Going All In: Is Putin’s Gambling a Strategy or a Problem?

The invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, caught most observers and analysts off guard. Many thought that there was no way a renewed combat operation could occur in the nation. Others, like myself, thought that, at most, an increase of kinetic operations in the occupied Donbass regions would take place. With the launch of a total invasion into the country, almost all had come to think that Ukraine would surely fall under the might of the Russian Federation.


This did not come to pass. After weeks of fighting and limited territorial gains, Russian forces paid dearly for every inch. As Ukrainian resistance hardened, many had begun to think that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a reckless gamble. Throwing the mass of green-clad Russian forces would surely crush a weaker and numerically inferior force. However, upon closer observation, it is unlikely that this man of infamous mystery would ever make such a move without a proverbial card up his sleeve

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Gambling inherently incurs a risk of loss, and typically a significant risk at that. Putin is not one to allow this level of risk. Since his ascent to power, he has constantly viewed Ukraine as “the one that got away” to the West. His desire to see Russia regain its former Soviet-era greatness was through Ukraine, as well as the subjugation of Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia.


Europe, Canada, and much of Latin America is seen collectively as “The West” and under the purview of the United States in many respects. As Putin sees it, much of the former soviet empire is seen as still in the sphere of influence of Russia. As a result, these post-soviet nations should work within that space and symbiotically with the Kremlin, rejecting Western and American influences. Almost like the concept of manifest destiny, Ukraine was an extension of this vision and that the nation rightfully “belonged” to Russia.


(Reuters file photo) Vladimir Putin the early 1990s.


To achieve this hegemony, Putin became a master of ensuring his success by controlling the variables involved in any given social or governmental mechanism. He would never make decisive action without this “insurance policy” of either ensuring outside actors would not hinder his success or that they would support his actions.


This framework was demonstrated in much of Putin’s early business dealings while working in various positions in Moscow. In his autobiography, Putin explains how control over the litany of mafias and organized crime groups was paramount to obtaining the control he so desired. Threats, killings, and weaponization of the police against opposition helped him rise to national level management.


Using law alongside force worked for him at the national level. However, he ran into obstacles when attempting to exercise this same strategy on the international stage. In Georgia, he tried relentlessly to manipulate government policy and steer them away from the rising Western influence. His 2008 invasion did little but gain territory and leverage at the negotiating table while galvanizing Western sentiment in Tbilisi.


Ukraine, while always a problem, became urgent with the 2004 and 2014 revolutions. Incredible amounts of Western sentiments led him to act in the same way as he did with Georgia. By seizing land and forcing Ukraine into a stalemate, they were kept from becoming too close to NATO and the EU. In both Georgia and Ukraine, Putin maximized his control of the variables involved, prepared the narrative, and used force only when he knew victory was certain.


The invasion in 2014 laid the fertile soil for the invasion this past February. By “liberating” the two self-proclaimed republics, this gave him a caucus belli to offer them protection. Under the guise of what is commonly called in United Nations law as “responsibility to protect” or R2P, he painted the narrative that we see today about an oppressive Ukrainian government. Using Russia’s perceived R2P is just another form of Putin manipulating law to fit his narrative.


A commander at the Ukrainian military garrison at the Belbek airbase speaks to troops under Russian command in Crimea in 2014 (Photo by Timothy Snyder)


The personal side of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict also plays into Putin’s strategy. Former Ukrainian presidents prior to Volodymyr Zelensky were either able to be manipulated, or acted in a way that never threatened the Kremlin “sphere of influence.” Zelensky’s vehement desire for EU and NATO membership, removal of Russian media influences, and renewed attempt to change the tide with the ongoing conflict with the eastern separatists ignited a fire in the Kremlin.


Next, the Russian leader took time to prepare the homeland and his forces. Just as Moscow had done after Georgia, they had launched widespread reforms in the military and the development of new weaponry, or improving the arms in current stock. Reforming the economy to lessen the impact of foreign sanctions, building a proverbial economic “war chest,” and divesting of foreign dependencies made the country insulated from tough long-term sanction campaigns.


Then came Afghanistan. The poor performance of United States and other NATO military forces attempting a withdrawal from the collapsing nation assured Putin that the Americans would be unlikely to directly interfere with any other foreign missions for quite some time. With Europe secured by Russian natural gas deals, America looking weak on the world stage, and Ukraine left begging with little hope of any security promises, the time was nigh.


Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9 (Photo by Mikhail Metzel/AFP)


However, a seemingly unassuming event would halt even the entirety of a Russian invasion force and Putin himself. Enter the Beijing 2022 Olympics. In leaked communications that were obtained by US intelligence sources, President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping asked that Putin delay the invasion so China could score its propaganda victory for the world to see, and not be marred by the background of a European war. Putin, with his foreign trade partnerships likely being restricted to China post-invasion, he had no choice but to bow to this request.


However, with the 2022 Olympics completed, the plan he had prepared since the close of the 2014 invasion was ready for action. Despite setbacks due to tactical and operational leadership, he will not let this prey escape his clutch. Even with the Russian redeployment to the east of Ukraine to seize the Donbass region, it is unlikely this will be the end.


Putin's thuggish history and vindictive nature will not allow such transgressions, particularly those by NATO and the West, to go unanswered even if it takes the rest of his life. For as long as he holds his position of power, it is likely he will not let up. Like a villain escaping capture from the hero, this is not the last we’ve seen of the brutal rolling of the dice by Vlad. Putin is more than happy to go all in as long as his strategy includes always coming back to the table.


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