Commentary

‘Putin’s Folly:’ Biggest Foreign Policy Error Since WWII?

China is edging away from Russia. The Russian economy is in steep decline. And the Russian military is being humiliated, its poor training, logistics, command, and troop morale being cruelly exposed.

The spectacular folly of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shocking.

Before the invasionVladimir Putin had a crafty if ruthless foreign policy: divide and undermine American democracy, weaken NATO in part by making Europe dependent on Russian gas, build ties with China, expand Russian military strength, and slowly erode Ukrainian independence.

It was working.

Now, it’s all reversed and crumbling.

Backlash

American politicians across the political spectrum are uniting around supporting Ukraine. Joe Biden’s popularity is surging, and Putin’s quisling ally Donald Trump has embarrassed himself in his abject admiration of Putin.

NATO is uniting, rearming, and potentially expanding. Europe is scrambling to reduce dependence on Russian gas imports, scotching the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and rebooting nuclear power.

China is edging away from Russia. The Russian economy is in steep decline. And the Russian military is being humiliated, its poor training, logistics, command, and troop morale being cruelly exposed.

Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after a fighting with Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv
Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after fighting with Russia in Kyiv on the morning of February 26, 2022. Photo: Segei Supinski/AFP

If it weren’t for the abject suffering of the Ukrainian people, we might revel in Napoleon’s famous line, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

What happened? Why did Putin commit one of the greatest foreign policy errors by any state since World War II? Though we can only speculate at this point, history offers a few clues.

Putin’s Regime

Consider the structure of Putin’s regime. Often, dictators like Putin tend to have lower quality, biased information, both because they surround themselves with politically reliable toadies rather than competent professionals, and because they do not permit broader public discussion of foreign policy.

This can lead dictators to exaggerate the likelihood of victory. There are reports that Russia’s recent military reforms were crippled by internal corruption, yielding only a “Potemkin military,” but Putin’s henchmen declined to give Putin the complete picture of Russian military weakness.

Further, because dictators like Putin can crush domestic opposition, they are more willing to start risky wars because they can stay in power if things go poorly. Putin is arresting seven-year-old children for laying flowers at the Ukrainian embassy as part of a broader crackdown on the last vestiges of independent press and opposition in Russia.

Perhaps not surprisingly, across history dictators are less likely than democracies to win the wars they start.

Delusions of Empire

Another part of the story relates to delusions of empire. Putin repeatedly proclaimed his vision of reconstituting the Soviet if not tsarist empire.

Many in the West declined to take him at his word, but it appears that Putin subscribed to this vision more literally, as Adolf Hitler envisioned an Aryan German world order, and Imperial Japan saw an empire with its master race ruling an Asian-Pacific empire.

Visions like these give a sense of destiny, historical inevitability, and fortune favoring the brave.

The invasion of Ukraine echoes another disastrous war launched by a dictator: Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was also a dictator ruling an oil-exporting state, seeing himself as destined to lead the Arab world. He viewed Kuwait as an artificial political creation rather than an independent nation, as Putin dismissed the idea of a Ukrainian nation.

Salami Tactics

Here’s another similarity. Aggressors sometimes attempt “salami tactics,” seizing a small piece of territory, large enough to provide some value but small enough such that they might get away with it.

This was, of course, Hitler’s strategy in demanding the Sudetenland in 1938 and America’s fear of what Moscow might attempt vis-a-vis West Berlin during the Cold War.

Saddam could have engaged in salami tactics in 1990, just seizing some of Kuwait’s northern oil fields without annexing all of Kuwait. The US almost literally green-lit such an Iraqi strategy in summer 1990, and given the thin US public support for military action even after Iraq conquered all of Kuwait, he probably could have gotten away with it.

There was a similar path for Putin.

He had already carved off the Crimean slice of the Ukrainian salami. His support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine laid a path for devouring more bits of Ukraine, perhaps recognizing as independent those enclaves in eastern Ukraine. Properly packaged, Putin might have gotten away with more salami tactics, devouring Ukraine slowly but steadily.

But, like Saddam, Putin greedily sought to consume an entire country at once. Saddam paid for his error with his military strength, and eventually his political power and even his life. What price Putin ultimately pays remains to be seen.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP

China, the South China Sea, and Taiwan

One final point. What will China make of the Ukraine debacle? We should hesitate before concluding that just because China is also led by a dictator, it will also blithely stumble into military disaster.

Indeed, not all dictators make these errors, and conversely, democracies sometimes launch ill-conceived wars.

China is undoubtedly observing the Ukraine war, and perhaps learning the wisdom of its ongoing salami tactics strategy in the South China Sea and elsewhere. China sees that it can steadily expand its influence by slowly capturing and fortifying unoccupied reefs, expanding its naval patrols, and so on, without risking broader war, at least with the US.

This is a slower strategy, but many have described Chinese foreign policy as patient, playing the long game.

There is some good news, though: the Ukraine war may discourage China from seeking to conquer Taiwan.

The US has continually signaled that it would view aggression against allies like Poland very differently than aggression against a non-ally like Ukraine. The US has been sent substantial troop deployments to NATO members, refusing to cheap out with ineffective tripwire deployments.

Perhaps China will also recognize that even if the US looks past small acts of aggression in the South China Sea or against non-allies like Vietnam, it will stand firmly by Taiwan, a loyal US ally for nearly 70 years.

The future is uncertain. But the paradox is that the idiocy of the Ukraine war has rendered Russia a much weaker threat to America and the West.


Headshot Dan ReiterDan Reiter is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Political Science at Emory University.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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