Bar Fights, Game Theory, And Why Putin Can’t Get a Face Saving Exit. Russian “Mobilization” Changes Nothing

Putin has just doubled down on his “madman” negotiating strategy.  The problem – for Putin especially – is that strategy gives him low odds for a face-saving negotiated outcome.  In bar fight terms, the madman eventually ends up getting kicked to a pulp – maimed or dead.  Putin’s chosen strategy looks headed towards “pulp.”

2 side notes first:

  1. Putin faces re-election in 2024.  Yes, they still hold elections.   Public opinion still matters.  Putin needs money in Russian pockets before they see even a rigged ballot box.  Where will he get that money?  By turning the European gas taps back on in 2023.
  2. Putin “mobilizing” 300,000 troops today will change nothing on the ground for at least 6-12 months.  Even after that, it won’t change much.  Moreover, the Russian army likely can’t hold its ground for 6-12 months or maybe even 6-12 weeks.

Putin is doubling down on his “madman” strategy.  Convince everyone you will stop at nothing, hoping they will back down first.  Shut off Europe’s gas.  Declare a partial mobilization.  Threaten nuclear strikes.  Plan referenda in occupied regions of Ukraine.

All this doubling down is consistent with game-theory’s madman strategy (as well as a clear sign of increasing desperation).  His hoped-for end game is cooler heads will prevail.  Someone steps in to break up the fight.  Putin wins a face-saving exit into a frozen conflict.  He lives to fight another day.

The madman strategy works best in a one-round game.  Some stranger is credibly threatening to “go nuclear” on you.  Your smart choice?  Cool things down and walk away.  Life is precious.  He may well be crazy.  You won’t cross paths again.

In a multi-round game, the madman strategy will eventually fail catastrophically (for the madman).  Geopolitics is a multi-round game.  Putin may be at that end game.

Think about the Ukraine War as a bar fight.  A lawless part of town.  A tough crowd of mostly regulars who show up every Friday.

  • Big Bully Bill gets in the face of Shrimpy Sam.  Sam “should” back down.  Bill “should” let him.  That’s how the game is usually played.  That was most people’s expected outcome up until Feb 24th. Same old Friday night.
  • Big Bully Bill keeps pushing…  He throws a few punches.  Its a real fight now.  Whoa Nelly!  This is a thing now!  A space clears and a crowd gathers.
  • Big Bully Bill was never too coordinated to start with. He is also sloppy drunk.
  • Shrimpy Sam has been taking karate lessons.
  • Some awkward stumbles and a few lucky whacks later, Shrimpy Sam has Big Bully Bill on the floor.  Kicking him with steel-toed work boots.  Things are starting to get ugly…

In a normal multi-round game, this is when “everyone” intervenes to cool things down.  The bar crowd steps in.  Pulls Sam aside – stop kicking before you really hurt the guy.  Shake hands and call it over.  Let Bill slink off.  Lesson learned.  Lets all get back to drinking.

But that wont happen with this particular bully in this particular bar.

Big Bully Bill has played the “madman” card one too many times.  “Everyone” knows that Big Bully Bill can’t be trusted.  He might shake hands, but he can’t credibly promise to walk away.  After multiple rounds of playing the madman card, no-one trusts he’ll hold up his end of any bargain.  Too many prior threats to come back and shoot up the bar.  Too much history of knifing some prior antagonist after his back is turned.  Bill’s word of honor has no value.

Sam, Bil’s frequent victim, knows this better than anyone.  So he’s going to keep on kicking while he’s down.  His end game is “if I maim Bill, he won’t be able to move fast enough to get a knife in me next time.  If he up ends up in a coma, all the better.  This is life or death for me (and the cops never come around this part of town anyway).

