Dealing with Putin’s Strategic Incompetence


Vladimir Putin is a bad strategist: He does not understand the relationship between military violence and political objectives. In the last two years, he has all but ruined his aspiration to return Russia to the ranks of the great powers. His ham-fisted annexation of Crimea, along with his transparent support for secessionists in the ongoing civil war in East Ukraine, has been disastrous for Russian interests. Putin’s adventurism led to stock market chaos, a major currency crisis, and staggering levels of capital flight — all of which have compounded the problem of collapsing oil prices. The loss of revenue is damaging Russia’s conventional military power because the government will struggle mightily to modernize its forces. Meanwhile, Putin has breathed new life into NATO, an alliance that had been searching for common purpose and sagging under the weight of the war in Afghanistan.

Putin seems unable to recognize the depth of his blunders. Instead of reconsidering the wisdom of his approach, he has doubled down on his Ukrainian misadventure. One of the marks of a competent strategist is the ability to understand failure and change course as needed. Putin has not demonstrated that he can measure success or failure, or that he is capable of change. Instead of fostering serious strategic debate in Moscow, he has created an ideological echo chamber based on the idea of his own steadfastness against a rapacious West seeking Russia’s destruction. Such old-fashioned agitprop has helped him consolidate power at home, but it has badly weakened Russia’s position abroad.

A decent strategist could have accomplished much more without paying such a high price. Putin’s mismanagement of the Russian economy has been based on the bizarre idea that he could make the country a great power as a commodities exporter. Soaring oil prices during the first decade of Putin’s rule probably fueled this illusion, causing the government to focus on controlling the energy sector and delaying efforts to diversify the Russian economy. Some analysts also speculate that it encouraged more risk-taking and aggression. Now that the bottom has fallen out of the oil market, Russia is suffering for Putin’s shortsightedness.

Patient diplomacy could have won more sympathy in Europe while deepening the fissures among NATO members, many of whom were lukewarm about fighting together after years of frustration in Afghanistan. One can imagine persistent efforts to integrate Russia into the European economy while slowly undoing European unity. All of this would have provided a firmer foundation for Russia’s military modernization while slowly chipping away at Russia’s latent rivals on its periphery. Instead, Putin spooked Europe by using the threat of gas cutoffs as a coercive lever, and made things worse by redrawing the map in Ukraine and then lying about it. Russia’s enthusiasm for the new Eurasian Economic Union, a motley collection of former Soviet republics, caused some observers to speculate that Putin was actively trying to “re-Sovietize” the region. This was hardly a way to assuage fears of Russian intentions.

In one sense, the fact that Putin is a bad strategist is good news for the United States. His self-defeating strategies are reducing Russian power and leaving it isolated. This will make it easier for Washington to focus on other parts of the world. The United States does not need bold action to shore up its gigantic advantages relative to Russia. It only needs to allow Putin to keep on blundering. It also does not need to engage in a costly arms race, given doubts that Russia can live up to its own military modernization targets.

But Putin’s incompetence also creates new risks. His inability to learn from Ukraine, for instance, suggests that he might be willing to try the same gambit in the Baltics on the pretext of defending ethnic Russians. Putin may believe that he can attempt a similar sort of covert coup using special operators and supporting separatists while publicly denying any involvement. He might also begin overt conventional maneuvers near the Estonian or Latvian border to send a tacit threat of Russian intervention. Making good on that threat, however, would risk a conflict with the United States, which would be obligated to come to the defense of its NATO allies.

What would happen if NATO sent conventional forces to contest Russian moves in the Baltics? Some analysts correctly note that while NATO possesses overwhelming advantages in the aggregate, it would be outnumbered locally. This means that Russia could quickly establish a foothold on some slice of Baltic territory before the United States could organize a response. NATO would need some time to arrive in theater with the strength needed to confront Russian forces, and it would have to fight very hard to eject them. And beyond the costs of conventional fighting, they would also face the risk of a nuclear exchange. While escalation is not inevitable, Putin’s strategic ineptitude makes it more likely.

