The Atlantic: Putin's Improv Act
In December 1979, Moscow launched Operation Storm-333, or the invasion of Afghanistan. Elite Soviet soldiers disguised in Afghan uniforms seized key targets in Kabul, as 100,000 Soviet troops rumbled into Afghanistan from the north.
U.S. officials saw the intervention in Afghanistan as part of a carefully orchestrated program of Soviet expansion. But in truth there was no master plan. The aging Politburo improvised the whole adventure. Moscow hoped that a quick and decisive show of force would create a friendly regime on the border, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the makeshift invasion of Afghanistan soon spun out of control as a nationwide mujahideen insurgency emerged.
Today, many policymakers and analysts are convinced that Russia's intervention in Ukraine is part of Vladimir Putin's master strategy. As Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, sees it, "Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don't think it's even close." According to Rogers, the Russian president wants to strengthen his country's "buffer zones," with Moldova as the probable next target. Stephen Hadley and Damon Wilson have concluded that Putin's invasion is part of a larger strategy "to reconstruct what he could of the former empire but on a Russian model rather than Soviet."
But what if there is no grand scheme? What if, like the Soviets in 1979, Putin is basically winging it? The Russian leader is certainly aware of the broader environment: the encroachment of NATO and the European Union into Russia's traditional sphere of influence, the shifting balance of power between pro-Western and pro-Russian groups in Ukraine, and America's non-interventionist mood in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Russia's military incursion in the Crimean peninsula may well be an improvised operation sparked by the sudden ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Facing a new and unexpected environment, Putin could have cobbled together a plan on the fly. After all, if an aggressive move into Crimea had long been in the works, why would Putin bother spending $50 billion to boost Russia's global image at the Winter Olympics in Sochi? Any public relations gains just went up in smoke.
Associate Professor of Political Science Dominic Tierney is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a correspondent at The Atlantic. He is the author of three books, How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown, & Co., 2010), FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007), and Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006). Tierney joined Swarthmore's faculty in 2005 after completing his Ph.D. in international politics at Oxford University.