Is Putin a Great Strategist?
He's certainly a competent one, as well as tactically unpredictable, even brilliant
This article originally appeared at Gordon Hahn's Blog
Some, especially many of his compatriots, acclaim Russian President Vladimir Putin is a strategic (and tactical) genius.
By contrast Western observers presuppose less competence. The most said by the latter is that he is a kind of evil genius or that he runs circles around US President Barack Obama.
Putin may not be a strategic genius, but he is strategically competent. He is also tactically unpredictable, even brilliant. Let’s look at the record.
The first thing that needs to be stressed is that Putin has no grand strategy, no less one to ‘reestablish the Tsarist or Soviet empire.’ Such claims are delusions, paranoia, and/or well-compensated stratcomm.
His goal is to ensure Russia’s status as a global power, one of several great powers in Eurasia writ large, and the indispensable country for any other pursuing a presence in central Eurasia – the former USSR.
But there is no sure-fire strategy for achieving this goal other than that established before Putin’s rise to the Russian presidency by then Russian Foreign Minister, the late Yevgenii Primakov. The ‘Primakov doctrine’ or strategy was the pursuit of a multipolar world through a ‘multi-vector’ or multi-directional foreign policy that took seriously the Russian state emblem of the double-headed eagle looking both east and west.
Putin continued and developed Primakov’s line, but he did not devise it. The robustness of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership and the Kremlin’s own ‘Asian pivot’ is certainly Putin’s work as well, but was a logical direction under ‘multipolarism’ and a strategy of necessity given growing tensions with the West.
Indeed, Putin has developed effective, flexible strategies for pursuing and deepening Russia’s presence in every region of the world. His multilateral strategies possess geographical multi-directional and functional multidimensional aspects and growth potential. BRICS – with a country on each continent – is a strategic achievement and perhaps Putin’s most innovative. Although increasingly Sino-centric, it was Putin who proposed the BRICS idea, and he has persistently pursued its geographical and functional expansion. The organization is positioning itself as the foundation for an alternative global financial and trading system to that presently dominated by the US, EU, IMF, World Bank and other players.
The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is Putin’s variation on the failed CIS and his multipolar strategy for the Eurasian region within the larger global multipolar strategy. It has much less to do with imperialistic Eurasianist geostrategic thought than with an economic development strategy for Eurasia in which Russia becomes a transportation and trade hub for this mega-region, which is also intended to be a bridge between the Asian Pacific region and Europe. Russia’s geographic comparative advantages make this a sound strategy.
That this has nothing to do with empire-building and everything to do with developing trade links across the Eurasian continent is clear when we look at EEU efforts such as offering free trade zones with countries far afield from central Eurasia. In October 2014 Syria requested talks on a FTZ, to which Moscow and the EEC responded positively. In April 2015 Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev offered Thailand a FTZ with the EEC. In May Vietnam became the first country to sign a FTZ agreement with the EEU. At the EEC summit on July 6th Russian presidential aide foreign policy Yuri Ushakov announced that India and the EEC had agreed to create a working group for exploring an India-EEC FTZ. A recent Kazakhstani report indicates that more than 30 countries – including Zimbabwe, Jordan, Mongolia and Albania – have applied to the Eurasian Economic Commission for a FTZ with the EEU (Link).
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) started out as a joint Sino-Russian project enthusiastically backed by Putin as an economic integration forum for economic cooperation and development in the eastern, Asian parts of Eurasia. When relations with NATO irretrievably soured and southern Eurasia became increasingly threatened by the Arab winter and the global jihadist and Islamist revolutionary movements, Putin increasingly supported SCO’s gradual ‘securitization’, which now includes a counter-terrorism center, a rapid reaction forces, and frequent military maneuvers.
Putin as Foreign Policy Tactician
The West’s ineffective, some would say feckless and even destabilizing policy in Syria has provided another opening for Putin. Probably as a result of his talks with UAE and Saudi sheikhs and Egyptian President Sisi, Putin has proposed a new anti-ISIS coalition for Syria and Iraq. First, Putin’s plan is to bring together the armies of Syria and Iraq and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia and inflict a more concerted ground war on the Islamic State. Second, the countries funding Syrian opposition groups should be persuaded to coordinate their actions with the Syrian-Iraqi-Kurdish coalition.
