Russia is unique in the discourse of human history. It is a nation that is not wholly of one region or culture, and it is not wholly European nor is it wholly Asian rather it is its own self. To be Russian is to identify as having a shared heritage with both ends of the Eurasian continent. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s long time leader, has in the course of his regime borrowed heavily from both European and Eastern mindsets and ideals. Domestically, this has meant Putin has heavily embraced Russia’s unique identity in order to separate itself from the progressive democratic mindset of Europe and tap into Russia’s deep ethnic nationalist pride. In the realm of foreign affairs, Putin has also found a new approach one that is based on the idea of maintaining an advantage over his foes even if it is a slight one. This is a new approach for Russia, which has since the reign of Peter the Great based its foreign and military thinking around Clausewtizan ideals.
In 1832, Carl Von Clausewitz a Prussian General and Military theorist published his pivotal thesis ‘On War.’ In it the Prussian General did his best to summarize millennium of western military stratagem and theory in one volume. Among his various insights Clausewitz asked, “What do we mean by the defeat of the enemy? Simply the destruction of his forces, whether by death, injury, or any other means—either completely or enough to make him stop fighting.” From this Clausewitz concluded, “The complete or partial destruction of the enemy must be regarded as the sole object of all engagements . . . Direct annihilation of the enemy's forces must always be the dominant consideration.” Though the reign of Peter the Great proceeded Clausewitz’s thesis, Clausewitz’s work was a culmination of centuries of western strategic thinking, which the great reformer Peter had embraced whole-heartedly.
If one looks at the evolution of the Russian military and foreign affairs from 1700-1991, they see nearly two centuries of foreign policy and military planning based on the complete destruction of the enemy. This demonstrated itself in the partition of Poland under the Czars, the famous doctrine of ‘more bodies than bullets’ under the soviets, and ultimately culminated in the nuclear arms race with the US. It is by the grace of God and the rational actions of a few good men, that the Cold War didn’t end in global annihilation. When the Cold War did end, however, due to the failure of the Soviet economic and political model, it also discredited three centuries of military and diplomatic strategy.
Putin, who as a member of the KGB at the time, held a first row seat to the collapse of the once vaunted Soviet military - first in Afghanistan and then in Chechnya. In each case, guerrilla armies showed the impotence of the once great Soviet War machine. What is more was Russia and the former USSR’s rush to embrace the ideals of western democracy, which led to the splintering of Russia’s near abroad. Where once they where complacent clients, now they were potential NATO members. Putin saw the break up of the USSR as a precursor to the West’s ultimate aim, the division of Russia into smaller manageable states. Yet out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a potential new model for Russian foreign policy emerged one that speaks to the eastern school of strategic thinking.
Thousands of years before Clausewitz, Sun Tzu the now somewhat mythical Chinese general, drew somewhat different conclusions. In his great work The Art of War Sun Tzu wrote, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” Both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu’s thoughts on military strategy are equally valid in their own way. Yet they characterize two very different visions of how one can defeat their enemy. Dr. Henry Kissinger, former US National Security advisor and Secretary of State, summarized these different strategic mindsets in his book ‘On China’. In the text, Dr. Kissinger uses the European game of chess and the Chinese game of Wei Qi. Dr. Kissinger uses the strategic mindset of the games to illustrate the difference between eastern and western mindsets.
The goal of chess, Dr. Kissinger concluded, is Clausewitzian - the annihilation or unconditional surrender of the enemy. In the process, the victorious chess player also destroys himself. On the other hand, the Chinese game of Wei Qi is based on the idea of gaining a slight advantage over the enemy defeating him through maneuvers without destroying yourself. Wei Qi, which is more widely know to the rest of the world by its Japanese name ‘Go’, also incorporates a far broader scope than a game of chess. While chess simulates a single decisive battle, in Wei Qi multiple battles take place across the board, and the balance of power shifts incrementally. Putin for almost fifteen years now has begun to engage the west not in a massive game of chess but one of Wei Qi. Each time the West moves, he counter moves and he always seeks to maintain a small advantage, or at least leave room to maneuver at a later date.
