How Not To Play Chess With Ukraine

Russian Tanks On The Rim Are Very Dim

Putin is like one of those old chess hustlers, who play in Washington Square park, bullying their opponents into making mistakes and losing their $5 wagers. You admire these hustlers. They’re mean, but you wish you could play like them. They exude confidence. They move their pieces quickly and with authority…until a young ambitious International Master shows up.

Then everything goes into reverse. The old chess hustler starts to eat up time on the clock. They lose their confidence. They look like very small, insecure men. Their hands shake as they pick up a piece. Then they lose it all. You feel sorry for them.

But we won’t feel sorry for Putin.

At one point in my 20s I owned dozens of chess books. Unfortunately, I was never able to read chess notation and play a game in my head. Fortunately, there was one book that made a lasting impression, How Not to Play Chess by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky, a Russian no less!

Here’s his advice, which I’ve never forgotten:

  • Do not lose sight of your idea, however thick the fight; instead, have confidence in your judgment.

Putin’s main idea was to bring Ukraine into a vassal state like Belarus. That’s why he massed the troops on Ukraine’s border. The government of Ukraine was/is the center of this board. After he won he would threaten Eastern Europe with the same.

I strongly disagree with those who argue that Putin’s invasion of the South and the Donbas was anything but a support-action coordinated with the center attack on Kyiv. The government did not flee. The Russian Army was not able to come within shelling range of inner Kyiv. If it had, Kyiv would now be in ruins and Ukraine would be suing for peace.

Znosko-Borovsky might have said (from a strategy point of view), “Don’t lose sight of your original plan. Re-double your efforts to take Kyiv or get the government to bend to your will.”

Instead, Putin is doing what not to do. He can’t win his prime objective, so he’s looking for a place on the board where he can win.

He ignores the larger truth that even if he wins Donbas, he wins nothing. No one cared about Donbas when he sent his little green men there in 2014 and no one will care about it next year either.

Most news analysis fails to mention that Donbas is not a security concern for Russia. It is as far away from NATO as you can get in Ukraine. Indeed, one of the reasons Europeans let Putin take control of Chechnya and parts of Georgia is they’re too far east to threaten them.

What if Putin encircles the Ukrainian front line in the Donbas, kills them, and then moves north and captures Kyiv? I’m sure that’s running through his head, as it does for every chess player who won’t look at the facts on the chess board. Not gonna happen.

Sadly, the West is slow to arm Ukraine with the “heavy weapons” and the aircraft it asks for (it will eventually). Putting the aside extra loss of life that results from underwhelming force, the slower Russia loses to a small country like Ukraine the more the World realizes that it is, what it looks like on the surface — a brutal dictatorship with delusions of grandeur and no regard for life.

Not that the West is some shining beacon of the righteous. Ukrainians are barely able to contain themselves from saying some obvious truths. Boris Johnson visits mostly for a photo op. He writes a check for $130 million Pounds while Europe pays $1 billion a day to Russia’s war machine for oil and gas.

Okay, a quick rundown in chess-speak.


For every tank Putin moves onto the Ukrainian chess board, The West moves a shipment of missiles to take it out. Same for fighters and naval ships.


The U.S. defense industry is at least ten times the size of Russia’s. Factor in Europe and other nations and Russia simply can’t win on material (unless China were to support Russia all-in).


Russia’s military is structured as top-down effort. It is designed to be more coordinated than Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean it works in a coordinated way. So far, Ukraine seems more organized, if not coordinated. Russia has the logistics of a 5-year-old.


Ukraine is a text-book case in effective initiative. Russia is a text-book case of low morale fighting. Initiative alone will not describe the hell Ukrainians are about to unleash on Russia after Bucha etc.


Both control a lot of space. However, Ukraine controls the most important space of all — again —the center, Kyiv and Odesa.

The war is over. A new general won’t make a difference. Moving a few missiles to the border of Finland isn’t going to scare the Fins of all people! I believe strategists in the United States are already celebrating behind closed doors. Even if Russia were to “win” in the Donbas, Putin seems to be under the delusion that he can stop the war on May 9th and walk away with a stalemate.

Unless there are massive, government toppling riots in Europe, the West will continue all phases of what’s becoming a West-controlled war of attrition. End-game, removing all of Putin’s pieces from the Ukrainian chess board.

This isn’t to say I know how Putin will lose. War is fickle. Surprises await. Could be a nuke. Could be a gas attack. But in the end…

Then there is part of me that still believes Russia can recover and win. That’s years of propaganda in my head (watching Putin humiliate others over the years). I can’t easily remove this bias. I’m hardly alone in this.

And if so many of us believe Russia can win what must Putin believe! No wonder Russia keeps fighting.

I need to keep reminding myself. The Russian army is a mass of uncoordinated firepower operated by undisciplined soldiers so poor, that if they can steal a washing machine and bring it back to their dirt-poor part of Russia they will. In the end, hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers will end up with every kind of post-war mental and physical illness.

I expect other wars to break out from energy and food shortages. No celebrating Putin’s demise here, should it happen. Sadness that humanity has not progressed to a point where it can prevent one man from killing, torturing, injuring or displacing millions.

In a sense, what I want to say in this story is what I believe what many experts want to say, but don’t want to jinx it. Assuming no blunder on the part of the Ukrainians, the current regime behind the Russian Federation has lost. Putin can’t walk back all the atrocities. As I’ve said elsewhere. He has become the unforgiven.

And you can’t win a war if you don’t hold the center.

It’s just a matter of time, months, perhaps a year or two.

This is my prediction this 11th day of April, 2022.



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Max Rottersman

Max Rottersman

I try to write stories that go where the general media doesn’t.