For years a mythology has accreted around Vladimir Putin. Both admirers and detractors in the West have seen him as a calculating genius, playing three-dimensional chess while everyone else was playing checkers. RIR never bought that analysis. We did see Putin as a cunning opportunist, parlaying strategic ambiguity and incremental bites at the periphery of the West into success in a long game of asymetric warfare — which, it must be remembered, is how the weak battle the strong. All the advantages that accrued to the spider in the Kremlin through that approach went out the window with the all-out invasion of Ukraine.
In testimony before Congress, CIA Director Bill Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines concurred in the assessment that Putin grossly miscalculated both Russia’s capacity and the response of Ukraine and the West. He thought he had sanction-proofed his economy; it’s reeling. He thought he had reformed his army to allow for a quick decapitation campaign; it’s bogged down, battered and suffering from poor morale. He thought the West was weak and riven by divisions and would not respond in a unified matter; so far, the West has shown a remarkably united front. And the most fundamental miscalculation of all: He thought Ukraine would fold up, roll over and die. Instead, they have put up a fierce, profoundly inspiring resistance. He forgot what real military thinkers — and sports coaches, for that matter — never forget: Your opponent has a say.
“He has been proven wrong on every count. Those assumptions have proven to be profoundly flawed over the last 12 days of conflict.”
So much for the Grand Master.
Putin cannot win his war in Ukraine. The window for victory slammed shut days ago. But nobody thinks that Vlad is going to quit. He can’t. Autocrats rule on the illusion of strength. That’s why Vlad is so enamored of the “Me so alpha” dominance displays. Either externally or internally, he can’t afford for this to be the perception:
The book on what happens from here is readily summed up in Burns’ assessment that we should expect an “ugly next few weeks.” That likely means seeing Ukraine’s cities turned to rubble, its civilians starved, frozen and bombarded. It also means that we’re a misstep away from a wider conflagration.
“Our analysts assess that Putin is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate… With tensions this high there is always an enhanced potential for miscalculation, unintended escalation, which we hope our intelligence can help to mitigate.”
We’re not playing a chess master. We’re not playing chess. We’re playing poker with a desperado who will keep raising his bets until he’s broke — and might well overturn the whole table when his own recklessness cleans him out.
Keep your powder dry.