Searching for Strategy in Putin’s Russia

September 14, 2015

Putin may be good at sticking his thumb in America's eye, but no matter how you cut it, he has led his country down the road of decline.

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Critics of Vladimir Putin charge him with serious strategic blunders. Russia is paying a high price for annexing Crimea and intervening in the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine. The Russian economy, already in shambles from mismanagement and corruption, can hardly afford such costly gambles. Putin’s military adventurism also puts at risk his ambitious plans for military modernization. Worse yet, he has alienated the countries he needs most to rescue Russia’s economy. Instead of cultivating European leaders, he caused them to rally around the NATO flag. A leader who weakens his own economic and military power while uniting his adversaries qualifies as a bad strategist.

Not so fast, writes Michael Kofman. Last week at War on the Rocks, Kofman made the case for Putin, arguing that critics fail to put his strategy in historical and political context. Kofman identifies me as among the worst offenders who fail to describe Putin’s strategy, blame him unfairly for events outside his control, and ignore his track record of success. Russia’s economic distress is a function of falling oil prices, he writes, and Putin has done well to hold the line against the United States and NATO despite his disadvantageous starting point. Kofman believes that Putin’s approach toward the use of force has been mostly successful during his long tenure. Moreover, he has displayed a “flexible approach” in Ukraine that allows Russia to absorb the costs of its intervention while keeping Ukraine divided internally and outside of NATO’s orbit.

This defense of Putin is unconvincing. It uses strange criteria for judging his strategy, and ends up presenting contradictory arguments about his performance. The biggest gap, however, is the lack of evidence in support of the main argument. Kofman searches for signs of strategic behavior in the Kremlin and finds none.

Consider his treatment of Putin’s use of force. This is the most important standard of evaluation, because strategy is the bridge between violence and policy objectives. Kofman gives Putin high marks and notes that his successes look especially good next to high-profile U.S. failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. “Indeed,” he concludes, “the Kremlin understands quite well the interaction between violence and politics. It has to, because it does not have access to strong alternatives compared to countries like the United States.”

Kofman begins by describing Russia’s war in Chechnya as “brutal, but successful.” Putin’s management of operations in Chechnya after 2000 was brutal, to be sure, but it is hardly relevant. No one questions his capacity for ruthless repression of threats at home. The issue is how well he uses force to achieve his goals abroad.

What about more recent cases? The war in Georgia in 2008 was plagued by poor military performance, but Russia “achieved its strategic purpose by ending any serious consideration of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine.” This will come as news to NATO leaders, who have been strengthening ties to Tblisi. Just two weeks ago, the alliance announced the establishment of a long-awaited NATO training facility in Georgia, which NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called “a significant step deepening further our close cooperation.” During his public announcement, he suggested that the facility would “help Georgia to move closer to [its] aspiration of NATO membership.”

And if the war in Georgia supposedly ended consideration of NATO expansion, then last year’s war in Ukraine should not have been necessary. Kofman ignores this contradiction. Indeed, his conclusion about Ukraine is almost precisely the same as his conclusion about Georgia: “the annexation of Crimea and a frozen conflict in the East will make integration into NATO and the European Union a distant, if not impossible, prospect for Ukraine.” This conclusion is debatable, given that Stoltenberg is travelling to Kiev this month and is expected to announce joint NATO–Ukrainian civil-protection exercises. But the deeper point is that Russian aggression in Ukraine suggests the war in Georgia was not decisive.

Kofman describes the Crimea annexation as “a reaction, not a strategy.” Nonetheless it was a model use of coercive force: “Without losing a single soldier, Moscow seized the most strategically important part of Ukraine, from which it can control almost the entire Black Sea.” While that sounds impressive, it elides the fact that Russia already enjoyed de facto control of Crimea. It already had secured basing rights at Sevastopol until 2042. Moreover, the population in Crimea is majority ethnic Russian and had previously represented the most important pro-Russia voting bloc in Ukraine. Putin’s decision to annex Crimea removed those votes from Ukraine’s razor-thin national elections, meaning it will be much more difficult for pro-Russian leaders to ever assume power in Kiev through democratic means.

