In the game chess, it is usually the attacker who announces “check,” announcing the defender’s king is under threat. Then, the defender can either move the king to a safer place or eliminate the threat. If the defender can do neither, the attacker declares checkmate, captures the king and wins the game.
In gaming the conflict in Ukraine, the Biden Administration was faced with a country that couldn’t be moved and a threat that couldn’t be eliminated. So they tried something different. They cried check — in defense — every time the attackers from Russia seemed ready to strike against Ukraine and hoped that this would convince Russian president Putin not to proceed.
Time after time, Biden Administration speakers, including the president himself, would announce the likely time, place and tactic of an impending strike and implicitly advise Putin, “Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.”
In the end, the strategy of preemption by public revelation failed. Putin sent his troops across the border and attacked Ukrainian cities across much of the country with guns, artillery, bombs and missiles.
The consequences for Ukraine are literally devastating.
And already critics are charging the policy of trying to talk Putin out of war was doomed from the start. Here’s the New Yorker’s veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright: “the central flaw in the West’s strategy was the fear that any preemptive actions —whether providing more high-powered weaponry to Ukraine or imposing economic sanctions on Russia’s power brokers sooner — would be used by Putin as justification to attack Ukraine.”
Better to have filled the time before Putin attacked with weapons-supplies than wasting it with words, she says, because “It’s now clear that the Russian leader intended to invade, whatever the West did.”
Excuse me, but it was always clear that Putin “intended to invade” Ukraine. It was the essence of his threat, but might he have been dissuaded? A key question — never raised by Wright — is whatever did the West do to dissuade the Russian aggressor? What diplomatic offers were made?
The tactic they tried — “We know you so well, and have penetrated you so deeply, we can predict your every move, and are ready for it, so stop the nonsense,” would have had critics even had it worked. Because, in some ways it was new, different and daring.
Shane Harris is a staff writer with The Washington Post, covering intelligence and national security. He has previously written about these topics at the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Beast, and National Journal and is the author of two books, “The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State” and “@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex.”