Discover more from Comment is Freed
Stalemate, Zugzwang and a long Middle Game
Stalemate, Zugzwang and a long Middle Game
Comment is Freed is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
‘To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.’
- Walter Cronkite, 27 February1968
I argued in a recent post that Vietnam provides an inappropriate analogy for the US as it seeks to navigate its way round the perilous demands of the Russo-Ukraine War. The two wars have little in common in either their character or conduct; the case, both moral and geopolitical for supporting Ukraine is better understood and more widely accepted; sustaining the required levels of public and political support is challenging but doable, most importantly because US and other Western forces are not actually fighting.
Yet when researching this issue I came across this famous quote from the broadcaster Walter Cronkite and word-for-word it could be used by those making the case for winding down military support for Ukraine and encouraging negotiations with Russia to bring the war to an end. It is hard now to appreciate the impact of Cronkite’s remarks in 1968. Cronkite was the most trusted voice in America. When President Lyndon Johnson learned of what he had said he declared that the game was up – ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite I’ve lost Middle America’. A few days later, having also consulted with his top advisors, he ordered a partial halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, proposed negotiations, and announced that he would not run for the presidency again.
The battle that prompted these remarks – the January 1968 Tet offensive – is now seen as a classic example of a military defeat and a political victory. It took years for the communists to recover from the mauling they received as they took the fight into South Vietnamese cities – but the spectacle of this bold and suicidal initiative contradicted the optimism of the American military leadership and shook confidence in the underlying strategy. And in this case the spectacle was taking place right in front of those journalists based in the cities and not filing reports from distant villages. Cronkite recognised that the communists had not achieved a ‘knockout blow’ but neither he noted had the Americans. ‘The referees of history,’ he judged, ‘might make it a draw.’
There are parallels with the current situation. Ambitious expectations had been set and so Cronkite was reacting against past official optimism. But whether or not this war was ultimately ‘winnable’ it was wrong to describe it then as a draw because these battles set the communists back, there were many years of war to come, with much more death and destruction, before the US could negotiate its exit from the war.
In this statement, and so many heard about Ukraine, we see the powerful metaphor of the ‘stalemate’, suggesting impasse, deadlock, draw, and a prospect at best of years of futile combat. It conveys crisply the idea that neither side has a military route to victory so that the only sane option is to explore instead a diplomatic route to a compromise peace. It is a term regularly used to urge Kyiv and its supporters to accept the situation, however unsatisfactory, and look for an honourable way out. Recently Tim Snyder took it on, asking how it can be a stalemate when Ukraine was still advancing? This led to a question about whether the existence of a stalemate could only truly be judged over an extended period.
The term certainly suggests stasis, so that whatever is attempted or even achieved at the front little will change in practice. The comparison used to bring home the idea of stalemate, and the associated presumption of waste and futility, in not usually Vietnam but the First World War. The networks of trenches on the front lines in Ukraine are reminiscent of those on the Western Front after 1914. That war, at least in popular imagination (we can call this the Blackadder School of Military History), involves callous commanders bereft of any plans beyond throwing masses of men against enemy lines in direct frontal assaults. The Blackadder series ended in 1917 as the heroes dashed through fog and smoke towards the gunfire. If it had lasted until 1918 there would have been a different but more complicated story about new tactics and weapons and an eventual, successful offensive.
A stalemate is used to describe a war without an obvious conclusion, with neither side realistically expecting to gain a vital advantage, although both the First World War and Vietnam were concluded. With Ukraine, once its recent offensive moved slower than hoped, there was regular talk of a stalemate– some headline examples are here, here, and here. We can’t stop ‘stalemate’ being used to suggest a permanent military deadlock, , but we should at least be aware that it is a poor metaphor and leads to a conceptual dead-end.
Stalemate in Chess
Readers of this substack will be aware that I like to examine the origins of strategic language, not only out of intellectual curiosity but because the way that meaning changes over time can reveal problems with the underlying concept and point to issues worth considering. The stalemate metaphor is an example of a term employed routinely in strategic discourse, with a generally agreed understanding of its meaning, yet one which is disconnected from its origins.
Chess is a truly strategic game, and it has contributed greatly to strategic language – whether in dismissing lowly players as ‘pawns’, identifying opening ‘gambits,’ considering ‘end-games’, or describing artillery as the ‘King of Battle’ and infantry as the Queen. The great players – the grandmasters - have the strategist’s gift of seeing possibilities for future combinations of moves that their opponents miss. But it is also a game limited by its rules. This is why the purest strategic theory - game theory - was not developed by reference to chess but to poker. Poker is a game of chance - not only in how the cards are dealt but also because players do not know what others hold. Part of a player’s skill lies in inferring the strength of the opponent’s position, from their expressions and demeanour, as well as their bids.