Meanwhile Russia is paying heavily to support Crimea’s broken economy to the tune of at least $4.5 billion annually. These costs will be difficult to sustain given the sorry state of the Russian economy. As Ilan Berman puts it in Foreign Affairs, Crimea is “rapidly becoming a practical millstone for the Russian state.” Amazingly, Putin chose to bear this burden for something Russia already possessed.

Kofman also acknowledges that Russian’s slow-motion intervention in Eastern Ukraine was not the product of any deliberate strategy, but rather a series of ad hoc responses to previous operational failures. This is an odd admission given his argument that we should have more respect for Putin’s strategy. By his own account, “Russia’s assumptions that Ukraine had no sense of national identity, could not muster resistance, and lacked the will to fight proved incorrect.” In sum, Putin intervened without any semblance of a strategic plan and on the basis of terrible misperceptions about the enemy he chose to fight.

But Kofman sees virtue in Putin’s effort: At least Russia avoided a full-scale overt military occupation of the country. Instead, through political and unconventional war, Putin was able to absorb the costs of its errors. This approach was “cautious and measured.” Whatever one thinks of Russia’s operational methods, this is no way to judge strategy. The essence of the argument is that since Putin avoided making the most foolhardy decision possible, he deserves credit for his series of lesser errors.

Kofman takes issue with claims about how the war affected Russian diplomacy. The argument that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has led to Moscow’s international isolation, for example, is a “slogan in defiance of objective reality.” Contrary to such slogans, Kofman notes that Russia continues to “figure prominently at major international forums, [and] the overwhelming majority of countries continue to deal with Vladimir Putin — who will be at the UN in September to rub it in America’s face.”

This is a very low bar. The test of international influence is not whether Putin gets to make high-profile visits to international forums, nor whether other countries have to deal with him. (If these were the criteria for success, then we would have to include Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the pantheon of the world’s great statesmen.) The real test is whether other states are willing to invest in Russia, back it in diplomatic disputes, or take the risk of becoming military allies. Putin is failing this test. In addition to poisoning relations with Europe, he has deepened divisions among his own trading allies in the Eurasian Economic Union. In the absence of reliable friends, Russia has reached out to China and paid a steep price for doing so. Last year, Putin agreed to significant concessions in an oil and gas deal with China, and the combination of Russia’s increasing isolation and its dependence on commodities exports means that similarly lopsided deals may become the norm.

Strangely, Kofman reverses course near the end of his essay when he admits that Putin has “permanently damaged Russian credibility” with the states he needs the most. He admits that Putin failed to anticipate how the war would galvanize German opposition and how it would encourage European balancing. These are, as Kofman concedes, real diplomatic costs. The fact that Putin gets the chance to speak at the UN is meaningless in comparison.

Kofman falls into two other traps. The first is to assume that economics is somehow divorced from strategy. It is not. National resources are the wellspring of military power, and poor economic choices have serious consequences for strategy and policy. Kofman acknowledges that Putin is a poor economist for having shackled Russian prosperity to international oil and gas markets, but argues that this shouldn’t affect our judgment of his strategy. As evidence he points out that Russia has been able to sustain defense spending even during the recession. In fact, Russia has actually raised defense spending as a percentage of GDP, though this is partly as a result of a shrinking GDP. Under these conditions, Russia runs the risk of trying to sustain an arms buildup on the back of a broken economy. The Soviet Union faced the same dilemma in the 1980s and the result was a disaster. As Mikhail Gorbachev put it, “Defense spending was bleeding the other branches of the economy dry.” It is unclear how Putin intends to avoid the same fate.

The second trap is to confuse domestic power with international influence. Kofman is right that Putin has used the wars to increase his popularity among Russians. But the skill it takes to rule at home is not the same as the skill needed to exercise power abroad. History of full of leaders who were excellent at capturing political control domestically, but unable to use it effectively outside their own boarders.

