The simplest definition of game theory is that it is the mathematics of how different actors in a given scenario can act to achieve their own priorities with each actor’s most highly valued priorities having the greatest mathematical impact on their decisions, on down to their lowest priorities which have the least impact.
In general, the value of every risk and opportunity in a game theory scenario is a subjective value unique to each actor because of the tendency of different actors to value the same risks and opportunities differently because of each actor having a different hierarchy of priorities.
One of the many advantages of learning game theory is that if one becomes skilled at it they gain a significantly better ability than average to understand how others in a competitive, cooperative, or mixed competitive-cooperative situation are likely to react in it – and over a wide array of situations, everything from business negotiations to nuclear deterrence to hostage negotiations. It can be used for almost any situation involving decision making. Of course this depends on understanding the thoughts of someone else, which will always be somewhat off because one can never be entirely sure what someone else is thinking. But so long as one is in the ballpark of another actor’s intentions then practicing game theory enhances one’s ability to understand and anticipate the actions of someone else.
One also gains the ability to size up any kind of decision making scenario more rapidly because one will generally better understand how decision making problems are structured.
Understanding this, what can game theory tell us about what Putin’s thinking may be in regards to his threatening Ukraine with a military buildup near their border?
Let’s use game theory to try to think like Putin.
From a game theory perspective the very first thing that stands out is that something is very off about Putin’s request that Ukraine be denied entry into NATO.
The reason this request seems odd is because Putin has already closed off the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO by Russia occupying Crimea and a few other Eastern Ukrainian provinces.
In order for any nation to join NATO they must first not have any ongoing border disputes.
Therefore, it is already impossible for Ukraine to join NATO because Russia currently occupies Ukrainian territory.
Placing ourselves in Putin’s position, it makes no sense to invade more Ukrainian territory in order to block NATO membership because Ukraine’s entry is already blocked.
If one of his main objectives is to prevent Ukraine joining NATO Putin simply needs to continue occupying the parts of Ukraine Russia already occupies.
Holding the Ukrainian territory he already holds achieves the objective of blocking Ukraine’s potential NATO membership without the risks that another land grab would bring.
The risks of additional annexations include –
1) Much harsher economic sanctions.
2) The cancellation of existing economic relations and projects with the European Union such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
3) Having to fight a conventional campaign with a Ukrainian military that (although overmatched) is large enough and well armed enough that it would inflict heavy losses on Russian forces.
4) And last, but not least, having to invest at least a third of Russia’s military to holding new territory while facing insurgent attacks from a very hostile population of Ukrainian Nationalists who would be supported with weapons by NATO and the Ukrainian Government.
Another quality that seems off about the whole affair is that there is no need for the urgency Russia is acting with (if their objective is really to block Ukrainian entry to NATO) because Russia’s current occupation of Ukraine already succeeded at postponing their membership indefinitely.
Also, a broader invasion of Ukraine would be out of character with the manner in which Putin has traditionally used his military, even if he technically has the ability (at high cost) of executing a larger invasion.
When Putin has used force in the past his general tendency has been to launch narrowly focused attacks as rapidly as possible, and by surprise.
If he were to use force this time he would be doing exactly the opposite of his usual method of operation by loudly announcing a large scale attack, months in advance, with a slow buildup of forces.
Given the risks of an invasion, and the fact he doesn’t need to take on any additional risks to keep Ukraine out of NATO, then Putin is more likely using the possibility of an invasion as leverage for broader negotiations.
Although invasion of Ukraine carries significant downsides for Russia, the threat of an invasion could be very useful.
Specifically, he is using the possibility of disturbing the peace in Europe to make the United States aware of the possibility that it might have to stretch its deterrent forces across two fronts to contain both China and Russia.
By doing this in the context of America trying to divert its military power towards Asia, Putin makes it more attractive to the West to settle outstanding issues with him rather than risk having the US divert forces to Europe that would be better deployed in Asia.
If the West doesn’t settle then Putin’s best option is to continue causing enough trouble, at the worst possible moments, to distract America from deploying more forces to Asia but not aggressive enough to bring serious retaliation on Russia.
This type of a tactic would be attractive to Russia because it could pave the way for short term deals favorable to Russia, and open up the possibilities of more comprehensive deals years in the future.
If I were Putin in the near term I would want to at least have Germany (which stupidly shutdown half of its remaining nuclear power plants on New Year’s day and will close their last nuclear plants at the end of 2022) and the EU approve the start of Nord Stream 2, in exchange for me suddenly cooling my rhetoric on Ukraine and agree to more talks with NATO.
If I offered to ease up on my deployments near Ukraine as well as drop demands Russia already knew would never be accepted by NATO (such as limiting where troops can be deployed within existing NATO member states in Easter Europe) Germany and the EU would have extra incentive to approve the pipeline in the interests of me not causing a military disruption in Europe, in addition to the already existing incentive to prevent energy shortages.
Using this kind ramp-up/ramp-down of military threats I could split EU nations between Russia hawks in Eastern Europe and doves in Western Europe, thereby improving my bargaining power for more sanctions relief.
In the more distant future these current maneuvers could setup conditions where I could get some sort of legally binding agreement with a China focused United States concerning Ukraine not entering NATO.