Putin’s Folly: A Case Study of an Inept Strategist
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin is a bad strategist. He does not understand the relationship between force and politics, and he is incapable of predicting international reactions to his ham-fisted military campaigns. Putin’s blunders began in 2014, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in East Ukraine — actions that provoked widespread condemnation and suspicion about his real ambitions. With few friends left, Putin was reduced to propping up murderous authoritarian regimes in Syria and Belarus. Today, his misuse of Russian power is leading Russia towards impoverishment and isolation. His ill-considered invasion of Ukraine has galvanized international opposition, crippled the Russian economy, and overstretched the Russian military. Putin is making Russia a pariah state.
None of this was necessary. A decade ago, Putin had a very good hand to play. NATO was sagging under the weight of the war in Afghanistan and an unwise intervention in Libya. U.S. leaders grumbled about European free-riding, and European leaders questioned Washington’s commitment to the common defense. Any efforts to buck these trends and rally the old alliance were constrained by European reticence to spend more on defense and a toxic dependence on Russian oil and gas. Meanwhile, the Russian economy had recovered from the 2008 recession and was healthy enough to support a long-term military modernization program. Russia was getting stronger as its traditional adversaries were coming apart.
The stage was set for Putin. He blew it.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine were needless blunders. Russia enjoyed outsize influence in Ukraine even after the Maidan uprising in late 2013. It had support from sizeable voting blocks in the east, and it had secured naval access for decades. But that was not enough, and Russia engaged in “gray zone” tactics to try to undermine the Ukrainian government. These offered a veneer of plausible deniability, but few doubted Russian responsibility for the machinations of cyberspace operators and little green men. If anything, this approach made it look duplicitous and vaguely sinister. And it paid a substantial economic and diplomatic cost. Putin’s gambit breathed new life into NATO, and stalled Russia’s revival.
This year’s war has made things much worse. Putin seems to have badly underestimated Ukraine’s skill and resolve, as well as European solidarity. NATO allies are coming together in support of Ukraine and resupplying its war effort. Other non-NATO countries are taking the idea of membership more seriously. Russia’s currency is in a free fall, and foreign capital is fleeing the country. Russia has been largely banned from international transactions through SWIFT, and it faces a greater risk of losing export revenue from its all-important energy sector. Perhaps Putin hopes that Chinese support will mitigate the economic harm, but dependence on Beijing is hardly ideal for a country with great-power ambitions. Finally, Russia’s military is suffering substantial losses already, despite local superiority. The majority of its land forces are now in the fight, which has stagnated.
Despite all of his strategic mistakes, Putin has mastered the art of domestic control. He is good at wielding power at home, even though he does not use it well abroad. Some observers have speculated about regime change, but for now it is a safe assumption that Putin will stay in charge, and that he will continue to make his customary strategic errors. This raises a hard problem for the Biden administration. How should it deal with an incompetent rival?
Good strategists try to calibrate military force with the political value of the object. They maintain healthy relations with military and intelligence professionals. They cultivate allies and try to divide enemy alliances. Above all, they learn from failures. Putin does none of these things. He launches military campaigns and then scrambles. He embarrasses his security chiefs in public. He puts Russian diplomats an impossible situation through his outrageous rhetoric and outlandish lies. His transparent power grabs alienates those who would otherwise be happy to do business with Russia. And he seems totally incapable of learning. Political and military leaders often worry about brilliant rivals, but the problem today is different. Instead of the danger of being outwitted, the danger is the fallout from Putin’s mistakes.
Bad strategists aggravate three strategic dilemmas. The first has to do with misperception. Wartime signaling is always a fraught business because misinformation abounds, because leaders operate under stress, and because adversaries have reason to deceive one another. This is more complicated today because Putin appears increasingly isolated, and Kremlin decision-making has become grotesque. Putin televised meetings with defense and intelligence officials before the war, browbeating them into public support for his plans and implicating them in his crimes. They are unlikely to offer him their unvarnished opinions. Nor are they likely to challenge his interpretation of U.S. signals.
The second problem is escalation. Russia has several options for expanding the scope and intensity of the war, including the use of nuclear weapons. These options would be extraordinarily risky and possibly catastrophic. Good strategists would avoid taking them — but Putin is not a good strategist.
