent move in Crimea is the raising of the stakes. Note that this is not like chess, where pieces are put into positions to strike. The Cold War was chess. The new world game is poker–where one action is made to gauge the response of the other.
I know a thing or two about poker. The Greenbeans love to play poker, and I earned quite a bit of Burger King spending money when I was in college playing poker. Of course I never play for high stakes as it is the enjoyment of cards that I like. Putin, however, is a big spender.
His troops are already in Crimea, and I fully expect him to annex the whole of Ukraine, unless President Obama and NATO call (a poker term, meaning match or raise the bet). It is, at this point, unavoidable. I believe the people in Ukraine know this and that is why they are offering almost no resistance. Some would call the invasion of Ukraine a ‘doubling down’ but they would be wrong. Doubling down is blackjack. Putin is not playing blackjack, remember. He is playing straight poker.
If he invades Ukraine then it is another raising of the stakes. He will raise the stakes again and again, because Putin loves to gamble, especially with other people’s money. There is no risk to him or to Russia, really, if he fails, but the gains could be sizable. He will raise the stakes again by finishing the work in Georgia and then he will go all in by threatening Belarus and the Baltic States. That is when it gets really interesting because the Baltics are all in NATO. To attack them is to attack the United States.
This is truly a high stakes table. If President Obama and NATO do not call Putin now, it will mean much more trouble later. I’ve taught my sprouts that when playing poker it is important to play the other players–know their tendencies, their tells, their weaknesses but you also have to play your cards. Bluff’s don’t often work and usually only succeed in movies and novels. The only way to call him is to sit down with a huge stack of chips and deploy military assets, real people and real weapons on the border in Ukraine, admit Ukraine to NATO immediately, and stop trying to use sanctions and diplomacy. Sanctions and diplomacy is chess. Putin is playing poker.
To date, I can’t fault President Obama much, other than to say he should have seen this coming. This is history. There really should be more historians making White House policy decisions. Back in 2008, before the Georgia crisis even, I read a wonderful little book (it is actually very little) called The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan. Kagan’s argument was that the fall of the Soviet Union did not usher in global peace, but a return to the world in which ideologies, religions, and potentates ruled. In short, the history we learned in school. He seemed particularly clairvoyant on issues regarding Russia and Putin. Here is a brief excerpt, written in 2008:
It is not hard to imagine the tremors along the Euro-Russian fault line erupting in confrontation. A crisis over Ukraine, which wants to join NATO, could provoke Russian belligerence. Conflict between the Georgian government and separatist forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia supported by Russia could spark a military conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow (NOTE–THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED IN 2008 AFTER THIS BOOK WAS PRINTED). What would Europe and the United States do if Russia played hardball in either Ukraine or Georgia? They might well do nothing. Post-modern Europe can scarcely bring itself to contemplate a return of conflict involving a great power and will go to great lengths to avoid it. Nor is the United States eager to take on Russia when it is so absorbed in the Middle East. Nevertheless, a Russian confrontation with Ukraine or George would usher in a brand-new world–or rather a very old world. pp 23-24
Yeah, what he said is what is happening. So, either Putin wins all the chips and walks away, or we call. Those are the only two choices the President has. I’ve quoted these lines many times, but they never let me down in terms of guidance for living. I hope someone sings them in the Presidents ear soon:
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done. From The Gambler, sung by Kenny Rogers