To see the pattern one only needs to look at Putin’s track record. In Chechnya, Putin simultaneously ended the war and Western condemnation for his actions not through a peace conference or a truth and reconciliation commission as the West would have preferred, but through the pragmatic use of force. Putin installed a local strongman as the region’s leader with a clear message - keep order and the money keeps coming. Despite the criticism of the Chechnya regime for its flagrant abuse of human rights, the war in Chechnya ended and Putin gained better ground to engage with the West economically. Though he could not have predicted it, Putin’s heavy-handed measures in Chechnya ultimately bought him a great deal of good-will, especially from the United States in the wake of 9/11. Putin was able to cast Russia as one of the original combatants of international Islamic terrorism.
The good will gained from Chechnya allowed Putin and his regime time to rebuild Russia's economy and military. Despite setbacks between 2000 when Putin was first elected and 2008 when the August War started, the Russian military was refurbished from a force that was forced to sell its weapons to feed its men to something approaching a combat effective unit. Putin between 2000 and 2008 made no secret of his distrust and dislike for the West, but he maintained if not war then at least viable relations. In his mind though, the West was actively working toward renewed confrontation with Russia, having absorbed the former Warsaw pact states NATO, an institution Putin and his ruling clique still viewed as actively hostile to Russia’s interests. What was worst, NATO was now setting its sights the countries that had traditionally been part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, specifically Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine this manifested in 2004 when the so-called Orange revolution put a pro western party in power ousting the pro-Russian clique.
At the time, Putin did little to stop the action because Ukraine with its deeply corrupt public and private sector was still tied to Russia economically. The EU had yet to present itself as a viable alternative economic block for Ukraine to join. The Orange regime ultimately collapsed when it became clear the supposed ‘reformers’ where just as corrupt as the old guard. Putin potentially saw this as the first step by the West to turn Russia’s flank. This culminated four years later when Georgia, a small Caucus nation that had long been seen by Russia as the gateway to the Middle East, took concrete steps to join NATO. By supporting Georgia’s two breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia managed to provoke Georgia into a brief war, which resulted in Russia gaining control over the break away regions. It formally and quietly annexed the two regions in 2015 as ethnic republics within Russia.
As was noted in 361’s coverage of Russia’s use of Hybrid Warfare, “Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia sit astride the only overland routes into the Caucuses. Abkhazia controls the coast road from which it is possible to drive all the way to Northern Turkey or Iran. South Ossetia controls the only routes through the mountains via the Roki Tunnel. Incidentally, the South Ossetia Republic’s very existence is like a dagger pointed at the Georgian heartland from which an army could in a matter of days take not only the capital, but also most of the country. While the 2008 war in the short term secured Russia’s vital strategic assets in the Caucuses, the longer-term effects were far more fruitful for the Kremlin. Before the 2008 war, Georgia under the leadership of pro-western Mikheil Saakashvili, had been building closer ties with the US and examining the possibility of joining NATO. In 2012, in no small part because of the horrible failure of the 2008 war, Saakashvili’s government was swept out of office by a broad coalition called the Georgia Dream that was far more congenial to Russia and its interest.” Through his actions Putin successfully maintained an advantage over the West and what’s more managed to do it without cutting diplomatic bridges.
The success of Georgia probably emboldened Russia’s move to annex Crimea and later support pro-Russian rebels following the Maiden Square uprising of 2013. Here, Putin seemed to overplay his hand. The annexation of Crimea drew a massive international backlash and the blunders of the Donetsk conflict further inflamed the situation, most notably the downing of Malaysian Air flight MH17. Yet despite the set backs and temporary diplomatic pariah status, Putin accomplished the majority of his goals. Crimea was secure and with it Russia’s only ice free naval base in Europe. What’s more the breakaway Donetsk region helps to, on the one hand delegitimize the Ukrainian government in the eyes of its people, while on the other hand it also keeps Ukraine out of the EU and NATO as the country joining either would be an unacceptable provocation in western eyes.
