Putin plays chess with Obama
Putin out-plays Obama in Ukraine
Game Theory analysis confirms what we have been saying all along: In Ukraine, Russia holds all the strong cards.

The Western aim of a unitary Ukraine inside the EU and NATO and allied against Russia cannot happen.

Leonid Bershidsky elegantly summarises a paper that applies game theory to the Ukrainian conflict. Briefly, the paper says that Russia can destabilise Ukraine indefinitely, creating a "frozen conflict" there, and that the West cannot prevent it from doing so.
The West can in theory respond by: (1) military escalation; (2) sanctions; and (3) returning to business as usual with Russia.

The authors of the paper, and Bershidsky himself, appear to think the most likely outcome in the short term is (2) (sanctions), but with a measure of (3) (returning to business as usual), and with (3) prevailing over the long term. Option (1) (military escalation) is not ultimately viable.

We agree.

Bershidsky โ€” rightly, in our opinion โ€” sums up Kerry's visit to Moscow in that way: "Kerry has come to Russia so the sides can agree to disagree on Ukraine and move on to other issues such as Syria and Iran, where constructive interaction is still possible."

Latest reports say that Kerry has warned Poroshenko against any attempt to recover Donetsk airport, which appears to bear that out. It seems that some at least in the U.S. are now at last looking for ways to isolate the Ukrainian conflict from the rest of the U.S. Russia relationship, so that the U.S. can move forward in its relations with Russia on other questions.

This warning from Kerry is incidentally the first time the U.S. has publicly warned Ukraine against a military solution.

Reports that suggest European leaders are now also pressing Kiev to fulfill the political part of the February Minsk Memorandum by entering into substantive constitutional negotiations and by granting wide autonomy to Donbass (previously discussed by us in First Sign of Germany Putting Pressure on Kiev to Implement Peace Deal, Russia Insider, 27th April 2015, and by me on Radio Sputnik, 12th May 2015) point in the same direction.

It should be said clearly however that this is in no sense a "draw", as Bershidsky appears to suggest.

Bershidsky says Ukraine can still turn defeat in Donbass to its advantage:

"For Ukraine itself, the role of a pawn for bigger players may be somewhat humiliating, but it shouldn't be. If the country successfully transforms itself into a Western-style democracy with a viable open economy, it can handle the continued Russian destabilization attempts and, in time, make them much less effective. Not being a player in the big strategic game is even, perhaps, to Ukraine's advantage: Once it realizes it can have little effect on the outcome, it can concentrate on solving its internal problems."

Those words are a triumph of hope over experience.

Nothing in recent Ukrainian history suggests its leaders are prepared to act in such a way. On the contrary, as we have often discussed (see Ukraine Goes to War - and Always Will as Long as Maidan Holds Power, Russia Insider, 20th January 2015), everything points to Ukraine's leaders' continued willingness to sacrifice Ukraine's economy and the needs of its people to their ideological objective of a monocultural unitary Ukraine in its 2013 borders, distanced as far as possible from Russia and integrated in NATO and the EU, achieved through victory in Donbass.

Poroshenko's latest threat to retake Donetsk airport is a case in point.

Ukraine's present economic situation anyway hardly supports Bershidsky's hopes. Latest reports suggest the rate of Ukraine's economic decline is accelerating, exceeding even the most pessimistic predictions.

However one spins it, both game theory and the actual situation in Ukraine point the same way, to what we have said all along: in Ukraine it is Russia that holds the high cards.

Ukraine cannot prosper economically without Russia. Beyond that, to suppose the intense cultural and national connections linking Ukraine to Russia, built up over centuries, can be simply cut away in order to satisfy the ideological obsessions of certain Ukrainian politicians and the geopolitical fantasies of their Western sponsors, is foolishness.

The result of any of the likely scenarios outlined, whether by game theory or by Bershidsky or indeed by anyone else, is the same: the fantasy of a monocultural unitary Ukraine inside NATO and the EU, allied with the West against Russia, is dead. The Russians, at only slight cost to themselves, will always be able to prevent it. The West, in contrast, lacks both the means and the will to make it happen.

The people who in the meantime are paying the price are the people of Ukraine. All of them โ€” those suffering hardship in the west, as well as those in the east โ€” are paying the price for a reckless geopolitical game, which the West launched, but which there was never the slightest chance it would win.