Not Exactly Sun Tzu: Russian Military Blunderings & the Global Democratic Deficit

By Purnaka L. de Silva


This post first appeared in IPS News.


Security Council votes on draft resolution on Ukraine, 25 February 2022. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten


Russian President and former intelligence officer Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been at the helm of power since 1999, promoting jingoistic nationalism to keep his hold on power and creating a democratic deficit on the home front.

In a long list of extrajudicial crimes under the aegis of Mr. Putin, it is alleged that critics and potential rivals generally meet an untimely demise – ranging from helicopter crashes (e.g., LTG Alexander Lebed), being murdered in elevators (e.g., in the high profile case of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya), falling out of windows (e.g., former third secretary of Russia’s delegation to the United Nations in Vienna found at the bottom of the Russian Embassy in Berlin) to Polonium poisoning (e.g., Alexander Litvinenko) or getting incarcerated on trumped up charges like Russian opposition leader Alexie Navalny.


A throwback to Soviet totalitarian times Mr. Putin is a vocal proponent of ongoing hybrid militarized ‘foreign policy’ aggressions that aim to reclaim Russia’s sphere of influence in former Soviet Republics, as well as further afield, primarily in the continent of Africa.

Kremlin-controlled Spetsnaz mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who it is alleged hold Russian diplomatic passports, conduct military spearhead operations on behalf of the Kremlin and maintain bureaus in all 55 member states of the African Union.


The antecedents of this hybrid militarized ‘foreign policy’ stratagem follow a trajectory that begins in Chechnya with the Second Battle of Grozny from 25 December 1999 to 6 February 2000 during the premiership of Mr. Putin – where the world’s democratic powers were silent witnesses to the devastation of a city of almost 400,000, which led to a pratically halving of the population through an exodus of internally displaced persons.


In 2003, the United Nations called Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth”. It could be speculated that at the time democratic Western powers were largely silent given that the Chechens were perceived as Islamist terrorists.


After ‘success’ in Chechnya, in November 2007 Mr. Putin next withdrew Russia’s participation in the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which limited the deployment of heavy military equipment across Europe. It enabled Mr. Putin and the Kremlin to thereafter experiment with a hybrid militarized ‘foreign policy’ adventure in the 5-day, 2008 August War in Georgia.


Russian troops invaded and established control over the occupied Tskhinvali region (now called South Ossetia) and Abkhazia constituting over 20% of Georgian territory – for more details see: https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-hybrid-aggression-against-georgia-use-local-and-external-tools. Once again, the world’s democratic powers were little more than passive bystanders.


While the world’s leading democratic powers stayed silent, a timeline of notable hybrid militarized ‘foreign policy’ aggressions orchestrated by Mr. Putin and the Kremlin, demonstrating their global reach in Europe and Africa, includes:


• Invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine (February-March 2014) – successful.

• Invasion and occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine (March-November 2014) – successful.

(NB: Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries made their first overseas combat appearance in the Donbas region in 2014).

• Military intervention in Syria to support President Assad and winning the civil war for the regime (in September 2015-2019) – successful.

• Military intervention in the Libyan civil war in support of renegade eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar by Kremlin-controlled Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group (April 2019-October 2020) – failure.


• Invasion of Ukraine (February 24, 2022) – ongoing – with Mr. Putin and the Kremlin looking at long-term occupation and subjugation of the Ukrainian people in a carefully orchestrated military campaign that was planned for at least 8-10 years.


(NB: in the case of Ukraine, Mr. Putin and the Kremlin orchestrated a non-stop war of attrition in the Donbas and Crimea since February 2014, and the Wagner Group has been redeployed in Ukraine in February 2022 after withdrawing mercenaries from Africa).


Since November 2007 the slippery slope towards a global democratic deficit – attempting to prove that might is right – was taking shape and gathering momentum, harbingers of the return of authoritarianism, imperialism, and possibly totalitarianism.


A democratic deficit occurs when seemingly democratic governments fail to fulfill the principles of democratic governance for the benefit of their citizenry. When that happens in many countries worldwide it becomes a global democratic deficit with the rise to power of authoritarian and antidemocratic political leaders as in the case of Russia, North Korea, China, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and most recently in West Africa – Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea.


All countries are susceptible, including countries like Brazil, and the United States of America, as was the case during the Trump presidency from 2016-2020.


The biggest fear of authoritarians of the ilk of Mr. Putin is that the common people will be able to exercise their democratic rights through free and fair elections, and popular protests to repudiate the egregious corruption and misgovernance of political leaders, as was the case in Ukraine when pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his country and fled in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.


A similar fate was reversed in Belarus with the illegitimate reinstatement of Mr. Alexander Lukashenko, and its tacit occupation in plain sight by the Russian military in January-February 2022.


To the thus-far silent democratic powers it must strongly be pointed out that parallels can be drawn to Mr. Putin’s extrajudicial hybrid military ‘foreign policy’ actions to what Pastor Martin Niemöller said about crimes against humanity during the Nazi reign of terror under Adolf Hitler:


First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. Martin Niemöller

Having noted the above in all its gory detail, it must be pointed out to Mr. Putin and the Kremlin that their perceived ‘successful’ hybrid militarized ‘foreign policy’ blunderings will only further weaken Russia’s economic and political standing in the 21 Century – especially once draconian long-term sanctions start to bite with alacrity, and deeply.


It all depends on the sleeping giant of democratic world powers waking up, uniting in common purpose, and responding to an existential threat to peace, security, and democracy. Sun Tzu was right all along Mr. Putin – “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.


Dr Purnaka L. de Silva is Adjunct Professor UN Studies (M.A. Program) at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, and Director, Institute of Strategic Studies and Democracy (ISSD) Malta.

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