Putin is also good at turning setbacks into victories or at least draws. Thus, as the regime Russia’s semi-ally Syrian President Bashar Assad seemed on the verge of being overrun by rebel forces in 2013 and US President Barack Obama was preparing to perhaps deliver the coup de grace with an air war on Assad in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, Putin stepped in offering to negotiate the removal of all of Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria. The implementation of this plan appears to have resolved the chemical weapons issue and given the Assad regime a new lease on life.
Similarly, Putin was able to wrest victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat, when he suffered what appeared to be a major strategic setback in Ukraine after the illegal seizure of power by anti-Russian elements in Kiev in February 2004. This threatened the loss of a more or less friendly regime next door and of the naval base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. At the same time, the Maidan revolution’s neofascist element posed the real risk of violence against ethnic Russians in Crimea and Donbass. Putin killed all these ‘birds with one stone’, when he stealthily occupied and annexed Crimea. So far his efforts to support Donbass’s anti-Kiev rebels have not ended in a final decision, but the Donbass population has been somewhat protected from Kiev’s brutal anti-terrorist operation and neofascist-dominated volunteer battalions, who have wreaking more havoc in Kiev and central and western Ukraine recently than in eastern Ukraine.
The August 2008 Georgian-Ossetiyan war followed a similar pattern, but with a better outcome for Moscow. Putin rescued victory from the defeat that would have resulted if Mikheil Saakashvili’s offensive into South Ossetiya ended in Georgia’s reestablishment of control over the breakaway region. Not only would Moscow have been proven of being incapable of protecting an ally it had sworn to protect when ultra-nationalist Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia repressed that region and Abkhaziya and Ajariya as well. Moscow would have had to deal with its Ossetiyans from North Ossetiya streaming over the border to help their ethnic compatriots in the south in the insurgency that would have inevitably developed, with or without Russian assistance. The likelihood that a success in South Ossetiya would have prompted Saakashvili to repeat the action in breakaway Abkhaziya would have produced the same threat dynamic for Russia’s interests and hence Putin’s authority, for the Abkhaziyans were also under Russian protection and have several fraternally ethnic fellow-Circassian nationalities just north over the border in Russia’s North Caucasus republics of Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkariya, and Karachaevo-Cherkessiya.
Similarly, in Ukraine Putin has not ‘marched on Kiev’ or ‘forged a land corridor from Crimea to Transdniestr, as many hysterically predicted. Why Putin has not even encouraged the Donbass rebels or use the Russian army to seize even all the territory of Donetsk and Luhanks Oblasts for the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic to seize. Thus, as in Georgia, Putin’s support for the rebels and surgical use of small incursions by Russian military was a spur of the moment defensive reaction and innovation undertaken to salvage victory when defeat was imminent. Even the apparent stroke of genius that was his Crimean revanche can be brought into question, given that the Russian General Staff must have had contingency plans for such operations in the event developments – such as war or chaos in the relevant regions – necessitated Russian action. Nevertheless, we do not know if he first broached the idea or someone else, and how much of the stealth tactical approach can be credited to a design of his own.
In both the Georgian and Ukrainian cases, Putin seems to have overreacted tactically in order to ensure the success of his strategy of maintaining Russia’s hegemony in the post-Soviet space. In Georgia, he could have gotten by without recognizing the independence of South Ossetiya and Abkhaziya. A heavy military presence in both breakaway republics would have been enough to deter another Georgian gambit. This would have left Putin with bargaining chips for the future. In Ukraine, Putin could have won the moral high ground by simply occupying Crimea until a settlement had been reached based on the broken February 20th agreement. Using this card, stationing tens of thousands of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border along the Donbass, and appealing to the UN for negotiations on, and peacekeepers to help enforce a new grand bargain in Ukraine would been a better strategy.
The ‘new cold war’ (a clumsy term) that emerged from the Ukrainian crisis has sharply reduced but not eliminated Russia’s opportunities in the Western vector. Nevertheless, Putin has left the door open for a ‘detente’ with the West while pursuing opportunities in energy trade and other spheres by taking advantage of, and attempting to create rifts in Europe. He has plied existing inroads such as approaching European countries with which Russia has long-standing historical and cultural affinity such as Slavic roots (Serbia, Bulgaria, and Slovakia) and Orthodox Christian heritage (Greece and the aforementioned Slavic countries). He also has cleverly courted political outliers from the European liberal consensus such as Hungary and Austria and conservative and even some nationalist elements across the continent.