In the abstract, there are psychological, political, and military pathways to nuclear escalation. First, intense wartime psychological stress might cause leaders to misinterpret signals of restraint, exaggerate the costs and danger of fighting, and become risk-acceptant. Second, paranoid leaders might believe the price of losing is regime change. If they are convinced that staying in power requires decisive victory, even against a vastly superior conventional enemy, they might be willing to gamble for resurrection by crossing the nuclear threshold. Third, leaders may opt to use nuclear weapons through a process of inadvertent escalation. They may reasonably construe attacks on their command and control systems, for instance, as part of a campaign to disable their deterrent force. Under these circumstances they might act on a terrible “use it or lose it” impulse, even if their adversary had no intention of destroying their nuclear capabilities.

While all three of these scenarios could occur during a NATO–Russia conventional conflict, Putin’s strategic myopia is particularly troubling because it exacerbates the psychological and political pathways to escalation. The inability to recognize failure might give him false confidence about Russia’s prospect against NATO forces, especially because Russia would enjoy initially superior numbers in a hypothetical war. This lead might not last long. In the last 30 years the United States has demonstrated extraordinary abilities to overcome enemy defenses through a combination of rapid maneuver, electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, and brute force. A successful counter-attack against Russian forces, especially including strikes on Russian air defense installations, would come as a terrifying shock to Russian leaders. In this case a host of familiar psychological pathologies could take hold, making it possible for Putin to lash out in anger and frustration rather than seeking some way of limiting the damage.

There is also reason to believe that Putin may view losing to NATO as tantamount to regime suicide. Putin’s domestic popularity rests on a self-constructed narrative that Russia is threatened by duplicitous and hostile states, and that he is the only leader strong enough to resist them. Putin’s inability to recognize failure probably encourages this delusion. Unfortunately, this worldview implies that backing down is intolerable, because it would suggest Russian weakness and invite more aggression from the West. Rather than concede defeat in the wake of conventional losses, Putin might opt for nuclear weapons to preserve his own rule. Instead of suing for peace in a limited conflict, he might be willing to take the extraordinary risk of escalation to force NATO to accept his terms. There are indications that Russian strategists are preparing for this contingency. Indeed, Russia’s nuclear doctrine has included variations on the logic of these so-called “de-escalatory strikes” since 2000.

U.S. planners thus face two separate but interrelated problems. The first is how to overcome local conventional shortfalls in the event they are asked to rescue tiny NATO allies. The second is how to defeat Russia without provoking nuclear retaliation. Put another way, they need to figure out how to bolster strategic stability by removing Russian incentives for striking first. This is particularly difficult against an enemy who cannot reliably measure battlefield success and failure, or accurately interpret wartime signals of restraint.

Some U.S. defense analysts argue that the best way to preserve stability is by forward deploying conventional and nuclear forces while sending unequivocal signals of U.S. resolve. This includes sending a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons to Europe, dual-capable aircraft to Poland, and theater missile defenses that would erode the killing power of Russia’s large arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. Such deployments would allow NATO to match Russian escalation without having to make hollow threats of massive destruction, or having to respond to Russian nuclear attacks with conventional force alone. Instead, these analysts argue, Washington must make it abundantly clear that Putin cannot win a local conflict and that the United States is ready and able to respond to Russian nuclear attacks. Visible demonstrations of U.S. escalation dominance are the best way of discouraging Russian aggression and, in the event of a war, deterring Russian nuclear use. At a minimum, the United States and NATO need to think seriously about how to reintegrate nuclear weapons into conventional war planning.

This argument would make sense for an adversary capable of interpreting signals and understanding the implications of the battlefield balance, but Putin has not demonstrated either capability. His pattern of behavior suggests the opposite. If anything, he is prone to misperception and error. And in the unlikely event that he comes to grip with reality, his fear of regime change is likely to cause him to lash out rather than back down. In addition, forward deploying nuclear forces may prove counterproductive if they undermine NATO unity. The small stockpile of B61 bombs in Europe today is already a source of friction within the alliance. Adding to that stockpile will surely increase controversy. According to Steven Pifer, who worked on the State Department’s NATO desk in the 1980s, “placing nuclear weapons on Russia’s doorstep would be a hugely provocative act. Many allies would regard it as borderline reckless.”

How then can the United States preserve the positive trend in relative power while decreasing the risk of crisis instability and nuclear escalation?