Putin might escalate the war out of desperation rather than opportunity. If he believes that Russia is facing decades of deprivation, Putin might gamble on extreme measures to break the sanctions regime. Such a move would resemble Japan’s futile bid to escape from a U.S.-led embargo by attacking Pearl Harbor. At the time, the United States was trying to strangle the Japanese economy to force it to end its occupation of China. Today the United States and its partners are trying to strangle the Russian economy to force it to end its occupation of Ukraine. Japan’s escalation was a world-changing strategic blunder. Russia might do the same.
The last problem is how to end the war. Bargaining will be difficult because it is hard to predict what kinds of threats and promises will convince Putin to settle. Bad strategists may not recognize good deals. In addition, Putin’s dismal track record will make it hard for western leaders to believe his promises. No one is likely to trust Putin to keep the peace given his penchant for military adventures.
Secret Intelligence Against Strategic Incompetence
Misperception, escalation, and war termination are fundamental strategic challenges. They are especially challenging when the adversary is a bad strategist. How can the Biden administration cope with the problem today?
While there are no textbook solutions to this problem, the administration might start by reconsidering how it uses the intelligence community. The White House disclosed a lot of secrets before the war as a prebuttal to phony Russian pretexts for invasion. Getting in front of Russian disinformation would make it hard for Moscow to convince anyone that an invasion was justified. This would help steel allied resolve in advance of what might be a costly and protracted conflict. From all accounts this approach succeeded.
But while public intelligence was useful for alliance diplomacy, it seemed to have little effect on Moscow. Some in the administration might have hoped that stripping Putin of his casus belli would cause him to abandon the war. This was an intriguing idea: the strategic deployment of secrets in the name of peace.
It didn’t work. One possible reason why not has to do with the nature of military plans. States who hope to achieve surprise rely on secrecy to cover their military movements and operational intentions. Revealing intelligence might disabuse them of the notion that they can prepare under the cover of secrecy, forcing them to reconsider. This was not one of those cases, however. Russia telegraphed its military movements for months. Instead of surprise, it relied on conventional military superiority over Ukraine, coupled with the belief that the United States and NATO would not intervene directly in the conflict.
All of this suggests that intelligence transparency has reached the point of declining marginal returns. Public revelations helped lay the groundwork for the current sanctions regime, but they were unable to influence Russian decisions. Perhaps intelligence can be more useful if it returns to the shadows.
Indeed, secret intelligence might be useful for managing all three of the problems described above. Intelligence agencies have a long history of clandestine communications with wartime adversaries. Spy chiefs can communicate with their counterparts outside the public eye, gauging the response to diplomatic messages. Should it become clear that Russian leaders misperceive or misinterpret those messages, intelligence envoys can be used to clarify them. Of course, this can only work if both sides have reason to believe that their communications will remain secret. Candor among foes is a wasting asset.
Intelligence agencies might also help reduce the danger of escalation. Historically, wartime covert action has acted as a release valve among great powers, a means of competing with one another that does not require the kind of violence that can get out of control. In this case, Russia might choose to engage in covert actions if it remains frustrated on the conventional battlefield. Observers have expressed fear of this scenario, but it might be a blessing in disguise. If Putin is satisfied with the results of covert mischief, then U.S. leaders might consider allowing Russia to continue without exposing its activities. The idea of letting Russia get away with it might be unpleasant, but it might also be a very effective way of controlling escalation. The alternative is much worse.
Finally, secret intelligence might help stop the fighting. It can establish quiet channels for peace feelers, outside the view of domestic spoilers on all sides. It might also reduce the credibility problem by monitoring Russian compliance with the terms of any possible deal. Leaders will be rightfully skeptical of Russian promises. Diligent intelligence work will at least provide faith that there will be early warning if the peace starts to break down. The fact that the intelligence community gave accurate warning before the war surely bolsters their own credibility with policymakers.
The public has free access to a huge amount of information about the war in Ukraine. Traditional media provide running updates of the conflict, and social media fill in the details. We track the movement of armored columns on Google Maps, watch artillery strikes on livestreams, and witness the awful results on Twitter. States seem to accept the open information environment as a fact on the ground, and they have been eager to win the narrative by sharing intelligence with allies and talking about it in public. We are witnessing a war of transparency. The irony is that ending it may require a return to secrecy.
Joshua Rovner is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University.