Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision in late 2021 to amass more than 100,000 soldiers on the Russian border with Ukraine and then to send thousands more into Belarus last month—ostensibly for exercises—has seized the West’s, if not the world’s, attention. The precedent seems clear: In 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine, purportedly annexed Crimea, and set up a proxy occupation of two regions in Ukraine’s east, fueled by Russian money, directed by Russian officials, and supported with Russian military and intelligence personnel. Now, he looks poised to come back and take another, even bigger, bite out of Ukraine.
The menacing move has triggered multiple vectors of diplomacy, with Washington offering Moscow serious talks about security concerns while simultaneously rallying partners and allies to be prepared to impose costs—an effort to deter a possible invasion but also to ensure it does not happen with impunity. So far, Putin’s behavior has not encouraged confidence in a diplomatic outcome. In December 2021, the Russians published demands to, effectively, rewind the clock on most of the last quarter century of developments in European security. Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister responsible for representing Russia in talks with the United States in mid-January, had no authority to engage on any topics at all unless Russia’s maximalist demands were accepted ex ante. That isn’t the position of a diplomat who has come to do diplomacy; it’s the position of a guy who’s part of a setup.
All of this—and the attempt to avert an invasion—has set off a new round of guessing at what Putin’s objectives are and subsequent conjecture about how to mollify him in an acceptable way. It has become a kind of parlor game in Washington, Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris to unravel a presumed multistep play, where they imagine Putin hived away in the Kremlin and calmly managing a complex strategy, always half a dozen steps ahead. An endless analysis of ulterior motives by the pundits gets mixed in: Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union, prevent Ukraine from pursuing a European future, draw a red line around NATO, drive a wedge into the West, distract from his failings at home, respond to a genuine—if unwarranted—sense of threat, make things difficult for U.S. President Joe Biden by bringing back former U.S. President Donald Trump, or any combination of the above. Add a few references to the Cold War and its long-game complexities, and it’s easy to see why the chess match metaphor is never far away.
But, as political scientist Eliot Cohen has eloquently noted, the cliche of Putin as a master chess player thinking multiple steps ahead—and the metaphorical corollary of his Western counterparts playing mere checkers—is tired. If anything, it was never apt at all, in no small part because it attributes to genius what is better attributed to base thuggery. And the thing about thuggery is it doesn’t take enormous amounts of strategic thinking to make it effective. It is essentially opportunistic and asymmetric.
Putin exercises power in international politics by destroying things. He invades and occupies countries. He throttles the supply of gas to threaten freezing European families in the middle of winter. His diplomats at the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are clever international lawyers enlisted in a cynical mission to sabotage the efforts of more responsible countries to build international institutions and tackle common regional and global challenges based on universal human rights. The infrastructure of world peace and prosperity takes time, patience, and skill to build. Knocking the pieces over is easy.
Putin’s genius as a strategist is often overstated. But there are two additional flaws in the chess metaphor that lead to even more consequential analytical mistakes. The metaphor—and others used to describe the high-stakes interaction between Biden and Putin—risks distorting not only the search for policy solutions but also the world’s understanding of the stakes.
One reason why the United States and its allies should be careful not to buy into narratives of Putin’s supposed brilliance is that doing so leads them to negotiate among themselves as they concoct complex positions and potential proposals to present to the supposed mastermind. Take French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to position himself as an interlocutor with Putin. Clever as Macron may be, it’s difficult to accept the notion that he might resolve the standoff by devising a more nuanced negotiating position the rest of the world has missed. Because if Putin is just a violent opportunist, such refined stratagems are unlikely to work. The search for an intricate set of moves—conciliatory, hard-line, or both—that would counter Putin or address his multiple motivations is likely a futile one.
The chess metaphor also obscures the moral stakes. Indeed, the discussion in the United States and Europe about the current standoff often seems dangerously detached from any moral worldview. It approaches with intellectual remove the question of whether some sort of agreement can be reached and implicitly encourages indulgence in moral relativism as if the two sides were moral equals. Strikingly, the most powerful condemnation in recent weeks has come—with immense courage—from inside Russia, when Russian human rights activists, artist, and intellectuals signed a public petition to condemn Putin’s threats to invade, stating: “Promoting the idea of such a war is immoral, irresponsible, and criminal, and cannot be implemented on behalf of Russia’s peoples. Such a war cannot have either legal or moral goals.” The petition is an important reminder that what Putin is doing is morally outrageous. He is threatening to kill even more Ukrainians than the 14,000 individuals who have already died since the 2014 conflict began. Ukraine has not threatened Russia or its citizens. Putin is threatening a war of aggression.
This is also a reminder that, given Putin’s credible threats, assistance to Ukraine is to help it with its self-defense. Defense against lethal attack is both morally uncomplicated and sanctioned under international law. Yes, the overall situation is complex and dynamic, but it is striking that some actors think the first and only question to ask is what Putin will think—while giving little consideration to whether a victim is entitled to assistance.
There is nothing chess-like about the current back and forth between Biden and other Western leaders on the one side and Putin on the other. In chess, both players are bound by the same rules, and neither player gets to kill real people. Putin does not play by the same rules. And the asymmetry created by Putin’s willingness to do things he knows others are not willing to do is a direct reflection of moral asymmetry.
This, of course, connects back to the chess metaphor’s essential flaw. The reason Putin so frequently sets Europe and the United States spinning isn’t because he’s making genius moves; it’s because he’s thrown the chess board across the room and is threatening to turn over the table. The reason Russia is so often dictating the agenda isn’t because he’s a mastermind of diplomacy and debate; it’s because he’s a hostage-taker. Worse, he’s a hostage-taker who has historically delighted in killing the hostage.
He’s not a brilliant, inscrutable madman. He’s a bad man—not only because he’s threatening to start another pointless war in Europe. He and his cronies have stolen hundreds of billions of dollars from the Russian people. He has journalists and political figures murdered. He brazenly takes out hits on his domestic enemies in European capitals.
The West doesn’t know what Putin wants, but it does know who he is. The diplomatic effort to engage Putin isn’t an effort to reconcile legitimate interests that are in tension; it’s an effort to get a reckless and immoral actor to stand down. If it fails, it will not be because Putin outsmarted the West. It will be because he saw an opportunity to throw a punch and took it.
The greatest danger right now isn’t that Putin has outplayed the West: It’s that he may feel that he has backed himself into a corner. Like many bullies before him, insecurity may tell Putin that because he’s threatened so much violence, he has no choice but to carry it out. The United States and its allies should continue to be sober and stand firm on his actions’ consequences, offer him off-ramps, and eschew any gratuitous triumphalism if he decides to take one.
Daniel B. Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer