The Chessmaster

Pawn takes D5 is the closing move of the reputed “French Defence” in chess.  The maneuver allows the disadvantaged black-side player, who, going second, is condemned to respond to his white-playing opponent, to take the lead.

In the game of geopolitics, players are also divided by a color of sorts.  Similar to chess, geopolitical games do not determine who is morally right; there is no ethical high ground in this game.  The great Russian chessmaster, Vladimir Putin, barricaded behind his black bishops and rooks, waits patiently for the turn that will give him the advantage.

Anyone who cares to look can see that developments in the Ukraine are of existential importance to the Russian people.  Russia, as its tragic literary figures have often reminded us, is a garden for the soul and the Russian state is, above all, a spiritual construct—and President Putin a spiritual figure.  With his approval rating topping 80 percent in Russia, Vladimir Putin represents the hopes for self-realization for not only his people, but also for his “BRICS” developing country allies.

Without a doubt, the West faces an obsolete opponent: a Bismarckian figure wielding outdated 19th century concepts like: the enforcement of policy through force, national and cultural unity, religious morality, authoritarian centralism, popular support, and export-oriented economic policies.  Putin is everything the West abhors, everything we have abolished in our democracies.

Many in the press cite Putin’s career in the KGB to support claims that he is on the road to restore the Soviet Union, thus resuscitating the ideological tensions of the Cold War.  It is back to liberalism versus communism.  However, these analysts and commentators fail to see beyond their cliché jingoism that Putin does not represent an ideological alternative.  He is a figure of liberalism.

Putin’s Russia is a market economy, dominated by large equity exchanges and run by oligarchs. The country’s political system is a presidential-parliamentary mix based on a federal framework and monitored elections.  Despite all the hype from the LGBT community in Russia, there are no legal penalties for homosexuality in Russia, merely a cultural rejection of the practice.  Putin’s Russia, in short, is not very different from our Western democracies and often faces the same challenges.

What, then, is the true role of Vladimir Putin on this chessboard and why is he a threat to the West?

Answering these two questions is fundamental if we want to achieve a modus vivendi with Russia.  Putin, although employing 19th century methods, still seeks to achieve the modern liberal goals of increased investment, accumulation of capital, good diplomatic relations with his neighbours, and a piece of the Asia-Pacific market.

The last point is critical.

The role that Vladimir Putin plays in global geopolitics is that of the facilitator of the power shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Russia’s closest allies are all Asian economic powerhouses and most of the country’s efforts to spur economic growth are directed at increasing investment in its eastern regions.  Russia, its landmass mostly located on the Asian continent, seeks to become an Asian superpower.

This potentiality gravely threatens Western dominance.  It is common knowledge that we cannot keep up with BRICS economies in terms of productivity, demographics, entrepreneurship, or even ingenuity.  Russia’s contribution to its allies is that last missing economic piece needed for Asian global hegemony: energy security.  There is very little we can do as we anticipate Putin’s “pawn takes D5.”

Black takes the lead.

In this vein, the pivotal role of the Ukraine is more easily understood.  Unlike what the Western press says, the Kremlin is riddled with Putin opponents and a great number of Russian oligarchs are long-time allies of Western NGOs and Western financial institutions.  A great many have invested portions of their enormous wealth in the UK, notably, but also in many other Western countries. It is very obvious that they stand to lose from a rupture with the West.

Famously branded as the “fifth column,” these oligarchs are the enemies of the Russian state.  The escalation of the conflict in the Ukraine by the West through sanctions will only strengthen Putin, who will use the pretext of imminent economic and diplomatic meltdown to tighten the screws on his wealthy domestic opponents.  Heads will roll and those that remain upon their respective shoulders will quickly rally to the president’s banner.

We must not repeat the mistake of 1990s by not treating Russia as an equal partner and a major geopolitical and economic power.  It is time to assume the implications of the globalization we touted, but did not abide by.  We need to accept that we will not be the global driving force for the decades to come and must see the enormous economic opportunity that lies in a bustling Asia, with or without Russia.


Image Credit: Everything PR

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