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The Russians Play Chess

...and the Americans play monopoly. A disturbing and depressing essay from Spengler.

Is there an enlightened solution for Russia's problems?


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Jim Oberg wrote:

Yeah, yeah, I've heard the 'Russians play chess' (or 'soccer', or 'go', or any such transparent game) for my whole life.

Well, the world is not chess. The players are not all visible and their powers are not constant.

The world is more a combination of poker and football. Sneakiness and surprise, agility and force, dominate deep thinking and planning ahead.

Ask George Patton. Or Ronald Reagan.

The most common phrase heard from the lips of our enemies, for generations, after "Oh, S**T!", is "I just can't believe it!"

narciso wrote:

Chechnya & Afghanistan, suggest their chess set a little for wear. He's right about Russia being an Empire; (consider that some of the most notable imperialists, like Zhirinovsky,new kingmaker Gen.
Nagovitsyn were born in Kazakhstan) Lermontov, writing in 1840, about matters in the Caucasus 50 years trying to clean up after the interventions by Yermolov; who founded Gronzny "the Fortress"
which they destroyed 200+ years later.

Candide wrote:

The Russians Play Chess ...and Americans play American Football. So don't worry, there is no contest.

ken anthony wrote:

Stupid Americans. Russia is in decline so they have a right to be evil. Uh, huh.

serr8d wrote:

OT, but did you know your RSS feed isn't working? I tried to subscribe this morning, tried with both the atom and the RSS feeds (to my g00gle reader) and the latest post available is dated May 17, 2008.


Oh, and Garry Kasparov should've been the current Russian president.

Orville wrote:

The US Military is probably one of the few forward thinking organizations in America today. Certainly big business is focused on the here and now, as are most politicians whose only real interest is staying in office. Certainly Joe Sixpack is not thinking long term as witnessed by his tremendous debt load and lack of savings.

It's not about chess vs. football, it's about living for today vs. planning for tomorrow (or the next decade).

Rand Simberg wrote:

Yes, I'm aware of the RSS problem. I'm not aware of what to do about it.

Jack wrote:

The sense of "Russia is in a demographics crisis therefore it can do what it wants" in the article is most troubling.

From the Article:
"My proposal is simple: Russia's help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the "Orange" revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia's assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia's existential requirements in the near abroad. Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev."

Not sure I agree with this interpretation here. He makes it sound like the fate of the Ukraine is mostly the US's responsibility. Shades of "Peace in our Time" and the UK "allowing" Hitler to take parts of Europe.

Also absent from the analysis is China.
China is doing a similar process of "Hanization" on its Western (Eastern for Russia) borders in central Asia.
The advantage China has is people. They encourage mass emigration to countries in China's "near abroad" to ease China's overpopulation and make those countries more friendly and more controlled by Chinese interests.

Russia does not have a population it can export in this manner as they have the opposite population crisis of Russia.

Bill White wrote:

I found the article to be an intelligent assessment of where we stand.

I also offer this passage:

One irony of the present crisis is that Washington's neo-conservatives, by demanding a tough stance against Russia, may have harmed Israel's security interests more profoundly than any of Israel's detractors in American politics.

Do we face the choice of either working to ally with Russia or risking Russia becoming more allied with Iran. Which route would be better for Israel?

Of note: In late 2007 it appears Israel canceled the sale of Merkava tanks to Georgia apparently not wanting to antagonize Russia (which can potentially supply Iran with far more weapons than they are already doing.)

Brock wrote:

A disturbing and depressing essay from Spengler.

Is there any other kind?

Spengler is an interesting read occasionally, but you can't take anything he says too seriously. For instance, he brushes up against but misses Russia's real reason for invading Georgia and seeking control there - habit. The Russian Empire has been expanding from Moscow for centuries, so this is just a continuation of the pattern. They overstretched in the 20th Century and have since retreated, but that's ebb and flow, not a change of heart. They continue to expand their geographical control because "it's what they do." It doesn't make sense to an outsider, but neither does the market share fixation of the Detroit automakers. Occasionally cultures just get fixated.

As a point of comparison, why hasn't America invaded Mexico recently? We used to occasionally, but the culture has changed. There could be quite a few benefits to invading Mexico, but from our point of view: why bother? Just set up NAFTA and buy their stuff. That's the American way. It's the Russian way to invade and build a road to Moscow (the Third Rome). It's the Chinese way to invade the near (and import lots of Han people) and to establish China Towns in the far (and import lots of Han people). It's the Japanese way to stay at home and make sure no one else moves in either. It's just what the culture is comfortable with, and stands apart from strategic interests.

