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Will a dictator always shoot his bolt?

We don’t know what exactly was in Putin’s mind when he decided to invade Ukraine but despite some initial scepticism on my part it looks awfully like he did want some sort of swift victory in which he either conquered the whole country or perhaps just the eastern half plus Kiev. If that indeed was the aim, he’s failed. In doing so he has underestimated the West.

This week marks 40 years since something similar happened in the South Atlantic. When Argentina’s Junta decided to invade the Falklands they thought it would be a cakewalk. It had never occurred to them that Britain might fight. Ten weeks later the Falklands were back in British hands and the Junta were out of office. They too had underestimated the West. They’d also got the timing horribly wrong. If they had been a bit more patient, Britain would have gifted them the islands.

Any other examples? Hitler? Ach, let’s not do Hitler. Saddam Hussein certainly got it all wrong when he invaded Kuwait. Milosevic? From what I can work out he did nothing but underestimate his opponents.

Does it work historically? Off the top of my head, Cromwell would seem to be the first modern dictator. He had the good sense not to go to war against another state (or did he? What about the Dutch? We were always fighting the Dutch in those days weren’t we?) Whatever, probably not a disaster. And let’s face it, they didn’t have bolts to shoot in Cromwell’s day.

Napoleon famously got it wrong when he invaded Russia. But did he have a choice?

It occurs to me, while proposing this grand theory, that Putin may have done the precise opposite of shooting his bolt. Far from having too little patience he may have had too much. Would anyone have stopped him if he’d tried this in the wake of Maidan?

Update Turns out that Cromwell did indeed go to war with the Dutch.

Update 2/4/22 Lots of good comments mostly telling me how wrong I am which is a Good Thing, even if I have to say it through gritted teeth. I particularly liked this from Chester Draws, “In the west individuals have shorter attentions, because fortunately they stay in power less long, but parties can keep it up far longer than individuals. The Democrats in the US are playing a very long game, quite independent of who their leader is.”

 

30 comments to Will a dictator always shoot his bolt?

  • Simon Jester

    Possible counter-examples: Salazar, Franco, Pinochet?

    I wouldn’t have thought Cromwell would have fought the Dutch – I thought the 17th century wars with them followed the Restoration. Cromwell’s actions regarding the Irish, in particular, might be a better fit for the thesis.

  • Mr Ed

    Pinochet was very peaceful externally, Chile under his rule was twice very close to being invaded by the neighbouring Argentine Junta. The first was on Christmas Eve/Day in 1978 when Operación Soberanía was launched, an Argentine invasion of the Beagle Channel, to ‘resolve’ a dispute that had gone to international arbitration in 1971 (notionally by none other than our current Queen – odd if Argentina truly believed it had a dispute over the Falklands to choose the UK as arbiter).

    The second time was of course 40 years ago tomorrow when the Chileans were stunned to find that the Argies had invaded the Falklands. Air Force General Matthei said (in Spanish) that they never imagined and could not have imagined that the Argies would have tried that, and then the Junta made noises about a repeat of 1978, but events did not go to plan, somewhat spoiled by a few torpedoes Sidewinders and assorted Paras, Marines, Guards and Gurkhas turning up to restore law and order.

  • Andrew Douglas

    He wasn’t ready after Maidan. The architecture of the new multi polar world wasn’t in place, and sanctions would have actually hurt back then.

    There is altogether too much guessing about what Putin is aiming at, and the fact that he hasn’t taken Kiev is seen as him having failed. I wouldn’t be so sure. He plays a longer game than every Western leader, most of whom are pygmies, and the rouble for oil and gas move looks like smart judo. The rouble, far from being ‘rubble’ as Biden described it, is back to levels seen before the invasion.

  • Martin

    Ten weeks later the Falklands were back in British hands and the Junta were out of office. They too had underestimated the West.

    Correction, they underestimated Britain. The Falklands War was an entirely British victory.

  • staghounds

    Entirely British with American intelligence and material assistance, in addition to the Chilean help referred to above.

  • NickM

    Oh, and the EEC (as was) banning arms sales to Argentina. A few more Exocets and it could have all gone very Pete Tong. Reagan’s support – especially expediting the AIM-9Ls to the UK was of course critical.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Possible counter-examples: Salazar, Franco, Pinochet?

    I would guess that Salazar and Pinochet would have been dictators of relatively weak powers so going to war with a neighbour would have been a silly thing to do. But Franco not taking Gibraltar when he had Hitler’s backing, that’s odd. And wise.

