Putin Plays Poker With Russia's Ukraine Invasion – Foreign Policy

April 10, 2022
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All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. William Shakespeare was onto something. Even when it comes to life’s most serious decisions, everyone chooses to play a role and inhabit a persona.
With his unprovoked assault on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing the role of an unpredictable macho dictator. To counter this charade, his opponents should diagnose his tendencies, psychological weaknesses, and favored strategies. They must also discern the logic of the game that he is playing and then beat him at it.
Given Putin’s undeserved reputation as a master strategist and his genuine expertise in judo, some analysts have employed the metaphors of chess or martial arts. Yet there is a better analogy. Given my experiences in the world of high-stakes gambling, I view the current confrontation between the West and Russia as a game of televised poker.
All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. William Shakespeare was onto something. Even when it comes to life’s most serious decisions, everyone chooses to play a role and inhabit a persona.
With his unprovoked assault on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing the role of an unpredictable macho dictator. To counter this charade, his opponents should diagnose his tendencies, psychological weaknesses, and favored strategies. They must also discern the logic of the game that he is playing and then beat him at it.
Given Putin’s undeserved reputation as a master strategist and his genuine expertise in judo, some analysts have employed the metaphors of chess or martial arts. Yet there is a better analogy. Given my experiences in the world of high-stakes gambling, I view the current confrontation between the West and Russia as a game of televised poker.
Poker, like martial arts and war, favors calculated aggression. Only by keeping your opponent(s) off balance can you provoke their misplays. Furthermore, Putin’s machismo leads him to underestimate his adversaries and show off for domestic and international consumption. Unsurprisingly, his favorite tactic is unprovoked aggression—in other words, the bluff. He got away with it in Georgia in 2008, Syria from 2012 onward, in annexing Crimea in 2014, and in meddling in the U.S. and British elections of 2016.
Yet last month, he was caught completely off guard when the West finally called his biggest raise ever. As boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
The West’s reactive jab of sanctions and aggressive arming of the Ukrainians appear to have completely stalled—and now reversed—Russia’s advance on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Bruised and bloodied, his forces in retreat, Putin is cobbling together an ad hoc response. By publicly claiming to refocus his campaign on the Donbass, and implicitly the land corridor connecting it to Crimea and Moldova, he may be further bluffing when it comes to his real objectives and future tactics.
The weaker his underlying hand, the more that Putin must continue to rely on bluffs and misdirection. Hence, even though Russia is losing, it is unlikely that Putin will ever voluntarily de-escalate.
Having frozen Putin by calling his aggressive bet, the West might now be able to force him to fold through calculated escalation.
Such a strategy makes sense given his current positioning. Putin remains a mostly rational actor fighting for his political life, legacy, and control over the Russian state. Russian National Guard members are refusing to fight in Ukraine. Every day, new evidence appears of Russian soldiers sabotaging their own vehicles. A miscalculation or sign of weakness from Putin could engender a palace coup or mass desertion among the armed forces.
Having frozen Putin by calling his aggressive bet, the West might now be able to force him to fold through calculated escalation. The current situation—with much more information available for all to see, but various unknowns still to be revealed—corresponds to what is known in poker as the “flop,” when three communal cards are dealt face up. They are to be played in combination with each player’s personal cards. The flop is the distinctive feature of the games of Texas Hold ‘Em and Omaha.
The flop both constrains and reveals the potential future strength of each player’s hand. After the flop, further rounds of betting and communal cards ensue. In the present situation, with the West seemingly having received a favorable flop,  a mid-sized, post-flop raise could allow the West to scoop the pot.
But it is unclear whether Western leaders have what it takes to execute this daring, yet calculated play.
Despite the ever-present risk of ruin, iterative high-stakes, non-tournament gambling sessions rarely continue until one adversary goes completely bust. After a few losing sessions, the defeated gambler throws in the towel, acknowledging to himself—if not to the opponents—that he is the weaker player or that he lacks sufficient funds to make a comeback.
Think of how bizarre it would be if in the chitchat between hands of a poker game, one player said, “Hey guys, just so you know, I can’t really afford to play all of my chips, as I need some of this money for my mortgage this month.” This is the kind of conversation you might have privately to reassure your spouse before going to the game, but revealing the constraints of one’s cards or financial position during the gaming session would be a rookie blunder.
Grasping this, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials consistently signal they are willing to play every chip they possess, whenever they see fit—even going all-in. This is why it is essential that almost all current and former Ukrainian senior politicians were seen publicly to be risking their own lives by staying to defend Kyiv.
If the West continues to publicly signal fears and constraints—despite likely being ahead—U.S. and European leaders could fail to showcase genuine resolve.
This demonstration of collective resolve has already allowed them to play their smaller stack of chips highly effectively. When former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on CNN on March 28 that the fight will continue until “the last Russian soldier will be killed in Ukraine or when the last Ukrainian defender will be killed,” he was signaling commitment but not being literal. Just as he should.
Conversely, if the West continues to misunderstand the stakes and dynamics of this poker game—publicly signaling fears and constraints, despite the West likely being ahead—U.S. and European leaders could fail to showcase genuine resolve, hampering their ability to drive the conflict to the best off-ramp.
