Putin's conflicts

Occasionally, writers express the opinion that Putin is superior in foreign policy to Western governments. The list of reasons differs, and covers a wide range.

Let's look at this in some detail for once, instead of with half a line as at other times:
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Is he superior in foreign policy? Well, it depends - on whether he has achieved much. Honestly, I cannot see a single big success story of his in foreign policy. He has left some treaties and conquered Crimea (which is now going to be a leech on the Russian state and economy). He kept most CIS states kind of in line with Russia and prevented that all of Ukraine turned westward.
These very few and rather small successes are opposed to the costs; the economic costs of sanctions, the costs of the war in the Ukraine (and Chechnya, if  you count this as foreign policy), the (little) expenses of the war in Syria.

The balance leaves mostly symbolic successes and pathos as successes in my opinion; the illusion that Russia returned to something like the USSR's power and respect.

(more like "exploited" than "created")

Putin is fairly good (reckless) at starting or joining conflicts. He's not too shy to start a fire or to throw some more gasoline into fires.

Chechnya; this was essentially a fire in a closed room that he killed by flooding the room with gasoline. At some point there were more Russian security personnel (military and paramilitary) in Chechnya than civilians. Putin never solved this conflict; it rather went its course and eventually drowned. Chechen fighters keep causing trouble in many places, being displaced from Chechnya proper.

South Ossetia; Putin didn't solve any conflict there either. His short war over South Ossetia rather preserved the status quo ante of an unresolved secession conflict.

Abkhazia: Same here, Russia merely succeeded in keeping this open wound of Georgia open (another secession conflict).

Crimea: Yet another unresolved conflict, since the annexation hasn't been recognized by more than a few countries so far. Putin failed to at least give a real referendum a try. Instead, he held the likely rigged referendum that lacked international observers and thus carries no weight with non-allied foreign governments.

Donezk: It's fairly obvious that this is just another conflict that Putin wasn't able to end quickly, or with profit. In fact, it's still lingering and the economic sanctions and renewed political hostility of NATO and EU including neighbours of Russia were a hefty price for so far no gain whatsoever.

Syria: Putin seems to have succeeded in preserving the Assad regime and thus Russia's military base in Syria (which is of no value for its national defence). He didn't defeat daesh yet, nor even only the so-called FSA. Putin appears to lack a clear route to an end of the conflict just as do all other powers that meddle in it.

"It’s easy to start a war, but it’s always difficult to end with it"

"Every war is easy to start, but it is extremely difficult to finish"

Putin has no particular quality that enables Russia to profit of conflict more than Western politicians can do. He's just as unable to conclude a conflict in a desirable fashion.

There are differences in comparison to most Western politicians, though (not U.S., UK or French ones); ons is his willingness to start fires and to pour gasoline into them. Many Western politicians have learned about the benefits of cooperation (not CIS-style hegemony) and are rather seeking win-win deals. Exceptions are usually led by the relatively hawkish and more great power gaming-inclined politicians from the U.S.. France has its particular brand of interventionism, in which it somehow thinks of itself as the policeman of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another difference is that unlike the cooperation-minded Western politicians Putin doesn't shy away from using force in an attempt to get what he wants. It's just that he -as almost everyone else - usually still fails at achieving desired end-states (which is why this method has become to unpopular).

Some time ago I mentioned that the West could have countered the Russian "force concentration" (a petty ~80,000 troops actually) on the Ukrainian border by deploying forces into Georgia. These forces could have threatened to destroy the Russian position in the Caucasus region (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Berg-Karabagh conflicts) in absence of the Russian army forces. Putin would have been forced to react to this diversion by recalling about half of the troops from the Ukrainian border in order to stabilize the situation in the Caucasus region.
This would have been a fairly ordinary strategic move in the 19th or 18th century, but it was beyond the horizon of most Western politicians, obviously. Such a counter-escalation doesn't suit well to "War as last resort" attitudes and a general emphasis on avoiding war by being peaceful yourself. Such an extended tool set in which counter-escalation may actually save the peace and end up bringing de-escalation was simply not within their repertoire.

