Ukraine Crisis: Playing the Card Game Between the United States and Russia

Some people felt the world had changed overnight after Putin declared two unique regions, namely “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic,” as independent states and despatched soldiers to conduct out “peacekeeping operations,” and an all-out heated confrontation looked imminent. In reality, the US and Russia have been putting each other to the test over the situation in Russia and Ukraine, and Putin’s actions thus far reflect a new round of testing based on the results of the previous stage of testing. There are still cards to be played by both parties.

Long ago, many levels of government in the United States claimed to have intelligence suggesting that “war is imminent.” Only by claiming that Putin “will use force” would Putin be motivated to demonstrate the “wrongness” of the US in not using force. And as long as no force is used as a result, the US’s fundamental goal has been achieved. According to Brookings Institution researcher Jessica Brandt, the US gave extensive intelligence on how Russia would construct a “false flag operation” excuse to disrupt Moscow’s plan to strike Ukraine.

Furthermore, the US must disrupt Russia’s position and create the impression that “there are American individuals in Russia and everything is under US control,” so that Putin’s priority shifts away from “catching the traitor” and toward “creating issues.” As a result, because the war did not erupt quickly, the United States first assumed that playing the first card would be effective.

However, after the US played the card, Russia refused to take it. Because Russia has the potential to investigate internal concerns whenever the US publishes reliable intelligence, the process by which the intelligence is acquired and the individuals who offer it may be disclosed. As a result, the Russians may purposefully fake a shooting and fabricate some “false information” in order to put the US intelligence infrastructure to the test. However, the Russian side may find out later.

However, the Russian side may later discover that many of the US judgments are based on external information analysis, such as predicting the future trend of the situation based on satellite images of military mobilization and predicting intentions based on the time when the information was released. Take, for example, Donetsk. The pro-Russian military began evacuating the villagers on February 16, but the crucial information was not made public until the following weekend. The timing of the speech, according to the US, is meant to create a “false flag operation,” hinting that war is pretty close.

Following Russia’s clear appeals to the United States and the West, the Biden administration and major European states indicated sanctions for Russia’s likely actions. Finally, as if on cue, a flood of potential fines appeared. Among them are the inclusion of significant Russian banks such as Sberbank and VTB on the US Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons” (SDN) list, as well as Russia’s prospective removal from the “Global Interbank Financial Telecommunication Association.”

(SWIFT) system, to financial measures such as freezing Russia’s foreign loans and even the ability to use US dollar settlements; from a total embargo on Russian products containing American technology, to technological measures such as disrupting the supply chain required for Russia’s advanced technology; and more.

There are targeted sanctions against Putin’s inner circle, as well as military methods and measures to assemble armed rebels to engage in guerrilla warfare in Russian-controlled territories if Russia ever seized Ukraine. After many games, the White House’s “Tiger Team” thinks that these penalties will impose significant costs on Putin’s force deployment.

Russia still didn’t want the cards after the US played it this time, but instead dealt with the cards that were given to it. Because, once the cards are displayed on a large scale, it will be rather obvious which cards are still in the hands of the US and which are not. Russia made it clear early on that the US would not send troops to the front lines of the conflict. Aside from the sanctions’ lack of suitable objectives, the Biden administration’s haste to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan a few months earlier gives evidence.

The Russian side acknowledges that the symbolic act of “crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border” is extremely important to the US, but it appears that “how to cross the border” is not fully specified, leaving opportunity for Russia’s next card down the line. Furthermore, because Russia has been arranging a deck of cards and is cautious to show them, it has not revealed too many chips in its hands, and there are naturally a restricted amount of combinations that may be played.

In this round, Russia first permitted China to play the “Winter Olympics” card – after all, China has assisted Russia in blocking quite a few “excellent cards” during the Trump administration, giving Russia an unorthodox strategy. Then, using the information and chips gained in earlier rounds, Russia will play a huge hand to test the true pressure that the US and the West are ready to accept. Because the US is primarily concerned with ensuring that “Russia cannot breach the line,” it simply states that the border will be changed and that the Ukraine region will first become “independent.”

