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Fintan O’Toole: Putin’s reputation as a grand strategist was an illusion

Putin’s previous success was a result not of his own strength, but of the West’s passivity

Strategy is a lofty word – it often comes accompanied by “grand”. But it really means something quite simple: the matching of means to ends.

Or, as the historian of the cold war John Lewis Gaddis puts it in a book that is indeed called Grand Strategy, it consists of “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities”.

The ends that any leader might desire are infinite; the means he or she can use to try to achieve those ends are finite. Bad strategists – and Vladimir Putin increasingly looks like one – lose sight of this distinction.

It's been clear for some time now that Putin is an incompetent tactician. Other than flattening cities from the air and unleashing thugs on defenceless civilians – which anyone with the weapons, the willing killers and the necessary shamelessness could do – his campaign against Ukraine has been a mess.

But the fear remains that even if Putin is losing the battles, he will win the war. Might his strategy prove to be a lot more effective than his tactics?

This anxiety is rooted in recent experience. Roughly speaking, for pretty much all of the 21st century up to February 24th, Putin did indeed look like a master strategist. Even as his country was mired in economic and political stagnation, he acquired an astonishing degree of power within the western democracies – culminating in the accession of his devotee Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.

It did not take much genius to obliterate Grozny or Aleppo. Nor did Putin have to be all that brilliant to gain such influence in the western democracies

For a relatively small outlay of money and effort, Putin did more to destabilise the West than all of his predecessors in the Russian intelligence services and in the Kremlin had managed in a century of trying. It is easy to see how he might have come to conceive of himself – and be seen in the West – as a virtuoso of the long game of geopolitics.

But in retrospect it was all just too easy. It did not take much genius to obliterate Grozny or Aleppo. Nor did Putin have to be all that brilliant to gain such influence in the western democracies.

All the planets aligned perfectly for him. The complex systems of tax avoidance and money laundering developed by western bankers and super-accountants were wide open for the creation of a vast shadow empire of Russian money. That money bought influence everywhere.

Meanwhile, Germany’s decision to forgo the use of nuclear power created a vast appetite for Russian natural gas to replace it. This gave Putin a grip on the EU’s economic (and increasingly its political) powerhouse.

Western social media were equally open to Russian manipulation and the spreading, with previously unimaginable speed and range, of disinformation and hate speech. And the great banking disaster of 2008 created a profound popular disillusionment with the dominant models of western capitalism.

Cunning opportunist

Putin didn’t create any of these conditions. He was a cunning opportunist who discovered, step by step, how easy it was to exploit them. It seems probable that he himself was initially astounded by how far he could go.

Even launching attacks in England with nerve agents produced no really serious backlash. If you get away with threatening a peaceful provincial city like Salisbury with one of the most toxic substances ever created, why would you not conclude that western Europe is too divided and weak-willed to stand up to you?

If you stand back from all of this, though, what you see is the mismatch between huge aims and modest means. Putin’s aspirations were enormous. He wanted to undermine the US, pull the EU apart, discredit democracy as a rival to his own brand of autocratic rule and draw the errant former republics of the Soviet Union back into a new form of Russian empire.

Ironically, this massive disproportion between what Putin seemed to be achieving and the effort he was having to put into it may well be his nemesis

But the means he had to deploy were out of all proportion to these grandiose ambitions: relatively easy wars (from his point of view) in Chechnya, Georgia and Moldova; internet trolls and hackers sitting safely in offices in Russia; money to grease palms and buy political influence. (The last of these came surprisingly cheap – as Peter Geoghegan showed in Democracy for Sale, even a quarter of a million pounds could buy direct access to the very highest levels of the Tory party in Britain.)

Ironically, this massive disproportion between what Putin seemed to be achieving and the effort he was having to put into it may well be his nemesis. It gave him apparently rational reasons to think he could accomplish almost unlimited ends with very limited means.

And this is what has made him a bad strategist. He can’t match his finite capabilities to his almost infinite aspirations.

Even if the Russian armed forces had not proved to be so badly run down by corruption, poor morale and an excessively rigid chain of command, could they ever have conquered and held Ukraine as a whole? The job of suppressing a sprawling nation of 44 million people was surely always beyond them.

Gas and nukes

The other means Putin can employ are gas and nukes. The potency of the first will decline rapidly. He has made the political price of dependency on Russian gas far too high. He has forced his enemies into a response that will ultimately weaken his own power – the essence of bad strategy.

The possession of a vast nuclear arsenal is the one resource that does indeed match Putin’s notion of himself as a global man of destiny. But in strategic terms, its value is negative rather than positive.

It is undeniably true that the threat of nuclear catastrophe limits the degree to which Nato can engage directly with Russia’s military. It forces Nato to conduct a proxy war through Ukraine’s government and armed forces.

But there is no positive strategic benefit for Putin in actually using nuclear weapons. Just think of Chernobyl: a nuclear explosion in Ukraine sends fallout into all the neighbouring countries, including Russia and Belarus.

Mutually assured destruction is not strategy. It is murder-suicide.

Putin’s failure to tailor his aspirations to his capabilities (and vice versa) means that all he can do is open a cavernous hole and keep digging. He can sustain a long-term but futile war in eastern Ukraine.

Where will this leave Russia? Palpably weakened, its military reputation destroyed, its economy bled by western sanctions

That war will increasingly look, not like a realistic means to a grand strategic end, but merely like a particularly vicious form of sulking. It will be Putin’s sour revenge on the people of Ukraine for their outrageous insistence on their collective right to exist.

But where will this leave Russia? Palpably weakened, its military reputation destroyed, its economy bled by western sanctions, its position in the world increasingly that of a junior and dependent client of China, its intellectual life vitiated by a brain drain of the young and the educated.

It has turned out that Putin’s reputation as a grand strategist was an illusion created, not by his own strength, but by the collusion and passivity of the West. The democratic world conjured up a genius. Putin’s overreach has turned this mastermind back into what he always was: a kleptocrat and killer with grandiose notions he cannot live up to.