Wargaming – Perspectives on the Ukraine crisis

Can wargaming help us understand complex situations and train critical leadership skills? How are military organisations using wargaming and what do they see as benefits? What can we learn from how corporations are employing wargames?

On March 3rd, 2022, Workz hosted a special session on wargaming as part of our annual A Week of Play event. The session was organised in collaboration with The Royal Danish Defence College and included 20+ participants from both government institutions, international NGOs and major corporations. In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, we chose to spend most of the session on an intensive wargame on the confrontation between Russia and the West (EU, NATO & USA). The wargame did not focus on military tactics but aimed instead on the diplomatic, political and humanitarian aspects.  

Wargaming as structured conversations
Wargaming has a rich history going back hundreds of years, from the early versions of chess in India and training games at the imperial court in China to the kriegsspiel of the Prussian army. To highlight a few of the benefits:    

  • Structured conversations
    Wargaming can be used to structure and facilitate meaningful conversations. As shared "talking pieces", the game enables the participants to share experiences, insights and learnings.

  • Change of perspective
    Wargaming can enable a shift of perspective which can boost both empathy and awareness of own prejudices and biases. Many insights can be learned by trying to step into the shoes of your competitors, customers, employees etc.   

  • What if…?
    Wargaming can facilitate a deeper understanding of complex topics, leadership options and different 
    scenario outcomes (also called "scenario expertise"). The ability to test different approaches and learn from "simulated mistakes" in a safe environment can sharpen both leadership skills and understanding of future challenges and possibilities.
  • Embodied learning
    Wargaming can be highly engaging. It is a common experience that players dream about a game after a session. The high engagement can enable people to absorb and remember content at an impressive scale.  

The set-up – Red vs. Blue
The specific wargame we ran was a classic Red Team vs. Blue Team set-up where the participants where split into two competing groups. In both rounds, each team had to pick a small number of action cards to play. The cards represented different diplomatic, political and military priorities and actions. There was a selection of pre-designed cards to work with, but the teams were also encouraged to modify the actions and make their own.

At the end of each round, both teams would hand over their action cards to the facilitators who would then decide on a plausible outcome that represented a combination of all actions. The consequences would be presented for all as an ongoing story where new developments would be illustrated by moving game pieces on the physical game board. Each round also included a shared reflection on how the actions and development would impact four strategic parameters – support for Putin in Russia, changes in energy prices, impact on Danish economy and stability of the financial markets.     

A quick summary

  1. Point of departure
    The starting point of the session was the actual situation in Ukraine on March 3, 2022, one week after the invasion. At that point, the Russian forces were already showing signs of weakness. From failure to secure air superiority to growing supply problems and low combat morale. It was also evident at this point that Ukraine resistance was fierce and well-coordinated, and that EU and NATO were surprisingly efficient to reach agreement on sanctions and support for Ukraine.
  2. Round 1: Escalated assault
    Realising that time was working against them, the Russian team decided to escalade the offensive in an effort to secure critical ground and break the back of the Ukrainian army before it could be sufficiently reinforced. At the same time, the Russians focused their diplomatic efforts on two objectives; building closer collaboration with China and splitting the unity of the NATO countries by persuading select countries to limit sanctions. The first diplomat move was partly countered by a Western diplomatic counteroffensive, but the Russians did manage to cushion the short-term impact of sanctions. Aggressive Russian cyberattacks managed to cripple payment systems in the EU, Denmark was impacted especially hard. Internally in Russia, patriotism and support for Putin was boosted when a series of deadly terrorist attacks struck the metro system in Moscow. Radical Ukrainian neo-Nazis where blamed for the attack, but the perpetrators where never arrested.       

    In the first round, the western team chose to intensify the supply of light weapons to Ukraine. More direct involvement was discussed but dropped to avoid unnecessary escalation. Instead, the team decided to intimidate the Russians by moving two American carrier groups closer to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. At the same time, the European countries prepared for receiving Ukrainian refugees in large numbers, and they fast-tracked investments to limit their dependence of Russian energy.

    The round lasted approximately two months and ended with a very critical situation in Ukraine where a ruthless Russian offensive had managed to push the frontline to the Dnepr river, essentially splitting Ukraine in half. The capital of Kyiv being a contested city with intense fighting.  

