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Friday, March 21, 2014

If you want to send a message, use Western Ukraine

My analysis of WTFF is going on in Ukraine at the moment, and why everything is so god damned chaotic.

My basic game theoretic analysis comes from a game which we used to call "What's the Time Mr Wolf", but has a bunch of other names. Basically, one kid stands facing the wall, and the rest of you creep closer and closer, with the tension rising, until the kid facing the wall decides everyone's got a bit too close, then he suddenly turns round and tries to grab one of the other kids and beat the crap out of him, as everyone runs away.

The geopolitical version of this game which we're interested in is called "chipping bits off the former Soviet Union", and I am in favour of our playing it because it expands the imperial power which I am part of, and contracts the imperial power which is the most obvious danger to me. I am actually quite hawkish when it comes to cold wars, it's the fighting kind I don’t like. One of the consequences of the EU playing the game of chip-bits is that from time to time we're going to over-reach and provoke some sort of reaction. After all, if one looks at this from Putin's point of view, he's in a really unenviable situation; taking a look at the way that the EU's borders have moved since 1989 you can sort of see how someone whose view of the world was not our own might see the EU as a totally out-of-control expansionist imperial power.

Another way of looking at this is to remember that people judge others by the standards of their own behaviour. Putin is a bit of an authoritarian maniac, so he presumes that other people are also authoritarian maniacs. If your worldview is that of a maniac, and you see what you believe to be a fellow maniac behaving like the EU does, it's worrying.

But as I say, this is normal diplomatic politics. And we're actually pretty good at it, having chipped off the Baltic states and (in my opinion) shifted the real hard-line "nuclear" boundary of NATO from Berlin to eastern Poland. You have to expect setbacks. What seems to have changed is the way in which setbacks are handled.

So this is what happened in my view. We were doing our usual game of extending the hand of friendship, the latest move in a two-decade effort to chip Ukraine away, but we made the mistake of thinking that Yanokovych was a crook we could do business with, rather than a Putin lackey. Putin, for his part, made the mistake of believing that Yanukovych was a lackey who could deliver his province, rather than an over-reacher who had more reason than most to not make the mistake he did about the willingness of the Ukrainian population to be used in this way. The Ukrainians, as far as I can see, played a blinder and made no mistakes at all - I would personally question their taste in laughable crooks as a political class, but you play the cards you're dealt, and we had Berlusconi after all.

At this point, there was a clear off-ramp and everyone, including me, was expecting that it would be taken. Around the time that Yanukovych fled, everyone sensible ought to have been thinking that the EU had overreached a bit, and we were at the stage in which the rules of the game dictated that everything had to be rowed back quickly.

What was needed was for someone (probably Baroness Ashton) to go and deliver the message "Don't worry Vlad, not while the Ukrainian people have holes in their arses will they be members of the EU and as far as NATO membership is concerned they are somewhere behind North Korea. We fully appreciate that Ukraine is your back yard, not ours and we have no interest in doing anything that makes you feel threatened". At which point it could all have been stood down in a cloud of bad temper, but kept relations on the same broadly productive track they were before.

Thing is, this is now the post-Wikileaks era. And the trouble with the little speech I indicated in the last paragraph is that a) it's a total lie and obviously so, and b) it involves selling out the Ukrainian opposition in a really unedifying way - we keep financing these people and providing the expectation of help that we're never going to deliver, in order to use them as pawns in our game of chip-bits, and I suspect they might kind of know that, but we can't rub their faces in it and expect to keep their support. There is no way that any official is going to be prepared to have that speech attached to their name, and so no way anyone's going to do it if there is a risk of it being plastered all over the internet (and there is; EU diplomats have screwed up their comms at least once already and seen embarrassing conversations appear in the papers). There's a symmetry too here - there are all sorts of threats and deals that Putin might want to communicate but can't.

So the normal channels of diplomatic communication aren't working, and people are working blind, while trying to communicate strategies and alternatives to each other by the traditional Cold War means of costly signalling theory. My answer to the question of "why did Putin invade Crimea?" is that it is quite likely that he did it "in order to transmit a single bit of information". We're trying to use various forms of sanctions as a communication tool, but we haven't got an agreed code to match them up with - we need to develop a set of bidding conventions, like bridge players have. My guess is that because it has now become someone's job to develop a new substitute diplomatic communication channel, and fast, it will get done, and things will get a lot more normal. But it's also possible that they won't, and that we will be seeing a lot more use of the tactic of annexation of territory as a means of self-expression.
4 comments this item posted by the management 3/21/2014 04:43:00 AM

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