Michael Kofman is a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an analyst at the CNA Corporation. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views presented here are his own.
Is Vladimir Putin a strategic genius or not? In a recent War on the Rocks article, the scholar Joshua Rovner comes down hard in the "not” camp, arguing that Putin is a terrible strategist and laying out the ramifications of his strategic incompetence for the United States and its NATO allies. This is another salvo in a long-running debate between competing Western narratives of Russia: an alarmist position perpetually worried that "the Russians are coming,” and a dismissive one that believes Russia is a giant Potemkin village destined to fall apart as a result of self-defeating behavior. Unfortunately both views are wrong, but Western analysis often see-saws between these two perspectives as soon as one falls out of favor. One of the shortfalls of Rovner’s article is that it fails to explain what Russia’s strategy is, which in turn raises a more important question: Does American failure to understand Russia’s strategy make it a poor one?
Russia in perspective
First, there needs to be a more balanced and informed understanding of Russia. A quote, variously attributed over the years to Churchill, Talleyrand, or Metternich sums it up well: "Russia is never as strong as she looks, nor as weak as she looks.” Russia is a regional power in structural decline, but retains a remarkable capacity to muddle through, hang around, and cause trouble. It has often appeared to be the sick man of Europe (a term originally used to describe the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century), technologically backwards, with a political system that does not meet the demands of modern society. Napoleon and Hitler, among others, have made the mistake of assuming that Russian weakness and backwardness made the country an easy mark.
Since early 2014, Russia has suffered from a recession followed by an economic crisis, largely due to a sharp decline in oil prices. While Western sanctions have multiplied the hardship, Russia’s economic problems are structural and its current economic crisis a result of global factors that have nothing to do with events in Ukraine. They are due, in fact, to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to keep oil prices low in an effort to crush the U.S. shale extraction industry (and from a U.S. point of view, this is nothing to be happy about, even if it comes at Russia’s expense). China’s economic downturn is also little cause for cheer.
Whether a good or bad strategist, Putin is no economist. Even his close associates like former finance minister Alexei Kudrin reminded him of this on a regular basis. Russia’s budget is inexorably tied to the price of energy, as was the Soviet Union’s. Vladimir Putin did not invent this dependence, but he has done little to improve it beyond some technological bright spots and the defense industry. Yet Putin’s domestic support is somewhat explained by the fact that Russia experienced an economic boom for much of his rule, which translated into higher standards of living and expendable income.
Despite economic weakness, Russia is militarily the strongest it has been since the Cold War, fielding the most capable, modernized, and well-funded force it is likely going to have for the foreseeable future. This year, spending on defense as a share of GDP will likely peak at 4.2 percent, up from 3.4 percent in 2014. The total force has been growing and could be over 800,000 today, with a consistently increasing percentage of contract soldiers that are tested through snap drills and exercises. No NATO country is increasing defense spending, the size of the force, and its readiness, and procuring new equipment, at the rate Russia has been since 2009. Due to the current economic crisis, Russia’s modernization programs will take a haircut, but its main limitations are technical rather than financial. Russia may not be able to defeat NATO, but its conventional power is sufficient to impose major costs in a conflict with the West or crush any former Soviet republic.
The Kremlin knows how to use force
Rovner argues that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is "ham-fisted” and states that Putin lacks understanding of the "relationship between military violence and political objectives.” This is a puzzling assessment given that Russia has consistently demonstrated its ability to use military force to achieve desired political ends. Russia’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign in Chechnya was by all accounts brutal, but successful. It stabilized a notoriously restless region to the point that Russia could be bold enough to host the Sochi Olympics nearby in 2014. Russia’s brief war with Georgia in 2008 demonstrated terrible military inadequacies, but still achieved its strategic purpose by ending any serious consideration of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Eventually, that defeat also resulted in an inglorious end to President Mikhail Saakashvili’s political career in his country; Georgia seeks him on political charges and he now serves as governor of Odessa in Ukraine.