Kofman concludes by defining Putin’s strategy as cultivating a reputation for taking risks so as to deter the United States from interfering with affairs on the Russian periphery. Beyond that, Putin seeks to “accelerate the decline of U.S. power in the international system, even if it chiefly transfers to China.” These might be accurate descriptions; nobody really knows what animates Vladimir Putin. But if Kofman is right about Putin’s goals, he misses the contradiction between them. Deterring U.S. involvement in Russia’s neighborhood would free up resources that Washington could use elsewhere. On the other hand, drawing the United States into protracted conflict would force it to spread its resources thin. The Obama administration seems to recognize the tradeoff, even if Putin does not. The United States has spent years trying to reduce its commitments to Europe and the Middle East so that it could pivot to Asia. It even held out the fig leaf of a “reset” with Russia. Had Putin taken the offer, he might have been able to slowly ease the United States away from his periphery without paying such a high price.

He might also have bought some badly needed goodwill. Contradicting his earlier argument that Russia had structured the conflict in Ukraine to avoid economic costs, Kofman concedes that Russia “desperately needs access to the West’s banking system to recapitalize corporate debt. [Western] sanctions are taking their toll as long as oil prices continue to fall.” To summarize: Putin’s economic decisions to build power as a commodities exporter left Russia deeply vulnerable to market fluctuations, and he compounded the problem by inviting international sanctions. The ad hoc nature of his operations in Ukraine have left Russia in what is at best a frozen conflict, and rescuing the economy through sanctions relief is unlikely as long as it stays frozen. No recapitalization means no end to the recession, and this will force Russia to choose between scaling back its military modernization effort or going the Soviet route and putting extra strain on the economy by continuing to build arms.

Despite his effort to inject balance in the debate, Kofman doesn’t improve the portrait of Putin as strategist. His own evidence suggests that the critics are right. In the short term, Russian moves were operational improvisations at best, each designed to recover from previous failures, and all based on false assumptions about Ukraine and Europe. In the long term, Putin’s wars and belligerent diplomacy have deepened Russia’s economic disaster and made recovery less likely. Putin may hope to reduce American power and influence, but his actions are more likely accelerate Russia’s decline.


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.


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Editor’s note: The author offered modified language used to describe Russia’s conflict in Chechnya to ensure his argument was seen in its intended context.

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10 thoughts on “Searching for Strategy in Putin’s Russia

  1. Have to disagree. When evaluating the success of any nation’s strategy, one has to consider its goals and the possibilities open to it. I submit that Putin saw both Georgia and Ukraine permanently exiting his sphere of influence to join the EU and/or NATO, which he sees as an existential threat. Had Ukraine joined NATO, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet would have been based in what he sees as hostile territory. Lacking the power to defeat NATO openly, what could he do?

    What he did was make it impossible for either nation to move West. That Georgia has a NATO mission is meaningless. No Western country will commit itself to defend it by allying with it, nor will they do so with Ukraine while such committment would mean they would have to get involved in a messy fight with Russia.

    Putin has achieved his goals, which, to his mind, were primarily defensive in nature. He was in a weak position and has done the best he could to combat what he sees as Western aggression. We do not see NATO expansion as aggressive, but Russia mostly does. And until we better integrate it into us and alleviate that issue (perhaps by undertaking that no further Soviet breakaway republic will be accepted unless Russia comes in at the same time), this situation shall continue.

    1. Absolutely, has anyone realized we nuetered Ukraine with Russia in the early post CCCP era to make it a buffer state. At the same time an agreement was made that the state would remain a de-facto buffer zone between Russian and Nato. With the only western ice-free all season port the Crimea is home to Russia’s crucial Black Sea Fleet. How could Russia expect to keep a port in a country integrated into an adversarial organization created to counter it. Nato was foolish, why expand as they have with non complying members(not meeting required Minumum 2% of GDP towards defense) anyway. Ukraine didnt want to be pulled into the the R.F.’s orbit. However it had signed a 99 year lease on the port so that must be considered also. Ukraine is suffering and unfortunately unlikely to improve. The rest of the operation is the leverage needed to hold Crimea while bailing on the Donbass, Donetz and othe reasons. If Putin starts to get big eyed ideas (Mission Creep) in military parlance then they’re maybe a problem. Such as holding surrounding ground for flank protection or even Maripol for easy lines of communications. We need and Mr. Putin need to find a double political off-ramp to focus on longer term threats for them(and us too ) and for us to avoid bluntering our spears and running out of treasure that can be spent on new weapons and BALANCING THE BUGET! Among a slew of other massive issues for both countries.

