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.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at



  1. Nice game, but is it realistic? Sounds like what our ideologues and rookies in the Administration might play to evaluate their chances of ‘success’ without understanding the larger picture or the consequences of what they have wrought.

    I suggest your students read more of the history of the region and study the many surveys done of the the diverse groups in Ukraine to poll their sentiment about joining the EU. My understanding from one of these was that even after years of a US-EU charm offensive, no more than 37% strongly favored joining the EU, while 35% were strongly opposed. Nor is it clear that Ukrainians realize what it will mean to suffer an IMF imposed austerity, or a fascist national security state that NATO would like to see implemented. It might also be helpful to read the recently released White Book of the events leading up to the coup, which, despite what our media are reporting, is a better account of the reality in Ukraine, and something that will not be forgotten by Ukrainians. Finally, I would urge your students to read the recently published sage advice from VIPS in Consortium News- indeed all the articles on Ukraine at CN, and certainly the articles earlier this year by Henry Kissinger and former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock in the Washington Post and Time magazine, respectively.

    It would have very easy had the EU not insisted on an exclusive agreement with Ukraine but instead had looked to a multiparty arrangement. This would not only have been better for Ukrainians, it would have been better for Eurasian integration and stability, which in the end should be a goal if we are seeking a more peaceful and prosperous world for us all.

  2. Very telling is this post. Points up why the state department seems to get it wrong, when it comes to dealing with other cultures. One glaring issue, is who the teachers of the youth are. Another issue is the dumbing down of the education system here in the U.S. After all, an educated mind, is a dangerous mind. When it comes to brainwashing, the dumber they are, the easier it becomes. After all, look at the Congress, full of stooges, the State Department recycling old cold war crap, nothing new under the sun.

  3. The whole thing sounds Zbigniew “Brezinskish” to me.

    But I got another metaphor. How about turning it into a reality TV series: “The Ukraines”. The plot goes like this.

    Feeling down in the dumps lately and heavily in debt, Mr. Ukraine has come under the sway of a “new age” therapist (insert Victoria Nulamd here) who’s put him on some experimental drug that’s gone awry, reducing him to wandering around the house with crazed bloodshot eyes, brandishing knives and muttering how he’s going to kill some (insert minority group here) “motherf#@%er!”

    Fearing for her life, Mrs Ukraine wants to get out of the house with the kids, maybe moving in with Uncle Putin. Mr. Ukraine is outraged. As it turns out, he’s just signed another one of those shady loan shark deal (insert IMF here), and he needs the kids to work as child prostitutes to pay back the loan. So he sends his thuggish young nephew Adolf to bring them back.

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