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Published on May 6th, 2014 | by Mark N. Katz


The Game in Ukraine

by Mark N. Katz

How will the crisis in Ukraine turn out? Nobody knows for sure, but a role-playing game that I ran in my undergraduate government and politics of Russia course at George Mason University yesterday offers some insights.

My 79 students (most of whom were present) were divided into thirteen teams of varying size: the United States, Russia, the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian separatists, Poland, the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Germany, Britain, France, Belarus, and China. Our starting point was the present situation in Ukraine, recapped as: following Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are seizing government buildings in various Ukrainian cities and calling for Russia to intervene on their behalf. The Ukrainian government in Kiev is meanwhile trying to seize back what the separatists have taken, but is encountering difficulties.

After each team stated its initial position on the situation, they were freed to fashion their policies and make deals with other teams.

The Ukrainian government team decided to press ahead with its efforts to take back territory in the eastern part of the country from the separatists as well as to seek commitments from Western governments to help Kiev. The American team in particular talked about increasing sanctions, but the German team wasn’t sure about taking this step. The French team offered to sell weapons, but no Western team was willing to send their own troops to Ukraine.

In the meantime, the Ukrainian separatist team continued to seize buildings (one student had even brought signs with Russian flags to slap on various pieces of furniture in the classroom) while urging the Russian team to intervene on their behalf. The U.S. team attempted to dissuade the Russian team from taking this step. After some delay, though, the Russian team decided to intervene in eastern Ukraine in order to protect Russian citizens there. Tension in the room suddenly increased.

The Ukrainian government team desperately sought Western support. It even seemed to think that this would be forthcoming, but it turned out that there had been an unfortunate misunderstanding on its part. The German team, though, did agree to impose much harsher economic sanctions. The United States and other NATO countries reiterated their commitment to NATO members in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

One surprise development was that the Belarusian team asked for U.S. and NATO help in case Russia turned on it. The American team, though, turned down their request since Belarus is not a member of NATO.

The Russian team responded to the increased Western sanctions by turning to the Chinese team. The latter agreed to buy more Russian oil and gas — though at a discount. Otherwise, the Chinese team kept out of the situation.

The Russian team then announced that Moscow had no intention of intervening any further afield than eastern Ukraine. The U.S. team in particular was relieved to hear this. The American and Western European teams indicated that they could live with this situation. The Polish and Baltic teams were disgusted, but could do nothing.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian government team denounced NATO for its unwillingness to protect it against Russia, and declared that the Ukrainians would continue to fight. With only a little time left in the class period, I ended the game so that we could discuss what had transpired.

There seemed to be general agreement that if indeed Russia intervenes in eastern Ukraine, but declares that it will not go any further, the West will respond with tacit acceptance. NATO would not be willing to get involved in Ukraine. The West, though, would impose stronger economic sanctions on Russia, though some countries would do this quite reluctantly. If the Ukrainian government does decide to fight on, it will do so largely on its own. However, while the West may not do much for Ukraine, it will no longer regard Russia as a normal state, but as a threat. The big unanswered question is whether Russia would in fact honor any pledge not to intervene beyond eastern Ukraine — especially since it is unclear where eastern Ukraine ends and the rest of Ukraine begins.

Was the outcome of this role-playing game realistic? We may well find out soon.

A pro-Russian protestor yells at Ukrainian riot police outside the regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 22, 2014. Credit: Zack Baddorf/IPS.

About the Author


Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982. He is the author of many books and articles, including Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

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