Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Biff! Rook to Queen 6. Pow! Knight to Bishop 4. Check. 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10. Checkmate.
This is not some ancient classical martial art; though the combination of physical and mental ability it demands would have appealed to the Greeks, the sport is the product of some of the finest minds of the twenty first century financial sector. Contestants interchange minutes of speed chess with a round in the ring. It’s known as chessboxing.
Its rhythm alternates; furious combat one minute; intellectual strategy the next. Reflection and aggression, balanced in the perfect sport.
Thus Putin in his struggle over Ukraine, far from sticking to geopolitical chess, has woven in an element of pugilism. His diplomatic chess (last week’s letter to Gazprom’s major customers warning of price increases) followed by boxing (the subversion of eastern Ukrainian cities by men who though attired in less perfectly coordinated camouflage than in Crimea, operate in military formation with identical Russian army service rifles and can’t tell the difference between the Kharkiv city hall the city’s opera house).
Imagine if, after the Scottish independence referendum, groups of “pro union” volunteers turned up in Edinburgh with SA 80 rifles and seized the headquarters of Scottish Widows, mistaking it for the Holyrood parliament, and explained their English accents as a product of their education south of the border.
The “deal” in Geneva – about which John Kerry sounded so unconvinced that it appeared to have been concluded at the insistence of those members of the EU who are either timorous or corrupted by the appearance of Russian money – was the latest chess move. It seemed to have forced the Kremlin to change tactics. But, once again, it looks as though he has taken the initiative with two swift jabs: what was almost certainly a staged attack by bogus far right Ukrainians on pro Russian militia in Slovyansk; and an offer to “make it easy” for ex-USSR citizens (i.e., of the Baltic states) to get Russian passports.
His next chess move? To demand another concession in exchange for not sending (regular) troops into Ukraine as peacekeepers, while readying his “little green men” for another round.
Moscow’s chessboxing has allowed Putin to keep the initiative since Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev in February: The West has stuck to chess — the conventional instruments of diplomacy — and has been outmanoeuvred at every turn. It is a grave mistake to treat Putin as though he aspires to be recognised by the rules of the international system. He doesn’t. He wants to up-end them to his and Russia’s benefit.
NATO’s military deployments may, if increased by orders of magnitude, reassure Poland and the Baltic states, but they won’t affect Kremlin policy on Ukraine. Even serious economic sanctions will work too slowly to cause Putin to withdraw his troops (this blog not being hosted at the BBC, there’s no need to echo the Kremlin ’s propaganda that they are all merely “pro-Russian” militants). Their only short term power is as a threat, and he knows we’re unlikely to impose them before regular forces invade Ukraine. Even then, misled by tales of outsize Russian financial influence (Britain, for instance trades three times as much with Ireland or Belgium as with Russia), the EU might still demur.
I wonder what would happen if Washington started being a little creative? Take Syria, where America has acquiesced in Russian backing of Assad. His presidential palaces, or the airfields from which helicopters drop barrel bombs on Syrian civilians, would make excellent targets for a publicly denied air strike or two (his recent use of chlorine gas would provide a pretext should the truth come out). Or, now that America is a major oil producer again, it could release oil from its strategic reserve to lower the price by $10 a barrel or so. That would hurt Russia’s budget, and benefit everyone else’s, while still being high enough to allow Saudi Arabia to produce profitably. If this appears unpredictable, good. Putin could do with being kept guessing. Then, its ability to deter restored, the West might be able to return to the diplomatic chessboard with a chance.