Putin as chess master: Strong opening but weak endgame in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow on Feb. 15. (Sergey Guneev/Kremlin/Sputnik/Reuters) Opinion by David Ignatius February 16 at 7:55 am Taiwan Time Russians are famously great chess players, yet there are moments when even the steeliest grandmasters find their initial advances on the board blocked and must adjust strategy. Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be making such a recalibration this week on Ukraine. His forces are arrayed along the border, poised for a swift capture of Ukrainian positions. But Putin lacks an endgame — which may explain Tuesday’s diplomatic gambit. One reason for Putin’s seeming interest in a diplomatic resolution? His bold opening moves have been met with a surprisingly resolute counter from President Biden and his NATO allies — one that could put Putin’s most prized achievements at risk. So Putin, ever the cold-eyed calculator, is letting the game play out. He has an arsenal arrayed against Ukraine and its vulnerable capital, Kyiv. Elements of that Russian army, with its devastating Iskander missile batteries, could remain near the border for weeks. Putin has given himself options with this tactical pause. He might extort enough concessions through negotiations to declare victory. Or he could manufacture a pretext — through Russia’s playbook of covert action — to justify launching the invasion, claiming that he had exhausted other possibilities. The one thing Putin can’t do is wish away the United States’ ability to cause him severe pain. The Ukraine crisis has featured an unlikely test of personalities: Putin, the ex-spy, has brazenly used the threat of military power, advertising his desire to control Ukraine and rewrite Europe’s security rules, even as he denied any intention to invade. But he has been met by a stalwart Biden, the genial career politician who stumbles over his sentences — but not, in this case, with his actions. Biden has countered every Putin thrust with the one strategic weapon in which the United States has overwhelming but usually unexploited superiority: its ability to blast declassified intelligence about Russian activities across the global information space. And Putin has appeared flummoxed, as his aides complain about U.S. “hysteria.” The Russian leader turns 70 this year. He has the military power to flex his muscles and burnish his legacy by regaining a piece of the old Soviet Union. Putin operates in such isolation that foreign visitors sometimes aren’t allowed to see him; instead, some are instructed to fly to Moscow and talk by a dedicated landline to the Kremlin leader. Putin had seemed convinced a month ago that his ever-intensifying war of nerves over Ukraine was working to Russia’s advantage. But White House officials believe this tactic might be backfiring: Some Russian officials are questioning Putin’s brinkmanship; and Western nations, unsettled by Russian bullying, are rallying around a NATO alliance that appeared depleted just two years ago. Putin this week staged a theatrical presentation of his revised strategy. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov approached the Kremlin leader Monday and told him of the many foreign leaders who have beseeched him to not to invade. It has indeed been quite a parade, led by the leaders of France and Germany, giving Putin the global spotlight and show of respect he craves. As if dusting off a script from czarist times, Putin asked his foreign minister: “In your opinion, is there a chance to agree … or is it just an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process that has no logical conclusion?” “There is always a chance,” Lavrov observed, and Putin assented. The staged dialogue would have been funny if the crisis weren’t so serious. Biden’s response was more straightforward. He looked stern and composed at the lectern in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. For once, he was playing a hand full of high cards. Noting Putin’s endorsement of negotiations, Biden said simply, “I agree.” He listed the proposals he has offered to enhance security, and hinted at more, saying there was “plenty of room for diplomacy.” Biden tried, as he has before, to connect with Putin’s sense of wounded national pride. He spoke of the common fight against Nazi Germany and assured Russians, “You are not our enemy.” Underlying this conciliatory language was the hard message that Biden has conveyed since this crisis began — a unified NATO alliance, joined by some Asian allies, will impose “intense pressure” on Russia’s financial institutions and key industries if Putin invades. “We will rally the world,” Biden vowed. He appears to have enough allied support to deliver on that threat, and Putin seems to know it. White House officials believe Putin’s actions have been a wake-up call for the West — “galvanizing,” Biden said on Tuesday, and in that sense, a big strategic boost for what had been a sagging U.S. global position. Putin’s course might already be set for Kyiv. It’s hard to imagine that he has moved a vast army to the Ukrainian border twice in the past year, only to retreat. But the Kremlin chess master might have recognized that his most valuable assets are at risk — and that even with an intimidating opening, he probably can’t win a long match against a West that appears united against Russian aggression.