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Nuance is such a bother sometimes...

March 9, 2022

This past weekend was spent with friends from high school (Class of 1976) on a friend’s hobby farm in Southampton. We busied ourselves tapping maple trees, collecting wood, building a fire, and waiting for sap that only seriously began to run after three of us had left for home. We didn’t watch the news for two days, shouted at the TV throughout a Maple Leafs game, got caught up on families, and played some cards. This is an annual event, typically involving 6-8 attendees.

With just four of us in attendance this time, we were able, for the first time in almost 20 years, to play Risk, The Game of Global Domination. Of interest, the territory most fought over was Ukraine… where I amassed the entirety of my forces and just sat there waiting. I did try to broker a deal with the West, but alas, the West was not interested and nothing came of it.

Risk is a long game. It can literally take all night to reach a conclusion. It’s a war of attrition. As such, it’s a very simple game with little room for nuance. This is, perhaps, why it holds great appeal for the male of our species. While there are strategies and tactics, the endgame is always the same and always very simple. Zero-sum games can have only one winner. To win, you must defeat every other player and control the entire world.

As we navigated through this rather inconsequential game, I got to thinking. How is this board game like the real world? How is it not like the real world?

The more I considered these questions, the more challenging they became. We don’t live in a zero-sum game, though all political narrative tends to point in that direction. Our world is one of great nuance, complex beyond the capabilities of mainstream media.

Here’s the thing. It’s even more complex when the greatest of powers are paradoxically invested in convincing us that the world is much simpler than it is.

Ideologies are held up as wartime platforms by all participants. Opposing forces are demonized. This demonizing is key to the narrative. Narrative, to be successful, must be simple. Demons are the most simple servant of any successful world-view narrative. The consumer public has no appetite for complexity. Nuance creates doubt, and doubt is unacceptable. Keep it simple and give me labels that I can understand, pigeon-hole, and root for or against.

I wish it were that easy, but it’s not. Bear with me as I set the stage (thanks to Wikipedia et al) for nuance in our current world, at least, as I see it.

So… what does this tell us? Russia has definitely not invaded Ukraine for its wealth.

That’s a huge comedown.

What would be the economic value of pasting together the 15 former Soviet republics? Is there anything there?

My point? Well, my point is that, on the face, Russia appears to pose no substantial economic threat… to any major Western economies. Germany, the UK, France, and Italy are all larger. Even Spain has almost as large an economy as Russia. So, what gives?

Is it the nuclear threat? Does anyone truly believe that Putin will push the button? Is the new narrative true? Has he lost his mind as some say? If yes, then we would be justified to step in and take corrective action, right… ??? Narrative is, indeed, the operative word in my journey today. More on that in a moment.

More facts to consider:

Interesting, eh?

The plot thickens:

What about oil?

How do you like the nuance so far?

Do I have to say that there’s more to the Russia/Ukraine conflict than meets the eye?

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m no fan of Vladimir Putin. If I were a betting man, I’d guess that, one way or another, he won’t be long in control at the Kremlin. Trust me. I’ll shed no tears when he goes.

I believe that Russian forces will be removed or repelled from Ukraine… or at least from most of Ukraine. Realistically, I should add that I won’t be surprised if the Donbas region of Ukraine falls under Russian control, but I don’t see Putin taking over the entire country. There’s no purpose in it and the costs of doing so would be prohibitively high. You can bet that Putin remembers Afghanistan in the 1980s.

I do not believe that Putin hopes to re-create a modern-day version of the Soviet Union. It just doesn’t make any economic sense. That empire has crumbled. Russia, itself, is a pale shadow of its former self in economic terms. I see that argument as just one more simple side street in a deceivingly complex narrative.

Aside from its possession of nuclear weapons, Russia is no longer a major world power. What remains is a resource-dependent economy, on which Putin relies for rebuilding whatever stature he can make of this weakened nation. 60% of Russia’s economy is resource based. Energy products dominate. As energy prices rise and fall, so does the Russian economy. What are you paying for gas at the pump today? Hmmm…

I don’t see Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as designed to liberate the Russian-speaking population in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. That’s just one line from his chorus of dueling narratives.

I also don’t buy the Western narrative about evil empires and communism. Just as the West does not really export democracy, Russia does not export communism. Nobody’s buying communism anymore anyway. That’s just another distracting bogeyman in support of the Western narrative.

So what’s it all about, then? Right or wrong, I see this conflict as mostly about economics. The East/West narrative, from my perspective, is an easy and convenient way to do battle with a key competitor. I find it fascinating that commentators and spin doctors continue to make the case that we need to impose economic sanctions to protect against the spread of Putin’s ideology.

As I see it, the reverse is true. Call me cynical but economics, not ideology, is the endgame. Ideology is just the narrative employed to achieve economic ends.

As I see it, the past 30 years has seen an antiquated ideology argument put forward in the effort to isolate and neutralize what is arguably the most resource-rich nation in the world.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Russia has tried repeatedly to strike market deals with the European Union, and has done so with a modicum of success. Russia has never known democracy and we have used that ideology argument to prevent them from playing a full part in the world economy. By no means do I excuse Putin’s behaviour. What he is doing now in Ukraine is absolutely unacceptable. At the same time, if I’m backing up a few steps to take in the wide angle view, I can see that his behaviour is, in part, explained by our behaviour.

