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Putin’s clever game of chess

German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin before talks in Berlin in 2012.reuters

Russia has produced innumerable chess grandmasters, and its president for life, Vladimir Putin, is no exception. Picture him brooding silently over the geopolitical chessboard as he planned his latest move — the weekend’s swift, stunning, and unprovoked invasion of Crimea. His boldness took America and Europe by surprise and gave Putin a decided advantage at the match’s start.

How can President Obama and his European allies counter Putin’s opening gambit? And can the United States roll back what Putin has just pulled off — the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the heart of Europe?

The Ukraine crisis has become the most complex and dangerous international challenge of Obama’s presidency. There is a lot on the line — the future of Ukraine, the end to Europe’s relative peace since the fall of communism in 1991, and the credibility of the United States itself as the world’s leading power. International economic stability is also at issue — global markets recoiled Monday over Russia’s roll of the dice in Ukraine.


Obama cannot and will not confront Russia militarily — not in the nuclear age. That would be unwise and potentially catastrophic. But he is beginning to piece together a long-term strategy as the chess showdown with Russia moves into its next phase. Obama and his team worked the phones over the weekend to rally world opinion to denounce Russian aggression. Obama is also sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev today in a major symbolic move to show support for the embattled new Ukrainian government. And the White House is combining sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Putin to regain the initiative. The United States may shut down all major economic negotiations underway with Russia. None of this will stop Putin’s army but is designed to weaken and isolate him over time.

Obama is also offering a classic diplomatic out for Putin — exit doors — should he decide to cut his losses. In his long phone call with Putin on Saturday, Obama acknowledged Russia’s concern over the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine and suggested that the United States and Europe might help to monitor their welfare. This would obviate the need for Russian troops to occupy Crimea or other parts of Ukraine. Putin didn’t jump at the offer and will likely never give up his Crimean land grab. But, it was a clever move by Obama to expose Putin’s imperial behavior.


Obama is thus left with a strategy of diplomatic and economic pressure on Putin that can only succeed, in the long term, with unstinting European support. While the administration is working closely with Canada, the United Kingdom, and France, Germany may be a problem. Its influential leader, Angela Merkel, has already distanced herself from White House threats to expel Russia from the G-8, calculating that keeping lines open to the Kremlin is more sensible than a diplomatic deep freeze. If Merkel and Obama are not in perfect lock step, the wily Putin will exploit their disagreements.

Putin is still in control of this superpower chess match. He has yet to make a public statement since he sent thousands of Spetsnaz special forces into Ukraine. What will be his next move? Will he be content with conquering Crimea? Or will he now respond to inevitable appeals from the large Russian ethnic community in Eastern and Southern Ukraine for protection from the so-called radicals in Kiev? If Putin’s troops go on the march again, it would effectively split Ukraine into two pieces, opening a dramatic and dangerous new phase of the crisis.

There was a collective shock in Washington and European capitals over the weekend at the “Back to the Future” image of a continent divided once more by Russian aggression. When working for President George H.W. Bush in the White House at the Cold War’s end in 1991, I remember feeling elated that the reign of nuclear terror, the “Sword of Damocles” as President Kennedy described it, had finally been lifted from over our heads. We are not returning to an exact replica of the Cold War, but Europe’s democratic peace has been shattered by a ruthless Russian dictator. This will be the supreme test of President Obama’s remaining years in office. Can he summon the courage, ingenuity, and leadership to maneuver Putin away from domination of Ukraine by the match’s end?


Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.