Inspired by the cool-minded, quick-moving Beth Harmon, I decided that at 30-years-old, it’s about time I learned to play chess. So I did. Turns out, I’m no Beth Harmon. Actually, I’m quite bad at chess. I know which direction the pieces are allowed to move, but the most basic adversaries tend to check me in less than 10 minutes. I lost to an 11-year-old in South Africa last week.
What I’ve learned is that the most successful players know how to play not only to their strengths but to their opponents’ weaknesses. They know how to look not just at their next possible moves but how their opponents’ will move their pieces and what opportunities that will create on the board. 32 pieces, 64 squares, almost infinite possible moves. Beautifully simple for its remarkable complexity. And perhaps the best analogy for what we’re seeing play out in Eastern Europe right now.
As anyone who has watched The Queen’s Gambit knows, Russians are frigidly calculating adversaries, and President Vladmir Putin is now putting that on full display.
We know that Putin has dreams of a Soviet future. We know he is ambitious. We know he is merciless. We know he is unpredictable.
What we don’t know is where his most recent moves fall in his overall strategy. In the case of an invasion – Are these actions leading to his endgame? Is he planning to use an invasion to start the largest geopolitical conflict in Europe since WWII? Is his goal conquest?
Or is he holding out for a more devious reason? Is it a game of chicken with the West? A taunt to show that the threat of sanctions doesn’t scare him? A way to sow divisions between the NATO leaders in Europe? Is it meant to provoke some kind of preemptive strike that leads inevitably to conflict?
Many experts say that not even those in Putin’s inner circle can answer these questions. They talk about peace while they move aggressively towards war.
But one thing is abundantly evident: Putin’s shameless embrace of autocracy is a boldfaced challenge to democracies everywhere. His cunning and malicious statecraft is practiced and he knows how to exploit systemic weaknesses in democracies abroad. Regardless of how the current tensions on the Ukraine border either escalate or resolve, Putin has demonstrated for years that he knows how to erode the foundations of democracy. He knows that he doesn’t need to wage a war to beat his opponents. All he needs to do is set the stage for his opponents to beat themselves.
And if we can’t identify the threats to democracy at home…