Compared with the war in Georgia, Russia’s annexation of Crimea demonstrated a decisive and competent use of force to achieve political ends. Without losing a single soldier, Moscow seized the most strategically important part of Ukraine, from which it can control almost the entire Black Sea. This secured basing rights for its fleet, and will allow it to deploy anti-access and area-denial weaponry, covering most of the sea and southern Ukraine. In and of itself, the loss of Crimea creates a permanent territorial dispute in Ukraine’s borders — a frozen conflict of sorts with strategic consequences for its aspirations of Western integration. In eastern Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated flexibility and willingness to escalate. In the span of only a few months, it has cycled from political warfare to state-sponsored insurgency, hybrid war, and limited conventional war. Granted, the first three proved ineffective in getting Ukraine and the West to negotiate a compromise that would lead to federalization, but they were economy of force measures, leaving room for escalation and improvisation as necessary.
Lawrence Freedman has also criticized Putin’s strategy in War on the Rocks. These assessments often fall victim to reading Putin’s speeches and statements as though Russia’s strategy can be found therein. Putin’s statements are not official declarations of policy, but instead a supporting theatrical role to whatever strategy is being implemented. Freedman believes it is unhelpful to call Putin a good strategist, but it is even more problematic to underestimate and misunderstand your opponent. From a purely analytical standpoint, Russia has done reasonably well in pursuit of his objectives in Ukraine. Whether weak or strong, Russia faced a basic challenge: how to impose control and influence on Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe. Certainly Moscow lacks the military strength to occupy all of Ukraine, but that is a null point. The point is to control Ukraine without owning it. The memory of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is still fresh in Russia, and its leadership has no interest in a costly proxy war with the West, especially one that would also destroy Ukraine in the process.
Even if Moscow had requisite military strength, the United States has aptly demonstrated by invading Afghanistan and Iraq how difficult it is to get an occupation right. What Russia could have done easily is invade, beat Ukraine’s army, and fragment the country in a number of pieces. This was likely debated in the Kremlin, but ultimately Moscow wanted all of Ukraine in its orbit, not ownership of a few defunct pieces and a geopolitical mess. This approach would largely nullify the Maidan’s ability to govern Ukraine and reorient it towards the West, while allowing Russia to retain influence.
In February 2014, Russia capitalized on local agitation and discord in eastern Ukraine through informal networks. Many in the West see this as a pre-planned contingency, but it is difficult to understand the basis for this theory. If it was a well planned-out special forces mission, a pudgy historical re-enactor named Igor Girkin, with a paramilitary rabble from Crimea, would not be leading it.
Instead Moscow tried to leverage the networks of business elites, oligarchs, and pro-Russian agitators that had been on the fringe of Ukraine’s politics. Ukraine was an oligarchy, with plenty of powerful non-state actors in the east that lost big when the president was ousted. They worked with Russia to take advantage of the confusion and public anxiety, setting up "people’s” mayors and governors, with Russian intelligence helping to orchestrate the protests. These self-declared anti-Maidan leaders barely lasted days and were arrested by local Ukrainian authorities. The effort was cheap political warfare, hardly the professional special forces operation that is often described in the West. The investment was actually quite low compared to what Russia hoped to gain out of it: Ukraine’s capitulation to a federalization scheme. One can conclude that this was either the worst planned and executed subversion effort in recent history, or more likely, the best Russia could come up with in a hurry.
Separatism in eastern Ukraine began as an ad hoc approach to get Ukraine on the cheap, and Russia simply kept escalating in a quest for the lowest price. After political warfare failed in March, Russia switched to direct action in April and May in the hope of scaring Ukraine into believing that a large-scale secession of "Novorossiya” was possible. Putin’s speeches were part of the effort to convince and frighten Kiev, not official statements of Russian strategy. A brief "hybrid war” followed from June to August, when Russia understood that Ukraine did indeed have the will to resist and still had some functioning military capability, enough to take on a small force of insurgents. At that point, only overt use of force would accomplish what Moscow wanted, hence it openly invaded.
