Shattering the myth of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius

There is a myth, in wide circulation throughout the Western world, that Vladimir Putin is a strategic mastermind — a geopolitical genius more astute than Clausewitz, more subtle than Sun Tzu and more audacious than Napoleon.

According to this myth, the Russian leader is the strategic equivalent of the chess world’s greatest grandmaster, able to grasp the big geopolitical picture, anticipate his adversary’s moves and move his own pieces around the board in ways that not only guarantee victory but leave his opponents sputtering in awe at his mastery of the great game. He may be evil, but no matter. Like Machiavelli’s ideal prince, though he is perhaps not loved, he must be feared. For as a master of the dark arts of strategy, he will always get his way.

For those who have bought into this myth, the latest Russian jockeying over Ukraine is simply the pudding that proves the point. Once again, the purveyors of the myth would have us believe, the canny Russian leader has wrong-footed the bumbling and divided leaders of the West, this time outmaneuvering them so thoroughly that he is poised not only to prevail over Ukraine but to remake the entire European security to suit his own diabolical purposes. 

Like most myths, however, this one is more fantasy than fact. Putin is by no conceivable definition of the term a strategic genius; in fact, quite the opposite. Even a cursory survey of his record clearly reveals that the Russian leader is something of a strategic fool.

Although we would have to go back to the very beginning of his tenure as paramount leader (his formal title changes occasionally, but for the past two decades he’s always been the one calling the shots) and survey his entire foreign policy record to prove this conclusively, a review of Putin’s mishandling of the ongoing Ukraine crisis will be sufficient to illustrate the basic point.

To begin with, we need to bear in mind that it was Putin who needlessly transformed a simmering political conflict with Ukraine into a war. That conflict, itself caused by Putin’s blundering efforts to compel Ukraine to join its Eurasian Economic Union, had become frozen in the aftermath of his failed 2014 effort to permanently halt Ukraine’s westward drift. 

But, in a clumsy attempt to force a permanent solution to his “Ukraine problem,” in recent months, Putin deployed a massive military force that could neither be maintained in the field indefinitely nor withdrawn without significant internal and external audience costs. Now that, all too predictably, neither Ukraine nor NATO has acceded to his demands, he has found himself with no choice but to use the massive military force that he originally thought he could wield bloodlessly to bully his way to victory. These are not the fruits of strategic genius.

That Putin would attempt this gambit in the first place was plausibly rational — at least in the sense that inferences flow logically from premises. But its rationality depended on a totally flawed premise. Putin completely misjudged the temper of the U.S. and its NATO allies and wildly misread what the Alliance was willing to concede and what it was not. And those strategic misapprehensions, in turn, were based on a shocking misinterpretation of both the causes and consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Again, these are not the kinds of missteps that one would have expected from even a run-of-the mill strategic genius, let alone a grandmaster of Putin’s caliber. A merely average strategic genius would have accurately read the geopolitical room and grasped that NATO was not going to knuckle under to the demands Putin has made. 

Even a less-than-average strategic genius would not have amassed forces on Ukraine’s border without leaving himself what Sun Tzu, an actual master of strategy, called a “golden bridge” — an off-ramp that in this case would allow him to exit the highway to war without incurring substantial internal and external audience costs. These are not the fruits of strategic genius. 

And let’s be clear: Putin’s war with Ukraine will ultimately redound to Russia’s great strategic disadvantage. To be sure, there can be little doubt that Russian forces will accomplish their military mission as quickly and effectively as did the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq in 2003. 

But the longer-term strategic consequences are likely to be every bit as catastrophic as that earlier American-led “war of choice.” If Russia attempts to occupy the entire country, it will face the task of pacifying a hostile people with a long history of resisting foreign domination. If that sounds familiar, it should — not least to Putin, who knows, or ought to know, the role that the Red Army’s bloody occupation of Afghanistan played in the ultimate demise of his beloved Soviet Union. 

If Putin’s Russia merely seeks to carve out a land-corridor here or a buffer-zone there, it will face an irreconciled Ukraine, a NATO finally stirred from its three-decades-long geopolitical slumber, a hostile U.S. and perhaps even an alienated China. And if it does nothing more than attempt to break the Ukrainian state and its military, the staggering civilian casualties and subsequent refugee crisis will leave Russia a pariah state — one subject to sanctions and condemnations the likes of which it has never before experienced.

And whatever the scope, scale and objective it finally assumes, any military operation Putin launches will carry the ever-present risk that it will go wrong, escalate or otherwise spiral out of control — with even more potentially catastrophic consequences. These are not the fruits of strategic genius.

Even if, by some miracle not of Putin’s making, a protracted war can be avoided, the likely strategic consequences of all the grand master’s strategy thus far would still be contrary to Russia’s interests as Putin has defined them. It will further consolidate a Ukrainian national identity organized around anti-Russianness. It may incline Finland and Sweden – the very definition of neutral states – to seek NATO membership. It has already catalyzed greater NATO solidarity and may well result in a truly far-reaching revitalization of the Alliance as a bulwark against Russian influence and a check on its ambitions. And it may well trigger German – and even a wider European – re-armament on a scale not seen since the depths of the Cold War. These are not the fruits of strategic genius.

In sum, Vladimir Putin may be many things — a capable tyrant, a sometime naturalist, a middling hockey player, an avid fisherman. But whatever else he is, and the prevailing mythology notwithstanding, one thing is for certain: He’s no strategic genius. 

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Soviet Union Vladimir Putin

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