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Three Questions

What Does Putin Want?

We asked Yale SOM’s Barry Nalebuff, an expert on game theory and negotiation, what it will take to find common ground and bring the war in Ukraine to an end.

A mural of Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia

A mural of Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia

Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

What will it take to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine?

The first lesson in game theory is to look forward and reason backward. How do we see this war ending? As Bill Ury has said: You want to provide the other side with a victory speech. It doesn’t have to be a real victory. It just has to be able to be portrayed as a victory. (Remember “Peace with honor”?) The challenge we face is that there is no clear result that leads to a victory speech for Putin.

If we go back in time to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons in Turkey in exchange for the Russian withdrawal from Cuba. But the U.S. withdrawal was done in secret, and thus it appeared to the world that Russia had lost. Even though Russia won in terms of getting the U.S. to withdraw its missiles, the inability to present a victory speech led to a public humiliation and contributed to Khrushchev being deposed in 1964. That is a history lesson Putin will not want to repeat.

“I sometimes wonder if one thing Putin really wants is for Russia, and for him, to be a player on the world stage.”

What could be a victory speech? I sometimes wonder if one thing Putin really wants is for Russia, and for him, to be a player on the world stage. Russia’s GDP is below that of Canada. Putin longs for the day when Russia was one of the world’s top five, a country that earned its place on the UN Security Council. Of course, Russia is still a top five when it comes to military power—although perhaps less so after their performance in Ukraine. And being seen as a war criminal makes it harder to be respected.

Should we be concerned that the war could escalate to a nuclear exchange?

No one would rationally start a nuclear war. But we don’t need to employ irrationality to explain how a nuclear exchange starts. The theory of brinkmanship, developed by Thomas Schelling, explains how it can happen by accident. One side is willing to take an action that creates a 1% chance of a war as a way to force the other side to back down.

Brinkmanship is about being willing to put yourself in a position where things may escalate out of control even though no one would want it to happen at the time. Seeing the risk of something going wrong, the other side blinks. But before they blink, things could go horribly wrong.

History offers a sobering lesson here. In 1983, Stanislav Petrov was manning the Soviet Union’s early-warning systems, He detected a massive missile strike coming in from the U.S. What would he do? At the time, the world was calm and he persuaded himself it was a computer glitch. He did nothing. He broke protocol. And in so doing, he prevented the Soviets from launching a mistaken retaliatory strike.

Here’s the scary question for today. If there were a similar glitch or hack in the warning system, would the modern Stanislav Petrov feel equally confident it was a mistake? I have my doubts.

Could a different approach to negotiation have prevented the war?

Signaling is a critical component of game theory. This is the science of interpreting someone’s preference from their actions. But signaling can also go wrong. Let me employ a short detour to explain the potential for misunderstandings to arise.

Say my wife threatens me with a divorce unless I agree to henceforth forgo eating beets. At one level, that would be easy for me to do, as I particularly dislike beets. But I might not want to accede to her demands because I don’t want to be seen as giving in to threats. However, when I resist, my wife may misinterpret this resistance as a signal that I actually like beets.

Turning to Ukraine and NATO, when Putin threatens war unless Ukraine commits to not joining NATO (as was the case in the constitution prior to the invasion of Crimea), at some level this should be easy for Ukraine to agree to as they were not about to join NATO anytime soon. But for political reasons and for nationalism reasons, they couldn’t make this commitment. Putin then sees the hesitation as a signal that NATO membership is imminent, and that makes him care about the issue even more.

Of course, there is the potential that no matter what President Zelenskyy had offered, Putin would have gone to war. Sometimes one party prefers to resolve the matter by force rather than negotiation. Putin’s popularity went way up after the annexation of Crimea. I don’t want to claim that there could have been a negotiated solution or that there will be one.

Department: Three Questions