Answering Putin’s game of chicken tit for tat: Game theory and Russia’s war in Ukraine

By Jürgen Dieringer

Can war ever be rational? Tanks are no toys, and war is not a game like chess or strategy, people die and suffer, as we see these days in Ukraine. Rational choice and game theory, though, can explain to a certain extent the “rationality” behind the decision of a political leader to negotiate, bargain, or fire the guns. In an all-or-nothing game, the Russian president wants to play the game of chicken and see who backs off first. The Western tit for tat response seems to be an appropriate answer. But short- and mid-term, it may secure the status quo ante at best.

The status quo ante: Causes of war

Causes of war can be manifold, and several academic disciplines compete about causal explanations. Biological theories search the gens, and psychologists try to look into brains. Social sciences produce various explanations, stretching from class structure (Marxism) to nationalism. We want to approach explanations for the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine from a different angle: Rational choice and game theory, especially the game of chicken and tit for tat.

Nations – or states – usually fight wars for a purpose. The aggressor will only accept negotiations about refraining from military action if a bargain gives him at least as much as he expects from war. The method of choice before taking military action is coercive diplomacy: “Satisfy my demands or else”; hand over Donbas and install a friendly regime, or we do it our way. Some may call it to blackmail.

But even if we assume that there is a rational reason behind threatening with or going to war, those reasons are by no means uniform. Following Fearon (1995) we can at least identify four categories:

1. War from commitment problems

This is the time-inconsistency problem. Actors have difficulties making credible promises because actors’ preferences change over time. Some would sub-summon the current war in Ukraine under this heading, referring to alleged promises about not enlarging NATO eastward. From this angle, it is all the mistake of the West, as Russia’s security concerns were not respected, how the offensive realist John Mearsheimer put it. But how could a politician ever make a promise like that? He cannot make such a commitment if he subscribes to a rule-based international order that contains the sovereignty of states to decide about their foreign-policy preferences and choices.

(…) in 1997, Bill Clinton consistently refused Boris Yeltsin’s offer of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that no former Soviet Republics would enter NATO: “I can’t make commitments on behalf of NATO, and I’m not going to be in the position myself of vetoing NATO expansion with respect to any country, much less letting you or anyone else do so…NATO operates by consensus.” Source NATO: NATO-Russia relations – The facts

What counts is what is in the treaties. Putin may read it differently, and his selective perception and wishful thinking led him to ignore that. So, for Putin, the argument goes like this: as I cannot trust your words, I rely on myself to take what I think is mine.

2. Bargaining over goods that are a source of future bargaining power

This is about strategically essential pieces of territory and weapon control programs. States will be reluctant to make concessions if the adversary, who is made stronger by the deal, might press for more concessions or benefits in the future. A threatened state may choose to fight today rather than to face a timeline where it is getting weaker over time. Applied to our case: Putin has to act now before Ukraine is allowed into NATO, which would weaken Russia’s relative position towards the West. One could also read it the other way around: Allowing Russia to occupy territories (Transnistria in Moldova, South-Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and the Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk separatist areas) shows that the West shouldn’t have appeased Putin, now he seems to be in a better position.

3. Preventive war: A response to changing distribution of power

How is preventive war different from a preemptive strike? A preemptive strike is an attack that happens prior to a planned assault of the enemy, and the threat is real and imminent. Israel, for example, declared the 6-day-war of 1967 against an Arab coalition as preemptive, suggesting an immediate threat from the other side. Preventive wars are not based upon an immediate threat but a reaction to mid-term changes in power distribution that go against the striker. Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor is a classic example. Another one is the US-led war against Iraq under George W. Bush and Tony Blair, where the (alleged) strive of Saddam Hussein for weapons of mass destruction might have shifted the power balance in the region. Whatever you may read about Putin’s “preemptive strike against Ukraine” is either a mistake by the publicist mixing up the terms or Russian propaganda. There was no immediate threat from Ukraine toward Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine can be read only as a preventive war, a reaction to a change in the balance of power (NATO eastern enlargement). The difference is immense. Preventive war is an aggressive act not backed by international law – it is illegal. Preemptive strikes are still controversial, but can be classified as an act of self-defense. Had Ukraine launched an assault on Russian troops while building up in January and February 2022, this would classify as a preemptive strike. The threat was there, as we recognize retrospectively.