Putin as Domestic Strategist
Politically, Putin has been more successful tactically than strategically, in my view. Putin’s strategy from the start was to strengthen the state even at the expense of democratization. Stability would create a platform for reform. While I have disagreed with his domestic goals – the downsides of which are usually exaggerated by the Western media – there is no doubt that initially he had a strategy that seemed to be a kind of neo-Stolypinism.
The idea, which I will develop in a later article, was that Putin would be a modern day Pyotr Stolypin, the Tsarist era reform-minded Prime Minister assassinated in Kiev in 2012, whom Putin mentioned frequently in his first few years as president in the early 2000s. Putin would be tough on terrorists and radical opposition activity but would also implement a gradual reform program to modernize and liberalize Russia’s economy. There was some emphasis on the need even avoid foreign entanglements, as Stolypin and his predecessor Sergei Witte urged.
Unfortunately, Putin’s domestic policy soon evolved into ‘Stolypinism’ without the liberal component. Pressure was exerted not just on radical opposition activity but opposition forces with radical ideas or just ideas radically different from Putin and his inner circle.
Economic reform has been minimal in comparison with Stolypin’s ambitious plans, and Putin has in fact increased the state’s role in the economy, which has only strengthened corruption’s grip on Russian state and society. Putin’s failure to avoid foreign entanglements was never a promise he made, and he could not be blamed for breaking it if he had, for Western policies (such as NATO and EU expansion, among others) and developments such as the Arab spring and China’s rise have forced him to take assertive and sometimes aggressive foreign policy measures.
Putin as Domestic Tactician
Given his goals, Putin has demonstrated tactical effectiveness, even brilliance in domestic affairs. He has deployed liberal economic and financial specialists in government to good effect in monetary and fiscal policy. Putin has been able on occasion to co-opt moderate political liberals into government – such as former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, leading members of liberal democratic ‘Yabloko’ party, among others. He has set up specialized institutions (the Public Chamber, the Presidential Council on Human Rights, and public councils attached to government ministries) to co-opt liberals into ‘constructive’ activity and provide a mechanism from societal and opposition groups. He has been able to do this while cracking down on liberal democratic parties, limiting but not eliminating their rights and opportunities to engage in politics.
The liberal interregnum between Putin’s second and third terms under the presidency of his close associate Dmitry Medvedev was a successful tactical not a strategic shift, at least in its ultimate outcome if not necessarily in its original intent. Some of us would have preferred it was a strategic shift towards liberalization and democratization. Alas, as former Prime Minister, the late Viktor Chernomyrdin, once said: ‘We wanted things to be better, but they ended as they always do.’
In sum, Putin is a competent, even very good strategist, bot not a great one. Putin expanded, deepened and improved upon Primakov’s multipolar doctrine. In a logical response to the West’s attempt to isolate Russia, Putin has energetically and somewhat deftly intensified Russian diplomacy in the other regions of the world. No genius in this, but considerable competence. Domestically, Putin’s strategy is mediocre at best; better in economics than in politics. In economics he has achieved stability through a strategy of frugality, energy development, and ‘saving for a rainy day.’ In politics, Putin unfortunately has followed a long Russian pattern of overreacting to instability and excessively centralizing power in Moscow as opposed to taking a federative approach. Functionally, he has concentrated power in the executive branch, denuding the parliament and the judiciary. This has rarely achieved the desired result in Russia. In time corruption, stagnation, ossification render the state unable to respond effectively to international developments and internal challenges, leading to destabilization, palace coups, revolutions, and the like.
Tactically, Putin is very good, even superb. He is able — within the framework of his goals and strategy — to employ effective tools in the implementation of tactical responses to challenges and setbacks in foreign relations. He often turns seeming strategic defeats into tactical even strategic victories. In domestic politics, although his goals and strategy display a failure to draw the proper conclusions from Russian history, his tactics show some learning from history. He effectively uses liberal economists and ministers in economics and democrats in quasi-state public bodies.
In all these ways, Putin can be considered the hybrid regime’s or the new authoritarianism’s penultimate practitioner. However, this does not mean that the system and methodology he has designed holds out anything more than meta-stability and mid-term life expectancy. In order to get beyond this limitation, another tactical or strategic shift to domestic liberalization is called for. In foreign policy, staying the course while avoiding excesses (S-300 sales to Iran and indiscriminate nuclear technology sales) and overreactions should be the strategy.
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