The model of conflict known as chicken in game theory sees the two sides testing one another’s nerves to see who will be the first one to chicken out for fear of consequences that would be catastrophic for both.
It is in this context that Lopata suggests we read recent statements by US political expert Zbigniew Brzezinksi, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Putin might try to take control over Baltic countries in a lightning move that could take NATO by surprise.
“There are useful metaphors for international relations that can help grasp what is going on in the international arena. For instance, there is the chicken game. The point is this: say, we have a single-lane road. At one end of the road, there is a Ferrari, Putin gets in and slams on the accelerator. He is driving faster and faster. At the other end, another Ferrari remains empty for a long time before the West takes the seat behind the wheel. It also slams on the accelerator and is speeding towards the first car. Now the question is who will swerve off the road first. That’s the essence of this game,” Lopata explains.
Lopata, of the International Relations and Political Science Institute at Vilnius University, adds that Lithuania is also seated in the second car with the West, but is not driving.
“All the talks, as I see it, should be read through this angle. It’s easier to make sense. In other words, both sides are using all the methods they can to force the other driver to drive off the road or stop,” he adds.
According to Lopata, Brzezinski’s suggestions about beefing up deterrence and deploying international troops in the Baltics should be interpreted in the light of the chicken game – the aim is to make Putin painfully aware that should he invade Estonia or any other NATO country, he will have to face American troops and perhaps forces from Germany, France and the UK.
Do Brzezinski’s statements indicate a growing consensus that current measures of deterrence are insufficient? “It seems so,” according to Lopata. “Putin’s Ferrari is not slowing down.”
He says that military deterrence in NATO’s borderline countries is among the key methods to make Putin stop his Ferrari.
“When we see it stop or suddenly swerve – this is when we know how this entire story ends,” the Lithuanian political scientist says.
He notes that there are voices on the Western side, too, urging to slam on the brakes and yield to Putin. The United States of America, however, is sticking to a tougher position. “I have fewer doubts about America than before, especially after recent statements, actions and configuration in Congress,” Lopata says.
After mid-term elections last year, both houses of the US Congress are dominated by the Republican Party that has historically tended to take tougher stance on Russia and supported American military presence abroad.
Moreover, the US government has sent its troops for extended military training in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Asked how many American soldiers stationed in NATO’s eastern member states would conclusively force Russia to retreat, Lopata says even symbolical presence matters.
“How many do we need? Would one be enough or do wee need more? How many American deaths – to put it crudely and cynically – would make America mean what George W. Bush said in Vilnius. But this is math – symbolical presence matters a lot, too,” according to Lopata.
During a visit to Lithuania in 2002, the then president of the United States, George W. Bush, famously said that “anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America”.