Putin is No Chess Master | Opinion

To some, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken on a mythical status in the West as a strategic genius. Putin has been referred to as a "master tactician" and "the ultimate chess player," someone who pounces when an adversary lowers their guard. Others have faulted Western policymakers for underestimating Putin's skill as a strategist.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, however, has underlined another critical fact about the Russian strongman: He can be a reckless gambler. If the first five days of the operation are any guide, Russia's military operation in Ukraine could turn out to be one giant, very public, geopolitical catastrophe.

Militarily, the Russians look downright incompetent. Despite holding lopsided superiority over Ukraine in every weapon system imaginable, Russian forces are taking a beating on the ground and have yet to establish supremacy in the air. Russian tanks and armored vehicles lay destroyed on the roadside, succumbing to Ukrainian ambushes. With the exception of Kherson in the southeast, Ukraine's cities remain in Ukrainian hands, including Kyiv, which continues to hold out as Russian formations bear down from three directions. Ukraine's air defense system remains operable, at least for now, complicating Moscow's plans to shuttle ground troops into the theater.

Economically, Russia is the target of the strongest sanctions regimes against a great power in history. While the Russian government knew the U.S. and Europe would employ sanctions as a significant part of its strategy, Putin is likely surprised by the degree to which Europe has endorsed the toughest measures. Washington and Brussels have coordinated their actions to a T, freezing the accounts of Russian oligarchs, unplugging large Russian banks out of the SWIFT payment system and freezing whatever foreign reserves Moscow may have parked in the West. The ruble is down by about 30 percent against the dollar, leading to a run on bank deposits. Russian aircraft, meanwhile, are barred from flying over European Union, American and Canadian airspace.

However, it's the geopolitical consequences of the invasion that have the potential to severely degrade Russia's international position.

If Putin was worried about NATO's presence near Russia's borders before, he certainly isn't any less worried now. The Russian invasion prompted the alliance to deploy more personnel, fighter aircraft and ships to the eastern flank to reinforce deterrence. For the first time in its history, the alliance enacted the NATO Response Force, a legion of 40,000 land, sea, air and special operations forces tasked with deploying during an emergency. Even if the war in Ukraine were to magically subside in a few days, it's difficult to imagine NATO's beefed-up presence in the east being drawn down in the foreseeable future—the exact opposite of what Moscow wanted.

Images of Putin
A man finishes gluing huge placards bearing images of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the city center of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 4, 2022. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Germany, a laggard when it comes to defense spending, has treated the invasion of Ukraine as its own personal wake-up call. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a fiscal hawk who fought the Defense Ministry over budget increases in the past, now sounds like the military's biggest supporter. In a Feb. 27 speech to the German parliament, Scholz stated that the Bundeswehr, hobbled by equipment shortages and hardware malfunctions, will receive a one-time cash injection of more than $100 billion to build up its force. NATO's 2 percent of GDP defense spending benchmark, historically greeted in Berlin with an eye-roll, is now official German government policy (assuming Scholz is committed to implementing it).

Zoom out, and Putin has alienated whatever goodwill he had left in Europe. Finland, which shares an 832-mile border with Russia, is now openly debating whether to join NATO. Italy, France, Germany and even Viktor Orban's Hungary, are giving Putin the cold-shoulder. A main plank of Putin's foreign policy has been to divide the European Union against itself by establishing business-like relations with individual European countries. But with one single decision, Putin has managed to jeopardize this entire effort. The Europeans are closing ranks.

Russia, however, does have one card to play: China. Ever since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Moscow has increasingly shifted toward its eastern neighbor to counteract deteriorating relations with the West. China is Russia's largest trading partner; bilateral Russia-China trade has increased by 62 percent since 2013, reaching $146 billion last year. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met 38 times, and their militaries have undergone joint training exercises.

The problem with throwing all your eggs in the China basket, though, is that it puts Russia in a vulnerable position. It's never a wise geopolitical move to become over-reliant on a single country. As much as Putin and Xi may like one another personally, Russia and China aren't formal allies. Beijing doesn't owe Moscow anything—and if previous Chinese behavior is any guide, Xi is more likely to leverage Russia's growing dependency than offer Putin charity. As poor as relations with the U.S. and Europe are today, Beijing needs to walk a fine-line between bailing out their Russian friends and preserving bridges to the West. One of China's biggest firms, Huawei, has learned first-hand how effective U.S. sanctions and export controls can be. There will be limits to Beijing's support, both diplomatically and economically. Did Putin price all these risks into his decision-making?

The United States has had its fair share of geopolitical mistakes over the last 20 years. Let Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine serve as a lesson to U.S. policymakers: before plunging into military action, think about the short, medium and long-term consequences.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.