4. By mistake: Wars from Incomplete Information

War by mistakes can happen when states have poor information, central pieces of information are missing, or if they demand too much from the other side under a mistaken belief. That may confuse the perception of offensive and defensive motives of the other side. Technical issues are also possible, e.g., a surveillance unit showing a nuclear attack like during the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident. We have been there during the Cold War. It required the cold-blooded reaction of a Soviet Officer to clear the confusion.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is a mixture of all that. The alleged promises of not enlarging NATO seem to be conspiracy theory, but even if promises may have been given, what Gorbachev denies, they cannot be sustained. Closer to the real reason for the war is that Putin saw the window of opportunity closing and his bargaining power shrinking. A preventive war resulted from that. Incomplete information led to the war taking a different direction than Putin might have anticipated.

Rational decisions and war

The possible causes of war show that structural and personal constraints make up the rationality of a decision. Misperceptions and misjudgments are inseparable parts of individual rationality and have to be calculated. We have to remind this when talking about rational decisions of actors with respect to war.

Rationality can be defined as the effective use of means to achieve ends. Those means must be selected based on a cost-benefit calculation and are determined by several factors. Glaser (2010) defines three sets of determinants for action in IR: The state’s motives, specifically whether it is motivated by security concerns or “greed”; material variables, which determine a state’s military capabilities; information variables: what does an actor know about his adversary’s motives.

From this background, the calculation starts, initiating a set of actions and reactions. In the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the motives are relatively straightforward: Ukraine wants to defend the country, Russia wants to occupy Ukraine and integrate it into the “Russian sphere”. Unclear is only the form and scope of this “integration”. At the beginning of the conflict, the material variables favored Russia, but the imbalance got moderated during the conflict due to Western military supply and intelligence aid. Regarding information, Russia has more of an internal problem, as communication between military forces and the political leadership seems to be suffering from self-censorship, and decisions are made in a groupthink environment.

If Russian action is based on security concerns, information deficits on the Russian side and a closing gap in military capability should lead to adapting the Russian strategy. However, we can expect downsizing on the scope of the campaign (what to occupy) and the quality of occupation regarding legal status (integral part of Russia, independent state, autonomous region within Ukraine). If the Russian campaign is based on greed, we will have to accept that escalation of the war is a probable continuation, and maybe we have to search for better theories to explain it.

Are you a chicken or not: What are promising strategies for Russia and the West?

Which strategies should we apply when two actors are about to clash. For example, it may take the form of a game of chicken (a mathematical simulation of conflict and cooperation within game theory), a run where both sides can win only at the cost of the other. The stakes are incredibly high as both sides can lose everything.

Hollywood projected the chicken run to the movie screen in the film "Rebel without a cause" (1955), starring James Dean.
James Dean in “Rebel without a cause” (1955)

In such a game of chicken, the calculation of the credibility of your opponent’s threat is central, and you yourself might want to cover your intentions and mislead the opponent. Convincing your opponent that you are insane (e.g. threat of Armageddon) may be a valuable strategy, a rational choice. Putin maybe plays a game of chicken in the conflict with Ukraine, aiming at an ABBA-outcome: the winner takes it all, the loser has to fall.

In combination with Ukraine, the West may most probably not enter into a game of chicken going for the full success (winning the war and removing Putin) but use a tit for tat strategy of equivalent retaliation (in biology known as reciprocal altruism). Overall, this is a very successful strategy in games. You start friendly and cooperative when opening up the game. In the second round you imitate the response of your opponent. Is he friendly, you are friendly, is he aggressive, you are aggressive. The backside: this strategy can probably lead only to a status-quo ante retreat, not to a victory over your opponent, as you are refraining from aggressive action if your opponent does. So he can stop it at any time, you can´t – just like in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

From chicken to retaliation: How does the game advance?

Here we have to check the utility for both sides. Let’s assume that status-quo has the utility of 0, improvement the utility of 1, being worse off die utility -1. There are two possible strategies: Appeasement and (counter)aggression (based on tit for tat) on the side of the challenged, aggression and backing-off on the aggressor’s side. Disclaimer: the model has, of course, many shortcomings (see the video below). It suggests that there is an isolated game going on. In fact, the opponents play repeated games, where Russia strives for territorial gains repeatedly (Georgia, Crimea). Appeasement may lower costs at the moment for the West but produce repeated high costs if Russia uses the same strategy continuously. Stopping Putin here and now may be “cheaper” than accepting feedback loops. A video from TLDR news EU deals with the choices of Russia and the West before the war broke out.

