To end Putin’s war on Ukraine, think like a game theorist

Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Feb. 28, 2022, file photo.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criminal war on Ukraine is an existential threat — to Ukraine, the U.S. and all of Europe. With 6,000-plus nuclear warheads, Putin can end our world as we know it. But doing so would guarantee his immediate demise and that of his generals, not to mention tens of millions of Russians. Russia, like the West, would be rendered a vast, glowing cemetery.

Is Putin that crazy? No one knows. Has he overplayed his hand and is he now looking for an exit ramp? No one knows. Is he serious about recreating the Russian empire, his so-called Mother Russia? No one knows.   

{mosads}All we can do is develop the best strategy in light of the possible scenarios. In recent days, I’ve consulted with several game theorists, including a Nobel Prize winner for work in this field. Game theory is a framework for understanding choice in situations among competing players.

Several specialists felt that the mathematical formalism of game theory was too abstract to provide real direction. Others, particularly Sandeep Baliga, of Northwestern University, and Nobel Laureate Roger Myerson, of the University of Chicago, were eager to discuss alternative responses to Putin.  

Baliga speculated that Putin never intended to invade Ukraine, which in his view explains Russia’s poor military performance thus far. Instead, Baliga believes Putin expected to obtain concessions simply via threatening military action. Baliga also suggested that the sanctions response was well beyond what Putin could have anticipated, in large part because it was voluntary and uncoordinated (e.g., McDonalds pulling out of Russia).  

In any case, Putin’s current strategy appears to be a) hold back his conventional forces and bombard Ukraine into a “negotiated” settlement or b) bombard Ukraine into self-ethnic cleansing in which most Ukrainians flee the country. Under the first scenario, Ukraine would declare permanent neutrality, demilitarize, cede large swaths of Eastern Ukraine, including Crimea, to Russia and languish under Russia’s constant threat of renewed terror. In short, Ukraine would become a vassal state. 

Under the second scenario, tens of millions of Ukrainians escape to the West — a number that NATO nations are hardly prepared to absorb. Note that a Ukrainian insurgency, on which some are counting, would have no impact against Russian conventional and hypersonic missiles fired from thousands of miles away. Under either scenario, Putin would likely consolidate his “achievement” and wait for President Trump’s reelection. At this point, given Trump’s apparent desire to dismantle NATO, Putin could reabsorb the Baltics, Moldova, Finland and most of western Poland — all part of the former Russian Empire.   


Regardless of which scenario is at play, both Baliga and Myerson agreed that more sanctions are needed. Germany and all other NATO members must immediately terminate all imports of gas, oil and anything else from Russia. We should also make clear to China and India that they can either trade with Russia or NATO countries, but not both. 

Germany’s planned construction of its first LNG terminal should be coupled with a decision to return to and expand the use of nuclear power until the crisis is permanently resolved. In addition, Germany could also pledge to blow up the two Russian gas pipelines within weeks if Russia does not cease fire. This would give the Russians an incentive to settle quickly and make clear the likely long-term cost of their aggression.  

The tougher the sanctions, the more incentive Putin will have to cut a face-saving deal, one that could entail the formation of East Ukraine, which would consist of Crimea and the Donbas, a neutral, militarily strong Ukraine, a NATO guarantee to defend Ukraine against future attack by Russia and a critical carrot — the elimination of all sanctions on Russia and Russians. This deal needs to be articulated by President Biden to give both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky political cover. 

From NATO’s perspective, this deal would simply concede something to which it has implicitly agreed — Ukraine will not become a NATO member. Putin would be able to claim he’s protected and extended Mother Russia. And Ukraine would be safe against future Russian aggression. 

The game theorists believe Biden should quickly and publicly lay out the parameters of this deal. But the president should also make clear, as part of the same declaration, that there is a limit to NATO’s tolerance of Putin’s genocide. He needs to make clear immediately that the continued slaughter of Ukrainian civilians will lead to NATO’s intervention.  

A final, paramount point. We need to focus intensively on the worst-case scenario — one where there is no negotiated settlement and the U.S. ends up at war with Russia.

{mossecondads}No one expected we’d go to war with Germany in 1939 when it invaded Poland. But the writing was on the wall (actually in Hitler’s book). He stated in black and white his goals, but few took him at this word. Then, like now, we were dealing with a vicious psychopath with deranged racist views and delusions of grandeur. And, like Hitler, Putin has described in black and white what he’s after — Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland — anywhere that might have or once had a Russian speaker or could be resettled with Russian speakers. 

We must take Putin at his word and closely regard his actions. His use of a hypersonic missile to attack Ukraine sends a message that any interference by the U.S. in Ukraine might, for example, be met with the elimination of all 11 U.S. aircraft carriers in the course of 11 minutes. 

President Biden needs to speak publicly and directly to Putin’s generals and inform them that Russia’s use of unconventional weapons will be viewed by the U.S. as equivalent to a nuclear attack and that they, personally, would be our first targets. Putin may be suicidal, but his generals are likely not. They need to understand in unequivocal terms their need to restrain Putin from actions that will get them killed. 

Laurence Kotlikoff is professor of economics at Boston University and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc.

Tags Adolf Hitler Donald Trump Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin Game theory International relations Joe Biden NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russian irredentism Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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