Freedman calls this process poor strategy, but the quest for achieving strategic objectives in another country at the lowest price is probably borne out of witnessing the American experience of trying to achieve them — and failing — at the maximum possible price. When we ask "compared to what” and survey recent military history, the strategy does not seem so poor in retrospect. Russia’s assumptions that Ukraine had no sense of national identity, could not muster resistance, and lacked the will to fight proved incorrect. However, this flexible approach ensured that the price paid for each false assumption was minimal, and the Kremlin’s political ownership of the war from the perspective of its own citizens remained negligible. Instead of staking his regime, the country’s wealth, and its military power, by diving head first into Ukraine, Putin chose a cautious approach with opportunities for an exit.
Rovner, along with numerous other commentators, have suggested that Russia might not take seriously NATO’s collective defense guarantees enshrined in Article V. In his view, Russia may try similar tactics against the Baltics, where they would likely prove ineffective. Although Rovner sees little threat, because Russian "hybrid war” wouldn’t work in the Baltics, the more important point is that all these hypothetical scenarios have a domino theory sound to them. There has never been evidence to support the argument that Moscow does not take NATO’s Article V guarantees seriously and there is almost nothing in common between how Russia views Ukraine and how it perceives a country like Estonia. The lack of faith in Article V seems largely on the alliance side. This is a confidence and assurance problem.
What most discussions of a possible Russian invasion of the Baltics share in common is their inability to explain what is in it for the Russians. Exactly why Russia would risk war against the most powerful military alliance in the world led by the United States in order to seize something in the Baltics remains an analytical quandary. Russia’s cautious and measured approach against a relatively weak, incapable, and non-aligned Ukraine offers little support to the notion that it would risk war with NATO. Russia is acting aggressively on its periphery, but the prospect of nuclear war still outweighs whatever it is Moscow supposedly stands to gain from invading the Baltics.
The U.S. military has internalized that war remains an uncertain and chaotic business. Russia changed approaches in Ukraine four times in less than one year until it found a winning strategy, and has beaten Ukrainian forces in every battle in which its soldiers were in the lead. Putin’s 15-year track record of achieving political ends through force does not look bad compared to the U.S. experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Indeed, the Kremlin understands quite well the interaction between violence and politics. It has to, because it does not have access to strong alternatives compared to countries like the United States. Russia’s economic, information, and diplomatic powers are highly contextual and often geographically limited.
Russia’s response to Ukraine revisited
The Maidan’s unexpected victory in February 2014 caught both Russia and the West equally by surprise. For Moscow this was a geopolitical defeat in the largest and most prominent country that Russian elites consider within their "zone of influence.” Ukraine served as an important buffer state for Russia, and one where it had consistently drawn a red line when it came to NATO expansion. Putin had warned in the past that he saw the country as largely artificial and might not respect its integrity if it was pulled so sharply to the West.
Accepting such a defeat would mean Russia could forget about being a global or even a major regional power. The countries on Russia’s periphery only respect hard power. Their political systems are shades of autocracy and clan rule politics, while their leaders are on the same frequency as Putin. Why should any former Soviet Republic listen to Moscow or participate in Russian led economic and security institutions if Russia couldn’t even secure its interests in Ukraine? Russia was looking into a geopolitical abyss unless it could nullify and reverse this Western victory.
Seizing Crimea was not a strategy, but a reaction. Just as the United States chose to follow a CIA plan for Afghanistan as a first response after 9/11 and came up with the Global War on Terror afterwards, Russian leaders pulled out what was probably the only contingency plans they had on the books at the time: In the event Ukraine became hostile, Russia would execute the invasion and annexation of Crimea. Full stop. Moscow then launched a campaign in eastern Ukraine designed to neutralize the post-Maidan government, prevent Western integration, and retain Russian influence in the country. Some have argued that Russia might have been better off not using force and letting the Maidan peter away as the 2004 Orange Revolution did, but that analysis assumes very little of Ukrainians and their agency. Force was Moscow’s best and likely only reliable option in an unfolding crisis.
