Strategic Blunders and Scattershot Threats: Putin’s Failures Multiply


Russian President Vladimir Putin has long shown himself to be a better tactician than strategist.

Lately, though, his erratic moves and scattershot threats have compounded his strategic miscalculation 14 months ago when he invaded Ukraine with the expectation of toppling Kyiv’s elected leadership and installing a puppet government within a few days.

Putin has repeatedly hinted he may resort to using nuclear weapons, alienating leaders of countries that haven’t condemned his unprovoked war. He’s ramped up espionage across Europe, spurring Western governments to expel hundreds of Russian spies working under diplomatic cover. He’s boycotted multinational security and political meetings, deepening Russia’s isolation.

In February, Putin announced he was unilaterally withdrawing Russia from the 2010 New START treaty, the last strategic nuclear arms accord governing warhead stocks and missile deployments. Last month, just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow, Putin said he was stationing tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus.

No announcement of military aid from Beijing followed Xi’s late March visit, although speculation was rampant that a deal had been agreed on to send Chinese-made lethal armaments to Russia. Leaked U.S. intelligence reports in early April alluded to intercepted communications that China’s military had “approved the incremental provision of weapons to Russia but wanted it kept secret,” according to the Washington Post. U.S. intelligence sources say they’ve seen no evidence of weapons deliveries.

Xi and Putin proclaimed a “no limits” partnership during Putin’s Beijing visit in February 2022, just days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Chinese officials have neither supported nor condemned the aggression. Since Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation, China and India — another professed neutral power — have warned against any such action.

China’s ambassador to the European Union, Fu Cong, told The New York Times in early April that Beijing’s pledge of limitless friendship with Putin was “nothing but rhetoric” and that China does not recognize Russia’s annexations of Ukrainian territory.

Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich on March 29. Prosecutors filed espionage charges against the 31-year-old correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, who was reportedly in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg to research a story on Russian fighters training for Ukraine deployment. Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, told Russia’s Channel One TV the reporter was seeking “state secrets about the military-industrial complex.” Russia is contemplating cutting the number of U.S. journalists accredited to work there, Antonov said.

Gershkovich’s detention prompted speculation that Russia needed another hostage to trade for detained spy suspects in Slovenia and Brazil. Fellow American and former Marine Paul Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia on accusations of spying since 2018. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the TASS news agency Thursday that Russia would only consider a prisoner swap involving Gershkovich after trial in Russian court, likely to take a year or more.

Putin has also cracked down on domestic dissent to a degree of overkill. His compliant judiciary called this week for a 25-year sentence for Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza for treason in criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine. The dissident’s trial, reminiscent of Stalin-era purges, ended with a fiery speech by Kara-Murza who called himself a political prisoner and vowed “the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate.”

Fresh reports of suspected new poisoning of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny surfaced over the past week as well. His spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, reported in a Twitter post that Navalny had lost almost 18 pounds in two weeks after suffering severe stomach pains. He is no longer eating food provided by his jailors and has been prohibited from buying food from the prison store or receiving it from outside sources, Yarmysh said.

“We can’t rule out the idea that he is being poisoned, not in a huge dosage as before but in small ones so that he doesn’t die immediately but for him to suffer and to ruin his health,” she told Reuters news agency. She contrasted his current condition with the near-fatal poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent by Russian intelligence in August 2020.

Harsh punishments meted out for little-known war critics are stirring discontent among Russians long tuned out of their country’s top-down politics. Alexei Moskalyov, a teacher and single father of a 13-year-old girl in the town of Yefremov, was sentenced to two years in a penal colony for speaking out against the war. His daughter has been placed in an orphanage.

Some of Putin’s tactical blunders fall under the law of unintended consequences.

Putin justified his invasion of Ukraine as necessary to halt NATO encroachment into Russia’s periphery, to thwart Ukraine’s accession to the alliance that wouldn’t have happened for years if not decades. Instead, Russia’s invasion convinced nonaligned Finland and Sweden to seek NATO’s collective protection. Finland became the 31st member state earlier this month, doubling the length of NATO’s border with Russia and bringing with it the considerable firepower of the five-nation Nordic Defense Cooperation alliance, NORDEFCO.

Russia appears to be intensifying intelligence gathering abroad, damaging ties with neighbors with which it had better relations than with the United States and other European allies.

Norway expelled 15 Russian diplomats from their embassy in Oslo on Thursday for running a spy network and intercepting telephone and data traffic, Inger Haugland, head of the counterintelligence unit with Norwegian Police Security Service, told a press conference Friday. A Russian woman was arrested at Sweden’s largest refinery company on Thursday on suspicion of corporate espionage, the Associated Press reported from the western city of Gothenburg.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the Oslo expulsions confirmation of Norway’s “hostile status” and warned Moscow would issue a “tough response.”

Since the Ukraine invasion, Western countries have expelled hundreds of Russians for spying, The Guardian newspaper reported last month after investigating a Russian couple operating a spy network out of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana for the past six years.

Polling of Russian public opinion continues to report strong domestic support for Putin’s war despite sanctions and widespread international condemnation. But signs of weakening commitment to their leader’s destructive aggression are showing in the hundreds of thousands of draft-age men who have fled the country ahead of massive mobilizations.

The Kremlin initially blamed Ukrainian intelligence for last month’s killing of a pro-war blogger, Vladlen Tatarsky, at a St. Petersburg café. The woman arrested after video surfaced showing her handing a bomb-laden bust to Tatarsky was an activist in an anti-war group with ties to Navalny.

Russia’s state-controlled media cast Ukrainian leadership as neo-Nazis threatening the lives and property of the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. That riled up Russia’s population to view Putin’s war as an existential challenge to protect ethnic kin. After tens of thousands of Russian troops killed and national mobilizations calling up 300,000 more fighters, anti-war sentiments are reportedly escalating despite limited public demonstrations of discontent.

The Kremlin’s poorly trained and unmotivated troops were quickly pushed back a year ago from a failed assault aimed at taking Kyiv, forcing Putin to rely on ruthless mercenaries accused of committing atrocities. Infighting among Defense Ministry troops and mercenaries has been a factor in Russia’s nine-month struggle to take the shattered and strategically insignificant eastern Ukraine town of Bakhmut.

A Kremlin-orchestrated campaign of kidnapping Ukrainian children and spiriting them across the border to Russia led to the International Criminal Court issuing a March 17 arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes charges. The ICC has charged Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, with the crime of “unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”

The Kremlin’s evacuation of Ukrainian orphans and other children separated from family was an official program of the Moscow government meant to indoctrinate and Russianize the youngest war victims, a war crime as defined by the court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Russia, like the United States, is not a party to the ICC and doesn’t acknowledge its arrest warrant as legitimate. But the outstanding arrest order could expose Putin or Lvova-Belova to detention if they travel to or through a country compliant with its obligation to deliver wanted suspects to The Hague.

Putin may face a conundrum this summer about whether to defy the warrant and attend the August summit in South Africa of the BRICS alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and the host nation. Pretoria is a signatory to the ICC but has more cordial relations with Russia due to Cold War-era Moscow’s support for the African National Congress during Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment during the Apartheid era.

The South African government is obliged to arrest any wanted war criminal suspect on its territory but could grant safe passage to Putin to attend the summit. That seems unlikely, given the blowback the Pretoria government suffered after failing to arrest indicted Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir when he attended an African Union summit in South Africa in June 2015.

Putin’s safest option would be to skip the summit. But the impression he would leave is of a war criminal on the run, afraid to take his bellicose bombast about the Ukraine invasion even to a forum of allied nations yet to speak out against his costly war in Ukraine and looming domestic crises.

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


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