NATO NATO expansion NATO-Russian War Russia Russo-NATO War Russo-Ukrainian war Ukraine

Paradoxes of Strategy in Luttwak’s Take on Putin’s ‘Failed Strategy’

In a recent piece worth the read in several ways, strategic analyst Edward Luttwak argues that by escalating the Donbass war on 24 February 2022 Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stumbled into the unavoidable trap of “paradoxical logic of strategy” ( There is much worth reading and thinking about in Luttwak’s piece, but there are some missed points that suggest that Putin’s strategy is not quite as ‘failed’ as Luttwak maintains and that supports his final point that Russia’s relative economic strength and autonomy could allow it to recover from the mistakes made in the first phase of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ and emerge with something that can be credibly sold to allies abroad and Russians at home as a victory.  

The usual Western biases are present in Luttwak’s recounting of post-Cold War Russia-NATO relations. NATO became “weaker and weaker” in the 1990s and and 21st century, and by 24 February 2022 NATO “was evidently no longer strong enough to deter Russia, so Russia attacked Ukraine.” But then Putin’s escalation saved and reinvigorated NATO. “Because Russia attacked Ukraine, Nato suddenly had a threatening enemy, and the alliance quickly became strong once more.” After February, in Luttwak’s telling, “(n)ot only did Nato wake up, but it also grew.”

But missing is any mention that NATO grew energetically throughout the very same 1990s and 2000s, well before the newest round he mentions seemingly sparked after February 24th – this one is slated to involve Finland and Sweden if Turkey and Hungary allow. In other words, the very cause of Putin’s alleged misstep is left out of Luttwak’s analysis. As any honest analyst or citizen would know after studying NATO/Western relations after the Cold War, without NATO expansion there would have been no 2008 Georgian war, no Maidan revolt and illegal seizure of power in February 2014, no Crimean annexation, no Donbass counter-revolt, no Donbass war, no need for Minsk 1 and 2, and certainly no February 24th. Perhaps the most noteworthy ‘paradox of strategy’ in this case is that NATO expansion while supposedly intended to enhance European security has left it in shambles. Europe and the world are at the greater risk of a great war and nuclear conflagration than at any time since the Cold War’s Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises.

Luttwak’s next point is a classic fairy tale of heroism: “The Russian troops who arrived were elements of the 11th Guards Air Assault Brigade and the 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade — Russia’s elite troops. The Ukrainians had no such force to oppose them, only whoever happened to be at or near the airfield: some members of the so-called “National Guard” — just gendarmes with small arms — and then whoever could arrive right away from Kyiv: some scattered Ukrainian troops, civilian volunteers with whatever weapons they could find, a few elite soldiers attached to headquarters, even some exiled Georgian Legion volunteers.

“It was a recipe for a massacre: the cohesive, elite Russian units should quickly have killed them all. But because they had expected no resistance at all (as both Russian Intelligence and the always-wrong CIA had forecast), they were shocked by the ferocious resistance, and soon had to flee into the nearby woods. A Russian tactical victory would not have won the war, but the tactical defeat at the Antonov field was catastrophic, because the entire Russian war plan was based on a fast Coup de Main to seize central Kyiv in a matter of hours.”

But it was not ‘ferocious armed resistance’, so much as Zelinskiy’s failure to flee Kiev, which was the only recipe that could allow a paltry 40,000 troops to occupy and hold the capitol with a population of over three million. Zelenskiy’s flight could very well have caused chaos and infighting in the Ukrainian government and military, and only that could have undermined resistance and allowed Moscow to at least temporarily hold Kiev.

Luttwak’s analysis of Russia’s “special military operation” at the operational and theater strategic levels is more on target. There seems to be little doubt that Putin sought a ‘pobeda’ (victory) on the cheap. Too weak a force was deployed, and the weak force could not be divided into several invasion routes. By limiting the invasion force, Putin sought to limit the political costs of high numbers of casualties (military and civilian, Russian and Ukrainian) and the high financial costs of replacing equipment. The only other explanation is that Putin accepted a plan designed completely by the General Staff. In the more likely former case, the failure of Putin’s war on the cheap puts his authority within the elite at some risk. In the less likely latter is the case, then Putin has reason to distrust and blame his top generals.

Luttwak’s analysis of grand strategy seems sound as far as it goes, but it is incomplete, and the game has not played out to the end. It is true that Russia has lacked the allies that Ukraine has been able to summon to its side (NATO and other pro-Western states), and NATO and its allies have supplied Ukraine with enormous military, intelligence, command, and financial assistance. However, NATO has underestimated the potential of the political support or passivity of non-Western states. So perhaps does Luttwak: “In the Russian military tradition, stretching back centuries, a year or more of defeats were followed by victory only with the help of Great Power allies, as was true from Napoleon to the Second World War. This time, however, there will be no allies to rescue Putin.” In the case of political supporters, the NATO’s provocation of the war has energized further the Sino-Russian strategic partnership and has crystallized anti-Western feeling across the non-West (the ‘rest’). Thus, China and Russia are now accelerating their efforts to build a bipolar or multipolar world, specifically by creating a host alternative military, economic, financial, and political alliances, institutions and organizations from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (economic, financial, and increasingly military in function), BRICS (economic, financial and political), One Belt One Road (economic and financial), Arctic Silk Road (economic), attracting great powers such as India and tens of less powers and states, including NATO member Turkey, Iran, and Israel.

In terms of direct military aid in the NATO-Russian Ukrainian war, Iran is so far the only state providing material military assistance to Russia. Belarus has provided logistical help by allowing the initial invasion force of February to use its territory as a staging point. But it cannot be excluded that in a pinch China would not let its strategic partner suffer a resounding defeat and would step in with military and other forms of help. Perhaps Eurasian states such as North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian states minus Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan or leftist Latin American states such as BRICS’s Brazil or Venezuela and Ecuador would step up with some support.

There is a paradox of strategy at the grand strategic level that Luttwak’s omits: the paradox of Western sanctions against Russia . That is, the paradox of Western sanctions against a Russia upon which the Western states imposing the sanctions and providing crucial assistance to Kiev are deadly dependent for natural gas and oil as the war began. That dependence will continue for the next few years and cripple Western economies running short on weapons and weak in terms of military-industrial production compared to Russia. Moreover, Western economies already are likely to come to a near grinding halt and their societies and polities subject to upheaval, and next winter will be worse, according to many estimates. In sum, there are many paradoxes in the Russo-NATO conflict consuming Ukraine. The most paradoxical of all the paradoxes is that the pursuit of European security through NATO expansion and now NATO’s continuing support for the war to ‘save Ukraine’ is likely to end in a regional or global conflagration and the end of anything approximating pre-war Ukraine.





About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, and

Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.


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