A few days ago, my admired colleague Ana Palacio said in an interview that Vladimir Putin he was a good strategist and a better tactician. Probably, it is what many of us thought until recently.
From a strategic point of view, Putin clearly explained his approach at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. The undersigned had the opportunity to hear him personally in the distant 2002. His goal was the recovery of the self-esteem of the Russian people after the defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For this, it was essential to recover its area of influence, guaranteeing a security perimeter, removing any risk to Moscow or Saint Petersburg. The instruments to be used would be power and military strength.
Churchill already warned that if Russia was a riddle surrounded by an enigma and shrouded in mystery, the key to interpreting it was exclusively its national interest. And the strategy followed by Putin has been consistent in this regard. If he achieved the goal of subduing Ukrainewould have recovered the Soviet European space, with the sole exception of the Baltic republics.
The tactic, for its part, has been twofold: the unapologetic use of military force –in Chechnya, Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Upper Karabakh, Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk, Syria, Libya or the Sahel– and the search for the vulnerability of Europe and NATO, sharpening their different interests and weakening their member states with destabilizing actions and the growing use of disinformation. So far, it has gone relatively well. The Western response to his actions has been timid and not always the result of consensus among allies. That has encouraged him to take additional steps, as he found that red lines were not being drawn clearly and convincingly.
But all the great strategists, especially if they are not subject to democratic control, end up overestimating their capacity for success and are victims of their own ambition. Those who believe they are infallible do so because they lose their sense of reality and fall into the first deadly sin: pride. With the aggression against Ukraine, Putin has spoiled his strategic goals and made glaring tactical mistakes.
The EU has understood that it must deepen a common energy policy that reduces dependence on Moscow, which leaves Russia in a situation of maximum weakness
Strategically, his desire to build the “Great Slavic Russia” has become the consolidation of the Ukrainian national identity and, regardless of the military outcome of the war, the Ukrainians have been alienated forever. At the slightest opportunity, they will renew their clear European and Western commitment.
As for the goal of weakening NATO and the Atlantic link, the effect has been just the opposite. The Atlantic Alliance has ‘recovered its corporate purpose’, diluted and questioned after the Cold War. In just a few days, we have gone from his ‘brain-dead’ to extraordinary vitality and vigor.
If we talk about the European Union, ‘none’ during the crisis, instead of sharpening its internal divisions, Putin has managed to make the EU understand that, in order to survive, it must deepen a common foreign, security and defense policy and, not least, in a common energy policy that reduces dependency on Moscow, which leaves Russia in a situation of maximum weakness. Putin has also managed to get Turkey to abandon its ‘fickleness’ and clearly align itself with NATO.
Finally, the Russian president has lost the propaganda battle –the story– and has managed to be, in the words of Joe Biden, a true “international pariah”. Not even China he has endorsed the invasion, showing his discomfort and ambiguity and offering himself as a mediator. The rejection is such that, whenever possible, the fate of Putin and his entourage is to face – if they are still alive – international justice to answer for war crimes.
Beyond the collapse of its strategy, the tactical errors have also been clamorous. Suffice it as an example underestimation of the resistance capacity of Ukraineled by the president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been able to interpret his people even at the risk of his own life. The Ukrainian Army is responding much more effectively than expected, and with the morale of someone who knows they are fighting for their country, for their freedom and for their lives.
The underestimation of Ukrainian capabilities has been accompanied by a overestimation of one’s own strength. The mediocre balance of Russian air superiority, logistical errors, as well as the poor preparation of invasion plans, the use of obsolete weapons, the interception of their communications and the low morale of levy troops who do not know what they are fighting for are some obvious signs.
And ‘last but not least’, Putin has underestimated the real effectiveness of the sanctions applied by the West to punish the capacity of the weak and backward Russian economy. Russian citizens are going to have a very bad time, and at some point they will react against the person responsible for the catastrophe. Putin is today in a real impasse. Hence the nuclear threat from him.
In short, with his decision to criminally and illegally invade Ukraine, Putin has completely spoiled his strategy developed over two decades, committing tactical errors of the first magnitude. In the end, he has shown himself to be a bad strategist and a worse tactician.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.