This points out the predictability of Western strategy; the Americans are obsessed with their pet region Near/Mid East and their phony war on errorism in general, and demonstrably largely incapable of quick reaction to anything Putin does. Some European governments are disrespectful enough to small powers to bomb or occupy them, but respectful enough of Russia to never be more escalating than non-violent sanctions and parades.

This leaves Putin much freedom of action. He can predict the primitive reactions (tripwire forces, show of force exercises, sanctions, angry statements to the press) to his actions and for some reason or another he often comes to the conclusion that starting or joining a conflict is still worth it. Except s far it really wasn't, for he is no von Bismarck at all. He's good at maintaining power in a stagnating, commodity-prices-depending kleptocracy, and reckless enough to play great power games - which he really isn't all that good at, since he doesn't know how to end the game with profit.



  1. This is selling the Russian efforts short. Putin could end the Ukrainian conflict tomorrow, but he wants to keep it open.
    He is mobilizing forces now to create leverage on EU politicians to reduce sanctions and destabilize Ukraine further. This is the goal, rather then annexing a spot but having Ukraine leave the influence sphere.

    Syria as a power game is quite impressive, with very little resources they are having a large role. Compared to western effort, the return is much larger.

    1. No, he cannot end it tomorrow.
      The Ukrainian forces are in part militias by now - Putin cannot occupy the country due to its size and seemingly cannot break its resolve.

      Whatever "role" Russia has in Syria, it's not yielding any real benefits to Russians nor can Putin quickly end the intervention without losing face.

    2. Madner, maybe if You check tonnage of these Russian ships moving through Bosporus, You can also specify what You mean by "very little resources" diverted to Syria. Surely it represent mainly Soviet-day war supplies, but still... https://turkishnavy.net/foreign-warship-on-bosphorus/foreign-warship-on-bosphorus-in-2016/

    3. Sorry, Ukraine was a few years ago in the Russion camp, now Putin has to employ resources to maintain influence in a small part of Ukraine.

      Not being able to control his own backyard is not sign of superior leadership.

      And the 800 pound gorilla in the room is of course the state or better perspective of the Russian economy, here Putin has done nothing substantial to improve the situation.


    4. Ulenspiegel, from military point of view, Ukraine was in fact neutral. But Putin planed her full integration into so called Eurasian Economic Union and opposed fiercely any type of association agreement with EU. So pressure is growing, Russian "near abroad" has now limited sovereignty even in economic sphere. - We all here accept cost-benefit analysis of military expansion as something normal and legitimate, and that`s OK. But from Russian point of view, it dosn`t really matter. Under their new Lev Gumilev-derrived ideology, there are three types of people: passionates, harmonical personalities and subpassionates. Passionates don`t make any calculations, ever - they just do conquest. Only harmonical personalities try to balance costs and benefits. And for old Gumilev and his contemporary followers, only passionarity matters. Harmonical personality they see as "stagnant", if not "decadent".

    5. "from military point of view, Ukraine was in fact neutral. But Putin planed her full integration into so called Eurasian Economic Union and opposed fiercely any type of association agreement with EU."

      No dispute here. However, my statemnt was made from a central European POV. The fact that there was the possibility of an EU association agreementtells me that Russia lost its influence and has nothing to compete with the soft power of the EU, Putin's military solution is IMHO actually a weak substitute.

      Secondly, my point, which a should have made claerer, is that the Russian thread felt by many people in western Europe is blown out of proportion.


  2. Putin`s understanding of conflicts is much wider than West`s. Step by step, he is undermining western political unity - and doing this, he is also narrowing western repertoire even further. In the Czech Republic, even mainstream media are now increasingly infiltrated, not to speak about fast growing "alternative" media scene. In the Czech Republic, there are now even pro-Russian militias (ostensinbly anti-refugee militias), but in Germany too (in much smaller scale, ostensibly sambo clubs). With increasingly successful (Russia-assisted) AfD party one can already see the end of Merkel rule - and her principled stance towards Russian agression. - After all, Putin isn`t Bismarck, that`s true. Primarily, he is Chekist.

    1. The West was rarely fully united on anything, and there was always a demand for alternative political views, previously met by pseudo-communists and pre-establishment greens.