From Russia’s standpoint, it is not necessary to send forces on “peacekeeping” missions after the Russian-Ukrainian border has been crossed. When the Russians played it’s hand, Biden merely issued an ordinary executive order prohibiting US corporations from engaging in new economic activities in Ukraine’s two different regions, such as investment, trade, and banking. In reality, there is just a little overlap between these two zones. The following day, the US government implemented more specific sanctions.

A response like this from the US contradicts the previous statement that “severe consequences will be implemented as soon as Russia takes action.” This is comparable to how, when the Russian side played a card, the US side just pressed a small card to respond since it had not planned ahead of time how to deal with it. As a result, Russia took advantage of the situation and played the next card, “sending forces to preserve peace and carrying out particular military actions in local locations,” putting the US’ bottom line to the test once more.

If the comparable sanctions are too low, it is like eating rotten fruit; if the penalties are too strong, it may have a disastrous impact on the domestic economy, which is already suffering from high inflation but is still infected by the virus. The election chances have weakened significantly. Further importantly, the US has previously declared that the Russian army has been in eastern Ukrainian soil for some time, thus there might be other explanations for whether or not more Russian soldiers arrive in the region. The United States has lost its desire to fight against the odds for a variety of reasons.

Of course, even if he can’t afford it right now, Biden will try to make a move. After all, the domestic opposition Republican Party has been eyeing it for quite some time, waiting for the Biden administration to make mistakes and appear foolish on the Russia-Ukraine issue in order to use it as hype material for the midterm elections, in order to win more seats in Congress and even reclaim two senators. However, because Biden’s current foreign policy is mostly motivated by domestic issues, the possibility of a symbolic move outweighs the situation of dividing apart the cards in his hand and only playing this hand, which is akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

When the Russian army began to advance into Ukraine from the ground, air, and network, and artillery fire and deaths began to occur, the game appeared to have changed fundamentally. The US continues to tighten the quality and number of sanctions, but Putin appears to have stopped paying attention to the cards the US is playing. He looks to be aware that the opposition team will only play one card, ready to strike. However, Russia has not yet won, and the might of the United States means that it must have more and better cards than Russia. However, America’s current shame is mostly the result of playing bad hands before to the start of these rounds.

Assuming that the current global poker game is reduced to a three-pronged confrontation between the US and the West, Russia, and China, the best situation in such a system may be for the other two parties to shoot each other while still leaving enough strategic space and flexibility to deal with the region. The second best case scenario is that one of the parties joins you to compete with the third; the worst case scenario is that the other two parties decide to join forces with the third.

Russia initially saw the intensification of competition between China and the US and expected to quickly enter the first situation; however, the Biden administration has consistently ignored China’s positive reputation and forcefully tried to push China to Russia’s side, despite China’s high-profile willingness to cooperate with the US.

As a result of pressuring China to accept the second requirement, the US found itself in the third worst position. Some may claim that the United States is neither alone and helpless since it has the AUKUS tripartite mechanism, the QUAD quadrilateral system, the Five Eyes Alliance, the Seven-Nation Alliance, NATO, and the European Union, among other things.

War, although being a card game, is not for children. It’s filled with gunpowder smoke and comes at an outrageous cost. Some of the cards in decision-makers’ hands may represent their life. The international card game does not have to be a “zero-sum game.” To enhance the image of a large country in the new era of opportunity, all parties must calm down and return to the negotiating table. May the world be at peace, and may humanity never again gamble with other people’s lives.

Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the prestigious School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University, China. His academic journey was propelled by the esteemed Chinese MOFCOM Scholarship, leading him to successfully attain a Master of Law in International Relations from the School of International and Public Affairs at Jilin University, China. With a rich background, Raihan has also contributed as an Associate Researcher in the Department of Politics and Security at the Center for Indonesia-China Studies (CICS). Currently, he plays a pivotal role as a member of the International Relations Commission within the Directorate of Research and Studies for the Overseas Indonesian Students' Association Alliance (OISAA) for the term 2022/2023.