Deer, Rabbits, and Putin

Foreign policy is a language of game theory – rationality, acting to pursue interests, gains, losses, retaliation – the list goes on. The current debate on what Vladimir Putin will do next in Eastern Ukraine is no exception. Will Putin invade more than just Crimea? Some answer “of course not, it’s not within his interests!” Others answer “who knows, Putin is completely irrational!” I propose a different analysis: game theory, and therefore rationality, still applies, but Putin is changing games, and the new one has different players and different rules.

Let me explain. In game theory, one discusses rabbit hunts versus deer hunts. Rabbits are easy to hunt, and, while they are better than nothing, they are not that enticing. Deer hunts are more desirable, but they need a team, and teams require coordination and cooperation with other people. That cooperation could be tricky and costly in itself, so unless that deer is looking particularly enticing, hunters will probably stick to hunting those scrawny rabbits. This, in essence, is the political environment of a state like Russia: hunters are analogous to the component of citizens that keeps the autocrat in power, referred to as a winning coalition. If the autocrat keeps them happy, then they are content hunting rabbits, i.e. the status quo. If the autocrat proves unsatisfactory, then the winning coalition might decide to team up and go for the deer, i.e. overthrowing the autocrat.

How do deer and rabbits apply to Putin? Right now, Putin’s winning coalition is the oil-drilling elite. As long as the price of oil is high, the winning coalition is happy with rabbits. If the price of oil drops, the winning coalition might attempt a deer hunt, ringing Putin’s doomsday bells. Moreover, gas and oil have become a less sure-profit business, and Putin cannot single-handedly control the world price of gas and oil. In other words, as long as Putin has an oil-drilling winning coalition, maintaining power is largely out of Putin’s control. If he truly wanted to direct his fate, he needs a new winning coalition.

This Crimea-Eastern-Ukraine-business is doing just that. By “rescuing ethnic Russians,” “championing the rights of the downtrodden” in the face of the “bullying West,” Putin can build for himself a new fan club of poorer ethnic Russians, glued together with Russian nationalism. The stronger this new fan club grows, the more they resemble a winning coalition, and Putin will no longer need the support of the oil drilling elite. He could even dispose of them in such a way as to defuse their potential future threats in a “deer hunt”, and build up the Russian nationalism even higher. He has done it before, and would do it again. Cue game over.

There is an added bonus for Putin as well: in this new game, the winning coalition has more individual players, which lowers the probability of a future deer hunt. To illustrate this, imagine two groups of friends, one with two people and one with a hundred people, and each group has to reach a consensus for what to eat for dinner. Who do you think reaches their decision first? Similarly, coordinating and cooperating a majority of the winning coalition across a country as expansive as Russia would be an exceedingly tricky task.

If we want to mitigate the Ukraine crisis, we need to start thinking of both games – Putin cannot change his winning coalition overnight – instead of focusing on a single, outdated game. This transition, besides being fascinating for game theory, offers policy opportunities for Europe and the United States to get the upper hand on a temporarily unstable Russia. Carpe diem – these opportunities will be short-lived, and might not come around again for a long time.

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