Check but Not yet Mate: Putin’s Ukrainian Chess Game

January 30, 2022 Updated: January 31, 2022


The masters of the Kremlin fancy themselves as experts at the game of geopolitical chess. A fact as true of Tsarist Russia as it was of the Soviet Union and today’s contemporary Russia.

Looking over the developing crisis in Ukraine over the past few months and the seemingly unrelated events that have swirled around it, from the European gas crisis to the recent dramatic, stepped-up deployment of Russian naval forces across many of the world’s main shipping routes, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what we are observing is a carefully orchestrated plan to precipitate a regime change in Ukraine while demonstrating to the United States and its NATO allies that any intervention will be ineffective, prohibitively expensive in men and materials, and lead to an escalating confrontation.

Suggesting that these events are all part of a carefully preconceived and orchestrated plan smacks of a conspiracy theory. Funny thing about conspiracy theories—sometimes there really are conspiracies.

The alternative is to believe that the Kremlin has benefited from a series of serendipitous occurrences, from Europe’s mounting need for natural gas to the handy placement of a series of naval exercises across many of the world’s main shipping routes, precisely at a time when the Kremlin is threatening an invasion of Ukraine. Sometimes you just get lucky. When dealing with the masters of the Kremlin, however, it’s best to discount luck or serendipitous coincidences in favor of a cold, deliberate strategy.

The European Gas Shortage

The opening gambit was a European natural gas shortage that quickly transformed into skyrocketing prices and a supply crisis. Europe had gone into the autumn with historically low amounts of natural gas in storage facilities. Unexpectedly low wind conditions resulted in higher gas usage over the summer, further compounding the low gas reserves. Surprise, wind turbines don’t generate a lot of power when there’s no wind.

The Kremlin could have nipped the developing crisis in the bud by simply declaring that it was ready, willing and able to meet Europe’s demand for natural gas. By doing so, it would have demonstrated that it was a reliable and trustworthy energy partner. The Kremlin’s masters, however, proved surprisingly noncommittal. Perhaps Russia is not sitting on the virtually inexhaustible reserves of natural gas that President Vladimir Putin would have us believe. Or perhaps a different game was afoot.

Financial speculators, perhaps a few of the Russian persuasion, quickly jumped in and bid up natural gas prices. At their peak, European natural gas prices were five times the price level in North America. Prices have improved somewhat, but they are still three to four times higher than comparable U.S. prices. The European Union has accused Moscow of orchestrating the natural gas bidding frenzy—a charge Moscow has denied.

The rapid increase in gas prices came, fortuitously for the Kremlin, just when Germany was getting ready to approve gas deliveries through the newly constructed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The pipeline directly connects Russian gas fields with German utilities over a Baltic Sea route that does not cross any other countries’ borders. Not only would the pipeline deliver more Russian gas to energy hungry Europe, but by avoiding crossing Ukraine or any other unfriendly country, the gas supply could not be interdicted or diverted elsewhere.

Epoch Times Photo
Men work at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Lubmin, northeastern Germany, on March 26, 2019. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)

Another fortuitous coincidence from the Kremlin. Then again, do you really believe that anything emanating from the Kremlin is a coincidence?

The Nord Stream 2 saga hasn’t quite ended up as the Kremlin would have hoped. The Biden administration, desperate to prove that the foreign policy adults were now back in the White House, dropped their U.S. opposition to the pipeline and revoked the sanctions that the Trump administration had imposed on the companies building it without even bothering to ask for any concessions from Moscow in return.

Surprisingly, the energy desperate German government proved less amenable. Perhaps concerned about Russian financial manipulations in driving up the price of gas, Berlin insisted that the parent company of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline had to be a German domiciled subsidiary, where it would be subject to German regulatory scrutiny and oversight.

Russia’s Opposition to NATO Expansion

As the gas crisis was developing, the Kremlin announced that the eastward expansion of NATO was unacceptable, that it threatened Russian sovereignty and security, and that it was prepared to invade Ukraine to put a halt to it. While it’s true that NATO has expanded eastward since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the last new member to join the alliance was North Macedonia in 2020. The last former Warsaw Pact country to join NATO was in 2004. NATO is deeply split over allowing Ukraine to join and there are no plans to do so for the time being.

