Why Vladimir Putin’s strategic genius scares the heck out of me

Daniel W. Drezner
July 30
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a strategic mastermind who just appears to have painted himself into a corner. Or something. MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP

A few weeks ago, after Ukrainian government forces drove separatist rebels out of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, I tentatively suggested that “Putin’s tactics in eastern Ukraine have been a complete, unmitigated disaster.”  I went on to note:

Putin has kinda sorta accomplished two things over the past six months:

  1. Crimea is now a legally illegitimate part of Russia.
  2. Ukraine has been contained.

From a strategic perspective, I suppose this isn’t a bad haul for Russia – except that a year ago, Putin had a pretty pliant ally in Kiev.  Now he has a state with a very strong incentive to get its act together to resist Moscow.

Since then, I’ve read a passel of stories that continue to stress Putin’s strategic ruthlessness or discipline or whatnot, and here’s the thing:  things have gone from bad to catastrophically worse for Putin in Ukraine.  In fact, things have gone so bad that I’m kind of worried about what he’s going to do next.

To review events since my last Ukraine post:

  1. The Ukrainian government does not seem to be having too much difficulty reabsorbing former separatist towns like Slavyansk.
  2. Putin’s intransigence and hypocrisy following the downing of Malaysian Airlines 17 managed to do the one thing Russia needed to avoid:  it mobilized European publics against Russia, and mobilized EU governments into imposing the most severe economic sanctions against Russia since the Cold War.  Even German business interests have turned against Russia, which means that there’s a recognition that these sanctions will not go away anytime soon.  And as much as Russians might publicly shrug them off, these sanctions carry real costs.  As the New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar observes, “neither [the Indian nor Chinese] banking system is geared to provide the billions in long-term credit that Russian companies routinely got from Western banks.”
  3. According to the Financial Times, “A reinvigorated Ukrainian military has in recent weeks shrunk the territory held by the separatists by two-thirds. It is close to cutting the highway linking Donetsk and Lugansk, the regional capitals to which the rebels have sought refuge, and between Donetsk and the Russian border.” 
  4. While Ukraine’s government and military seems to be acting with renewed confidence, the rebel leaders are acting like they’re the bad guys in a bad Sylvester Stallone movie.
  5. Despite (or perhaps because) of these developments, Russia appears to be doubling down on the rebels, with arms and artillery flowing/flying across the border to eastern Ukraine.  None of this appears to have prevented Ukrainian government forces from coming close to dividing the rebels in half, however.
  6. I wouldn’t make too much of this, but as Elizabeth Wood noted last week over at the Monkey Cage, the fissures among Putin’s supporters appear to be growing.

Ukraine has always been the most important strategic goal for Putin’s Russia, and the #MH17 plane downing gave Russia a convenient “out” to exit the eastern Ukrainian mess.  Nevertheless, in recent weeks Russia has simultaneously invested more into the rebels while paying a higher price and finding that its proxies are losing ground.

So why does all of this scare me?  Because if these trends persist, then Putin will have cost Russian elites well more than $1 trillion for a proxy war that gained him nothing but a hostile, battle-hardened neighbor.  Yes, Putin is domestically popular now, but not even the best propaganda machine is going to be able to disguise the fact that his proxies are losing in eastern Ukraine.  And the globalized portion of Putin’s coalition is not going to be happy at the massive costs paid for no gain.  Or, in cartoon form:

So here’s the thing.  If Putin thinks his most important priority is slipping away, why wouldn’t he be willing to take riskier actions in the hopes of shifting the status quo back to, say, mid-April? (see Julia Ioffe on this point as well)  And the only way Putin’s actions could be riskier would be if Russian troops crossed the border.

The past month has been a very bad one for Vladimir Putin — which means I’m very worried that his next move will be even worse.

Developing…

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David Wasserman · July 30