Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

In the armchair warrior’s version of game theory played with and without nuclear weapons, there’s a special place for the calculation of strategic deterrence that’s called tit for tat. President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump agreed between themselves that in the tit-for-tat game between the Kremlin and the White House, anticipating, reciprocating and deterring are best achieved by cooperating.

That word was used nineteen times in the presidents’ news conference. It appeared nine times in Putin’s opening statement; four times in Trump’s opening statement; and six times in Putin’s answers to questions.

Because the two sides had agreed in advance not to issue an official communiqué revealing (to Trump’s adversaries at home) what they had agreed, these remarks were staged in front of the cameras instead. Cooperation was the obvious point of agreement. However, since they left Helsinki, lower-level American officials and their media – Russian officials and their media,  too — have replaced tit for tat for shit for shat. That’s information warfare jargon for opening the mouth and talking drivel.

In game theory, tit for tat produces cooperation on condition that the adversaries recognize that one side’s tat is just as ready and powerful (destructive, costly, etc.) as the other side’s tit. On the battlefield, however, US forces do not fight if the other side approaches a force ratio of better than one to five. There will be no US warfighters on the field, not even American mercenaries, if there’s parity between the sides. Stavka, the Russian military command, has studied this carefully.  In Syria they tested it.    

This is what Putin meant when he announced in Helsinki: “We have all the requisite elements for effective cooperation on Syria. Notably, Russian and American military have gained useful experience of interaction and coordination in the air and on land.” 


Trump meant the same thing when he followed Putin by saying: “the crisis in Syria is a complex one. Cooperation between our two countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

It’s also what Putin meant when he revealed that, rather than talk concretely to Trump about nuclear warfighting, US missile threats in Romania and Poland, etc., he and Trump had agreed in principle on “dialogue on strategic stability and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction… We made a note with a number of concrete proposals on this matter available to our American colleagues.” 


Trump replied with the same point: “if we are going to solve many of the problems facing our world, then we are going to have to find ways to cooperate in pursuit of shared interests. Too often in both the recent past and long ago we have seen the consequences when diplomacy is left on the table… We also agreed that representatives from our national security councils will meet to follow up on all of the issues we addressed today and to continue the progress we have started right here in Helsinki.”


In the standard form of game theory known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, cooperation is the option  which two adversaries ought rationally to choose because the outcome will turn out better for them both.

However, in practice the two prisoners opt to betray each other because the individual payoff seems more certain.  When this game is played over and over – the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma – so that each player can count the gains and losses at each round and modify his decisions in the following rounds, it turns out that cooperation will be chosen by the players so long as tit for tat is the game they recognize both are committed to playing.  For more theory, experiments, and references, read this

Shit for shat is what happens in politics when arms are replaced by words. Arms kill; words don’t. This has been recognized for much longer than the 19th century expression about sticks and stones breaking bones but names never hurting.  That’s what soldiers say. Presidential spokesmen, propaganda chiefs, PR men,  lobbyists, pollsters, media proprietors, active measures experts, hackers and journalists — these types believe words are weapons to inflict pain, taking home much bigger salaries than soldiers for doing so.   For them,  tit for tat is a game that doesn’t pay half as well as name-calling – and it’s safer for them to play than shooting matches.



There’s no theoretical difference between Americans and Russians in games of tit for tat. The practical difference is that if the Pentagon is sure Russian tat will be lethal for them on the battlefield, they will cooperate. Repeating the game to test Russian lethality is what the Pentagon is paid to do, and vice versa. 

Shit for shat is not lethal enough to deter either side, so cooperation is not a rational, cost-effective option. The practical difference between Americans and Russians in games of shit for shat is that the Russians who are playing it ignore the advice of the Stavka to stick to the option of silence; in other words, they play the wrong game.  This miscalculation is repeated over and over by Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the most pro-American official in the Kremlin; click to open the archive.

General Anatoly Antonov, the Russian Ambassador to the US since August  2017, participated in the Helsinki summit this week, and helped draft Putin’s private and public positions.

Left, General Antonov, then Deputy Minister of Defence, at a press conference in Moscow, July 2015. Centre,  Ambassador Antonov at a press conference in San Francisco, November 2017. Right, Antonov commenting on the summit results for Russian television broadcast, July 18, 2018.

He then responded to official leaks from the US side, Congressional attacks, and American press reporting by announcing: “It was an important meeting. It was meaty, productive and constructive. I think important oral agreements were reached.”  Predictably, the American retaliation was to demand Trump explain what oral agreements were reached with Putin. Had Antonov kept silent, such agreements as were reached could be left to the battlefield to test. This, Russian sources believe, is where the game should be played.




Leave a Reply