Perhaps the Kremlin was motivated by fears of an incipient “color revolution” in Belarus and, later, domestic instability in Kazakhstan, and the even deeper fear that the United States and its NATO allies were determined to foment color revolutions not only on Russia’s periphery but within Russia itself. To the Kremlin, “today Maidan Square tomorrow Red Square” has a very unsettling ring to it.

NATO Ukraine
NATO warships are in battle formation during Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers, in the Black Sea, on July 9, 2021. Ukraine and NATO have conducted Black Sea drills involving dozens of warships in a two-week show of their strong defense ties and capability. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo)

Nonetheless, there was no imminent danger that Ukraine would join NATO or that the amount of Western military aid slated for Ukraine’s armed forces was about to dramatically increase. Nonetheless, the Kremlin chose to draw a line in the sand. The Ukraine crisis was the result.

To date, Russia’s management of a possible intervention in Ukraine has differed significantly from the Soviet, and later Russian, playbook. Historically, Soviet/Russian interventions were quick, unexpected and carried out with a minimum of advanced warning. The most recent Russian intervention in Kazakhstan to quell domestic unrest there being a case in point.

Instead, as noted geopolitical strategist George Friedman has pointed out, Russia opted for diplomacy first, demanding a permanent ban on Ukraine from joining NATO. The demand is extreme and beyond the ability of the White House to grant even if it had wanted to.

The resulting drumbeat of an imminent invasion only served to give Ukraine’s military forces time to prepare and to galvanize the United States and its NATO allies, admittedly in fits and starts, to supply additional armaments to Ukraine. As Friedman points out, Moscow would have been better off militarily to intervene earlier, albeit with a smaller force, when Ukraine was less prepared than to prolong the crisis over several months.

Unprecedented Russian Naval Deployment

There is one other interesting coincidence that is playing out. Over the next month, Russian naval forces are slated to carry out a series of naval maneuvers, in part with the navies of China and Iran. Those exercises happen to be in the vicinity of major international shipping lanes in the Arabian Sea, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, Black Sea, and elsewhere. A total of 140 ships, about half of the Russian Navy, are being deployed.

Is Russia considering interdicting vital Western maritime supply lines should the United States and NATO respond forcefully to an invasion of Ukraine? Moscow hasn’t linked the two events implicitly or otherwise. Such a move would represent a major escalation and could lead to a wide-reaching conflict between Russia and NATO.

For now, it’s more a non-escalation escalation; in other words, it’s only an escalation if you assume that the naval maneuvers are linked to what’s transpiring in Ukraine. Otherwise, it’s just a coincidence. Funny how those coincidences keep cropping up. The United States and NATO’s naval forces are less enthralled by coincidences. They have dispatched additional ships to keep an eye on what the Russians are up to.

It’s hard to believe that the Kremlin’s masters of geopolitical chess would not have noticed that the Russian military was planning an unprecedented series of naval maneuvers across the world’s major shipping lanes at precisely the same time Russia would be escalating the Ukraine crisis.

Then on Jan. 13, the Kremlin raised the stakes even higher, threatening to deploy unspecified military forces to Venezuela and Cuba if Russia’s negotiations with the United States proved fruitless. Given what Russia is asking for, that’s inevitable. Are we heading for a repeat of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis? Probably not, but Putin seems intent to stoke the confrontation with the United States.

The Consequences of Putin’s Geopolitical Chess Game

The best time to invade Ukraine may already have passed. Russia’s leverage vis-a-vis Western Europe was at its peak when Europe was most in need of Russian natural gas. Russian gas does not appear instantaneously at Europe’s gas mains. Even if Russia was to alter the supply of gas to Europe, it would take several weeks for the changes in supply, either up or down, to manifest themselves in Europe’s gas utilities.