By August of 2014, the conflict in the Donbas had escalated into a limited conventional war in which Russia had almost complete operational control and the ability force Ukraine to sign the Minsk protocol. The initial deal only gave the parties breathing space; Ukraine rearmed while Russia consolidated. In February of 2015, Russia inflicted a more strategically costly defeat for Ukraine and imposed another ceasefire agreement that was highly favorable to its interests. This ceasefire has clear sequencing for implementation that places the political burden on Ukraine first. Kiev must carry out decentralization and grant some sort of status to the separatist regions prior to any elections, and later hope that it might get control of the border restored. In all likelihood, Ukraine will not see a restoration of the border, but the occupied Donbas will be granted legal status and therefore shape the direction of the country.
Even if the terms of this deal are not implemented, the annexation of Crimea and a frozen conflict in the East will make integration into NATO and the European Union a distant, if not impossible, prospect for Ukraine. It is the West now that has to see Ukraine succeed. Russia only needs to make it fail. In the Kremlin’s view, Western leaders will eventually grow tired of dealing with Kiev, allowing Russia to pick up the pieces.
Russia appears to have largely achieved the strategic gains it sought in Ukraine, but is still calibrating the use of military force to get the political concessions it wants from Kiev in order to freeze the conflict on favorable terms. In July, Kiev began to address its obligations under the Minsk II agreement, launching the political process to grant special status to the Donbas and carry out decentralization. If this falls through, the West has no alternative to the Minsk II agreement and therefore will not declare it a failure even if fighting resumes. Russia may not close out a victory, but right now it can’t lose, either.
Putin doesn’t seem to be doing too badly
From the perspective of domestic politics and regime survival, this conflict with the West is a paradoxical success story for Moscow. The invasion of Ukraine may have even saved Putin’s presidency. In January 2014, he was looking at 65-percent approval ratings (great for any democratic leader but dangerously low for a populist autocrat), a creeping recession, and a sclerotic political system. Instead of wilting away, Putin became the glorious leader who returned Crimea and its famed city of Sevastopol to Russia, along with facing down the West in Ukraine. Now the Russian people are mobilized as part of the confrontation and Russia’s economic woes are blamed almost entirely on the West instead of resting on Putin’s shoulders.
Despite the disastrous state of Russia’s economy, his approval hovers at 80–90 percent with the Russian people. Putin is the most popular leader in Europe, and rather than weaken him, Western sanctions have achieved a remarkable consolidation of opinion across Russian society behind him. Detractors have said that his approval has nowhere to go but down, but these sentiments have been pronounced since Crimea, and at each turn his support has remained steady.
Broadening the lens
Russia challenged the Western-dominated rules-based international system and largely got away with it, demonstrating that geopolitics and hard power are still the best currency in today’s world. Putin made NATO’s eastern members worry about their security guarantees, while his own neighbors were disabused of any doubts that friendly relations with Moscow might be optional. Rovner suggests Putin could have integrated into the European economy while chipping away at the unity of the European Union, but the limiting factor on integration was Russia’s primitive economy and absence of rule of law. Arguably, Russia was as integrated as it possibly could be given its systemic limitations.
European nations did not impose damaging economic sanctions on Russia when it annexed Crimea, but only after the shooting down of MH17. When they did so, many western European members grudgingly went along with Germany. The price of extending sanctions this July was a serious reconsideration of their merits this winter, and they may not be renewed again, given the surface-level initial consensus. It is important not to confuse the temporary success of Germany’s leadership and good old-fashioned arm-wringing with a collective European belief in the need to face down Russia.
