Putin is not a strategic grand master
31 Jul 2014|


The destruction of Malaysian flight MH17 could hardly have come at a more inopportune moment for Russia, already reeling from Western sanctions and isolation. A growing body of evidence suggests that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine downed the flight with a Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile launcher, potentially supplied by Russia. Even if the perpetrators mistook MH17 for a Ukranian military aircraft and had no intention of harming civilians, the damage has been done: all 298 passengers and crew on board were killed.

Given how integral the incorporation of Ukraine would be to any program of Russian restoration, it is not surprising that President Vladimir Putin would support pro-Russian separatists there: they played an important role in hiving off the Crimean Peninsula this March, and they are working to dislodge two of Ukraine’s eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk. Unfortunately for Putin, they are evidently willing and able to act outside of his control—a risk he appears to have neglected.

While an enduring strain of post-Cold War thinking holds Putin to be a shrewd grand strategist, the MH17 disaster suggests otherwise. The essence of strategy is to use limited resources to achieve an operational objective. Putin has often articulated his vision for Russia’s place in the world, so we can assess the extent to which his foreign policy has advanced it. In October 2011, for example, he urged Russia to pursue ‘a higher level of integration—a Eurasian Union.’ He envisions the Union as ‘a powerful supranational association’ that will function ‘as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.’ Achieving that goal would require Russia to strengthen its economy; draw the former Soviet republics into its economic orbit; bolster its ties with the European Union; and develop a more balanced partnership with America’s putative superpower replacement, China.

Russia’s actions over the past seven months, however, have undermined its ability to achieve each of those four aims.

  1. Wresting Crimea from Ukraine was a comparatively simple step; securing water, power, and other basic necessities for its 2.2 million inhabitants, and subsequently assimilating them into Russia, will prove harder (Russia has said it might spend up to $7 billion this year on that effort). Russia’s economic outlook is poor even when one leaves aside that burden: it registered no growth between April and June, and it suffered $75 billion of capital outflows in the first half of the year, $12 billion more than in all of 2013. While it retains significant leverage over European gas markets, Russia’s foreign policy has accelerated the EU’s push to find alternative suppliers. Given the importance of energy exports to its economy, a gradual reduction in that leverage could result in a protracted recession in Russia.
  2. Putin declared two years ago that ‘deepening integration across the Commonwealth of Independent States is the heart of our foreign policy’. Russia scored a modest victory to that end this May, when it inaugurated the Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan; Armenia and Kyrgyzstan may join before year’s end. But it also scored an own goal: three key CIS countries—Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova—signed ‘deep and comprehensive free trade area’ agreements with the EU late last month. Uncertainty about the scope of Russia’s territorial ambitions has given the US and the EU an opportunity to make strategic inroads with other CIS countries that should be firmly in the Russian column.
  3. Putin stated earlier this month that Russia–EU ties are ‘undergoing serious tests’. Russia’s posture towards Ukraine had already strained those ties and bolstered calls for the European members of NATO to increase their defense spending. The downing of MH17 will only compound Russia’s isolation. British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a phone call recently to discuss their future relationships with Russia. According to one of Cameron’s representatives, the three concluded that ‘the EU must reconsider its approach to Russia’. True, the EU is far more reluctant than the US to impose economic pressure on Russia. Still, Russia is making the prospect of Russia–EU reconciliation more distant.
  4. By further isolating itself from the West, Russia has given China even more leverage in their already asymmetric relationship. China increasingly regards Russia as a declining power, not a strategic partner. To stay in its good graces, Russia will feel compelled to supply China with energy, weapons systems, and other vital commodities at discounted prices. Should China conclude, moreover, that Russia is going too far in strengthening its relationships with China’s neighbours, particularly those with which China is engaged in territorial disputes, it will exercise its economic leverage to keep Russia in check. On balance, then, Russia’s foothold in the Asia-Pacific region will combine a transactional partnership with China and constrained relationships with China’s neighbours—not an auspicious outcome for Russia’s ‘going east’ tack.

With its prodigious energy reserves, vast nuclear arsenal, and veto power at the United Nations Security Council, Russia remains a major power in the world. But Putin’s policies are reducing its influence, not strengthening it. However cunning he may be personally, it would be misguided to call him a strategic grand master.

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013). Image courtesy of Flickr user limbic.