Putin's Chess Moves In Ukraine: Brilliant Tactics, But Bad Strategy? As Western leaders craft another round of sanctions to counter the Russian president's moves in Crimea, they might do well to consult a grandmaster at chess — Russia's national pastime.
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Putin's Chess Moves In Ukraine: Brilliant Tactics, But Bad Strategy?

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


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.

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