Ukraine also proved to be Putin’s springboard back to having a seat at the international table. Along Syria’s coast in the heart of the Alawite heartland sits Tartus the only Russian base outside of the former Soviet Union. Despite being reduced to little more than a supply depot during the economic collapse, which accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union, Tartus is considered beyond vital to Russia’s strategic interest. The reasoning behind it is simple geography. So long as Russia has military units on either side of the Bosporus, the straights cannot be closed to Russia thus trapping its fleet in the Black Sea. Tartus was Russia’s initial reason for supporting the Syrian regime, but as the Free Syrian Army proved to be divided and unwieldy, and the crazy brigade namely the Islamic State and Al-nusra Front hijacked Syria’s civil war Putin once more saw a way to gain a diplomatic and propaganda victory with a small cost. Thus, in 2015 Russia expanded its military presence in Syria to include a new modern air station at Latakia Syria.
The resulting air campaigns’ effectiveness is debatable; though it seems to have helped Alawite Militia forces regain ground and drive Rebels from their enclaves in major cities. In the international game of Wei Qi though, the Syrian campaign has been a huge success. Putin has used his attacks against ISIS to pressure the West to ease sanctions imposed following the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, Russia’s role in Syria has forced greater Western engagement with Russia which could hasten Putin’s return to grace and further divide the Western Alliance as Eastern block states are alienated by Western European states haste to forgive Russia over Ukraine. In a number of third world nations, despots are now seeing Putin as a good friend to potentially cultivate due to his propping up of Assad. Though Russia has recently began to signal that it will acquiesce to Assad stepping down as part of a peace deal, Assad would be able to find comfortable asylum in Russia just as Ukraine’s ex-President Viktor Yanukovych did.
Additionally, the interest of the regime, which is to say the Generals and Industrialist who are mostly members of the Alawite sect as is Mr. Assad, would be secure. Russia could push for a partition of Syria around ethnic lines wrapping it in the guise of self-determination. The Alawites would lose Damascus, but keep the valuable coastline where they are a majority. There in lies the brilliance of Russia’s Syria intervention. Putin doesn’t need to defeat ISIS or anyone else, all he needs to do is keep the war at a bloody stalemate until the other sects and groups are willing to jettison the Alawite heartland. This will help in securing the Alawites from losing the economic and political power over the coast, and secure Russia a new Middle East ethnic nationalist state with Russian bases installed. Such a creation would also outflank Turkey an old adversary and NATO member.
Putin can afford to play the game of international diplomacy like a game of Wei Qi, because the international system can do little to stop him. Putin has the advantage of being able to plan for the long term. He has held office for 15 years, despite nominally stepping down to become Prime Minister, but he will continue to rule Russia. Western leaders are term limited and vulnerable to populist surges. Russia’s electoral system is rigged in favor of those who support, or at the very least are willing to do business with Putin. Across Europe and America, groups and individuals such as National Front and Donald Trump are gaining ground in the polls. These populists politician’s are people who Putin seems to think he can do business. Which is why Russia is financially supporting several European populist parties including National Front.
Ultimately, Putin is far too much a rational actor to embrace the Cold War style of international brinksmanship because globalization makes that economically impossible. Putin will however use diplomatic and military means to keep his opponent’s off balance, leveraging an advantage for Russia no matter how slight in the next round of confrontation. When Putin does use force, it is often overwhelming enough to make his point, but not bog Russia down in an Afghanistan style conflagration. Putin’s unique mix of Eastern and Western strategic thinking are by-products of our modern age and could be a precursor for how foreign affairs will be conducted into the next century. Western diplomats and Generals would be advised to study Putin’s moves, because despite the Western media’s constant reassurance that the collapse of his regime is around the corner Putin isn’t gone yet nor is he likely to be.
 Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War.
 Tzu, Sun. The Art Of War.
 Kissinger, Henry. On China. New York: Penguin, 2011