Putin: Tactician or Strategist?

I had an interesting exchange earlier this week with some Russia hands from the US government within the context of a forum held at the Brookings Institute. At issue was whether or not Putin could be said to have a strategy or whether – as I would suggest – he should instead be considered an often masterful tactician but not, ultimately, a strategist. What’s the difference? Strategy implies some quite specific long-term roadmap: not just a general sense of goals and ambitions, but a clearly-defined idea of the steps which will be taken to reach that objective. My view rather is that while Putin has a definite worldview, an idea of where he wants Russia in the world and what kind of Russia that should be, he no more has a logical and methodical notion of how to get there than, to be blunt, near enough any other leader in the world. Instead, he responds to opportunities and events in the way that suits his ambitions and temperament best and which he thinks is most likely to advance him towards his long-term goals. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he wakes up each day with some new scheme in mind; clearly there are policies which are essentially spur of the moment, and others which unfold over months or even years.

The evident change of heart which led to the “castling” maneuver in 2011, the shifts towards, away from and perhaps again towards freer market policies, Moscow’s position over Syria, all these suggest tactical rather than strategic thinking. Where there has appeared to be more of a strategic rationale underlying policy, that often seems to reflect the role of trusted allies of his, such as Kudrin on macroeconomics (until his grumpy resignation), Surkov on mass politics (until his marginalization), even Medvedev on legal reform (until the recent campaign to roll back many of his initiatives)

Beyond being simply a wonkish thought-exercise, does any of this matter, though? I’d suggest it does, for three main reasons:

1.  It tells us something about Putin’s political style. He can be a sharp, quick-acting and ruthless operator, but in many ways Putin is not only quite conservative but he also does listen to, and work through and with trusted allies. He is strikingly risk-averse and tends only to act when he feels he has a pretty definite chance of success. (He may be wrong, of course. The ‘castling’ is, I think, an especially good example of a move in which he was caught entirely off guard by public and elite dismay and disgruntlement.) Even when this means confrontational acts, from invading Chechnya to victimizing US ambassador Mike McFaul, he does so believing that he is going to get away with it. (And in the main he’s been proven right, not least in his calculation that the West has no stomach for challenging him hard.) Likewise, for all the myth – perpetuated by his supports and critics alike – of the brooding solitary father of the nation, Putin understands – or maybe understood, but I’ll get on to that later – the value of listening to good advice and letting trusted allies and underlings do their job. We see the occasional, highly-choreographed example of micromanagement when Putin upbraids a minister for some specific failing or sweeps into town to fix a local problem, spouting facts and figures. But those are the exceptions, pieces of political theater rather than reflections of his general style of rule. Having helped build a ‘deep state‘ of like-minded allies, as well as a team of suitable ‘managers’, he is largely happy to let them get on with their jobs, so long as they do.

2.  It tells us something about Putin 2.0 and why his time may be (slowly) coming to an end. Think of those people on whom he relied. Kudrin has gone and the window of opportunity to bring him back into the government seems to be closing. The current mess over pension reform and contradictions over the budget speaks volumes about how pivotal he was. Surkov likewise has been sidelined to the White House and may, according to some (I’m not convinced, I should add, but can’t definitively rule it out), even actively be stirring up mischief for his successor. Medvedev, the loyal factotum, seems to be increasingly persona non grata. Sechin is still a fixture, but it is questionable how far this is a positive factor. Even his traditional role as godfather of the siloviki may be unclear – certainly I’ve heard siloviki deriding him as now just an oligarch by any other name. Those people who provided a strategic complement to Putin’s tactical skills seem to be going – and I can’t yet see anyone taking their place.

