If there's one thing that has struck me over the last year or so with all the focus on Russia it's this idea that Vladimir Putin is is some kind of genius strategist; part chess master, part Napoleon reborn, part the second coming of Alexander the Great. He's often portrayed as a slick operator who manipulates the strings of global politics to make others dance to his tune, always ending up with the dominoes falling exactly as he had planned. And of course in this Internet age it's spawned meme after meme with Putin characterised as the cool poker player who bluffs and raises his way to jackpot after jackpot, leaving everyone else at the table fumbling and arguing over a handful of chips while he quietly accumulates a stack that towers over all before him.
And it needs to stop.
Not because Putin is the "enemy" right now. Some of the more pedantic historians would raise the uncomfortable spectre of the fact that Russia was for many, many years one of Britain's more useful allies. From at least the 18th century to the beginning of the cold war Russia served as a useful balancer on the continent against large continental powers such as France and Germany. It was an important part of the unofficial "Excessive Power" doctrine. In the grand scheme of things (and presuming you want to be absolutely cold and calculating, turning a blind eye to the many problems with Russia) an alliance between a maritime ascendant/pre-eminent UK and a strong Russia has long been a solid foundation for UK strategy.
No. My argument is simply that I don't believe it to be true. I've yet to see much that would imply that Putin is anything other than a ham fisted dictator who survives largely through political suppression as opposed to any kind of admiration domestically for his cunning and skill. Let's take Ukraine for example. Ukraine was once very tight with Russia, a good buffer state between the Russian homeland and an ever emboldened EU and NATO. Somehow Putin has not only allowed this buffer to slip from his grasp, but in a desperate bid to maintain his hold on Crimea he has sucked Russia into a stagnant and bitter conflict in the East of Ukraine that is not only costing Russian lives and treasure, but has also cost Russia a lot of political capital and forced it to show its hand militarily.
In reference to this last point Heinz Guderian, often thought of as the father of the German armoured forces that ran rampant in the early years of the second world war (the true story being a bit more complex than that), laid out a set of conditions for the employment of tanks, one of which was the element of surprise. But Guderian wasn't just talking about the literal operational level of surprise that could be achieved by careful planning and strong security measures. He also talked about the broader concept of strategic surprise that could be achieved by introducing new weapons and methods on a mass scale before the enemy had time to respond and develop counter-measures, emphasising the mistakes of the British and French in the first world war of having used new weapons like tanks in tentative penny packets that subsequently gave the Germans the chance to recover from the initial shock of the appearance of these new weapons on the battlefield.
In this regard Russia has ended up revealing its hand somewhat in demonstrating many of its new capabilities. The use of various drones in coordination with artillery to conduct what are in effect search and destroy missions without troops; the use of modern electronic warfare techniques; the deployment of some its latest tank types. Russia has clearly used the time that NATO was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to work on new methods and technologies for war, to develop its conventional capability to a level they were not previously believed capable of. And yet all the benefits that might otherwise be derived from these advances have largely been spent now as virtually every trick up their sleeve has been demonstrated in Ukraine, providing NATO with a valuable chance to assess them and develop counters.
And for what? What has Russia really gained out of all this? Bearing in mind that now tensions have risen to heights not seen since a time before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that NATO has strengthened its resolve and commitment with fresh deployments to the Baltic states to oppose possible Russian machinations there, and Russia has become something out a political outcast once again. In Syria, rather than having NATO perhaps quietly turn a blind eye to its efforts to bring the conflict to a conclusion as it might have once hoped, it is now facing the very real prospect that the US and its allies will lever every tool they can to remove Assad from power. Indeed, rather than the election of Trump being a boon for Russia, he has proved instead that he will happily step over them like a doormat in order to exercise American interests.
In fact I would go so far as to say that rather then being this deeply insightful strategist with his finger on the geo-political pulse, Putin is more akin to the Chuckle Brothers or Del Boy Trotter (but without the wits and the savvy), causing calamities left, right and centre with everything he touches. Thankfully he's not an idiot, otherwise some of his endeavours might have ended much less favourably for all, but he clearly has a knack of mis-stepping at virtually every turn. Situations which could be resolved in a more low key manner with a certain amount of cunning and a fine touch are instead blown into full scale political disasters, one after the other.
As to how he keeps coming out of these various scrapes with his reputation seemingly growing is anybodies guess. I suspect it has a lot to do with it being very convenient for people to talk up his influence to distract from the fact that they themselves have just been caught napping. It also no doubt serves a lot of agendas to portray Putin as a slick mastermind who could unleash more devilishly devious schemes at any moment in order to secure things like, I don't know, funding for example. Language is also a powerful tool. Nigel Farage may be an annoying arse clown posing as a serious politician, but even he has the ability to put thoughts into smart peoples heads when he uses a term like "operator" to describe Putin, one that got picked up and run with by virtually every media organisation in the UK for many months.
Scratch the surface though and really look at his resume, everything from Georgia to Ukraine to Syria to the handling of Alexander Litvinenko, and you see that far from being the steady hand guiding his ship through rough waters, skillfully navigating around all the potential political sandbanks that Russia might otherwise find itself stranded on, Putin instead seems to just point the bow in the desired direction and order full steam ahead, consequences be damned. He is many thing is old Vlad and he does deserve some credit on occasion. But Machiavelli? Maybe in intention, but certainly not in execution.