Infinite Games and the Russian Invasion
Why conquering Ukraine is a mistake
If you ask an American about the Vietnam war, a typical answer will usually contain the words “disaster” “failure” and “humiliation.” It is a very uncontroversial opinion to say America ‘lost’ the Vietnam War. If you ask an American why we lost, the usual answer will consist of, “We didn’t have a plan” or “We didn’t know the terrain.” While these might not be unreasonable points, the biggest reason is likely that we didn’t know the game we were playing.
Things leads to the finite vs infinite games theory proposed by James Carse in 1986. Carse argued that there were two types of games: finite games, and infinite games. Finite games are games where the rules and players are clearly defined, and the goal is to beat the other team, ending the game. Infinite games are games with ambiguous rules, unlimited players, with the object of each player to keep the game perpetuating for as long as possible, before your team runs out of resources.
Carse’s insight is that not knowing what kind of game you’re in can set you up for failure. Take basketball—basketball is a clearly finite game. There is a clock ticking, so the game has a clear end, and the aim is to score more points than the other team by the time the clock reaches zero. Both players should play with a finite mindset—beat the other team. If a team tries to play the infinite game in a finite game like basketball, they’ll quickly find it’s impossible. You can’t win a basketball game with the mindset of trying to keep the game going forever, because if you do that you won’t be conscious of the clock on the scoreboard.
The more common error however, is treating an infinite game like a finite game. The Vietnam war is an example of an agent treating an infinite game like a finite game. The US, a large power prideful of it’s massive military, tried to occupy North Vietnam through sheer brute force, attempting to kill more North Vietnamese troops than their own, and ‘winning’ the war. The problem with this strategy was that the North Vietnamese were playing an infinite game. A quote from Ho Chi Minh explains the infinite mindset which the North Vietnamese brought to battle.
“Our resistance will be long and painful, but whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle, we shall fight to the end, until Vietnam is fully independent and reunified. You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.” -Ho Chi Minh
Ho wasn’t in the business of trying to win a fast victory, or to obliterate the US military. Conversely, Ho understood that this wasn’t a war that could be quickly ‘won’ by the Americans because civilians around Vietnam and guerrilla forces would plague a US-led regime for years and years, willing to die in vast numbers to stop the Americans. If the North Vietnamese could keep the game going for as long as possible, America’s military would likely pull out in the face of public pressure after enough time.
While the loss of 58,000 American soldiers was well known and documented by the public, few talk about the roughly 1 million Viet Cong soldiers who died. With an estimated 250,000 South Vietnam fighters dying during the war, the death ratio between North to South + USA fighters is about 3:1. However, the outcry of the American public against the soldier deaths in Vietnam and the high cost of the war ultimately led the Viet Cong to outlast America’s presence, leading to their eventual victory.
In theory, America definitely could have won Vietnam (nukes aside). If America was committed to a troop presence of 20 or 30 more years or longer, America very well could’ve won the war. America had a vastly larger economy, military, and population than North Vietnam, and could’ve won by playing the infinite game. Note however, that the infinite game option isn’t easy by any means. This would’ve cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, millions of Vietnamese lives on both sides, and billions of dollars spent on weapons and supplies. This calculus shows just how expensive and difficult occupying a country is…
Which leads us to today. We are witnessing a large power invasion of a much smaller, weaker state, just like Vietnam, and just like both the Americans and Soviets in Afghanistan. Ukrainians have shown that they will be ferocious in fighting to the death to protect their country. It’s been about a week since the invasion started, and Russia has been making progress, though it has stalled. It seems Ukrainian pride has never been higher. Regardless of if Ukraine were to fold within the next week, month, or year, a Russian occupation of such an overtly outraged country would—and already is—wreaking havoc on Russia from a military and economic perspective.
The Ukrainians have shown they are willing to play the infinite game against Russia, and while the Russians still are very likely to win the initial battles and even occupation, setting up a government that doesn’t get quickly deposed or slammed with civilian unrest seems like an impossible task at the moment.
Along with this host of issues is the fact that Russia has been hit with crippling sanctions that are likely to cause rampant inflation in the country, angering the Russian people against Putin’s regime. Even if Russia tries to play the infinite game and outlast Ukrainian resistance, Putin will soon be fighting a war with his own people, who will likely be wondering why prices are rising and why their local oligarch lost his yacht. One of the most ironic outcomes of this invasion was the Taliban (yes, the Taliban) condemning the violence and hoping for a peaceful solution.
Putin has severely miscalculated the resistance to his invasion both domestically and internationally, and every day the Ukrainian invasion looks more and more like it will be Russia’s Vietnam.