  2. At the end of the day, Putin is still a product of the Cold War and basically believes that Russia should be given the respect that’s due a Superpower. Until the Cold War generation is totally out of the picture, Russia will continue to struggle as they try to balance economic growth with national defence and a desire to be respected (and feared).

  3. Putin’s lack of strategic vision is apparent from his fixation on the outmoded concept of the “sphere of influence”. He panics at the idea of former Soviet Republics moving closer to the West, but that approach to international relations is obsolete. Russia doesn’t need more isolation, it needs more integration.

  4. Great summary. Russia is not part of Western Civilization as many of us assume, so we are often perplexed at Russian government policies, intentions, rationale. Russia is an evolution of the Mongol society whose ‘political and social’ system the Tsars adopted. Long story, but in short, this entails a paranoic view of both Asia and the West as encroaching or attempting to control Russia. Putin is turning from the West which could help Russia, to China which wants to exploit the resources of Siberia. Foolish move, but Russian ‘ideology’ reconstructs reality to fit the views of its leaders. Russian people are most comfortable with a Khan,
    Tsar, First Secretary, or President that has basically absolute power to ‘protect’ Russia from ‘enemies’ foreign and domestic. The Cossacks in Russia recently petitioned Putin to declare himself Tsar or at least President for life. So it goes in the land of Tolstoy and Stalin.

    1. Christopher,
      You are spot-on about Russia not being a part of Western Civilization despite Peter’s attempts to become more European. At the end of day, the average Russian endured hundreds of years of the Czars and then 75 years of the Soviets, so deep down they are most comfortable with someone who is “large and in charge.” They want someone who will push back against real and perceived threats, and as you said, “encroachment.” For those of us who spent a large portion of our military careers during the Cold War, this is nothing new.

  5. “But there is little evidence of strategic wisdom in Russian actions. Kofman begins by describing Russia’s war in Chechnya as “brutal, but successful.” This may be true, but Chechnya was Boris Yeltsin’s war, and the major fighting occurred years before Putin took power.”

    Can the author really be this ignorant?

    The FIRST Chechen War–the failed one in 1994-96–was Yeltsin’s. The SECOND Chechen War–the essentially successful one post-2000–was Putin’s.

  6. I think Putins strategy in Syria has been perfect. He has inserted his forces in such a way as to prevent the West from targeting Assad’s forces, but forcing their hand to defeat One of Assads opponents ( ISIS). Western forces have lost the air ability to strike Assad, and are now limited to ground insurgents ( which seems to have limited success but a high price tag). The Ukraine, though messy, has kept the West off balance and unsure what to do. Part of this though may have to do with rather weak US (political leadership wise). Russia’s economic issues have always been there…it is the nature of their system. Yes dropping oil prices have an impact, but a rarely discussed issue is currency manipulation ( global scale) as major central banks attempt to manuver in the face of an ever weakening global economy.
    It is this slowdown that should concern everyone. Governments have a bad tendency in difficult times, to attempt to distract the masses with some conflict to gin up nationalism and quash criticism. Russians tend to be more resilliant in the face of tough times, certainly WW2 and the Stalin era have shown that.

    1. Regarding Assad, an old friend of mine once told me that “the dictator you know is better than the one you don’t.” That thought could be updated to “how’s that Arab Spring working out for you?” From what I understand, Egypt’s big turmoil has subsided somewhat since the military restored order. Most countries get in bed with some really bad people when it’s convenient for them. The US sent more than a few dollars down to Central & South America because those leaders were anti-communist. When Saddam H was killing Iranians by the bushel, that wasn’t a bad idea from the US perspective. Now, when Saddam H invaded Kuwait, that was “inconvenient” for America so we put together a coalition and took care of business. Nixon, Kennedy, and a few others understood the Soviet/Russian mindset (and to some degree, paranoia) pretty well and were able to deal with it. I’m not sure our current elected leaders from both sides of the aisle have the historical understanding necessary to deal with Putin. That’s my 2 cents.