Putin’s game of ‘chicken’ in Ukraine

Putin is staking everything on his conviction that the west won’t press the nuclear button, says Paul Whiteley. Sanctions will have little short-term impact, and a no-fly zone is of limited use when the major threat comes from ground-based artillery. Is it time for NATO to change tack, and go ‘all in’ against the dictator?

Putin's strategy in Ukraine is now fairly obvious: it repeats what happened in Chechnya and Syria. The Russians lack the forces to occupy and control the major cities by means of Stalingrad-style direct assaults. So they will lay siege to them.

The Russian army is using artillery and indiscriminate bombing to bring them to heel, regardless of the casualties involved. The Kremlin has offered to introduce safe corridors for refugees. But this has not worked well, so much so that some observers think it is a tool of psychological warfare.

Is this a game of chicken?

In trying to understand why Putin launched the invasion in the first place, observers have questioned Putin's mental state. Former UK foreign secretary David Owen has even suggested Putin is taking anabolic steroids, which explains his puffed-up face and growing aggression. But there is a much simpler explanation of what is happening. Putin is currently playing a game of chicken, and up to this point he has been successful.

The term ‘chicken game’ comes from the mathematical study of conflict and cooperation, known as game theory. In the past, scholars have used it to model nuclear confrontation between the superpowers. The name comes from the practice of US teenagers in the 1950s driving their cars headlong at each other to establish who was ‘chicken’ by swerving first. James Dean famously portrayed this in the movie Rebel Without a Cause.

When playing a game of chicken, it can pay to persuade your opponent you are insane

One interesting feature of the game is that it can pay to persuade your opponent that you are insane. To send this message, some participants would throw their steering wheels out of the window to signal that they would not be the first to swerve. Putin is currently doing this by indiscriminately attacking cities. At the same time, he is issuing thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons if the west intervenes.

The consequences of not intervening in Ukraine

If successful, Putin’s strategy will encourage other autocrats to try the same thing. Think, for example, of Xi Jinping claiming Taiwan is going to be reintegrated into China, regardless of its citizens' views.

Success for Putin will also leave NATO’s nuclear deterrence doctrine in tatters because it is based on a strategy of ambiguity about when nuclear weapons will be used. In game theory parlance, the successful invasion of Ukraine by Russia would justify the conclusion that the NATO threat to use these weapons is merely ‘cheap talk’. Abandoning a doctrine of nuclear deterrence which kept the peace during the Cold War will not make western countries safer. Quite the opposite.

Success for Putin will leave NATO’s nuclear deterrence doctrine in tatters

This means that in the future, Putin might be tempted to use overwhelming conventional forces to attack former Soviet satellite states, even though they are members of NATO. If Putin is confident NATO would never use nuclear weapons, he knows the alliance would struggle to counter such an attack with conventional forces. If successful, this would serve to discredit NATO and further Putin's goal of re-establishing the Soviet Union.

Economic sanctions on Russia

Many observers are arguing that the unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia will do the job of deterring Putin. The problem with this is that close to 60% of Russian exports consist of fossil fuels. Europe is heavily dependent on this, and therefore reluctant to make sanctions bite.

China is the largest customer for fossil fuels. It would be easy, therefore, for China to take up the slack in the unlikely event of a European boycott. Sanctions might have a long-term effect, but they are unlikely to deter Putin from destroying Ukraine in the meantime. That said, the US and UK governments, not to mention the EU, have agreed to wean themselves off Russian energy imports. This, together with the financial sanctions has the potential to bring down the Russian economy. But all are agreed that this will take time, which raises the question: how many Ukrainians are going to die before sanctions really make a difference?

NATO strategy

Western nations currently reject direct NATO military intervention, on the grounds that Ukraine is not a NATO member. This is of course true. But it has condemned NATO to stand by and let Russia breach all the conventions built up over many years relating to the territorial integrity of independent nations, dating back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. This treaty ended the Thirty Years' War, a religious conflict which laid waste to much of northern Europe.

NATO is currently pouring weapons into Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. There is also debate about whether to supply fighter jets from Poland. Given the poor performance of the Russian army up to this point, this might be successful. But it is more likely that the Russians will ratchet up indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine for as long as it takes, leaving its cities in ruin and thousands of its people dead.

Could NATO go 'all in'?

A no-fly zone would not help much at this point because most damage to Ukrainian cities is coming from artillery on the ground. As poker players put it, if NATO intervened it would have to go ‘all in’. The Russian army would be no match for an overwhelming strike by joint NATO-Ukraine forces. However, if this happened, the alliance would have to make it clear to the Kremlin that if it resorted to nuclear weapons, the alliance would respond in kind. The experience of nearly fifty years of the Cold War is that Armageddon is prevented by nuclear deterrence. But if one side abandons deterrence out of fear, this stability is likely to disappear.

Given the balance of forces, a NATO attack would free the Ukrainians and very likely bring down the Putin regime

Given the balance of forces, NATO support for the Ukrainians would help to liberate them and it would be likely to bring down the Putin regime. This opens the possibility for Russia to become a prosperous, stable, democratic country for the first time in its history. So the question is: is it time to take on the dictator?

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Paul Whiteley
Paul Whiteley
Emeritus Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex

Paul's research interests lie in electoral behaviour, public opinion, political economy and political methodology.

He is the author or co-author of some 27 books on these topics and more than 100 academic articles.

He was appointed a Fellow of the Academy of Social Science in 2009 and a Fellow of the British Academy in 2012.

Paul is an active blogger and broadcaster, commenting mainly on contemporary British politics.

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3 comments on “Putin’s game of ‘chicken’ in Ukraine”

  1. Paul,
    I agree entirely. As Gary Kasparov observed, Putin plays poker not chess. He is not a strategist but a bluffer. It has been clear from day one of this war that Nato needed to call Putin's bluff by marking a clear red line: any further incursion into Ukrainian territory (beyond Crimea and the disputed, Russian occupied / aligned parts of Lugansk and Donetsk) will be met by NATO intervention, at the request of the legitimate government of Ukraine, in defence of Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity. Such action would be fully justified by Article 51 of the UN Charter.

    Unfortunately, Putin bluffed and Biden folded.

    If Putin is persuaded by Biden's lack of resolution, then the NATO nuclear deterrent is neutered. Putin can go on threatening and doing as he pleases just so long as we in the West are so cowed by fear of nuclear war that we allow him to do so. We must take the risk of war now to avoid the worse fate of perpetual subservience to more ruthless actors.

    Putin has amply demonstrated his contempt for international law. It is not too late to call his bluff.

  2. It is sad to see that ECPR gives space to an op-ed that reads similar to what we used to read in the US media in the months preceding the infamous Iraq War.

    Paul Whiteley has strong academic credentials for sure, but neither in International Relations nor in Security Studies. He nevertheless publishes this irresponsible piece suggesting that NATO should counter-attack Russia. It seems he ignores what this means in practical terms.

    It is also mesmerizing that Mr Christopher Rootes writes, "Putin has amply demonstrated his contempt for international law". Curiously, no words about Ukrainian disregard for the Minsk Accords. Ukraine's posture led to 14,000+ deaths in the Donbas region.

    Yes, Mr Rootes. Mr Biden is a subpar politicians. His track record speaks volumes about his character. Are you sure you trust Mr Biden? His shady career did not stop the Democratic Party to choose him (not to mention how fishy the primaries ended up being). The world now has to deal with the consequences.

  3. I agree that ”chicken race” is a relevant description of what is going on, although I don’t necessarily agree with the prescription…

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