During the next two days I focused my thoughts on the impending recruitment pitch to Sasha Popov. I wanted the right atmosphere. To drink vodka together or to remain cold sober? I decided on the sober option. I would pitch him in the safe house over a game of chess.
When Sasha played chess with me he insisted now on engaging without any alcohol in his system. He hated to lose, and I had whipped him the first time we’d played because he’d had a snootful of vodka in him. He claimed the booze had affected his judgment. He liked to imagine he was the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky and I was American champion Bobby Fischer. He insisted Spassky would get his revenge. We’d played four or five times, and we were evenly matched. Win some, lose some, and draw.
The above is an excerpt from my novel, CHINA SEA, which will be published in July 2015. This game of chess plays a salient part in the story where American operative, Roy Mancini, attempts to recruit his Russian KGB counterpart, Sasha Popov.
Now fast-forward from that Cold War era to the year 2015. The game of chess could act as metaphor for the tension that currently underpins the relationship between Russia and the United States. Are we experiencing the opening chess moves of a second Cold War?
Let’s identify the three stages of warfare.
The first stage between adversaries could be described as diplomatic warfare. Diplomats meet in places like New York and Geneva to iron out their differences and achieve compromise in conference rooms or over expense account lunches. And we wish them success. The current negotiation between Iran and the United States over the nuclear issue could be described thus.
If no compromise or agreement is reached by diplomacy, then matters may well escalate to the second type of warfare – economic. Economic warfare involves weapons such as sanctions, boycotts and embargoes. The United States engaged in economic warfare against Japan during the months prior to the latter’s attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1941 the United States imposed a near-total embargo on oil shipments to Japan to punish its aggression on the Asian mainland. Iran is being targeted with economic warfare by way of economic and financial sanctions. And the United States and Europe are waging economic warfare now against Russia because of conflicts in the Ukraine and Crimea.
The third and final stage of warfare, when both diplomacy and economic punishment have failed to alter a nation’s behavior, is military. The Pearl Harbor attack serves as a stark example of how suddenly matters can escalate from economic to military warfare. Israel subtly threatens Iran with a military attack in the event economic sanctions fail to achieve Israel’s desired outcome.
The diplomatic route (or the so-called “reset”), is past its shelf life in regard to the current relationship between the United States and Russia. One could argue that this stage was stillborn when the West won the Cold War. Rather than engage Russia as an ally in the “New World Order” of 1991 and “The End of History”, as the US did with Japan and Germany after World War II, NATO signed up Russia’s neighbors from the Warsaw Pact and the Baltics. The concept of a major power’s sphere of influence in regard to Russia was ignored. The West gave the finger to Russia. And the latter was too weak to do much about it. And anyway the country was being run by a boozy Boris Yeltsin. So why take them seriously. Right? Wrong.
The United States and Europe are now waging warfare by way of sanctions against Russia. The danger of an escalation to the military phase is not out of the question. The potential flash points rest squarely in the Ukraine and in the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which are protected by Article 5 of the NATO Agreement.
Russia can be excused for considering these neighboring nations as security buffers. Each of those nations also have significant ethnic Russian minorities. Vladimir Putin has warned with his “Putin Doctrine” during Russia’s annexation of Crimea that he would come to the defense of ethnic Russians wherever they were attacked. As a chess tactic on a world scale, Russia has been able to contrive that “trap” in the Ukraine (not a NATO member and thus not covered by Article 5). If he tries the same gambit in the Baltic nations, an escalation to military confrontation – Russia against NATO – could ensue. The unsettling question: would the conflict be contained to conventional and cyber weapons, or escalate to tactical nuclear weapons?
Pray the moderates on both sides prevail and call the game a draw.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on the sub-plot where Russia plays the China card. A three dimensional chess game indeed.
Mark Twain declared: “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
For an in-depth view on the subject, read Graham Allison and Dimitri K> Simes article in The National Interest titled Stumbling to War.