An early, warm spring could rob Moscow of its gas leverage. Then again, a polar vortex might increase it. Either way, making the success of your foreign policy dependent on the vagaries of the weather is a very risky strategy.

Will Russia invade Ukraine? If I had to hazard a guess, I would say no, but only Putin can answer that question and he isn’t talking. So if Russia opts not to stage an invasion of Ukraine, what was the point of this manufactured crisis? I think there are many repercussions to Putin’s Ukrainian chess game. Here are the three I think are most important.

First, Putin has sent a powerful message to the oligarchs that control Ukraine’s economy and government that the United States and NATO will not expend blood and treasure to defend Ukraine. They may send arms, but there’s no appetite in Washington or elsewhere in Europe’s capitals to go to war with Russia over defending Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Putin has made it clear that Ukraine will always be more important to Russia than it will be to the United States and NATO. Moscow is willing to go to war over Ukraine, Washington is not. To Ukraine’s power brokers the message is not lost—better to make a deal with the Kremlin now than to get a worse deal down the road.

Second, by forcing the United States and NATO to deal with a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has highlighted the internal fissures within NATO and the fecklessness of the Biden administration.

To the countries of Western Europe, the prospect of a Russian invasion has long since faded. Russia is still a formidable opponent, skilled at political manipulation, cyberwarfare, and fomenting social unrest. But the once widely held fear that Russian jackboots would echo in the streets of Bonn or Paris has long since dissipated.

To the countries on NATO’s eastern periphery—those nations that once comprised the Warsaw Pact or were constituent republics in the USSR—the echo of Russian jackboots still rings loudly. For them, Russian aggression is not a theoretical construct, it is a vivid and painful historical memory and remains a very real fear to this day.

Epoch Times Photo
Soldiers of the Polish Army descend from an MI-8 helicopter during the NATO Noble Jump military exercises of the VJTF forces in Zagan, Poland, on June 18, 2015. The VJTF, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, is NATO’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

An alliance where half of its members feel threatened by an external enemy, and the other half do not, is fundamentally unstable and will have a difficult time articulating its mission. To its credit, NATO has rallied to support Ukraine, but Germany, arguably its most important European member, has been conspicuously non-committal. For the Kremlin, that’s already a significant win.

The Biden administration has been unable to articulate a consistent policy response in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has threatened what it claims will be wide-reaching, but as yet largely unspecified, financial sanctions. It has stepped up military aid to Ukraine and indicated it might increase U.S. troop deployments within neighboring NATO countries, but failed to explain what that stepped-up troop presence might entail or what those troops would be prepared to do.

It has been keen to engage Moscow diplomatically, even though the agenda Moscow has presented is a non-starter. At one point, President Joe Biden seemed to imply that a limited intervention might not even warrant a U.S. response, a position which his minders at the White House quickly walked back.

On Jan. 26, the White House announced that it had formally rejected Moscow’s demand that NATO withdraw from further expansion in Eastern Europe, and had again reaffirmed that Moscow’s choices were to either negotiate or face crippling sanctions if it went ahead with an invasion of Ukraine.

What the crisis underscores is that the U.S. and EU strategy of imposing sanctions on the Kremlin to punish bad behavior hasn’t worked. It hasn’t changed Russian behavior—it has only made Moscow more combative. Sanctions are cheap, they don’t put men and military assets at risk, and they don’t cost much to impose. They also don’t work. An easy response that isn’t effective is not a solution—it’s a delusion of action.

Perhaps the lack of clarity emanating from the Biden White House simply reflects a policy of strategic ambiguity. Better not to tell the Kremlin how Washington would respond in order to increase its perception of the risks in going forward. Then again, it might simply reflect the fact that the White House foreign policy denizens are completely clueless about what to do. After all, this is the same foreign policy team that brought you the Afghanistan debacle.

For his part, Putin is eager to point out to the rest of the world that if you are looking for consistent, clear leadership, best you look elsewhere than Washington.