3.  It helps explain the often-contradictory approach to the opposition. To many, there is little contradiction. The new laws on NGOs receiving foreign funding, the Pussy Riot trial, the expansion of the internal security apparatus, the rise of Bastrykin and his Investigations Committee, the new attention being paid to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Gudkov affair, the media smear campaigns against opposition leaders, all these seem to fit together into one authoritarian campaign. However, I think that over-simplifies the situation. First of all, however retrograde these measures undoubtedly are, we must appreciate that they are far more limited that the state could apply (and some advocate). The overblown and distasteful parallels with the Stalinist purges actually underline this point; when the state is simply embarrassing people through NTV rather than sending them to a Gulag for twenty years, then it is a rather different state.

Secondly, we ought not to bundle all these measures into a coherent whole – that is too much like seeing a series of dots and insisting on drawing a picture from them. The Gudkov affair was, I think, initiated by elements within the Duma rather than originally dreamt up in the Kremlin. Bastrykin has been empire-building since the SK was formed, and while the emergence of the opposition movement helped him push for new powers, he is likely now to be reined in somewhat. Meanwhile, rather than trying to insulate itself from foreign political and cultural influences like some onion-domed North Korea, Russia is pushing for freer travel to the West for its citizens and funding greater levels of student exchange. These are exactly the kind of grass-roots consciousness-raising experiences which play to the opposition. Surely these new authoritarians ought to be trying to limit such exposure before they face a new generation of Decembrists?


The answer is that there is no strategy. Putin the risk-averse leader does not seem to know how to assess the dangers and opportunities of the current political environment and so is doing lots of ‘stuff’ but not articulating any overarching plan. This is not masterful inaction, just busy-work to mask the absence of strategy. As a result, numerous individual and institutional interests are pushing their own agendas, from Bastrykin’s hard line to a modernizing agenda that is eager to encourage the influx of Western ideas and technologies.


Of course, the question becomes whether and when Putin will find a strategy – and whose it may be? A Bastrykinesque campaign of repression? A Medvedian drive for rechtstaat? A return to crude nationalism a la Rogozin? Sechin’s cynical state capitalism? It may well never happen, of course, leaving policy instead largely a matter of responding to the events of the day. You know, like most democracies.

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  1. I think this is absolutely the right question to ask about Putin – his programmes for Russia in 1999 and 2000 were absolute masterpieces in terms of the strategy for liberal reform in Russia (mainly written by Gref, I believe), with a focus on civil society and the courts as a check on the executive. All this strategy was thrown out of the window in order to win a vital tactical battle with the oligarchs, and with Khodorkovsky in particular.
    You could argue that this has been a tragedy of Russian reform, as Yeltsin threw out his democratic principles (he was always willing to run the risk of losing votes in 1990-91) in order to beat the Communists in 1996. In both these cases they could justify themselves in terms of the means justifying the end, but then plenty of Eastern European democracies have survived the Communists winning a free election after the fall of Communism. One of Navalny’s key points is that if the Constitution really functions, we need not fear a Communist or Nationalist election victory.
    The YUKOS case was only the first example of Putin sacrificing strategic goals to achieve tactical victories. The acceptance of Kadyrov or even Darkin as regional leaders indicates a willingness to sacrifice the basic principles of the constitution in order to impose a leader who could keep order and remove a problem. A more trivial example was at the Troika conference in early 2012 – he got asked a tricky question about the failure of the VTB “people’s privatisation” and without thinking forced the CEO of VTB to commit to a buyback of shares which had no economic justification and wasn’t in the bank’s strategic interests at all. (The bank had to buy shares from the public at a high price, and will now have to sell them and other shares to the market at a lower price to raise capital).
    The basic issue is one of an autocracy that wants to preserve power at all costs, believing that any other ruling group will be worse for the country. So any strategic goals about actually improving the system of governance (e.g. by reforming the courts, one of Putin’s big initiatives in 2001-2), are sacrificed for more immediate requirements, i.e. removing any threats to power, either by crushing revolt (Chechnya, liberal demonstrations) or acceding rapidly to popular protest (pensioners’ revolt in 2003, Pikalyovo). Within this narrative, the infallibility of power is critical, hence the lack of any investigation into the Nord-Ost or Beslan attacks or any of the various disasters – the key was just to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.

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