Given this strategic context, the West needs to channel the lessons of winning poker players. Arkadiy Tsinis, a Ukrainian-born World Series of Poker champion, agrees that Putin’s present strategy incorporates both bluffing and role-playing. When I spoke with Tsinis during a break in our high-stakes backgammon session, he felt the West had yet to call Putin’s bluff, “as the sanctions primarily harm ordinary Russians, while Putin and his inner circle do not care about losing their chips: Russian soldiers.”
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Given recent military developments, Tsinis argued that the time was ripe for careful threats and escalations from the West. He prefers a conventional escalation. “If we call Putin’s bluff and provide long overdue top-grade weapons to the Ukrainians, Putin will be forced to acknowledge that he is not merely repositioning his troops, but in all-out retreat with ​no long-term chance to win this war. He will have to permanently abandon his agenda of gobbling up sovereign countries.”
When I asked if he was afraid of provoking a nuclear war, he answered: “During the height of the pandemic, Putin had people wear hazmat suits in order to meet him. Nowadays, he sits 20 feet away at meetings even with his own inner circle. He wants to live. He is only playing the role of being macho. He respects force and aggression. Now, with the Russians having retreated from Kyiv, the moment has come for us to push him around with our deeper stack and watch him squirm.”
Essentially, Tsinis interprets Putin as fundamentally terrified of losing his seat at the poker table, but willing to temporarily adopt a devil-may-care attitude because he thinks it is most likely to outfox his adversaries. Against this type of paper tiger opponent, a bold, unexpected raise from a position of strength may elicit a dramatic fold.
According to Tsinis, Putin does not care about losing specific chips as he has lost so many (Russian soldiers and money) already, but he is terrified of losing his seat at the table (i.e. his life or his position in the Kremlin). In fact, faced with a conventional escalation where Russian forces become overmatched, Putin might conclude he is simply drawing dead—which in poker terms means that there are no possible future communal cards that could help him make a winning hand.
When players fear they might be drawing dead, there are only three ways the hand can end: continue to bluff even though you presume you are losing, hoping the opponent will misread your actual position and fold; give up immediately to avoid further losses; or play the hand to its conclusion, risking yet more chips along the way hoping your opponent’s hand turns out to be weaker than you estimated. Tsinis’s analysis explains why Putin might resort to further bluffs; it also suggests why the West should utilize its offensive resources aggressively to signal that it genuinely has a strong hand, knows that Putin’s is weak, and that NATO allies will not succumb to further bluffs.
History’s greatest military theorists suggest that aggression, surprise, and audacity are the fundamental characteristics of a winning commander. Former French leader Napoleon Bonaparte and former U.S. Army Gen. George Patton famously quoted Prussian King Frederick the Great’s aphorism, “de l’audace, encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace” (or “audacity, more audacity, and ever more audacity”), while the West’s greatest military theorist, Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz, wrote, “There are cases in which the greatest daring is the greatest wisdom.”
A centrist and aging U.S. president who has repeatedly committed the poker player’s gravest sin of saying what military tools the United States will not employ, may seem an unlikely man to act daringly. Yet U.S. President Joe Biden has recently shown that he may be gradually morphing into the man of the hour.
In poker, it is never advisable to tell one’s opponents during the middle of a hand, “Given the risks, I won’t ever go all-in.”
Initially, Biden shocked the world by sharing covert intelligence. Then, he said out loud what everyone else thought in private: that Putin must leave power. He recently brought out the rhetorical big guns with inspirational quotes from both Pope John Paul II and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in a speech in Warsaw, Poland. Now might be the time to bring out the cyber big guns and lay down a bold ultimatum or two.
Tsinis’s suggestion of inserting massive sophisticated weapons on the Ukrainian side or Zelensky’s suggestion of a NATO no-fly zone present major escalatory risks, and their optics could make Putin more popular inside Russia, where he could then claim to be fighting the entire Western world—whereas cyberattacks won’t have this effect. However, I agree with Tsinis and Zelensky that even a no-fly zone shouldn’t be taken off the table. Neither should introducing sophisticated U.S. tanks and planes. In poker, it is never advisable to tell one’s opponents during the middle of a hand, “Given the risks, I won’t ever go all-in.”
Western leaders should keep their genuine fears to themselves and issue coherent ultimatums concerning future escalations. They should also probe Russia’s weaknesses, trying to catch Putin unaware—possibly employing major offensive cyber operations or massive asset seizures from heretofore unsanctioned Russian entities. It would seem foolish to keep such measures in reserve while innocent Ukrainians are killed every day.
The sad truth is that a couple of months ago, audacious deterrence, stealthy Western cyber aggressions, and craftily worded ultimatums could have saved countless Ukrainian lives and trillions of dollars of damage to the global economy.
Today, calculated aggression may still avert a future catastrophic miscalculation by showcasing that the West—which is erroneously perceived by Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and other adversaries as weak and beleaguered—can still act with calculated aggression. Or in the words of a Ukrainian poker champion: “The West has to call Putin’s bluff and save innocent lives by providing daring military or cyber help immediately, despite Ukraine not being a NATO member. If we play our cards right, Putin is simply drawing dead.”
Jason Pack is the author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder, a senior analyst at the NATO Foundation, and is the 2018 World Champion of Doubles Backgammon.
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