  • Martin

    . But Franco not taking Gibraltar when he had Hitler’s backing, that’s odd. And wise.

    If I recall correctly from reading Nicholas Rankin’s book Defending the Rock, in addition to being exhausted by civil war, Spain was facing almost famine conditions in areas following it. Spain relied on Canadian (at war with Germany in 1940) and US(neutral at the time but clearly leaning to the allies) food imports to feed itself. Hitler made some offer to make up some of the agricultural supplies Spain would potentially lose it it went to war with the allies but it was a fraction of the Canadian/US imports. I don’t think it’s the only reason Franco declined going to war, but it was a very good reason to not bother. And makes his behaviour in 1940 seem rational rather than odd.

  • staghounds

    Franco was no fool. Spain’s access to the world is by sea or through France. Even then, British Gibraltar was an asset to Spain. These days, southern Spain’s main industry is British people living/visiting there.

    Which British General in 1940 said,

    “Look at the map. War runs on oil. We have oil. Hitler has none. Q.E.D.”

    Franco could tell who was going to win.

  • Simon Jester

    My mistake on the war with the Dutch – though from the WP article, it doesn’t appear to have been at Cromwell’s instigation.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Actually, i believe that military dictators have historically shown restraint in their foreign adventurism.

    Napoleon is an exception, but only sort-of: although he was a general and a dictator, he did not gain power in a military coup.

    The 2 unqualified exceptions that i am aware of, are Suharto (East Timor) and Galtieri (Falklands).

  • Alan Peakall

    Alongside the Argentine Junta, the Greek Colonels (in Cyprus), Jean Bedel Bokassa, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot all launched cross-border adventures which resulted in their own overthrow. In the first two cases hot pursuit was not required to topple the regime; in the latter three cases it was. Obviously Vietnam and Tanzania are far more fashionable actors to effect regime change, but, as even the France went along for the ride in getting rid of Bokassa, I suspect that, had Thatcher and Reagan had still been at the helm at the end of the First Gulf War, then the Foreign Office and State Department would (however reluctantly) have found themselves presenting that as a precedent while US/UK forces pressed on to Baghdad.

  • Napoleon .. although he was a general and a dictator, he did not gain power in a military coup. (Snorri Godhi, April 1, 2022 at 5:53 pm)

    He gained power in a coup where his role was to provide the military force – that’s why he was brought in. In the event, the revolutionary Directory was easily overthrown – it helped that two of the five directors were the principal coup plotters, while a third was for sale to the highest bidder, while the council, though it drove Bonaparte and his grenadiers out, then wasted time debating instead of attacking with the Consular Guard – but Bonaparte was asked to join precisely because he was a general and Director Seyes prior choice of general to help him overthrow his own government (Joubert) had died in the recent battle of Novi.

    Needless to say, within a few weeks, the two directors who had overthrown the Directory discovered that Bonaparte was not someone you could just use or even work with, and since they did not care to work for him, they were replaced with two who did.

  • Patrick Crozier

    re. Greek Colonels. I believe I am right in saying that it wasn’t the Colonels. The Colonels had been removed the previous winter by “The Generals”. Come to think of it, it wasn’t an “invasion” either. Well, not officially.

  • Chester Draws

    He plays a longer game than every Western leader,

    You keep telling yourself that, if it keeps you happy.

    Putin plays a long game because he is in power for much longer, and is precariously balanced (like all dictators) with danger everywhere. So he does things like ensure his generals are no threat by being disunited, not particularly competent, and not charismatic. Then he goes to war with those same generals! If that’s playing “the long game”, then sure, he plays the long game.

    Putin has hollowed out the economy of Russia to his personal benefit. It’s a long game, of sorts, but not really an optimal situation for the rest of the country.

    (Now Xi I would accept is not a short termist. But he is also not stupid enough to get bogged down in multiple wars simultaneously. )

    In the west individuals have shorter attentions, because fortunately they stay in power less long, but parties can keep it up far longer than individuals. The Democrats in the US are playing a very long game, quite independent of who their leader is.

    In the decades since Putin has taken over, has Russia really progressed better than the Baltic states, which started from the same point? Has their lack of long-game-playing leaders crippled them? Playing a long game is only useful if you are good at it. If your ideas are stupid, it makes things worse.

  • Chester Draws

    To answer the question originally asked: dictators tend not to adventurism, because most of them are not particularly secure in their place. They fear the consequences of military action. A loss destroys their prestige. A win generates the threat of takeover by the successful generals.

    We tend to remember those that create history by starting wars. Those that keep a low profile are forgotten outside their own countries.

