Putin Is A Good Tactician, But A Terrible Strategist

President Vladimir Putin is widely perceived as the strongman who will stop at nothing to restore greatness to Mother Russia. In popular culture, he is portrayed as ruthless, deceptive, and treacherous.

But above all else, Putin is seen as effective and efficient.

However, the truth is that Russia under Putin rarely, if ever, actually achieves its goals. Indeed, Putin’s treachery is capricious and often counterproductive in furthering Russia’s interests. He may be a man of action, but these actions are often not particularly prudent. He is, quite simply, a masterful tactician and a terrible strategist, often choosing to escape his immediate predicaments by directly undermining his long-term objectives.

If Putin were the grand strategist his admirers claim, Russia’s geopolitical standing would have improved over the last few years. Rather, Russia’s fortunes have plummeted. The only long-term objective at which Putin seems capable of achieving is maintaining his grip on the power over the Russian state, which he accomplishes by employing disinformation campaigns and threats to repress dissent from the media, political rivals, or former oligarchic allies.

Three examples make Putin’s poor strategy gallingly apparent: fighting a war on Ukraine’s eastern front, militarily intervening to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and interfering in the 2016 U.S. general election.

In late 2013, erstwhile Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a pending European Union Association Agreement and instead chose closer ties with Russia. Yanukovych’s decision outraged many Ukrainians intent on aligning closer to Europe, who took to the streets of Kiev in what became known as the Euromaidan.

Yanukovych fled to an undisclosed location in Russia, and the pro-western “Chocolate King,” Petro Poroshenko, was elected. In the immediate aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, Putin faced the prospect of losing Ukraine to Western influence, thereby surrendering Russian interests in Ukraine. Thus, Putin chose to act for short-term gain without properly weighing the potential long-term costs. He protected the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol by annexing Crimea and fomented an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

While these maneuvers made Putin seem clever in the moment—they also brought an undesirable consequence: the wrath of sanctions implemented by the European Union and the United States when the Russian economy was faltering due to the falling price of oil.

Predictably, Russia’s economy has been reeling since the implementation of sanctions.  Inflation persists, revenues are insufficient to meet the budgetary needs for the military buildup constant intervention requires, and Russians are markedly worse off.

Moscow’s sustained intervention in Syria is similarly ill-advised. As the Middle Eastern country descended into civil war and the Islamic State (or, ISIS) captured large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq, Russia could have hung the United States out to dry as it became increasingly threatened by international jihadism emanating from that region.

Moreover, leaving the United States alone to deal with the ISIS threat would have highlighted the negative ramifications of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, therefore exposing the United States to even greater criticism of its actions on the world stage. Further U.S. retreat from the world is precisely what Putin wants.

Instead, Russia acted to prop up its client, Syrian President al-Assad, thereby miring itself in a military conflict its economy cannot afford and from which it will have difficulty extricating itself. By supporting Assad’s Shiite government, Russia has alienated Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key Sunni regional powers, which means the future cost of doing business with Sunnis in the Middle East will rise dramatically. Lastly, Russia has made itself an even bigger target for ISIS, whose influence may increase in Russian territories prone to terrorist attacks, such as Chechnya and Dagestan.

Finally, Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and subsequent exposing of Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta’s emails was injudicious and will likely backfire. It is logical for Moscow to prefer Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, as he seems far more inclined to cooperate with Russia and tolerate its human rights record than Secretary Hillary Clinton. However, by hacking said emails and passing them along to WikiLeaks, Russia’s attempt to influence the U.S. election has been ham-handed. Moscow’s interference may be technologically sophisticated, but it is far from secret.

It is likely Clinton will win the election; this has been the most probable outcome throughout the election cycle. Moscow’s meddling, therefore, will only serve to enrage the incoming administration of the most powerful nation on Earth.

Vladimir Putin’s actions clearly display his strategic ineptitude. The geopolitical quagmire in which Russia currently finds itself is largely of its own making. The least Putin should be able to do now is stop creating more self-inflicted wounds.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. (Pak/UN Photo, Creative Commons)


Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review. A native Californian, he spent his formative years in Madrid, Spain.

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