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Ukraine and the Art of Strategy

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Ukraine and the Art of Strategy

Oxford UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

You thought Vladimir Putin was playing chess. In truth, he’s playing geopolitical judo – long-term consequences be damned.

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  • Controversial
  • Analytical
  • Background


For a time, Vladimir Putin seemed to have outmaneuvered the rest of the world. When he snatched a chunk of Ukraine and the great powers did nothing, Putin appeared strong, while the hand-wringing West appeared inept. Half a decade later, however, Putin’s strategic acumen looks less acute that it once did, Lawrence Freedman argues in this concise post-mortem. The experts thought Putin was playing chess. In truth, Freedman asserts, Putin was playing a game closer to his heart: judo – a sport where the sudden takedown is far more important than the long-term consequences of any action.


A Test Case for Post-Modern War

In March 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that Russian special forces had seized Crimea from Ukraine, and that the enclave was now part of Russia. Putin’s provocation shook the peace in Europe and sparked fears that Russian aggression might reshape the geopolitical picture. Estonia and other former Soviet satellites worried Russia might target them next. The neutral nations of Finland and Sweden wondered whether the time to join NATO had arrived.

Putin was flexing his military muscles, but it also seemed that he was schooling the world in military strategy and geopolitical acumen. Putin already had stared down US president Barack Obama in Syria, where Obama had ordered Syria not to use chemical weapons. After the provocation in Crimea, political scientist John Mearsheimer wrote in Foreign Affairs that Putin had proved himself “a first-class strategist,” a cunning leader who was to be “feared and respected.”

True, Putin’s bold move took the rest of the world by surprise. Whether Putin gained any lasting advantage is another question, however – one that has grown murkier as the years have...

About the Author

Sir Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. His previous books include Strategy: A History and The Future of War: A History.

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    M. C. 2 years ago
    Following the current situation in which Russia is invading Ukraine, I have come to realize, over the course of these days, how militarily weak the Russian army actually is and how Putin is literally destroying his own people without even realizing. His little smirks of superiority and Russian pride that he is showing off to the world will soon fade away. His dementia-based behaviour will come to an end in no-time. There is no purgatory for war criminals. Slava Ukraine!

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