If some nations are more successful than others over the length of history it's because their national habits are more sustainable and pro-growth. The most successful system is the British/American one (it's the only one that provides Malthusian escape velocity), but the Chinese system works almost as well. Russia's is unsustainable, but not because of their habit of conquest - they need to pair it with demographic and economic dynamism.

Saladman wrote:

Granting for the sake of argument Spengler's point that Russia has no choice except empire or dissolution. If -and its a big if- we have the capacity and will to play the game, I'm not convinced we shouldn't play to win, and therefore play for Russia's failure and destruction.

Mark Steyn has pointed out the moral and practical devastation inflicted on countries left behind the iron curtain under communist rule. This is the very nature of the demographic problem Spengler describes, but it also afflicts the late Soviet Unions' satellite and client states. Often leaving some behind may have been necessary, but it was also influenced by US state department and diplomatic class worship of the chimera of a stable status quo. But it turns out, we have seen, that status quos are rarely stable and not necessarily favorable.

Personal and economic liberty are both morally and materially superior to coercion, contributing to health, prosperity and peace.

Now Russia is playing for a new iron curtain, not explicitly communist but still oppressive. And the self-declared "realist" approach is to surrender incipient free markets and democracies (however flawed) to the rule of autocrats, KGB agents and ethnic cleansers. Well and good for peace in our time, but what are these regions going to look like in the future?

If Russia is still in an irretrievable death spiral a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a century after the October Revolution, what will greater Russia look like in a generation? In a century? And even accepting the human cost of their conquest and rule, is there any reason to expect that state of affairs to be either stable or in our national interest?

Dick Eagleson wrote:

It appears that Russian Imperialism is like tetanus - it can be warded off, but requires a booster shot periodically. Unlike tetanus, the only innoculation that seems to take is a bit of the "live virus," as it were. As the last dose administered was nearly 30 years ago in Afghanistan, I suppose a fresh dose was well overdue.

Well, Georgia took the needle and we now have Europe suffering a bit of sharp pain and modest swelling around the injection site. One hopes this will prove sufficient to stimulate the necessary level of antibodies to ward off more serious future infection. Present-day Russia, for all of its new-found oil wealth, has less than half the population of the old Soviet Union and even this is decreasing by anywhere from 400,000 to upwards of a million per year depending upon which source you favor.

The long-term solution for the new imperial ambitions of Russia is the same as what worked against the old imperialism of the late Soviet Union - cordon Russia off as best we are able, then maintain a convincing cold stare across the barbed wire until the twin cancers of social dysfunction and depopulation eat the Rodina hollow from within.

I don't hold out much hope that the fat, stupid and similarly dying countries of Western Europe will flog up any great enthusiasm for such a project at this late date; their multi-generational going out of business sale is, I think, too far along to be reversed. The best we can probably hope for from the likes of France and Germany - even under Sarkozy and Merkel - is best wishes and a willingness to stay out of the way.

The nations of the former so-called Warsaw Pact, however, are still mainly populated by citizenries with living memory of what Russian occupation was like. I think they're up for Cold War 2: The Sequel. I propose a new Warsaw Pact - or even a Kiev Pact - consisting of the United States, the U.K., if they're willing, and all of the nations of the former Warsaw Pact, plus the new European republics that were formerly part of the old Soviet Union. This alliance should be separate from, and have no command structure in common with, NATO. The continental Western Europeans have proven of barely marginal help in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't get to play or to vote in this new organizaton.

The former Soviet colonies - excluding Central Asia - have an essentially contiguous land mass, a total population of 185 million and a total GDP of $2.5 trillion. Russia has a population of 140 million and a GDP of a bit under $2.1 trillion. Even were they to formally reacquire Belarus and the Central Asian "Stans" and pull in Serbia as well, those numbers only climb to 229 million and $2.55 trillion. Even without the U.S. and U.K. we have an essentially even match here.

Retaliatory violence against Russia would be counterproductive and, in the long run, unnecessary. Natural causes will finish Russia in due course if we simply keep them bottled up long enough.

Carl Pham wrote:

I'm sorry, but that is an incoherent and unimaginative essay. First, we begin with the uncomprehension of Russia and Russian leaders, where he quotes Vladimir Putin as saying "I'll never trust them again." Not only is the quote out of character for Putin, it's out of character for a Russian leader. It sounds like something an American leader would say, without, of course, meaning it any more than the Russian would. Even if you knew nothing about Russians, the remark is logically inconsistent with his major thesis: if the Russians are such practioners of realpolitik as he makes out, then why in heck would personal trust be a major factor in Putin's decisions? Personal trust is obviously not a component of a cynical, chess-like Machiavellian leadership style.

