In the days leading up to his ill-advised “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, Putin appears to have failed to assess the response of its adversaries. Even though the conflict has escalated into a full-scale war, Putin and his media arsenal still refuse to acknowledge that this is no longer a special military operation but rather a full-scale war against Ukraine. Putin could benefit from studying the war strategies of renowned Chinese General Sun Tzu. One of Sun Tzu’s insights is, “Bravery without forethought causes a man to fight blindly and desperately like a mad bull. Such an opponent must not be encountered with brute force but may be lured into an ambush and slain,” Sun Tzu’s assertion is powerful and holds particular relevance to Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
From a factual standpoint, Putin seems to perceive himself as the savior that Russia has yearned for since the collapse of the Soviet Union. With his time on earth drawing to a close, he has made the gravest error of initiating this miscalculated war in Ukraine. Another crucial historic fact Putin should be aware of in terms of military might is the Boer War between 1899 and 1902, where the mighty British Army of over 45 thousand troops was sent to fight 45 Afrikaans gorilla fighters. The British army exhausted almost all its resources and manpower. Afterward, the British Army learned a vital lesson and rebuilt its army to become a fighting force during Second World War. This analogy is to prove that numbers don’t matter in the face of war, but resilience and resolve. Soldiers should have a tangible reason to put their lives in danger. However, the Russian troops have no idea what they are fighting for to date.
From Putin’s Perspective: The State Survivability
The lens of offensive Realism theory, championed by John Mearsheimer, provides valuable insight into understanding the actions and motivations of world leaders, including Vladimir Putin. Realism posits that states, driven by self-interest and the pursuit of survival, employ coercive and persuasive means to achieve their desired objectives. In the case of Putin and his perspective on Russia’s security, his actions align with the principles of offensive Realism, further solidifying its relevance.
For Putin, the survival and security of the Russian state are of utmost importance. He perceives the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a potential or existential threat to Russia’s security and strategic interests. NATO, an alliance of Western nations, represents a collective defense mechanism that could potentially encroach upon Russian influence and territory. From Putin’s perspective, allowing NATO to expand further into regions historically within Russia’s sphere of influence, such as Ukraine, would weaken Russia’s position and compromise its security. Putin’s claims are legitimate vis-à-vis the West. For example, the United States of America would not allow its neighboring countries, such as Mexico or Canada, to join any security pact with either China or Russia. These two countries provide a buffer for America. Putin has employed various strategies to safeguard Russia’s interests to prevent such perceived threats. These strategies include a combination of coercive measures and diplomatic maneuvers. In the case of Ukraine, Putin’s actions can be seen as an attempt to prevent Ukraine from aligning itself with the West, particularly NATO. This is evident in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatist movements in eastern Ukraine.
Putin aims to maintain a buffer zone between Russia and NATO-affiliated countries by asserting Russian dominance in Crimea and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. This approach reflects his belief that a robust security perimeter is crucial for Russia’s survival and sovereignty. It is consistent with the Realist notion that states will utilize sticks and carrots to ensure their own survival and maintain their perceived strategic advantage.
Putin’s miscalculations lie in his ambition to restore Russia’s status as a global superpower. While it is understandable for a leader to seek to enhance their country’s influence, Putin’s actions in Ukraine have done more harm than good. Instead of garnering respect and admiration, Russia has faced widespread international condemnation, damaged its reputation, and isolated itself from the global community. Putin’s pursuit of superpower status has proven counterproductive, weakening Russia’s standing on the world stage. The cost of fertilizer and wheat in most countries that are sympathetic to Russia have been left frustrated by Putin’s actions in Ukraine. This saw regional ten (10) representatives from Africa, led by South African President Ramaphosa, attempting to strike a deal to end the war and ease economic pain and hunger. An example of the decline of Putin’s influence is the revolt by the most experienced Russian private mercenaries, the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group revolted after its leader Prigozhin claimed the Russian Army bombed the positions of his forces, killing scores. Even though some will believe that Russia is not fighting only Ukraine but also the entire West. They may be right or wrong depending on which side you ask. However, the evidentiary failures of the Russian forces in achieving their strategic goal have been severely exposed.
The talk of strategic nuclear weapons should not be used as an element of a superpower in any discourse, regardless of where it is coming from, because it is a deadly business. A critical miscalculation by Putin is the threat of deploying strategic nuclear weapons. By engaging in aggressive military actions and openly using nuclear rhetoric, Putin has unnecessarily heightened tensions and created an atmosphere of instability. This approach is dangerous and undermines global efforts toward disarmament and non-proliferation. Such reckless behavior jeopardizes regional security and puts Russia’s own people at risk. Understanding the havoc nuclear war could befall the world is critical. Nuclear war leaves no one alive, but Putin, in his alternative world, believes he could deploy all his strategic nuclear weapons before the West could even think of deploying theirs. The Russian military has proven they are sub-par to its strategic competitors.
The only option left for Putin to save face is to bluff, as scholars call it, in international relations. A bluff is an attempt to deceive someone into believing that one can or will do something nefarious. President Joe Biden succinctly puts it this way, “big powers don’t bluff.” While this pillar of presidential policymaking is often presented as a truism, it is not as unheard of or uncontroversial. Even if big powers can and should bluff, as Andrew Kenealy stated in his article The Art of the Bluff: How Presidents Can Leverage Deception, leaders should first understand the landscape of war. In this case, Russia has already shown the world that its military is incapable of defeating a country as tiny as Ukraine. Bluff shouldn’t be a vocabulary for Putin. Maybe the world is miscalculating his intentions to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. Still, as one Russian defense newspaper stated, it would be so catastrophic to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to end the war in Ukraine.
Myths of the Promise
Putin’s decision to wage war in Ukraine reflects a strategic miscalculation of the value of cooperation and diplomacy. He has overlooked the potential benefits of peaceful negotiations and compromise by choosing military aggression over diplomatic solutions. This approach has resulted in unnecessary loss of life and human suffering, further exacerbating the already-strained relations between Russia and its neighbors. Putin’s failure to recognize the importance of fostering constructive international relationships has cost Russia dearly in terms of economic opportunities, trust, and mutual respect. There is this myth that the West promised Putin that NATO would not expand but failed to honor such a promise. No formal or legal document categorizes that the West promised Russia not to expand NATO. The U.S.S.R. was never offered a formal guarantee on the limits of NATO expansion post-1990,” John Lough, the research associate who authored the section, wrote. “Moscow merely distorts history to help preserve an anti-Western consensus at home.” Putin made his nightmare a reality by invading Ukraine. He hoped to destabilize the West and NATO. However, it turned out that Putin’s actions made the organization formidable and expanded it even bigger than he could ever have imagined.
Leaders must learn from their mistakes and adapt their strategies accordingly. If Putin wishes to avoid further strategic miscalculations, he should reflect on the consequences of his actions and consider alternative approaches that prioritize cooperation, dialogue, and respect for international norms. By embracing a more prudent and inclusive approach, Putin can hope to regain Russia’s standing and contribute positively to global stability and prosperity.