THE REAL “GAME CHANGER” – IMPLICATIONS OF THE UKRAINE WAR
It has been more than one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; the Ukrainian leadership has pushed for more advanced weapons from the West and has repeatedly highlighted the need as a “game changer.” Defense analysts from all sides have debated whether the conflict shows a major change in the nature of war from the perspective of “article,” “event,” and “person.” Starting from the definition of “game changer”, this article explores the possible “game changer” entities presented during the Russo-Ukraine war, and examines the views of various parties on “game change” to discuss the implications of what a real game changer should be.
DEFINING “GAME CHANGER”
“Game changer” refers to something completely new and different. It completely turns the traditional rules of the game in its field. This field could be technological, or an innovative idea, or a new development in way of dealing things, or any innovation that changes the rules of a play. “Game changer” is a neologism that has been in use since the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) included this idiom in 1992. It must be noted that there is no hyphen between game and changer, and only the related adjective “game-changing” has a hyphen, which means “to change the outcome of the game; to change or to subvert the traditional rules of the game; to change or to subvert the traditional norms of behavior.” This article focuses on “game changer” rather than that of the “game-changing.”
“Game changer” was originally a sports term meaning “the person (or thing) that changes the outcome of a game,” and was later adopted by the business community to mean “someone who changes or subverts the traditional rules of the game; people who change or subvert traditional norms of conduct.” Now, it refers to any person, event, innovation, idea or agreement in all fields that is completely new, very different from the past, and changes or subverts the traditional rules of the game or norms of behavior.
GAME CHANGERS IN THE UKRAINE WAR
Since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine War on February 24, 2022, many articles, events, and persons have exhibited the characteristics of “game changer.”
First, from the point of view of “person,” the influence of this aspect is mainly at the strategic level, and the most representative is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Before Russian army invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the prevailing view was that Ukrainian resistance would crumble quickly. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency thought so, as did Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reportedly predicted that Kyiv could fall in 72 hours. Yet more than a year later, Ukraine’s army fights on, having achieved remarkable advances on the battlefield. In March, it repelled Russia’s attack on Kyiv and areas north of the city. It had retaken Kharkiv Province by mid-September and has subsequently attacked the main Russian defense line between Svatove and Kreminna in adjacent Luhansk Province. In November, it forced Russia to withdraw from the part of Kherson Province that lies on the Dnieper River’s right bank. At the end of June 2023, Ukraine has regained about half the land Russia seized since February 24, 2022.
It is clear that President Zelensky’s refusal to flee to the West, with his firm determination to serve the country, led the people of Ukraine to show its strong national resilience to reverse the decline in the early stage of the war, leading and inspiring support from international alliances.
In addition, according to a media report from a French presidential source, “It's obvious that China is one of the few countries on Earth — maybe the only country in the world — to have a ‘game-changer’ effect on the conflict, for both sides.” It shows that some Westerners believe that CCP leader Xi Jinping could have “game changer” characteristics that would influence the movements of the Russo-Ukrainian war, but this remains to be verified.
Secondly, from the perspective of “event,” the influence characteristics of this aspect are mainly at the tactical level, and may also have derivative effects on the strategic situation. The failure of the blitzkrieg in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to a reversal of the battlefield situation can be regarded as an important “event.” In addition, the sinking of the flagship of the Russian Navy Black Sea Fleet, causing the Russian Navy to take a back seat to the role of support, and the Russian army abandoning amphibious landing operation and focusing almost entirely on land operations, can also be regarded as another “event” with the characteristics of “gamer changer”. The upcoming Ukrainian 2023 summer counteroffensive could be decisive for both sides, which means that the battle may lead to a dramatic change in the situation, and may even result in a move towards ending the war; if events unfold as some expect, then this counteroffensive campaign will indeed become a “game changer.”
Finally, from the perspective of “article”, the influence level of this aspect is mainly at the combat level, but its spillover effect can affect tactics and even reach the strategic level with the increase of time and volume. The nuclear bomb “Fat Man” that brought the end of World War II is the most distinguished “article”; it demonstrated the influential role it served as a “game changer”, not only on the battlefield but also in terms of the whole war on the combat, tactical as well as and strategic levels. As for the RussoUkraine war, many analysts have debated whether “articles” such as drones, tanks, armored vehicles, F-16, Starlink, HIMARS, Patriot missiles, Stinger, Javelin, … etc. are “game changer” or not.
It is very clear that for demanders like Ukraine, almost all of the advanced weapons needs put forward to the West are emphasized as "game changers," so as to reinforce the importance and urgency of the demand, so that the major Western arms powers will respond positively to their needs.0 But interestingly, Ukraine leaders did not specifically emphasize drones and Starlink’s role as a “game changer,” and after empirical verification most analysts found that the two did exert the influence of "game changer”; this mainly stems from Ukraine's creativity and innovation, and so far almost all analysts agree that the Ukrainian military and civilians display extraordinary ingenuity when dealing with changes.
Debates on the advanced tanks and F-16 were going on when this article was written, and the solution will be revealed in the future. The most undesirable would be another “Fat Man” type of article applied in this conflict.
REAL “GAME CHANGER” INTEGRATES “ARTICLE”, “EVENT”, AND “PERSON”
Many so-called "Game Changers" have been discussed during the Russo-Ukraine War, some from the perspective of cost-benefit analysis, some from the comparison of the advantages of individual articles, and some from the overall supply chain such as equipment acquisition and maintenance. These arguments may all be limiting and ignore the defining characteristics of a "game changer". The real “Game Changer” which by definition should be completely new, very different from the past, changes or subverts the traditional rules of the game or norms of behavior. It is clear that a revolutionary ”article,” applied in a critical “Event’, with decision made by a key “Person” in a systematic & structural way is the most viable characteristics for being a “game changer.”
For any party participating in a game, it is the ultimate goal of the contestants to find ways to make the game turn in their favor and to win. “Game changer” needs to be viewed from the perspective of “consequence theory”, and may be more appropriate from the perspective of Sun Tzu’s “achieve success by a surprise move with original ideas” [出奇制勝] in the Art of War.
Dr. Tzu-Li Wu is an Associate Research Fellow at Division of Defense Strategy and Resources, INDSR. His research interests include Military Operations Research, Defense Strategy, Defense Industry, and Defense Affair
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