As I look around, though, I see a number of our key trading partners with more oppressive regimes than that of Russia. Why have we not played hardball with them, I ask?

I’m afraid that a major consequence of our behaviour is the creation of strategic bedfellows out of Russia and China. Historically, this is not a friendly pair of nations. Nonetheless, China is a huge consumer of resources. Russia is a huge source of resources. Already poised to become the world’s largest economy within a few years, China may springboard quickly to the lead by taking advantage of Russia’s current isolation.

The dynamic in the board game, Risk, sees one player manoeuvring their way near to total victory, only to find the world coalescing in opposition to bring them down again. Equilibrium returns… until a new force emerges in the attempt to dominate. Rinse and repeat. Looking at the world as a board game, Russia is currently a minor player, little more than a distraction. We’ve taken our eyes off of China, and will pay dearly for doing so. By isolating and neutralizing a once-great adversary, the past 30 years has set that adversary up to become the resource supply pantry for China, a much more serious contender for global domination.

I’m a big fan of democracy, and believe that we should continue to aspire toward eventually attaining democracy. This work-in-progress is a grand and great experiment that rises and falls with the times. Being entirely honest with myself, however, I see two significant shortfalls of democracy as we know it.

The first is special interest groups. When something dramatic happens in the world, somebody gets rich. When elected representatives are beholden to deep-pocket sponsors, decisions are made that don’t necessarily serve the interests of the general population. But that’s a topic for another day.

The second shortfall is the relatively short time horizons facing our elected leaders. I don’t have an answer for this one, but it’s a big problem. The fate of the board game, and with it the fate of the world, will hinge on our capacity to see past our noses… past the next election cycle. We in the West think and act in four and five year cycles. The Chinese think in centuries. While it may seem that some of our elected representatives have been in office for centuries, it’s clear by the current state of the world that they do not take the long view.

We are now paying big time for our greedy, zero-sum short-sightedness and may eventually collapse on ourselves as a result. The world is not a zero-sum game. The pie can get bigger. You don’t have to lose in order for me to win.

I generally don’t have much time for shoulda-coulda-woulda, but what we should have done 30 years ago was to freshly clear the table and try to work with the Russians as they sought to find a new path and define a new place for themselves in the community of communities. Think Germany and Japan in the years following 1945. We got it right then. Why could we not see past our animus for the former Soviet Union and discover the opportunity for productive and peaceful creation of a new world community?

The European Union is the third largest economy in the world, after the United States and China. Competition for that market is understandably intense.

I see the invasion of Ukraine as just one piece in a very risky negotiating strategy. Call me naïve, but I see Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as no more, and no less, than the acquisition of a bargaining chip, in hopes of pushing back against NATO’s progressively tighter circle of military bases. In Putin’s mind, Ukraine as a NATO member (which I really cannot see happening in my lifetime) represents both the elimination of a buffer for Russia against NATO bases, and an impediment to Russian access to the European market. Russia needs to participate in the European market to survive, let alone thrive.

When we look back on this episode, as we must for any crisis, it will be incumbent on us to ask and answer: Where did this problem come from? How can we prevent it from happening again? What role did we in the West play in the creation of Vladimir Putin? For me, these are critical questions that must be addressed, sooner rather than later.

The punishing 1919 Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II. Please let’s not set the stage for a third world war. Please let’s not repeat the 1959 debacle that pushed Castro into the arms of Nikita Khrushchev. Please let’s not repeat our reaction to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. What a missed opportunity for world peace that was. Please let’s not push Putin into the arms of Xi Jinping. Oops! Too late for that. The deed is already done.

Instead, let us ask how, if at all, we can reach out to Russia, post-Putin, in hopes of creating a more cooperative competition (coopetition, I call it) for world markets, without feeling obliged to spend large portions of tax revenues on military. Our military industrial complex is fully committed to the notion that, if you don’t grow, you die… and for you to grow, somebody else must die. To grow in the military business, you need enemies and, if necessary, you must create enemies. Our current operating model appears to create enemies out of anyone who stands between us and our markets or between us and our sources of energy. I wonder now if renewable energy could help to cure our aggressive tendencies. I better stop there before another 5,000 words spew out.

Chekhov’s gun is very much in play here. You can bet that Vladimir Putin is intimately familiar with Chekhov’s gun. If in the first Act, you hang a rifle on the wall, before the end of the play, that rifle must come down, and that rifle must be discharged. My question of the day is: Can we make the removal of that gun from the wall the very purpose of our play rather than the instrument of its tragic ending.

Oh and… let’s imagine for a moment that the current Russian/Ukraine crisis can be resolved without any nuclear buttons being pushed… China is still on the line, waiting patiently for the rest of us to blow each other’s brains out. Another story. Another day.

Oh and… in my weekend game of Risk, the dominant player got worn out and abandoned the war (to wit, our host, Steve, went to bed at 1:30 a.m.). Ukraine, the weakest player throughout, held on patiently and in the end, won the day.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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