Tit for tat diplomacy: Chess as a source of strategy insights

July 17, 2007

kasparov.jpgA dispute between Great Britain and Russia has blown up into tit-for-tat political gestures. We examine the process as a strategic game, using chess as a source of strategic insights

Tuesday July 17th 2007

In another challenge for the Government, the new Foreign Secretary David Miliband faces his first international incident. The episode can be traced to the death in London in mysterious circumstances of the Russian political dissident and activist Alexander Litvinenko.

Mr Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, died of exposure to radioactive polonium-210 in London in November 2006. The trail led to Andrei Lugovoi, another KGB agent still living in Moscow.

Efforts to investigate the case further led to escalation into a political dispute. On Monday July 16th 2007, The BBC reported that four Russian diplomats were being expelled expelled from Britain.

Mr Putin has already indicated strong rejection of the claims and the British actions.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry chief spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said:

“London’s position is immoral. Such provocative actions masterminded by the British authorities will not be left without an answer and cannot but entail the most serious consequences for Russian-British relations”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov said: “We don’t want to be provoked into a ping-pong game, although of course the Russian side will provide a necessary response.”

So where does chess come into all this?

Chess hasn’t come into the story all yet. I am just continuing to build a case that Chess is a powerful lens through which to examine strategic issues. Dmitri goes so far as to say that Moscow is not interested in ping-pong diplomacy. Quite right. That’s more the approach favored by Chinese leaders of recent memory.

But Chess. That’s different. Remember Ian Fleming’s celebrated tale of the Russian Grand Master hauled out of a chess tournament to bring his brilliant mind to bear on a tricky stategic problem? May even as I write, something like that is going on in Moscow. Although it sure as hell will not be Gary Kasparov at work. He is already bending his brilliant mind to strategies for opposing Mr Putin.

Incidentally, the image above comes from The Kuwait Times of April 15th 2007. It shows Gary (back to camera)engaged in his new career as a politician.

So what strategic insights might be revealed as we extend the chess metaphor? I must add that this is no attempt at black humour, and I do not deny the real-life seriousness of such a ‘game’ that led to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and arguably other murky activities and plans.

Assume the players are London (white) and Moscow (black). The game has been in play for a while and we pick up the position recently.

Move 1: Four Russian pawns are captured

The pawns were no direct threat to London. The move invites a reply from Moscow. Prior moves suggest that London would like Moscow to give up Andre Lugovoi. Moscow has indicated it will not make this move in response. London’s move is therefore to be viewed not as a direct threat forcing a reply, but as a move with a concealed threat or intention.

Moscow is expected to reply in a way which is seen to be a consequence of the London move. Sooner rather than later …


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