Chess players are a particularly rare bird in the political risk ecosystem. The only major aim of such chess playing – and it is certainly an important one – is the acquisition and retention of political power over the long term.
Chess players’ dogged, patient, rational, long-term pursuit of coherent strategic, political and geopolitical ends flies in the face of the fruit fly-like attention spans of most people in the modern world. In our own time, a mass media which gives me the constant choice of reading literally hundreds of foreign policy articles on any given day means that the endless churn of the short-term news cycle provides a perfect hiding place for political actors with more fixed policy strategies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is the living archetype of the chess player as decision-maker, even as his new best friend Donald Trump epitomises all that is wrong with the modern era, in his preternatural neediness, mania for instant gratification, and lack of depth. While Trump is petulantly lambasting the US intelligence services for letting him in on the inconvenient truth that the Russian FSB tried to tilt the election in his favour (it is important to note that there is absolutely no evidence this was determinative in any way), the Kremlin is eloquently silent.
But despite the difficulty in spotting them, it is well worth the time trying to game out chess players. For once analytically brought to ground, the fixed, rational patterns that chess players exemplify mean a true understanding of them is possible, as well as a far better understanding of the world in which they live. It begs the question, what does Putin actually want from the new American administration?
Putin’s aims are simple, though achieving them is not. He wants to, in Tsar-like fashion, utterly dominate and control Russian politics. Second, he wants to – much as De Gaulle did in France after the war – restore his proud country to great power status. Everything else is secondary, merely means serving these two overriding ends.
It is in this basic chess playing context that the rise of a startlingly pro-Russian American President must be viewed. First and foremost, Putin wants to cajole the new administration into dropping America’s former rock-solid support for the sanctions placed on the Kremlin, following Russia’s successful meddling in Ukraine. The sanctions have proven surprisingly effective, with the Russian finance ministry estimating they have cost the country $40bn a year. With pro-Russian Francois Fillon likely to become the new President of France and Italy’s support for the sanctions flagging, the constellation of power is right for Putin to do away with this serious economic wound.
Second, Putin wants the Trump White House to codify what is already happening, be it the settlement of the Syrian War on Russia’s terms or the annexation of Crimea. Given the strong impulse in the Trump cabinet (emanating from both prospective national security adviser Michael Flynn and defence secretary designate James Mattis) for combating Isis as a priority, a deal over Syria – wherein the US accepts Assad staying in power in return for joint Russian-American efforts to eradicate Isis in Raqqa – seems eminently doable. And while the taking of Crimea is unlikely to be formally recognised, neither is it likely to be much contested by the Trump White House.
Third, Trump – in line with the hapless EU and the Obama administration – must be kept from coming to the aid of a beleaguered Ukraine. As we have written before, Putin’s strategic interest in Kiev is not in taking over the place, but rather in seeing that it does not emerge as a successful, prosperous, pro-Western alternative to Great Russian nationalism on the Kremlin’s doorstep.
Given the venal, incompetent Ukrainian government this task has been made easier. But at all costs, Putin wants both America and Brussels to accept the present status quo in Ukraine, where a semi-failed, castrated state serves as a constant reminder to the Russian-dominated region of the fecklessness of western promises.
Lastly, and perhaps above all, Putin wants to stay out of the disastrous Trump’s way. The first rule of politics is that when an enemy is about to commit suicide, don’t stand between them and the bullet. As Trump provokes China over trade and tilts away from any form of cooperation with Beijing, and as he demeans the western allies (who admittedly have brought this largely on themselves over decades due to an immoral refusal to pay a fair share for the common western defence), Russia can merely stand by and watch, as Trump antagonises both the past (Europe) and the future (China). Chess players know how to be patient.