WORLD AFFAIRS.  All the hullaballoo provoked by Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of a Russian troop withdrawal from Syria misses two important points.

First, given that even Putin’s inner circle in the Kremlin appears not to have known anything about his plans, the episode has reaffirmed the widespread belief that Putin makes all the strategic decisions in the Kremlin. Which is exactly what we would expect from a dictator who models his leadership style on Benito Mussolini’s. Unconstrained by institutions or rules, Putin can invade Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria one day and announce a withdrawal from Syria the other. If he wanted to end the war against Ukraine, he could do so by declaring victory over the “Kyiv junta” and withdrawing his troops. That he chooses not to do so is less the result of a rational calculation of the war’s costs and benefits for Russia than the product of his whim.

Not surprisingly, Putin keeps surprising the world—and, in all likelihood, himself. That’s not leadership, and that’s certainly not genius. That’s authoritarian conceit.

Second, it’s premature to proclaim that the announced withdrawal is a stroke of genius. After all, Putin’s recent abrupt decisions have rarely turned out well. Indeed, many look downright stupid. Take, for example, Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and the destruction of the Donbas. At first, Russians applauded—and some still do. But outside analysts and astute Russians know these foreign adventures have given Russia—and Putin—exactly zero benefits.  The contrary is poorer, most of the world regards it as a rogue, and Ukraine has moved westward. What has Russia gained? An impoverished peninsula and 35,000 well-armed proxies in the Donbas.

Likewise, by intervening on Assad’s behalf, Putin raised Russia’s diplomatic stature in authoritarian circles. And if Assad survives, if the peace talks work, if the Syrian opposition cooperates, and if ISIS refrains from taking advantage of the Russian withdrawal, Putin will look good.  

Consider four other ifs. If, as is likely, the peace talks bog down; and if, as is likely, the opposition reinforces its positions; and if, as is likely, ISIS attempts to regain lost ground, trumpets the withdrawal as a Russian humiliation, wins more recruits, and launches terror strikes against Russia; and if, as is likely, Assad’s hold on power becomes tenuous once again—then Putin will be forced to re-invade or let Syria collapse. Even his authoritarian admirers will think twice about his smarts.

In sum, Putin’s move isn’t a checkmate, but an extremely risky rook sacrifice. If everybody plays poorly, he wins. If everybody plays just adequately, he loses—big.


I’m betting that the announced withdrawal will be far less of a triumph than the pundits now predict. Perhaps because they’re jaded by the ordinariness of American politics, they are confusing rashness for brilliance.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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