  3. Round 2: Stalemate
    Fearing that Ukraine would collapse, the West chose to commit significant resources to avoid a Russian victory on the battlefield. NATO also imposed a "no fly zone" over the western part of Ukraine, they started to supply heavy weapons to the Ukraine army and they informally committed western special forces units to play an active combat role as “volunteers” on the Ukrainian side. In addition to the military escalation, the players on the western teams decided to increase sanctions even more and to start active support of anti-Putin opposition in Russia.

    Having suffered significant losses, the Russian team decided to stop their offensive and instead fortify their positions along Dnepr and in the eastern part of Kyiv. The stalemate was sold as a grand victory to the Russian public. To discourage NATO from any offensive moves, Russia quickly deployed tactical nuclear weapons along their western borders. In addition, the newest Russian submarines with strategic nuclear missiles were sent to patrol in the pacific close the Californian coast. To counterbalance the impact of the harsh sanctions, the Russian team continued their efforts to build closer economic relationships with China.    

  4. Long-term consequences: New Iron Curtain
    By the end of 2022 the war will come to a standstill and an informal ceasefire will be established. A new Iron Curtain will be in effect across Europe, cutting Ukraine and Kyiv in half. On both sides of the new border in Ukraine, minorities face hash repression and discrimination. Despite a deep economic crisis and growing public uproar, Putin will manage to stay in power thanks to more and more draconian propaganda and suppression of civil rights. As Russia tries to refocus trade and economic collaboration away from the West, China benefits and grows in strength and confidence.

Final reflections
The wargaming session inspired a lot of discussions and reflection. A highlight of some of the key takeaways:

  • Return of power politics
    A key reflection comes with the acknowledgement that traditional power politics are back in full force. We all need a refresh crash-course on the Cold War dynamics of balance of power and military deterrence. The key reflection here is that it takes only one part to revive hard power politics. No matter how much we believe in international collaboration, interdependence and democratic virtues, it does not apply if the opposition is willing to send tanks across the border.   

  • Only bad options
    One participant noted that he started the wargaming looking for positive outcomes and good solutions. Quickly he realised that the conflict only offers bad options and negative outlooks. He went from trying to win to instead fighting for tolerable compromises and not losing too much.     

  • Will our sanctions backfire?
    Another participant shared a reflection on the effect of harsh sanctions. We tend to believe that when the Russian invaders impose hardship on the Ukrainian population, it will bolster their patriotism and support for their leadership. And at the same time, we imagine that when our sanctions make life hard and miserable for the Russian population, it will make them angry at Putin and perhaps fuel a change of regime. What if our sanctions backfire? If hardship leads to increased support for Putin and the war?
  • The fear of escalation
    A shared experience during the wargame was that actions by the opposition are easily interpreted as being more aggressive than they were intended. This can lead to non-intended escalation that can spin out of control. It was a tough moment in the western team when they realised that they basically could do nothing if the Russians decided to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

  • Sparks of hope
    The wargame also inspired a few glimpses of hope. One positive element is the renewed union and resolve in EU and NATO. Countries could find unity and make shared decisions fast and efficiently. After Brexit and internal conflict, the idea of European unity and collaboration has been jumpstarted. Another source of hope is the notion that the conflict will accelerate much-needed transformations in Europa and USA from fossil to sustainable energy. When an issue becomes a question of national security, the willingness to make needed investments is usually boosted. And finally, we were all inspired by the Ukrainian fighting spirit and courageous resistance in the face of a much larger invader. Sometimes collaboration and commitment can prevail in the darkest moments.

Serious engagement
In conclusion, our wargaming session in March exemplified how the approach can accelerate collective reflection and knowledge sharing. Despite of the short timeframe and their different backgrounds and limited pre-workshop relations, the participants quickly emerged themselves in deep discussions on the topic, exploring options and concerns, and challenging assumptions and biases. For some, it took days to “shake off” the experience, and everybody left the session with new insights and fresh perspectives. And it was positive to observe, that the high engagement wasn’t fuelled by traditional playful fun or competitive motivation. It was serious conversations on topics that matters to us all.      

Further reading
For additional information on the wargaming methodology, please consider looking at:

  • wargaming map
    wargaming map
  • workshop
  • military strategy
    military strategy