Then he goes on to talk about Russian "fighting" against demographic disaster (and, he could have added, economic barbarism, insane levels of alcoholism and personal safety neglect, and ecological disaster -- google "Aral Sea" for an eyeful). As if these problems just magically descended on Russia from nowhere and aren't actually, every one of them, problems directly caused by Russia's 'clever' leaders.

I stopped reading at that point. If the Russians are "playing chess" then, historically speaking, they have an unparalleled ability for checkmating themselves, even when they're nominal opponent isn't trying very hard.

I don't see reason to doubt this conclusion while watching the latest trick in Georgia. Was that clever? I don't think so. What did Putin get? He got a tiny province of cultural Georgians with Russian genes, who have now tasted the pleasures of liberty -- not going to take marching orders from Moscow too well, are they? -- and are going to be a pain in the ass going forward.

And all he had to give up was: Polish and Ukrainian public opinion against closer alliance with the United States, including forward-basing American military assets within mere miles of the Russian border, the possibility of being booted out of the G-8, giving up all his leverage over the international response to Iran, and thoroughly alarming the Europeans over their source of oil, presumably leading them to support strongly such things as the new pipeline through Georgia.

Oh that's brilliant. Worthy of Daffy Duck, I'd say. Let's try that again, shall we? Thrust, parry, thrust...

narciso wrote:

You would think they would have gotten a clue from their previous experience in a mountainous province of the Caucasus; Chechnya. They've stabilized the situation now, by basically turning a local warlord, Kadyrov, into a puppet, Than again the same thing could have been said in 1858, 1865, (the first mass deportation of Chechens,) 1921, 1932, under the Soviets, well you get the idea. The citation from Lermontov in 1840 suggests how impermanent such measures are. The local strongman, Gen. Nagovitsyn, a Soviet "Mad Bomber" type in the mold of LeMay and Powers, was never deployed in either Afghanistan or Chechnya.

Jonathan wrote:

My proposal is simple: Russia's help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the "Orange" revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia's assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia's existential requirements in the near abroad. Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev.

This prescription seems similar to the course of action we have tried to take with China vs. North Korea, except that we didn't have to abandon Taiwan to do it. Even if Spengler's appeasement prescription could be effective -- highly uncertain, since such a show of weakness on our part could easily convince Russia that there was no need to cooperate with us on Iran or elsewhere -- the price seems very high to reach an outcome that we might achieve on our own.

tom wrote:

A modest proposal:

I just don't see what the problem is with allowing Russia to collapse from within. Spengler's take seems to be that the West should aid, or at least not work against Russia's efforts to stem its demographic suicide by allowing trickles of Russian expats and Russified ex-soviet citizens to stem the outflow from mother Russia, apparently in the theory that this will prevent an Islamization of Russia.

Perhaps we must contemplate any number of grim scenarios in aiding this effort and holding sand in our hands. But rather than brutally forcing all the countries on the periphery to help Russia stem its own demographic problems, why doesn't Russia solve its own problem? There's a simple solution that doesn't involve war or even any external country.
Russia could simply outlaw abortion and make contraception much more difficult. Within a year or two Russia's demographics would reverse.

Brock wrote:

I just thought of another problem with Spengler's article: the Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine and Belarus are crashing in population just as quickly as the Russian Federation. Acquiring their territory would do NOTHING to help the problem Spengler thinks Russia is trying to solve.

Candide wrote:

There is a lot of ignorance about Caucasus affairs and a lot of misplaced idealisation of Georgian politics on display here. But I suppose that is as it should be...

Anyway, one possible leverage we can extract from this incident is that next time we have our own peacekeepers stationed in some shithole and some local 'Champion of Democracy' fires a shot in their direction, we can hit back with reckless abandon and then point finger at the Russians and say, "Hey, they did it too!" Wouldn't that be nice for a change, huh?

Carl Pham wrote:

next time we have our own peacekeepers stationed in some shithole and some local 'Champion of Democracy' fires a shot in their direction, we can hit back with reckless abandon and then point finger at the Russians and say, "Hey, they did it too!"

Christ, are you under the impression that the affairs of nations bear a strong resemblance to a grade-school playground? That there exists some Mighty One somewhere supervising all this -- the playground teacher, or a parent -- and he who demonstrates the most moral consistency and righteousness wins?

Think again. Moral rectitude and $3 will get you a coffee at Starbucks, and that's about it's entire worth on the international stage. What counts is what has always counted: general economic heft, any peculiar economic interdependencies, control of strategic resources, and general military strength and competence. Everything else is noise and fluff.

ken anthony wrote:

As I read this account it reminds me of something my 3rd grade once told me, "the object of chess is not to exchange pieces but to control the game."

Yes, they are playing chess with Georgia, but it's only a pawn.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on August 21, 2008 8:27 AM.

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