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.