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Edward Goldberg Headshot

Putin's Losing Chess Game and Other Thoughts on Ukraine

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The game of chess is to Russian elites as skiing is to the Swiss. It is said that Czar Ivan IV died in 1584 while playing in a chess match. When Lenin came into power, the government opened state sponsored chess academies. Even Stalin was addicted to the game. So for Putin to play chess as horrendously as he has so far in the Ukraine makes it is easy to understand why Angela Merkel said Putin was "in another world."

An experienced chess player always tries to analyze several moves in advance, to anticipate the opponent's moves, and to play for the future. Except for the first surprise entry into the Crimea, every move so far by the Kremlin has not only ignored the future, but runs counter to Russia's historic geopolitical interests. Putin's Ukrainian strategy has made both the immediate and the future world a much more dangerous place for Russia.

The first question one might ask is, why was it important to Russian interests to elevate the Ukrainian situation to such a level? Did Putin act out of perceived loss of face, never considering the actual outcome? Or was it to make up for what Putin considers a historic error by Khrushchev in rewarding the Crimea to Ukraine. In either case the actions are illogical in terms of Russia's current and future interests. Certainly it wasn't to protect Russia's naval base in the Crimea. The base has treaty rights to be there until 2040, and in all probability the Ukrainians would have agreed to extend that date. In reality the naval base or even Crimea's strategic position is only as good as who controls the Bosporus, and the Bosporus is part of Turkey and thus patrolled by NATO. So in essence the Russian naval base in Sevastopol is the living definition of a Potemkin village.

Then there are Germany and the United States, where Putin's actions are essentially forcing sleeping giants to awaken. Since 1945 one of Russia's dominant strategic goals has been to neuter Germany, first by having a divided Germany and then by tying Germany economically to Russia's energy supply and investment rewards. But Germany has evolved and has begun to question whether it can be only a merchant state, a Venice; existing as a major market force without real power. Now Putin's actions are a catalyst, pressuring Germany and Chancellor Merkel to view the world and Germany's interests differently, to look at itself as a major power with real interests to protect. A view, which could ultimately lead to one of Russia's great nightmares, a stronger German military

In many ways the Ukrainian crisis is having a similar effect on the United States. It is causing the country to re-examine where it has been and where it is going in terms of its geo-political interest. Worn out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past six years, the world -- and America itself -- had been questioning America's role as the COP on the beat; a role that the Kremlin very much resented. Now, especially now that America is on the path to regaining its economic footing, Putin's counterproductive move is begging the question: if America is not the COP, who could be?

Being the COP from an America perspective however cannot mean getting involved in every territorial dispute. The shrewd judgment of where and why involvement is necessary is the key. The Crimea per se is definitely not in America's vital interest.

The areas that are in America's vital interest are Iran, Israel/Palestine, Korea and the slowly simmering dispute between Japan and China. But for the COP to be respected, to have a distinguishing voice in the above-mentioned situations, leaders of countries, like the drivers of speeding cars, need to know that the COP will hand out tickets. And that is why the Crimea now matters to the United States.

In addition to pressuring America to reconsider its role as the COP, Putin's Ukrainian adventure changed the energy export argument in Washington. Along with America's newfound wealth in natural gas, there has been heavy lobbying by America's domestic chemical industry to prevent rapid exports of natural gas under the guise of insuring America's resources for national defense purposes. Overnight, Russia's incursion into the Ukraine has changed this argument. National defense now means speeding up the potential export of American gas to Europe and others. Not only so that EU, our chief trading partner, will be less dependent on Russia but also to put additional economic pressure on one of Russia's major exports.

Finally China. For the last several years there has been a fantasy at the Kremlin that China and Russia are natural allies against the west. Putting aside for the moment that this was a Russian fantasy not necessarily supported by the Chinese, Russian policy of the last two weeks has moved China into a very uncomfortable position. For the obvious reasons such as Tibet and Xinjiang, territorial integrity is an extremely important issue to China. Russia's Crimea actions directly oppose China's interest in this matter. So on Friday, China, who usually votes in tandem with Russia on the UN Security Council, did a very unusual thing, they abstained.

Beyond the impossibly shortsighted moves geopolitically, the Kremlin has totally misjudged market damage in the age of globalization and economic contagion. Compounding this market damage is the fact that, under Putin, Russia has basically rejected globalization and has become addicted to relying on one product passing through many corrupt hands to fuel its economy. Any businessperson will tell you that you can't be in the market place with one product unless you have a monopoly. And for Russia who possibly had a slight monopoly in energy, that monopoly is dissipating by the minute.