In chess both players have the same information about the state of the board and both must follow the same rules, which is why computers are very good at it. And this is relevant to the idea of a ‘stalemate’.
There are ways for a chess game to end in a draw that are similar to situations easily recognised - for example when both players agree that neither has a route to victory, or when a game appears to be going nowhere and further play appears pointless. The rules of chess say that a draw can be called when the same move has been repeated three times, or when 50 moves have been made without a piece being captured or a pawn being moved. These are rules designed to stop a player seeking to exhaust an opponent or play for time – recognisable features of military strategy.
But a stalemate in chess is anomalous and unique to the game. it occurs when a player who is not in check cannot make any legal moves. The normal example is one in which the King is trapped so that the only available moves would put him in check, which is not allowed. This does not happen often at the highest level of the game because experienced players can see it coming. It is a device used by losing players to extract a point from an otherwise hopeless situation. The expected victor is denied a way of finishing off the opponent. The idea that this can be considered a draw was only confirmed when the rules of chess were standardised early in the early 19th century. Before that the stalemating player could be deemed the winner of the game or the stalemated player might lose their next move.
Not only did it not therefore refer to an evenly balanced situation, there was also something dishonourable about this mate (hence ‘stale’). One historian of chess has described it as a ‘swindle’. ‘The Romanian grandmaster Mihail Marinas observed that: ‘To save a game by letting yourself be so completely humiliated as not being able to make a move looks rather undeserved.’ There is an active debate as to whether the rule should be abandoned as a violation of the spirit of the game. The best argument for it is that it serves players right if they get into a winning position and fail to finish off the opponent expeditiously (it is the ‘penalty for mauling without killing’).
Gaining a draw because you are not allowed to put yourself in peril translates badly to other situations. It does not mean that the two players are in a comparable position: the condition of stalemate only affects one player. In real-life, a player so vulnerable would have to accept defeat. Nor does it describe a situation in which the players are doomed to an indefinite confrontation. It is not a temporary, let alone enduring, condition because with a stalemate the game ends. It is over. So strictly speaking (and I know most people are not) the metaphor is wholly inappropriate when applied to this war and others. It is even more abused with talk of an ‘indefinite stalemate’ (‘mired’ in Cronkite’s language).
Getting to Zugzwang
One of the criticisms of the stalemate rule is that the situation it describes should instead be appreciated as the highest stage of Zugzwang. This comes from the German ‘compulsion to move.’ It refers to situations in which a player is forced to make a move which leads to a worse position. Legal moves are available and so one must be chosen, but they are all bad. It is a consequence of the same rule – that players are not allowed to skip a turn – that makes a stalemate possible. Attempts to find a suitable English word that captured the idea of Zugzwang have failed – proposals included ‘move-bound’, ‘movicide’, ‘squeeze’, and ‘dreadmill’, but unsurprisingly none caught on, which is perhaps why the term has not migrated into the vernacular.
Yet it is more suggestive than stalemate. A favourable zugzwang is likely to involve playing on the vulnerability of the King, forcing it to move into exposed positions, drawing pieces away from their best positions so that coordination becomes harder, or isolating and blockading the opponent’s pawns so that their mobility is limited. The basic idea, which is something that can be translated into actual war, is to progressively limit your opponent’s options, trap them in frustrating conditions in which they can’t find a way out, encourage them to waste moves and pieces. So even when a game seems to be long and drawn out, with neither enjoying an obvious advantage, it can turn on a series of moves which may not quite achieve an immediate, decisive check mate, but points to an eventual victory.
The value of this concept is that it can describe moments when opponents, while not actually defeated, realise that they are running out of options as they must leave one area exposed while they commit reserve units, or ammunition, or air defences elsewhere. This might be done with increasing desperation without many evident changes in the front lines until at some point the only moves available are to withdraw units before they are lost or to put units in the path of enemy on the move even though this will probably lead to their loss. After each move the situation looks worse than it did before. Eventually there are no options are left and the game is up. (A rare example of the stalemate metaphor, as a form of zugzwang applied to a losing player, being used correctly comes from Oleh Kalashnikov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s 26th Artillery Brigade, noting that the number of Russians surrendering in the Bakhmut sector because they are ‘really in a very difficult and stalemate situation.’)
The Long Middle Game
In chess a draw describes a conclusion but not how the game might look during its course when the players are in a relatively similar positions, in terms of positions and pieces lost. Uncertainty about where the game is leading will be present during the middle game rather than the end game as one player sees a way through to victory. And then, with chess, when a game is over another one may start, with all the pieces back on the board and in place.
War is not a game and it is not bound by rules. Moves are simultaneous and not consecutive, multiple and not single, and not restricted by the limits of a board. The pieces that have been taken by the opponent stay lost but can also be replaced, replenished, and reinforced. Wars tend to become contests of endurance, production and supply, especially if a victor has not emerged during the opening moves. For all these reasons it is hard to move beyond the middle game in war.
