Russia has the trump card over the West
International politics could be likened sometimes to a poker game, in which players (i.e. states) mostly use their abilities, rather than their chances to beat others. Even if in the real game of the poker chance is an essential part to have a winning hand, bluffing is also an important feature that could bring wins to weak hands. As a result of insufficient information about other players’ hands, all players try to figure out their opponents’ cards from their behaviors and actions, as well as their own hands. To take advantage of the game, a player needs good instincts and observation capabilities to recognize trends in other player’s seemingly random actions, an ability to create an effect of calmness (i.e. a “poker face”) independent from the hands obtained, and finally a good strategy and understanding of the game to bet, call, raise or fold when appropriate. In other words, poker is an example of a zero sum game with imperfect information that necessitates multiple level thinking.
The tug-of-war between Russia and the West over Eurasia could be analyzed within the logic of a poker game. After several rounds, Russia has now taken advantage of the game by annexing Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea. The West, in return, is trying to raise the stake through sanctions and condemnation, even though threatening Russia with these moves before the invasion was inadequate.
Each player in the Ukrainian game has already signaled its future moves, whether bluffing or not; and as they are also acutely aware of the risk of raising the bet, each also tries to show an outward calmness while waiting to see the other’s hand (i.e. action).
Coming to the real game; the tension is still high between Russia and the West due to continuing Russian military activity near the Ukrainian border, even though Russian authorities state they have no intention to cross the border and will gradually withdraw troops. Both sides, at the same time, are seeking ways to ease the tension. After the phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama on March 28, the foreign ministries of both countries met in Paris on March 30 to discuss diplomatic options. We can guess the result of the meeting from NATO’s foreign ministers’ decision on April 1 to suspend all civilian and military cooperation with Russia.
Russia still does not recognize the new government in Kyiv, insists on a federal solution for Ukraine, and keeps 40,000 troops on the border. In response, the West considers the Russian take over in Crimea illegitimate and tries to enhance the Ukrainian government through aid-packages. The IMF agreed to give a loan to Ukraine worth $14-18 billion last week, while the U.S. will provide $1 billion.
While both sides still stay in the game and plot their future moves, Russia knows its hand is stronger than the U.S. Condemning the Russian annexation with a non-binding resolution at the U.N. General Assembly is a symbolic move. The sanctions, on the other hand, rarely work in international affairs. Besides, Russia is aware of the reluctance of the U.S. and inability of the EU to go further.
Russia has called all of the West’s bluffs since the beginning of the crisis and has continuously strengthened its hand by raising the stakes by threatening to invade more of Ukrainian territory and even beyond. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has stressed Russia’s determination to protect the rights of “Russian citizens” in its proximity abroad. To Western ears, this sounds like alluding to as far as Moldova and Kazakhstan, in addition to eastern Ukraine. The West should understand, as in the game of power, in addition to luck and having a poker face, you need a concrete strategy to stay ahead of Russia in the game.