Over the past few months critics have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a cunning strategist and the mastermind of a dangerous new foreign policy. He is playing the long game, they say, making moves in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as part of a program to undermine the post-Cold War order while western leaders scramble without purpose. These fears are unwarranted. Putin may be a ruthless commander, but he is a second-rate strategist.
On Friday, President Obama told reporters that Ukrainian separatists were guilty of shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, and while he stopped short of blaming Russia for the tragedy, he suggested that Moscow was at least indirectly responsible for supporting the insurgency. Other experts have come to similar conclusions. The surface-to-air missile that probably brought down MH17 was too sophisticated for pro-Russian rebels to operate without at least some rudimentary instruction.
But perhaps not enough. There is good reason to believe this was a case of user error. Air defense personnel in several countries, including the United States, have mistaken commercial airliners for military aircraft, with tragic results. Even highly capable crews sometimes blunder under the stress of combat. It would be no surprise if amateurs did the same.
Despite this danger, Russia has become more enthusiastic about using proxy fighters, voicing rhetorical support for their politics while disclaiming responsibility for their actions. Russian leaders may believe that this allows them to destabilize unfriendly governments while maintaining enough plausible deniability to avoid the consequences. Some analysts believe this is part of a broader shift toward “non-linear war,” which involves indirect methods of expanding Russian influence. They worry this is a ruthless but effective way for Russia to paper over its conventional military weakness, especially since the United States is unable or unwilling to respond in kind. Putin is a former KGB officer, after all. President Obama is a former law professor.
In fact, non-linear war is not a brilliant reconceptualization of strategy. It’s an old-fashioned trick: the use of armed groups to stir unrest in neighboring countries as a way of gaining strategic depth.
The undisputed champion of this approach is Pakistan, which has used militants for most of its history. Pakistan has cultivated groups in India, Kashmir and Afghanistan in large part to overcome its military weaknesses. Supporting proxies might have seemed like a good idea, given Pakistan’s security problems, but the results have been disastrous. The belief that armed groups could solve its security problem may have encouraged military leaders to indulge in corruption rather than building a more professional force. The decision to nurture groups that engage in terrorism has led to international scorn and opprobrium. Worst of all, some of the same groups that Pakistan helped create are now waging an insurgency against it.
Russia is also suffering for its intervention-by-proxy in Ukraine. Its economy has been in deep distress since the annexation of Crimea this spring, with tens of billions of dollars exiting the country during a stock market and currency crisis. U.S.-led sanctions have worsened Russia’s economic outlook, as investors fear returning to a country that increasingly looks like an international pariah. Washington announced tougher sanctions the day before the MH17 went down, and it is now likely that these will remain in place indefinitely. The Obama administration may go further still by enacting industry-wide sanctions, a serious escalation that it has so far avoided.
Russia is increasingly isolated as well. According to one close observer of Ukrainian politics, the MH17 tragedy has unified almost all Ukrainians against Putin, even those who might sympathize with some elements of the pro-Russian opposition. And rather than undermining NATO, it has breathed new life into the alliance. The more that Moscow meddles in its neighbors’ politics, the more likely that other states will move toward the west. In other words, Russian actions will provoke exactly the same kind of behavior they were designed to prevent.
In response to this looming diplomatic disaster, Russia has spent lavishly to win new friends. For example, it made significant concessions to finalize a major gas and oil deal with China that may end up providing marginal returns at the cost of long-term dependency. If it becomes clear that Russia was culpable in the MH17 shoot-down, it will be hard for it to find other allies, however much it spends.
Nonetheless, policy analysts still worry that Putin is eroding the post-Cold War order, and military analysts still warn that the west is unprepared for Russia’s new way of war. Both concerns are mistaken. Putin’s grand strategy is proving to be a dismal failure, and his high-risk strategy in Ukraine is only making things worse. As the Obama administration considers its next steps, it should be careful not to overestimate its adversary.
Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University.
Past Monkey Cage posts on developments in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea can be found by clicking here. Recent posts include:
Ivan Katchanovski: What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?
Henry Farrell: Europe may get a lot tougher on Russia sanctions