European unity and NATO’s renewed sense of purpose are largely semblance masquerading as substance. The European response to Russia, the Greek debt crisis, and more recently the migrant crisis, shows more discord than solidarity behind the scenes. Meanwhile, NATO’s invigorated sense of self seems to consist mostly of exercises and speeches. Even messaging components, like the Baltic Air Policing mission, have been cut in half. The United States is deploying companies on rotation to NATO states on the alliance’s eastern flank, an indicator that it will stick by the commitments in the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act not to station permanent or substantive forces in those countries. Little appears to have changed on the ground. For most NATO members, the funding isn’t there to match this rhetoric. Conventional military capability has been steeply cut, and threat perceptions of Russia vary substantially within NATO.
If there is a visible Russian strategy today, it is to appear aggressive, particularly against the United States, in order to impart the belief that conflict escalation up to and including nuclear exchange is a real possibility. The objective is to deter a forward-leaning Western policy on its periphery, limit the NATO military response to exercises and symbolism, and effectively retain a free hand to shape events on the ground in Ukraine. By all accounts, this approach is working. Moscow still considers conflict with NATO as highly unlikely, thus giving up nothing of its own security, while NATO increasingly sees conflict with Russia as a real contingency solely based on Russia’s change of intent, and must scramble to figure out a way forward.
Russia’s long-term goal is to accelerate the decline of U.S. power in the international system, even if it chiefly transfers to China. On the international stage, Moscow has traded the prestige and trappings of Western integration for being feared. Prestige is great for pursuing opportunities, but fear is much more useful when defending core geopolitical interests. These are not strategies, but maneuvers, that have proven effective in the interim, though they could prove unbearably costly in the long term.
Long-term consequences are the known unknown
Moscow is not isolated as Rovner suggests. This is another slogan in defiance of objective reality. Not only does Russia continue to figure prominently at major international forums, but the overwhelming majority of countries continue to deal with Vladimir Putin — who will be at the UN in September to rub it in America’s face. In reality, Russian "isolation” is equally a strategic problem for the West. Russian integration into a Western-dominated international system was how the United States hoped to keep Moscow’s behavior normative and encourage its adherence to a rules-based order. This policy was implemented in place of including Russia in a European security or economic framework.
For Moscow, this confrontation is probably a more comfortable and normal state than the past two decades of cyclical relations with the United States. Punitive sanctions and containment have replaced integration, but where exactly does that leave the West’s strategy for Russia? The United States is not ready to commit to containment and regime rollback, while Europe is wholly unprepared to return to a Cold War-like adversarial relationship with Russia. Nobody wants Russia’s collapse, either. Blaming Putin’s lack of strategy seems to be a knee-jerk response for the rapid conclusion of two decades of Western policy toward Russia and the absence of any replacement.
There are real costs here for Russia, just not the frivolous ones often described. Vladimir Putin ruined his best and most important Western relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel. Russia was surprised by Germany’s strong reaction to its invasion of Ukraine and the leadership Berlin showed in corralling a diplomatic and economic European response. Putin will likely outlast Merkel in power and seek to make amends with the next leadership, but his dishonesty in recent dealings has permanently damaged Russia’s credibility.
Russia is also in deep economic trouble — the worst it has seen since the 1998 financial crisis — and there is no way of knowing if the Kremlin will be able to navigate through these waters. Moscow seems unprepared for the numerous legal challenges and lawsuits to come as a result of its actions, and in these hard times desperately needs access to the West’s banking system to recapitalize corporate debt. Those sanctions are taking their toll as long as oil prices continue to fall. No surprise that Vladimir Putin, who does not believe in rule of law, has a poor appreciation for the legal consequences of Russia’s actions and the financial costs it could bear later on.
Ultimately, 18 months cannot be considered sufficient time to determine the success or failure of Moscow’s strategy. Analysts and commentators have been calling this game too soon at every turn. Great strategy or not, Russia retains the initiative in Ukraine and in its confrontation with the West. Thus far, reports of Putin’s strategic incompetence, along with his imminent overthrow, appear to have been greatly exaggerated.