I tackle the situation after the first two weeks of the campaign. Russia made fast advances, but the situation is set up before the prospective tipping point, where Ukraine can retard but not stop Russian advances and is unable to start counter-advances (Situation 1). The second situation (Situation 2) evolves behind the tipping point, where Ukraine starts to regain control and pushes Russian troops back.

Situation 1: Situation at the beginning of the war

West and Ukraine AppeasementWest and Ukraine
Counter tit-for-tat
Utility –1; losing Donbas and CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territoriesUtility +1; gaining Donbas and CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territories

In this setting, Russia might take home a victory; the worst outcome is the status quo ante. For the West/Ukraine, the status quo ante is the best they can achieve.

Situation 2: Situation based on successful Ukrainian counter-action

West and Ukraine
West and Ukraine
Utility +1; regaining control over Donbas and CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territoriesUtility -1: losing control over Donbas and maybe CrimeaUtility 0; returning to status-quo ante, Russian de-facto control over territories

In this setting, the West/Ukraine might take home a victory; the worst outcome for the West/Ukraine is the status quo ante. For Russia, the status quo ante is the best result the country can achieve.

Russia might have missed the point where negotiations could have secured a high utility. The right time for collecting the gains was between the last pre-war phase and the first weeks of the campaign when the readiness of the West to help Ukraine out militarily was still an open question, and Kiev might even have accepted to talk about territory (utility for Russia +1 to 0). Russia advancing further and engaging in war crimes made the appeasement strategy for the West unplayable. Having to move on to Situation 2 reduces the utility for Russia to somewhere between 0 and -1 (maybe close to 0). The danger for Putin now is that escalation will further lower the utility. A rational strategy would be to start negotiating asap. While waiting, the West and Ukraine will most probably strengthen their negotiation position, but collateral costs are high.

A look into the future: Can there be a compromise?

I doubt there may be a final solution to the conflict short- and mid-term, at least without a prior regime change in Russia. But a ceasefire, freezing the conflict, may be possible. My doubts about the possibility of a substantial agreement (peace treaty) settle upon what theory and history taught us.

Robert Putnam developed a theory of negotiation called “two-level games” (Putnam 1988). He sets up a negotiation situation in which he distinguishes between the national and international levels. At the international level, bargaining takes place. The same people who are bargaining there have to make sure that they come to an agreement with the “enemy” and strike a deal that creates acceptance at home, a deal that can be ratified in the national context. The precondition for success is a utility not lower than “0”, as lower scores will undermine the power base of the political leader(s). The win-sets of both sides, that is, the ability to strike a deal on an international level and implement it at home, must overlap for a negotiated solution.

In my opinion, the win-sets of Russia and Ukraine do not overlap at a central point: territory. Not securing any territorial gains and not removing the Ukrainian government would corrupt the story Putin told in his war propaganda. Even if Ukraine has lost control over it long ago (Crimea, Donbas), giving up territory is not acceptable to the Ukrainian general public. The Ukrainian president Zelensky already announced that any peace deal with Russia would be subject to a Ukrainian referendum. Therefore, a rational decision for accepting an agreement would calculate the probability of implementing it at home, and there it may get stuck. There are many examples of such a failure: US President Wilson was not able to get US participation in the League of Nations ratified after World War I; the French Parliament refused to ratify the European Defense Community in 1952; the Colombian peace agreement between President Santos and the FARC got shredded by an unsuccessful referendum in 2016, to name but a few. A deal that balances the utility at “0” for both sides and entering a frozen conflict is a likable outcome but by far not the only one imaginable.


Fearon, J. (1995). Rationalist explanations for war. International Organization, 49(3), 379-414.Glaser, C. L. (2010). Rational theory of international politics. Princeton University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1988). Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games. International organization, 42(3), 427-460.

Putnam, R. D. (2019). Two-level games: The impact of domestic politics on transatlantic bargaining. In America and Europe in an Era of Change (pp. 69-83). Routledge.

The author

Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.