      The other things you mentioned are exaggerated or wrong imo. There's not substantial Russian assistance to the AfD, and Merkel's career is about to en because Germans tend to get tired of no-reform governments and a chancellor after a few years anyway. Her pre-predecessor Kohl only lasted so long because he was saved by the reunification.

  3. One small example: Since 2014, every time you publish some Russian-critical commentary in small Czech web-based daily newspaper, in few hours you are literally flooded by threats, even death threats send by email from foreign countries such as Switzerland. But may be this is "exaggerated or wrong"... - Success of AfD means also that post-Merkel CDU is going to be even more conservative and "no-reform" than Merkel-von der Leyen "social democratic" tandem.

    1. It's tricky. Merkel did some u-turns against CDU orthodoxy, so a more orthodox conservative successor is quite likely anyway. A hard right turn of the CDU is extremely unlikely since the regional party CSU plays that role in federal politics already, a quite unique situation. Besides, in Germany it's the conservatives who built the welfare state - during the 50's and 60's, with roots in the 1880's. So compared to many other Western countries our conservatives look" social democratic" anyway. The SPD doesn't play the role of social reformers any more; the greens (and to some extent the former communists) push for multi-kulti and LGBTQ interests instead.

    2. Yes, it`s tricky. Everything Putin needs to do in my country (or in any other European country) is to change general strategic orientation and block any resolute collective reaction to his aggressiveness. And he`s in fact winning. Today, we do have only two minor consistently Western-oriented parties in the Czech Rep. left, one of them in opposition. In Germany, the same is true with strong bloc of CDU/CSU/Greens/FDP. On the other hand, SPD is linked to Gazprom deals and you can see effects almost every day in Steinmeier`s foreign policy; Die Linke is in fact pro-Russian from the very start and AfD too. In Europe in general, and in European Parliament in particular, you can see opportunistic de facto coalitions of explicitly pro-Russian far left (such as Corbynists) and explicitly pro-Russian far right (such as UKIP). These de facto coalitions were outlined in "Fourth Political Theory" book of Putin`s mad geopolitical advisor Alexander Dugin back in 2009. And this red-brown amalgam normally doesn`t make much political sense, except that it "kills the system" in a way much similar to Weimar-style national-bolshevik crowd singing Hitlernationale. - And yes, this is only one aspect of this problem, there are other aspects too, mainly domestic. There are definitely stronger drivers than the Russians. But in the end, almost everybody who want to change political status quo in the same time want to tolerate much more Russian influence and aggressiveness. Facts are now completely unimportant, with ravings such as "You are going to start nuclear war with Russia" (because of three NATO battalions). There is no discussion, only one endless public trial.

    3. It's not about Gazprom. The "Neue Ostpolitik" began in 1969 and is a SPD legacy. Steinmeier is doing nothing special, just following the instincts of a cooperation-minded German foreign policy politician.

  4. I think you judge Putin harshly

    He hasn't won, but he has drawn quite cheaply.
    Compared with the catastrophic costs of Afghanistan and Iraq, which now all but the most blinded have admitted were defeats, he's a strategic.

    Additionally, its not about winning, its about making others lose.
    His modest intervention in Syria has utterly wrecked US policy in the region.
    He's a gangster running a protection racket, he can't do business, but if you don't pay him off, you can't either

    1. See, from a European perspective the government serves its people, and making other people lose is not serving the own people.

      And the U.S. Syria policy was a trainwreck anyway; they merely attrited daesh and didn't provide substantial help to the FSA.

    2. Today`s Russia defines itself as Eurasian, not as European country. Not as democratic state, but as imperium. So if You apply European perspective (which Moscow sees as profoundly decadent), You are wrong. Imperial mythomotoric of Peter Sloterdijk or passionarity of Lev Gumilev should be much more appropriate measure of Russian success (as seen from Kremlin). Russian ruling elite sees itself as "still imperial" (building Fifth Russian Imperium), but Europe as "only" postimperial. European passionarity allegedly is in "convolution phase", but passionarity of Russians still in "acmatic phase", seeking conquest.

    3. Eurasian or not, imperial or not doesn't matter for the Europeans who chose Putin as an example to follow. His style of foreign policy produces hardly any gains, while incurring huge opportunity costs. They are in delusion about this, expecting better returns from strongman politics than from what we have.