Russia’s Zugzwang situation: how Chess can describe the current Standoff in Ukraine

That chess is a game where intellect plays a central role is well-known, but that it can accurately describe the realm of international politics, and especially Russia’s conduct on the international arena, is a fact known not by many. 

The recent escalation in the Donbass region is not an exception to this. Russia’s show of strength along the border of Ukraine bothered several heads of states and important politicians belonging to the NATO alliance. The number of troops concentrated in Russian annexed Crimea and in the neighboring with Ukraine Russian regions, namely the Rostov area, reminded of summer 2014,

when during similar “exercises” regular Russian troops along with mercenaries crossed the border to directly assist pro-Russian separatists that were on the verge of being annihilated by Kiev. 

Back then, more than 35000 troops were estimated to be involved in exercises along the border. The recent March-April concentration instead, was said to be around 120000. Not only infantrymen were involved in the complex military training that unfolded, but also the Russian Black Sea fleet left its bases to practice amphibious landings and interdiction activities. Units from all over the country, even the elite 76th Guards Air Assault Division – a highly trained paratrooper division, were involved in the mass training. 

Such huge numbers were explained by Russia’s Defense Minister Shojgu as a response to worrisome behavior of NATO members along its borders. Unofficially, they could have been a way to intimidate Ukraine and obtain concessions. Recent peace efforts failed to stabilize the situation in the Eastern regions of Ukraine and major players are resorting to military force to scare the other off and reach their aims. The Ukrainians commitment to the use of force by moving troops into the conflict zone and by making provoking announcements as the one of Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk regarding the possibility that the country may opt out to restore its nuclear status to defend itself against Russia in case it is not accepted into NATO. 

Russia as the key regulator of the conflict has not obtained guarantees that Ukraine will give a special status to the two unrecognized people’s republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, separatists have seen their dream of joining Russia waning as a pure fantasy and Ukraine has not received any clear answer about the future status of Crimea. 

Showing hundreds of heavy weapons transported on cargo trains without any sort of camouflage, was intended to clearly show the world that Russia is able to move huge numbers of equipment from one part of its immense territory to another and that is ready to meet any escalation that might occur near its borders. 

The Ukrainian President, Zelensky, has visited the front line and his action has shown, similarly, increased commitment to stand off any bold move undertaken by the separatists or their protegee. 

However, as strong as it might see, Russia is in a worrying position. It is called Zugzwang (German) and it means compulsion to move. In chess such a position occurs when a player is obliged to move, that is, he is put in a position of disadvantage as any move will worsen the situation. To make it crystal clear, no move can be undertaken without losing anything. 

In the Russian case, this means that no matter what Putin will do, losses will have to be incurred. The time when significant strategic victories were obtained without any meaningful loss are gone. In 2021, a Crimean scenario is no more realistic. 

The Ukraine of 2014 has gone: its military forces now can field up to 120000 troops and mobilize up to a quarter of a million people, tactical aviation has resurged and new military equipment has been acquired. The material and qualitative advantage of the Ukrainian Army is tenfold with respect to separatists. 

The latter can field approximately 15-20000 soldiers, with a low number of effective mechanized units and no real second defense lines. The majority of them is made up of second wave volunteers and are guided either by veterans of the 2014-5 campaigns or by Russian specialists. Their motivation is expected to be low, in light of their obvious military inferiority and lack of incentives: for what are they expected to lose their lives? The first separatists fought for annexation by Russia, not for the failed ideas of the autonomous region of Novorossiya.

If the Ukrainian part will deem it wise enough to put an end to the division of power in place in the country since 2014, what would be the Russian answer? 

Russia has at least two possible moves, both really costly from different point of views. The first one sees leaving the two people’s republics to their fate and use only a limited force of volunteers to make a resemblance of help. The second, instead, entails entering the Donbass en mass, fight the Ukrainians in the region and try to march towards Kiev to definitely end the impasse. 

The first variant entails a significant moral and ideological cost: the renewed escalation would likely generate a new wave of refugees, fleeing the areas of combat mainly in the direction of Russia. A triumphal victory of Zelensky would spark resentment towards the Russian government and the President in particular, as nationalists will accuse the government of having done nothing for their brothers in Ukraine. National oriented elements in the military or in the elites, pushed also by the refugee pressure, might be tempted to weigh their bets and try to steer policy towards their preferred direction (unite all Russians) by staging a coup. 

In the second case, however, Russia would be engulfed in a bloody war with all the consequences of the case: heavy casualties, economic reorientation, television images showing massive movements of Russian troops crossing the border on each major global broadcast service, UN condemnation, etc. Even if victory prospects are bright for Russia, a Ukrainian defeat would not occur without costs. The threat posed by third-party intervention seems very low indeed, given that Ukraine is nor part of NATO (therefore art.5 of the alliance doesn’t bound her) and the United States will be reluctant to intervene in an area that has always been under Russia’s sphere of influence, and as shown by the Obama administration in 2014, it will limit itself only to a denunciation of the aggression and further economic sanctions. 

Nonetheless, the biggest loss will be in image. The prestige Russia has in the world would be further compromised, the country would experience further isolation and reluctantly Putin would be forced to rely even more on his partnership with the Chinese President Xi. 

This last dynamic prevented him from taking a bolder stand in the Donbass in late 2014. The Russian President must have deemed it better to move in regular troops, without signs should be noted, into Ukraine in late August 2014 than to annex two more Russian regions in the first place via a complex operation in the Crimean style. 

Indeed, the show of force of the last two months ended on the 22nd of April as Shojgu announced that Russia will withdraw troops from the border and that troops will return to their usual areas of dislocation. Zugzwang hits again. Of course, the risks of undetected units entering Ukraine is still presented but the threat of a massive invasion seems to wane and in light of the analyzed dynamics it won’t even make sense. 

To conclude, over the course of the last 7 years, Russia has refused to incur in any additional loss (besides sporadic sanctions coming from the US and the EU) to regulate in their favor the Zugzwang position in which it fell in 2014. The April 22nd announcement by the Russian Defense Minister is one more proof that the country has not taken a final decision. 

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