And in this war we are still in the middle game. Much current commentary is concerned with reminding us of this fact. Contrary to the hopes of some, Ukraine is not on the verge of a decisive checkmate and is adjusting to a war that may go on for some time. The Financial Times quotes a senior Western official:
‘Ukraine and Russia are in a slugging match where neither side has a decisive advantage. It’s going to be a long war and Ukraine is now in the messy middle part that happens in every major conflict.’
That is what makes the current moment perplexing and leads so many, though not the belligerents, to wish to declare it a draw, fudge a peace deal, and move on to something else. Although commentators tend to discuss the ‘end game’ as if it is almost solely about a negotiation, in practice the move out of the middle game will involve a combination of military as well as political moves. The stalemate metaphor, by contrast, suggests that we are stuck in a permanent war which can only be escaped by an abrupt declaration of a draw and a move to negotiations.
This war has been going on long enough for us to know better than to make firm predictions as to when and how it will end. Ukraine is also feeling the strain from 18 months of war and its own heavy casualties. So to challenge the stalemate metaphor is not to challenge the idea that this war may go on for a long time or that we should adjust our expectations accordingly. Ukraine can be kept going by its Western partners, with the main doubt being whether Congressional Republican are ready to sacrifice Ukraine in their battles with each other and with the administration, and then the impact of the November 2024 US election. The leading European countries are still holding steady. The Russian war effort may have been hampered by economic sanctions but it has not ground to a halt. Both sides are concerned about ammunition production, hence Putin’s need to court North Korea President Kim Jong-un to acquire artillery shells (an encounter to which I hope to return in a later post) and Ukraine’s constant nagging to get the US ATACMS and German Taurus.
Keeping up weapons and munitions supplies is a necessary but not sufficient condition for either side to make military progress, and the fighting may ebb and flow according to what is available. Will the Ukrainians, for example, be able to mount yet another major offensive next spring? Or will they have to wait until the new US and European ammunition production lines kick in later in the year, and their forces can recover from their losses and fresh units get their training? We must assume that Russia has been stockpiling missiles for yet another winter offensive against Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure.
For now, Ukraine has enough armoured vehicles largely because much of this current offensive has been fought dismounted. The Ukrainians have been doing better in both the south and the east recently but in neither case can we say that the map yet looks sufficiently different to call a great victory. They suggest that we look instead at the damage that has been done to the committed Russian forces and invite us to wait and see how well the Russians can cope as they press on.
The value of the zugzwang metaphor is that it encourages us to look at the quality of the military options facing Russia’s commanders. They are still mounting their own attacks in eastern Ukraine as well as trying to push back immediately against any Ukrainian gains. In the process they suffer heavy casualties. A lot of their artillery has been efficiently targeted. Much therefore depends on the state of their reserves committed to the current fight. (The head of Ukraine’s defence intelligence claims that Russia has had to deployed reserve forces they were holding back for October prematurely).
The question is how badly they are stretched. Will the high command be put in a position where they have to choose between filling in one defensive gap only to create another, between holding a line and retreating, between withdrawing forces to a new line or abandoning a large chunk of territory, and so on? Equally with air defences. There is only so much to go round, as Ukraine knows only too well. The attacks on the port of Sevastopol are of immense political as well as material significance to Russia. Arguably the war began in 2014 when Putin feared that upheavals in Kyiv would threaten not only Russian-language speakers but also Russia’s vital base in Crimea, although it was protected by a treaty. He will be aware of the irony, as well as the impact on Black Sea operations, if the base keeps on getting attacked in this way.
We assume that because Russians generally are so good at chess that it influences all their strategy. This is not the case with Putin. The exiled Russian Grandmaster Gary Kasparov notes ‘Putin, as with every dictator, hates chess because chess is a strategic game which is 100 percent transparent.’ He sees the Russian leader as more of a poker player, in which you can play a very weak hand, ‘provided you have enough cash to raise the stakes—and also, if you have a strong nerve, to bluff.’ In fact we know that Putin’s favoured game , to the point of obsession, is judo which is intensely tactical. In 2015 Kimberley Marten observed that for Putin the judoka to win it is not necessary to be ‘bigger or stronger than the opponent, just quicker and shrewder.’ The goal is to survive, to be sure ‘to be the last one standing at the end of the tournament, come what may’. Judo also does not allow for a draw. There must be a winner.
Hence, having started a war, that he intended to win rapidly through exploiting his opponent’s weakness, now Putin fears a conclusion that exposes his own. He is determined to hang on, absorbing losses and playing down difficulties in the hope that something may turn up to save the day. He does not think in terms of stalemates in any sense of the word. But he still needs to watch out for the zugzwang.
Comment is Freed is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.