Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped a bombshell this week, announcing that he was pulling his military forces out of Syria less than six months after his equally surprising decision to send them there in the first place. While it remains to be seen whether Putin will carry through on his promise, security experts are busily scrambling to figure out his motives. Did he attain what he intended, or is he simply washing his hands of a lost cause?
There is agreement, though, on one thing: Putin’s move caught Washington by surprise and at least seemed to once again keep him a step ahead of the Obama administration.
Russia’s boldness seems to stand in stark contrast to America’s plodding, ponderous approach to strategy. The United States engages the world with a narrow perspective on military force that essentially leaves it just three options: spoiling attacks using bombs, drones or special operations forces; training operations for partner militaries; or big expensive invasions. Putin has a more expansive tool kit of military actions, which he can tailor to specific objectives and conditions. From Ukraine to Syria, this, combined with a lack of restraint and a willingness to take risks, has allowed Putin to seize the strategic initiative.