Losing Our Marbles as Putin Loses at Chess: The Cold War is Over


In a 2012 debate, President Obama chided his opponent, Mitt Romney, saying, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because… the cold war’s been over for 20 years.” That quote has generated unmitigated joy in the past week as the president’s critics have trotted it out time and again to show Obama’s naivete on foreign policy and how more serious folk were right all along: The veil has been lifted. The wolf has discarded his sheep’s clothing. And we can have our Cold War back.

Surely, the Obama administration is adrift in a sea tossed by crises. But the smugness of the “we told you so” crowd is equally uninformed. The Cold-War-is-back narrative is so politically tinged that it is hard to take much of it at face value. The general thrust of the argument is that certain administrations were soft (Obama) or too careless in expanding NATO (Clinton). This combination of expansion and insufficient spine in the face of aggression, emboldened the Russian bear that has come screaming back to terrorize all of Europe once again. In the tweeted words of the Right Honorable Lindsey Graham, “It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this kind of aggression. #Ukraine.”

The Benghazi theater of the absurd will play well for a certain audience. For more serious observers, there are a host of other events between the fall of the Soviet Union and today that may bear more directly on events in Ukraine. Many of these events and policy decisions shaped the trajectory of post-Soviet Europe and bear important lessons for how we should proceed… could anyone agree on what those lessons should be. In particular, the expansion of the European Union and NATO to Russia’s borders, agreements on missile defense in Europe, and America’s overall posture and posturing around the world were either too tough, forcing or enabling Putin to take up his hostile stance, or not tough enough, emboldening him into his hostile stance. When looking at Russian troops amassing in Crimea, it is easy to reason that we are “once again” losing the Cold War and to pin the blame on this policy or that. But, if we’re going to talk Cold War, let’s get some perspective.

Last week, Representative Mike Rogers opined, “I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. And I don’t think it’s even close.” Chess, the long game of position, containment, and occasional bold strikes is a flattering metaphor for the Cold War. The chess metaphor is also comforting in that it is a two-player game—even if those players are battling on several boards at once. For many, that’s a lot better than the multiplayer, multi-board games without rules that we have been stumbling through in the past decade. Surely, there is much to criticize in this administration’s foreign policy, but those who would believe that Putin’s chess move into Crimea is the work of a master would be better off sticking to a simple game like marbles.

Putin’s aggression in Crimea is certainly alarming. All the more so when you consider the contempt he must hold for the rest of the world to keep up the thuggish charade of denial. Yet, keeping with the metaphor of chess, we cannot judge a move in isolation. We have to understand the whole board, and in doing so it is clear that Putin’s position is becoming worse by the day, his territory of influence is shrinking, and most of his pieces have been struck from the board. The West has made it all the way to his back rank, with people power turning Warsaw Pact pawns into western queens that are now being used against their former master.

European Union Member and Candidate Countries (click to enlarge)
European Union Member and Candidate Countries (click to enlarge)

A little over two decades ago, the Soviet Union was nestled behind a row of pawns that extended into the heart of Europe. It held sway over dozens of client states throughout the world. Today, NATO and the EU extend to the very border of Russia itself. To wit, Poland (a former Warsaw Pact state on the border of the Soviet Union) and the Baltic states (former Soviet republics) are all members of the EU and NATO and have invited U.S. F-15s and F-16s to augment their defenses in response to the crisis.

History of NATO Enlargement - credit: Patrickneil (click to enlarge)
History of NATO Enlargement – credit: Patrickneil (click to enlarge)

One of the reasons Putin is adamant about keeping control of Crimea is the strategic and historic warm-water port of Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This port is all the more important because the Russian client state of Syria has fallen into chaos, effectively taking Russia’s sole Mediterranean facility at Tartus off Putin’s board. Putin’s seizure of Crimea is a sign of weakness, not strength.

For a host of bad reasons, from the naval base at Tartus to the historic relationship with Syria, to the constant goal of acting as a foil to Europe and the U.S., Putin is compelled to carry water for the lisping sociopath Bashar al Assad, defending him against near-universal approbation in the international community. It is one thing to debase oneself for naked interest. That, perhaps, could be called a chess strategy. It is another thing altogether to keep defending that space when the rook has been taken. This is not winning at chess. Neither is Putin’s desperate move in Crimea.