Even worse (for Bill), the whole bar supports Sam’s end game scenario.  “We’re all pretty sick of Bill.  We all honestly worry he WILL actually shoot the place up one day.  He’s also a jerk.  So we’ll turn a blind eye.  Maybe even a lend a hand when it comes time to dump Bill’s limp body in some abandoned lot.  No-one’s gonna miss him except Xi and he’s been kind’ve a jerk lately too… 

So the 100% rational solution for everyone is Sam kicking Bill into a bloody pulp.  Until Sam is too winded to kick anymore.  Then dump Bill out in the cold.  Whether Bill wakes up maimed or dead, it means peace and quiet next Friday night.  So they just let Sam keep kick kick kicking.  Its a bad result for Bill.  But he chose that end game when he chose that strategy.

This is just multi-round game theory.  Fool me once shame on you,  Fool me twice shame on me…  The “madman” strategy pays off until it doesn’t.  Especially for an untrustworthy madman.

Putin is now down on the floor.  He is doubling down on his madman strategy.  Hoping the threats will spark an intervention.  But the kicks keep coming and his erstwhile friends (China and India) are edging towards the exit.

The Ukrainians stopped talking about negotiations months ago.  They are going to do as much damage as possible while they have the advantage.  They will keep kicking until their strength gives out.

No rational bystander will or should intervene.  They know Putin won’t hold up his end of any bargain. They know the threats are hollow (including nukes – that’s for another post).  If anything, they get in a few kicks themselves.

In this end game, does Putin end up maimed?  If so, how maimed?  Does he end up dead?  Is that politically or literally?  I have no idea.  We know he’s losing control – caught in the end game of his own madman strategy.  We just don’t yet know where that end game actually ends.


All of the above was sparked by a recent back-and-forth with a friend.  Figured I’d append it.  He’s a thoughtful smart guy, so I’m just cherry picking his words to set up a straw man.

There is zero energy being placed in getting a negotiated solution…that’s what is needed now…Putin needs an out… Ukraine needs to stop.  And Europe needs some gas.  There will be hell to pay if no settlement is agreed.  No politician…not usa, british, german or French is getting that message….they are all still going for broke.

My reply (amended):  Somewhere in 2023 we get a “negotiated” settlement that the might as well print out and sign on a roll of toilet paper.  The real guarantor will be how depleted and demoralized Russia’s military is.  A frozen conflict because Russia is unable to prosecute it further, not because of a signature on a piece of paper.

Putin can’t be allowed to negotiate from a position of strength.

Everyone cuts a deal to get the gas flowing again, but Putin will need it more than Europe will.   He will be dealing from a weak hand.  The semiconductors and other advanced systems supplies he needs to re-build the military will stay sanctioned and thus expensive.

Key assumption being made by many (not you) is that Putin – the genius 3D chess master with an iron grip on his country – can afford to keep the oil and gas taps off.  Maybe this is true but I don’t think so.  Not without some hard, counter-intuitive analysis of how the Russian economy fares under that scenario.  Most indicators I’ve seen show Russia’s economy in bad shape and getting worse fast (e.g. recent FT article on budget tipping into deficit).

The “iron grip” perception is also questionable.  If Putin really has that control, why hasn’t he (really) mobilized the country for a proper war? Why has been trying to prosecute a “special operation” with such disastrously limited manpower long after it became obvious more troops were needed sooner vs later?  He is ruthless, so why hasn’t he taken that step? What is he afraid of?  The most likely answer is Putin is not nearly as confident in his grip on power as a lot of Western observers are of it.

So is Putin really able to follow through on sustained oil and gas embargo of Europe? Who is more desperate? Europe? – sitting on 80% gas storage already with other levers to pull like that huge gas field in the Netherlands. Or is Putin – desperate to get the gas/oil/money flowing again before the 2024 election and so that he can distract his populace when Ivan comes marching home soundly whipped? After images of the Russians who moved to Crimea evacuating on boats because the Kerch straits bridge is blown? etc etc

I think the gas is flowing again by 2023.  With the Russian military out of commission for at least 5-10 years.  Hopefully long enough to outlast Putin.

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