Putin's Improv Act

Why are we so sure that the Russian leader is a master strategist?

Reuters/The Atlantic

In December 1979, Moscow launched Operation Storm-333, or the invasion of Afghanistan. Elite Soviet soldiers disguised in Afghan uniforms seized key targets in Kabul, as 100,000 Soviet troops rumbled into Afghanistan from the north.

U.S. officials saw the intervention in Afghanistan as part of a carefully orchestrated program of Soviet expansion. But in truth there was no master plan. The aging Politburo improvised the whole adventure. Moscow hoped that a quick and decisive show of force would create a friendly regime on the border, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the makeshift invasion of Afghanistan soon spun out of control as a nationwide mujahideen insurgency emerged.

Today, many policymakers and analysts are convinced that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is part of Vladimir Putin’s master strategy. As Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, sees it, “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close.” According to Rogers, the Russian president wants to strengthen his country’s “buffer zones,” with Moldova as the probable next target. Stephen Hadley and Damon Wilson have concluded that Putin’s invasion is part of a larger strategy “to reconstruct what he could of the former empire but on a Russian model rather than Soviet.”

But what if there is no grand scheme? What if, like the Soviets in 1979, Putin is basically winging it? The Russian leader is certainly aware of the broader environment: the encroachment of NATO and the European Union into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, the shifting balance of power between pro-Western and pro-Russian groups in Ukraine, and America’s non-interventionist mood in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Russia’s military incursion in the Crimean peninsula may well be an improvised operation sparked by the sudden ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Facing a new and unexpected environment, Putin could have cobbled together a plan on the fly. After all, if an aggressive move into Crimea had long been in the works, why would Putin bother spending $50 billion to boost Russia’s global image at the Winter Olympics in Sochi? Any public relations gains just went up in smoke.

Throughout history, countries have often used force without a clear strategy or endgame. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Tokyo had little idea how it was ultimately going to defeat the United States. “We may hope that we will be able to influence the trend of affairs and bring the war to an end,” Japanese military leaders wrote just months before the assault. That was enough apparently for Japan to send its carriers toward Hawaii and a date with infamy. Similarly, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 with minimal planning for the post-Saddam era. Washington was barely thinking two moves ahead.

If the Japanese in 1941 and the Americans in 2003 were willing to start major, high-risk wars with little regard for the finale, isn’t it conceivable that Putin began a more limited intervention in Crimea without a careful plan?

This begs another question: Why are we so drawn to the image of Putin as a master strategist? Perhaps we’ve bought into Moscow’s mythos about the president who hang-glides with Siberian cranes, rides with the Night Wolves motorcycle gang, and dives for ancient Greek vases in the Black Sea. Like the Dos Equis character, Putin is the most interesting man in the world.

Or, more likely, we’ve fallen victim to a very human bias. One of the core ideas in psychology is the fundamental attribution error. We often explain our own behavior as being “situational” or driven by external forces we can’t control. But we explain other people’s behavior as being “dispositional” or propelled by their deep-rooted character. When the United States acts, we’re responding to events. When Putin acts, he’s following his twisted nature and a clear agenda.

If the Russian president is essentially improvising, is that good or bad? Obviously, we would prefer Putin to be ad-libbing rather than following a systematic program of aggression. But if he’s making it up as he goes along, there’s more room for uncertainty and unpredictability, and a heightened chance for misperception and miscalculation. If Putin’s not thinking many moves ahead, he could end up trapped in a position he didn’t expect.

For Washington, the solution will require caution, resolve, and creativity. We should stop Ukraine from provoking a wider conflict with Russia that it can’t win. We should alter Putin’s cost-benefit calculus by clearly signaling that further aggression will lead to international isolation and sanctions. And we must recognize that great powers like Russia can’t easily retreat once they’ve planted the flag. So we need to create a face-saving path of retreat for Putin—for example, by avoiding unnecessary bluster.

Russia could be enacting the first stages in Putin’s blueprint. Alternatively, the whole scheme might have been contrived in the last few weeks. But this is little consolation. In 1979, the Soviets envisaged a speedy triumph in Afghanistan. But they were still there a decade later, as a cobbled-together adventure turned into an improv tragedy.