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Putin's Chess Moves In Ukraine: Brilliant Tactics, But Bad Strategy?

Apr 23, 2014
Originally published on April 23, 2014 8:06 am

The game of chess is a national pastime in Russia. And you might say that Vladimir Putin is playing a high-stakes game of geopolitical chess when it comes to Ukraine.

Western leaders are plotting how to counter Putin's latest moves with economic sanctions. So to get some insight into what might come next, we talked to an economist who knows Russia — who is also extremely good at chess.

Putin Playing From A Weak Position

Kenneth Rogoff is a world-renowned economist and professor at Harvard. He was also recognized as a chess prodigy when he was a teenager and became a chess grandmaster when he was 25.

Back in his chess-playing days — and later as an economist — Rogoff made friends across Russia and Ukraine, including Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion who also ran against Vladimir Putin for president.

"Putin is playing from a very weak position," Rogoff says of Putin's game plan. "But he's very good at it. That doesn't mean he's not going to win. A really strong chess player doesn't need a good position to win."

Putin's position is weak because Russia's economy is weak, Rogoff says: It's too dependent on oil exports, which aren't supporting a decent standard of living for most of the country. Corruption is rampant, and most industries are not competitive with the rest of the world.

Most Russians live in near poverty by U.S. or European standards.

Russia has a large military, but an actual war with the West is extremely unlikely.

"It's going to be an economic war, [as] far as we're willing to push it," Rogoff says of this contest.

Putin's Style Of Play: Good Tactics, Bad Strategy?

In chess, you also want to know your opponent's style of play. So, what kind of player is Putin?

Chess players draw a distinction between strategy and tactics, Rogoff says.

Strategy is "where you're really looking far down the road: If I take the Ukraine, what does that really do for me? Does that make me better off?" he explains.

Tactics, on the other hand, "are very short-term ways to gain pieces and positions," he says. "He's a master of the tactics. He sort of sees a few moves ahead and he's very good at it. But what is the long-term strategy? It's really hard to see."

So far Putin's move to grab Crimea has helped and hurt him. It helped by making him more popular at home in the short term, the former grandmaster says.

But longer term, taking Crimea is probably hurting, he says. Nervous investors are pulling tens of billions of dollars out of Russia. Russia now has to support Crimea, and it is a poor region. The West is imposing economic sanctions, and if they haven't been tough so far, they may get tougher.

That leads Rogoff to think that Putin has not carved out a long-term strategy.

"I just don't see it," he says. "This definitely seems like they're flailing out, looking to try to grab some pieces, grab some territory, without thinking what they're going to do with it."

Putin's Endgame: Russian Pride

So what is the ultimate goal behind his moves? Rogoff says, "I think there's no question the endgame for him, what he's looking for, is pride."

Rogoff thinks Putin is most interested in returning some greatness to Russia. He says, "I understand he has portraits of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in his office, and I suppose he would like to have [himself] thought of in those terms — of restoring greatness to Russia."

If Putin's weakness is the economy and his endgame is pride, Rogoff suggests the West should show Putin an opening, something bigger than a few pieces in Ukraine.

"The best thing for us is if Russia starts doing well and feel that they're benefiting from the world order," he says.

What moves should the West make to push Russia in that direction? Rogoff says world leaders are still trying to figure that out.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Vladimir Putin appears to be playing a high-stakes game of geopolitical chess in Ukraine, chess of course being a national pastime in Russia. Western leaders are plotting out how to counter Putin's latest moves.

To get some insight into this, NPR's Chris Arnold talked to an economist who knows Russia and a thing or two about chess.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Ken Rogoff is a world-renowned economist and professor at Harvard. And as a teenager he was recognized as a chess prodigy, becoming a grand master when he was 25.

KEN ROGOFF: This is my Grand Master title, which I got in 1978. I have that here.

ARNOLD: Rogoff is showing me his chess memorabilia in his home office near the Harvard campus. Back from his chess-playing days and as an economist, he's made friends across Russia and Ukraine, including...

KENNETH ROGOFF: Gary Kasparov, the former world chess champion, who also ran against Vladimir Putin for president.

ARNOLD: So OK. We wanted to get a chess player's take on what's going on. And in chess, you want to size up your opponent's strengths and weakness. So what does Rogoff think of Putin's moves in Ukraine so far?

ROGOFF: Well, on the one hand, Putin is playing from a very weak position, but he's very good at it. And so that doesn't mean he's not going to win. A really strong chess player doesn't need a good position to win.

ARNOLD: A weak position because Russia's economy is weak. And an actual war with the West is, of course, extremely unlikely. Nobody wants that, including Putin, so...

ROGOFF: It's going to be an economic war and how far we're willing to push it.

ARNOLD: Next, you also want to know your opponent's style of play. So what kind of player is Putin?

ROGOFF: In chess we draw a distinction between strategy, where you're really looking far down the road - if I take the Ukraine, what does that really do for me? Does that make me better off? And tactics, which are very short-term ways to gain pieces and positions. He's a master of the tactics. He sort of, you know, sees a few moves ahead and he's very good at it. But what is the long term strategy? It's really hard to see.

ARNOLD: So far Putin's move to grab Crimea has helped and hurt him. It helps by making him more popular at home in the short-term, but longer term, taking Crimea is probably hurting. Nervous investors are pulling tens of billions of dollars out of Russia. Russia now has to support Crimea, and it's a poor region. And the West is imposing economic sanctions, though so far, anyway, they haven't been too tough.

All that leads Rogoff to think...

ROGOFF: He really has not carved out where Russia's going. I just don't see it, that this definitely seems like they're flailing out, looking to try to grab some pieces, grab some territory without thinking what they're going to do with it.

ARNOLD: Still, there must be some kind of ultimate goal for Putin. What does he want? What is the end game? What is the chess piece that he's trying to grab off the table?

ROGOFF: Well, I think there's no question, the end game for him, what he's looking for, is pride, returning some greatness to Russia, some greatness to himself. I understand he has portraits of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in his office, and I suppose he would like to have Putin thought of in those terms, of restoring greatness to Russia.

ARNOLD: So all this suggests a strategy. If you know Putin's weakness is the economy and you think his end-game is pride, then Rogoff says the West basically wants to show Putin an opening, something bigger than just a few pieces in Ukraine.

ROGOFF: We really don't want a return to the Cold War. We want them to grow. We want - the best thing for us is if Russia starts doing well and, you know, feel that they're benefiting from the world order.

ARNOLD: So Rogoff says perhaps the best move for Putin would be is if he uses his popularity to push through reforms to transform Russia from a corruption-ridden oligarchy into a modern vibrant economy. Most people in Russia still live near poverty by U.S. or European standards. So how does the West push Russia in a good direction? Rogoff says world leaders are right now trying to figure that out. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.