This piece by Natalie Nougayrède on the battle for Aleppo is peppered with the word “strategy” and its derivatives. According to Nougayrède, Putin had a strategy for Chechnya and is now applying it to Syria. Putin also has a strategy for regaining regional dominance in some parts of the world. We are also witnessing the “strategic weakening” of Europe.
In hindsight, a series of hasty tactical decisions, if success eventually ensues, can look like elements of a grand strategy. I am aware that even Edward Luttwak, for whom I have the greatest respect, has remarked that Putin, at the very least, understands strategy. Perhaps there is a semblance of strategic logic to P.’s actions if he is thinking in cliches of Soviet geopolitics. It has been suggested that P. enjoys international politicking – yet he is very much driven by his domestic agenda: he needs to constantly redefine and reassert himself before an audience at home. Syria popped up when the military intervention in Ukraine had mostly run its course.
Was there such a thing as an “anti-Chechen strategy” at all? In the early 2000s, the Russian army worked out, at great expense to soldiers and civilians, a ruthless and somewhat effective tactic against Chechen insurgents. It’s not surprising that the army should apply it in Syria (especially in its mountainous areas) because the military always does whatever worked last time. The refugee flow is a guaranteed side effect of such a military campaign.
Generally speaking, the KGB and its successors have always been at their best at destruction and sabotage but useless at anything creative. One is tempted to say what we’re observing is merely their being themselves, to whom wreaking havoc comes naturally. If it’s a grand strategy, what are the strategic goals and benefits? Spiting the adversaries does not count.