Tuesday 3 January 2023

Confrontation Analysis and the Ukraine War

Confrontation Analysis is a method of analysing and gaming situations involving multiple stakeholders with competing aims and objectives. It has been used professionally by various organisations interested in modelling the options for all sides and obtaining clarity on who wants what to happen. The result is often a series of dilemmas and the method presents suggestions on how each type of dilemma can be potentially solved.

The method is documented in Curry J. and Young M. (2017) The Confrontation Analysis Handbook: How to Resolve Confrontations by Eliminating Dilemmas: Innovations in Wargaming Volume 3.

At the start of the Russian invasion I used the method to identify and analyse the strategic options available to each side. Imagine each side has cards (options) in their hand. Each card states what it does and summaries the other stake holder’s position on the card (i.e. they want it to happen, the don’t want it to happen, or they do not care). Cards can be held secretly in a player’s hands, put on the edge of the table as a threat (i.e. I will play this card if you do something I do not like) or be played (i.e. actioned). The method allowed me to largely model the strategic options that have since come into ‘play’ during the subsequent war. I wish I had documented these efforts to an academic standard at the time.

For example, Russia plays “Threaten Norwegian gas and oil installations” (they did this with drones and close target recces). NATO plays “Mobilise Norwegian military” card, and “Deploy Royal Marines and Royal Navy” cards to counter the Russian threat. Russia then has a belief dilemma, as NATO does not believe that Russia could cripple Norwegian production.

Another example is Russia plays “Threaten grain shipments by sea from Ukraine”. NATO plays “Deploy Turkish Navy to protect merchant shipping”. Again, Russia has a belief dilemma, as Turkey thinks it would sink Russia’s entire Black Sea Fleet with just three of its ships.

Nuclear weapons first use by Russia is an example of a threat card that is on the card table. Russia could do it (i.e. it has the delivery means), but just having the card as a threat does not commit Russia to use or non-use.

The USA also has many threat cards, largely centred around delivering weapons to Ukraine e.g. Training Ukraine pilots on F15/F16’s. Having trained pilots and ground staff just waiting for the aircraft to be delivered to Ukrainian airfields is a powerful threat card.

Having revisited Confrontation Analyse and used it for the Ukraine War, I am very impressed the way it helps encourage identifying strategic options available to all sides. As the cards are played onto the card table it dynamically inspires the creation of further cards (options). Unlike game theory that assumes a static state, Confrontation Analysis assumes the playing area changes as cards are played and discarded.

The card which most surprised me was created during the game, it was called “if you think your oil and gas industry will be working in the morning…” The card was generated by NATO and the aim was to shut down the Russian energy industry for the immediate future. It inspired an interesting discussion about the feasibility of cyber, special forces, hitting critical transport nodes(pipelines) etc. the only card the Russians could play to counter that particular threat was “go nuclear”. This was disturbing card to say the least to see on the card table at the end of the session.


  1. I think that Confrontation Analysis is a genuinely outstanding tool for professional wargaming purposes (in the widest sense); the only thing I thought was a little lacking was its implication that trust deficits could theoretically always be overcome by dealing with stated positions: I think there was some strong assumptions in there that aren't always entirely true. But apart from that edge case, a really great thing.

  2. I find that to really understand a problem requires analysis, some wargames, then further analysis. All wargaming methods have strengths and weaknesses (as you have identified for confrontation analysis). I often do 2 or 3 small wargames of different types when looking at a problem to gain what I refer to as a 'multi view'. Professional wargaming gravitates towards a single large scale wargame e.g.a matrix game, for any one situation.

  3. Fascinating recent articles, John. Many thanks for them. Dare I ask if there are any new books on the horizon?

  4. There are 61 books on the horizon, however, the next book will be Paddy Griffith's Battle in the Vietnam War. Just writing up the first megagame to go into the final chapter of the book.

  5. Hi John, the news is all about the supplying of tanks to Ukraine. I wonder how this affects your model and outcome?

    1. It is WW1 1915-17 all over again. The Russian kit on both sides is worn out- IDF struggles to hit anything, tanks and APCs breakdown all the time. There are not enough drones and rockets to break the deadlock, so Russia is using its new advantage in infantry numbers to launch human wave attacks; costly in human terms, but they do take a few km here and there. Meanwhile UKR is building up stockpiles of ammunition and training with the new NATO supplied kit. Russia is also racing to manufacture new kit. Who is going to win the arms race, the capitalist free market west or the centralised Russian economy? I think history gives us an idea. Also watch out for the trans Siberian railway, I am not sure in a few weeks time if it is as reliable as it used to be. 9000 km long, over some of the roughest terrain on the planet including awe inspiring bridges...

  6. Do you have any resources for how to run a game based on confrontation analysis beyond your book on dilemmas? Are there many published games using these tools?