Finally, the manufactured crisis in Ukraine has given the Kremlin what it craves most of all—maneuvering room and a stage on which to play out its great power prerogatives. Amid the drumbeat of war, the breathless media coverage and the United States’ desperate attempts to craft a diplomatic solution, the Kremlin can confidently claim that Russia is back; that it’s firmly a member of the great powers club. Fair warning to Russia’s neighbors to get onboard as Putin proceeds to reconstruct a semblance of the USSR.

It’s a pipe dream of course. Russia can give the illusion of being a great power, but a country whose economy is smaller than the state of Texas, and largely stagnant, does so with smoke and mirrors, its nuclear arsenal notwithstanding, and by increasing bold bluffs that one of these days will get called out.

Like Benito Mussolini’s ambition to recreate the Roman Empire, Putin’s Soviet revivalism will be for naught. Il Duce’s grand plan ended in disaster. Putin’s will meet a similar fate.

So what’s to be done about Russia’s Ukrainian gambit? The United States has no strategic interests in Ukraine. It would be a mistake to get embroiled in a military conflict with Russia over Ukraine. There are no dominos in Kyiv. Washington has more important challenges, none the least of which is China.

Does that mean that we should give the Kremlin carte blanche to do its will in Eastern Europe?

Russia has three possible futures ahead of it. A reconciliation and integration into Europe, becoming a de facto vassal of China, or eventual dissolution.

It’s highly unlikely that Moscow could find a reconciliation with the West while the current KGB clique is in power.

Russia will fight hard to avoid becoming an economic and political vassal of China. But in the end, if it retains its hostility to the West, it may be the only way it can retain its current territorial integrity.

Or Russia may simply fall apart, in much the same way the Soviet Union dissolved, leaving its neighbors to pick up the pieces. A stagnant economy, declining population, and widespread corruption may ultimately make it impossible to maintain the integrity of the Russian state regardless of its nuclear arsenal or Putin’s bluffs.

The problem is rooted in the Kremlin’s conception of its own security. Russian history gives Moscow plenty of reasons to be paranoid about the intentions of the United States and Europe. De facto U.S. and EU support for color revolutions on Russia’s periphery, as well as NATO’s eastward expansion, only stoke that paranoia. The West is right in resisting the consequences of Moscow’s paranoia, but neither have they done anything to assuage those fears.

At the same time, the Kremlin needs to abandon a model of international relations in which it only feels secure when all its neighbors feel insecure. Paranoiacs may have legitimate enemies, but that does not give them carte blanche to impose their will on their neighbors.

What Europe and the United States must do is to make it clear to Moscow that it cannot enjoy the benefits of being in the international system while at the same time striving constantly to undermine that system. The EU needs to tell the Kremlin that the price of continued bad behavior is European disengagement. The United States would disengage, too, but Russia is just not as dependent on the United States as it is on the EU.

That means the EU needs to wean itself off Russian energy and be willing to halt export of technology and goods to Russia. That’s the ultimate call of Putin’s bluff and that’s not a bluff he can afford to lose. Disengagement is not an easy thing to do, and it will come at a high economic cost. In the short term, it will also push Moscow into Beijing’s embrace. In the long term, however, Moscow has no desire to be a Chinese vassal. Reconciliation with the United States and Europe may be the only way to forestall that.

In one sense that’s not terribly different than Moscow’s current attempts at maneuvering between Washington and Beijing. The difference is that Moscow would be responding to the U.S.-EU agenda and not the other way around.

The current U.S.-NATO strategy toward Russia is the diplomatic equivalent of alternating between ignoring Moscow and provoking it when it’s cornered. Neither strategy makes sense, neither will lead to a stable diplomatic system, and both will lead to a continuing succession of political crises. A never-ending round of geopolitical chess with the masters of the Kremlin is not a long-term solution.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joseph V. Micallef is a historian, bestselling author, syndicated columnist, war correspondent, and private equity investor. He holds a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a Fulbright fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs. He has been a commentator for several broadcast venues and media outlets and has also written several books on military history and world affairs. His latest book, "Leadership in an Opaque Future," is forthcoming. Micallef is also a noted judge of wines and spirits and authored a bestselling book on Scotch whisky.