Ukraine was one of Putin’s last pawns on the board—an acceptably pliable regime that had not yet fallen under the sway of the West. Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine has been perched unsteadily between Russian and western spheres, but Putin’s position was strong enough to warrant some strategic patience. Nestled within this larger struggle was the issue of Crimea—a historically Russian piece of strategic territory and the location of Russia’s premier naval base on the Black Sea. (In 1954, Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the Crimean Oblast to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic as a gift. Up to that point, it had been part of the Russian Republic itself).

The “people power” of 2014 is much different than the people power of 2004, however. And when this less idealistic, more violent and uncontrollable force toppled Yanukovych in Ukraine, Putin—down to his last few squares on the board—could no longer stand it. Putin rushed his queen into the ultimately meaningless square of Crimea. This move should have exposed the depth of Putin’s isolation and the extent to which Russia has lost not only the Cold War, but also the peace that followed. Instead, a chorus of “hawks” proclaimed him victorious while mumbling on about chess, marbles, and the Cold War.

Putin aspires to a new Cold War and the restored power and prestige that that would imply. Russia, however, is now a shadow of the Soviet Union, contained at the far end of Europe. Its access to the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic from St. Petersburg is at the far end of a set of pincers, each less than 100 miles across. The narrow Bosporus, controlled by a member of NATO, could separate it from the Mediterranean. It retains a powerful, if crude lever over Europe in its control over natural gas supplies. Despite the histrionics from American politicians and European security wonks, Russia is as far from domination of Europe as it ever has been. The Cold War brought down the wall. People power in Eastern Europe and the “soft power” of the West did the rest.

Observers inured of the polar Cold War world evaluate the world through the lens of concrete actions planned and executed by leaders. It is hard to deny that we face a dearth of leadership at both the domestic and international levels. Likewise, there are some aspects of the Crimea crisis that demand western leadership, particularly the challenge of presenting a unified and meaningful reaction to Russia’s flouting of international norms. A meaningful reaction would eschew both platitudes and histrionics. More to the point, however, there is very little that even the best leadership can do to quickly and satisfactorily resolve the wave of unrest sweeping our world.

In the March 11 New York Times, David Brooks dismissed “The Leaderless Doctrine” as utopian.  He wrote, “It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced.” Certainly, some menaces must be faced, but real leaders see the whole board and the whole game. In the chaos of the moment, they identify the decisive point and apply their leadership to the critical issue.

No, the leaderless doctrine will not prevail. For all the technological advances, neither war nor human relations (from the local to the international level) are entering bold new territory that negates millennia of history. As trends coalesce and power consolidates, leaders will once again find a way to harness the blind passion of the people. Today, we are witnessing one of the great, periodic waves when the plates that underpin civilization are shifting under accumulated economic, demographic, social, and political pressure. With the artificial stasis of the Cold War over, change swept Europe and is still rippling out in waves. This is no tidy process. The blind passion of the populace is outstripping governments’ abilities to subordinate popular energy to a system of reason.

The real action is not in Crimea. Putin’s desperate, losing move will ultimately be overcome by the tides of history. Far more important is helping Ukrainian leaders—and other leaders in similar situations—to thread the needle, channeling the blind passion of the people to a reasonable end. This is far easier said than done. Too far toward control and a dictatorial or kleptocratic regime only builds the pressure behind the next eruption. Too far toward “freedom” and either chaos reigns, or illiberal forces coalesce to turn back toward a dictatorial or kleptocratic regime. The West must not try to dictate the answer to the Ukrainians or any other people (as we have too often done in the past), but we can help to provide them with the breathing room to find their own answer. In the case of Ukraine, this includes keeping the Crimea crisis from spilling over into the rest of the country, as well as relieving the Russian stranglehold made of gas and debts. The Cold War is over. We must leave pockets of denial aside to focus on those building what comes next.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.


Photo credit: Laura