The first step is to reevaluate Russian strategy. Analysts have been impressed by Russia’s version of “hybrid war,” which combines covert operations and support for proxy groups, while simultaneously using conventional threats to coerce local rivals and nuclear threats to deter outside intervention. This combination was on display in Ukraine last year, where Russia quickly annexed Crimea without much of a fight. U.S. observers have been concerned both because of the apparent effectiveness of hybrid warfare and because there is no obvious response. Because hybrid warfare relies on covert operations and government duplicity, it might not be easy to declare a violation of the sovereignty of a NATO member state and come to its defense. Moreover, it is not clear what sort of response would be appropriate against Russia, especially if Moscow relied heavily on supposedly independent proxy groups. In short, Russia’s turn to hybrid warfare seems to foreshadow a conflict with the West that lies outside NATO’s legal framework and negates NATO’s conventional advantages.

But hybrid warfare is not new, and the Russian variant is not particularly inspired. The circumstances in Crimea were unique: Russian operatives in unmarked uniforms — its so-called “little green men” — were operating on extremely favorable terrain; Crimea was majority ethnic Russian and overwhelmingly in favor of rejoining Russia; the major Russian base at Sevastopol provided a ready source of manpower; and the Ukrainian government, which was in the midst of crisis, had no way of responding in kind. As Paul Saunders noted, replicating the Crimea experience is unlikely given the uniquely auspicious conditions Russia found there. Indeed, its experience in Eastern Ukraine has been much less successful.

So instead of struggling to cobble together a response to Russian hybrid warfare, NATO should do very little in response. Putin may believe that he has discovered an unbeatable formula, but what he has really done is implemented a plan that worked in one place under a peculiar set of circumstances. The fact that he is overconfident about this method is unsurprising, given his track record of misunderstanding the results of Russian actions.

To be clear, Russia can certainly make mischief in the Baltics through hybrid tactics, complicating life for Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. At the same time, however, such tactics would inspire a hostile response from local populations not interested in joining the Russian Federation, as has been the case in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, Russian efforts to disclaim responsibility would almost certainly be met with deaf ears in Europe and North America. Russia would likely find itself stuck in a new conflict at a time when its economy and military are already struggling. It would become more deeply isolated in the world and effectively kill off the hope of reintegration in global markets. And since the Baltic states are NATO members, the United States could provide lethal aid to host governments without requiring a protracted national debate, as was the case in Ukraine. Such aid will help raise the costs for Russia without having to take the risk of a large-scale conventional operation that would increase the danger of escalation.

The Baltic states will ask for more. In the event they face a Russian-sponsored rebellion, they will almost surely demand that NATO allies live up to their collective security obligations and intervene directly. When they do, U.S. leaders must be ready to speak candidly about the limits of U.S. support rather than encouraging false optimism. NATO’s collective security provision (Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty) does not call on all members to automatically send military forces to a member state under attack. Instead, it requires only that they treat an attack on any member as an attack on all of them, and that they meet to deem what kind of assistance is necessary. U.S. leaders can reassure their Baltic counterparts that Washington will provide assistance, but not the kind of military response that will risk a nuclear strike. The best response will be one that slowly raises Russia’s penalty for meddling without opening the pathways to escalation. No doubt Baltic leaders will bridle at this, but they will benefit from honesty rather than bluster. The truth is that no one knows whether the United States or any other members of NATO would risk a nuclear exchange with Russia over slivers of contested territory in Eastern Europe. Much more credible would be a promise of low-level support that preserves Baltic sovereignty, raises Russian costs, and reduces the risk of escalation.

The essence of this approach is to let Russia continue to engage in self-defeating behavior without acting in ways that raise the specter of nuclear escalation. In other words, the scenario I have described for a Baltics crisis would mimic U.S. policy towards Russia for the last year and a half. This approach is clearly unsatisfying to some U.S. defense officials who believe the administration is “too timid.” These critics fear that the White House is not taking the Russian threat seriously, and is avoiding the kind of bold action needed to reassure NATO allies and deter Russia. But the administration’s conduct is not based on some blasé attitude about Moscow, but on the recognition that Russian strategy has been working against Russian interests. Putin’s mistakes are demolishing his plan to make Russia a great power again, and letting him continue is sensible. Reshaping American strategy and force posture to keep up with a blundering adversary is an unnecessary risk. As President Obama himself noted, “at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn’t so smart.”


Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University, where he serves as Director of the Security and Strategy Program (SAS@SMU). He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011), which won the ISSS Best Book Award and the Furniss Book Award.