Is the Russian President a Strategic Master or a Strategic Failure?

Opinion

Gregory Sims served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over thirty years, including multiple field tours as Chief and Deputy Chief of CIA stations.  He is currently retired and living in Huntsville, AL. He can be found on LinkedIn. [...] Read more

View all articles by Gregory Sims

OPINION — As a national leader, Vladimir Putin deserves respect. You underestimate him at your peril. But it is a qualified respect. Putin wields the levers of statecraft with skill and intelligence, but he is not the strategic maestro he is often credited as being – that is if your definition of strategic mastery has anything to do with the direction he is taking Russia and what that means for its future. 

Putin deserves credit for providing a measure of stability after the chaos of the immediate post-Soviet period, with its gangster capitalism, Boris Yeltsin’s alcohol-fueled buffoonery, and the near disintegration of state power. But once stabilized and aided immensely by a coincidentally beneficial upswing in cyclical energy prices, Putin reverted to his Soviet instincts with his stress on popular subservience and top-down control, aka the “power vertikal,” and his fixation with external enemies.

He has been slowly turning Russia back into the USSR, minus communist ideology but adding ubiquitous corruption at the highest levels. We saw how that ended: a national security state with a hollowed-out economy relative to its natural and human resources that failed to keep up with the developed world in terms of standard-of-living, the dynamism of its civil society, and eventually even its ability to develop the advanced technologies needed for credible global competition. 

It is true that Putin’s geopolitical maneuverings often run rings around the leaders of the Western democracies, but that is frankly a low bar. Autocrats are always nimbler because their whims can turn national policy on a dime. Democracies, with their unruly press, inconvenient legislatures, constraining laws, independent courts, but most of all those pesky competitive elections, are far clumsier to manage…by design. They are mostly sluggish and reactive when coping with fluid international situations, and I would thus ascribe Putin’s ability to outfox them less to strategic genius than to basic executive competence paired with a freer internal hand for tactical maneuver.


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In strategic terms, and largely due to Putin’s actions, Ukrainians are more distant from Russians than they have ever been. Consequently, the only way Russia can recover Ukraine as an ally in the near term is through coercion. To me this suggests strategic failure more than strategic mastery. Even if he succeeds in physically subduing Ukraine, it will be unsustainable in the long term–the strategic term–against a country that is larger than France in both size and population. Ukraine is not Chechnya.

Ultimately, judgment of Putin’s strategic prowess rests on the degree his actions add to or detract from Russia’s overall potential. After more than 20 years in power, Russia’s economy, demographics, and civic vitality–the foundation of any country’s power–are at best stagnant. Through his cynical and primitive conception of basic human nature Putin squanders the advantages of an immensely creative population and a land richly endowed with natural resources to chase the glory of transient tactical victories against fabricated “anti-Russian” enemies he falsely insists darkly conspire to break and subjugate it. That is unsound strategy at its most elemental level. Vladimir Putin is truly gifted in his ability to spring surprises, and no doubt he has more still in store for us. But that is not the same as strategy. It is thus worth asking the Russian people, if your leader believes you are incapable of considering and freely debating potential strategies for Russia’s future, and that you are unfit to choose your own leaders in non-curated elections offering genuine strategic options for your country, who is the real anti-Russian?

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Opinion

Gregory Sims served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over thirty years, including multiple field tours as Chief and Deputy Chief of CIA stations.  He is currently retired and living in Huntsville, AL. He can be found on LinkedIn.

View all articles by Gregory Sims

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