  • Alan Peakall

    Thanks for the correction, Patrick. It is a relief to be reminded there are some precedents in foreign affairs I am still (just) too young to remember first hand 🙂

  • Mr Ed

    The coup in relation to the ‘Greek Colonels’ wasn’t in Greece but in Cyprus, with the local military (Greek-dominated) overthrowing that Bishop chap. This provided the pretext for the Turkish invasion and partition (despite the UK’s notional guarantee, along with Greece and Turkey) of Cyprus’ independence, and the Greek Junta fell in the aftermath of the failure to prevent Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus.

    I recall Alan Coren remarking of the delight in Hampstead (bourgeois north London suburb, metonym) at the fall of the Greek Junta, all the upper-middle class worthies could at last buy Kalamata olives again.

  • There is altogether too much guessing about what Putin is aiming at

    No need to guess at all, Putin has being publicly chatting about his ideas and intentions for decades. It is only a mystery to anyone who has not been listening to what he says.

    …and the fact that he hasn’t taken Kiev is seen as him having failed.

    That would be because he has failed.

    Russia is in an attrition war it did not plan for and is incapable of winning by any reasonable definition of ‘winning’. As long as the flow of new NLAWs, Javelins, Bayraktars, Stingers & Starstreaks continues, the Russian army will continue to lose weapon systems and vehicles worth $3-15 million a pop to weapons costing $2 million to $20k a pop at a rate it cannot sustain.

    I wouldn’t be so sure. He plays a longer game than every Western leader, most of whom are pygmies

    There is nothing smart about Putin, but I do agree about the quality of western leaders.

    and the rouble for oil and gas move looks like smart judo.

    LOL.

  • Snorri Godhi

    …and the fact that he hasn’t taken Kiev is seen as him having failed.

    That would be because he has failed.

    In the case of the Kyiv offensive, i am not sure that there is any difference between being seen as failing and actually failing.

  • Chester Draws

    In the case of the Kyiv offensive, i am not sure that there is any difference between being seen as failing and actually failing.

    Externally, perhaps. But the Russian soldiers will know the difference.

    If they are retreating because their logistics failed when met by sterner defence than expected, it will sting. If they are retreating because the Ukrainian army was pushing them back, it will feel a whole pile worse. They will feel personally defeated, not just unable to complete a task.

    How long can Putin silo those soldiers away from friends and family? He can do it while they are in Ukraine, but once back in Russia?

    He’s built a social system based on Russian superiority to effete Westerners. That is going to take one powerful battering.

  • Patrick Crozier

    The coup I was referring to is known to Wikipedia as the “Ioannidis Coup“.

  • Mary Contrary

    Putin hasn’t failed because he underestimated “the West”. “The West” has been just as weak and useless as he expected. He failed because he underestimated the resistance of the Ukrainian people, and their willingness and effectiveness in organising an instant people’s militia, and overestimated the competence of his own military.

  • Petr Borysko

    Putin hasn’t failed because he underestimated “the West”. “The West” has been just as weak and useless as he expected. He failed because he underestimated the resistance of the Ukrainian people, and their willingness and effectiveness in organising an instant people’s militia, and overestimated the competence of his own military.

    Sure, but in fairness, Russia also underestimated willingness of nations like UK & Sweden to quickly provide much more tangible support for Ukraine than expected. Boris Johnson & Magdalena Andersson didn’t just speak disapproving words, they put a good numbers of high quality weapons in Ukrainian hands & they did it quick enough to make a real difference. Whatever you think of Boris, history will be kind to him because of this. Like Zelenskyy said, Ukraine discovered who their true friends are and aren’t. Also, Canada, US, UK provided training before war (battalion, company & platoon level respective) that was more effective & institutionalized by Ukraine better than people realised.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Putin has been doing terrible things for many years – many Russians have been robbed or murdered (or both) on his orders.

    But this invasion of Ukraine has been the worst of all his deeds. Mr Putin must be removed from power.

    I have no patience for people who make excuses for Mr Putin – or for people who go into idiotic racist rants against “Russians” (as if “Russians” were the problem, rather than being the victims of Mr Putin) as if Russians and Ukrainians were different species, without a common history.

  • Mr Ed

    This war has made plain that Russia is now simply a giant, nuclear-armed, mineral and hydrocarbon-rich Transnistria.

  • – or for people who go into idiotic racist rants against “Russians” (as if “Russians” were the problem, rather than being the victims of Mr Putin) as if Russians and Ukrainians were different species

    You are the only one here using the term ‘racist’ in that context, old chap, against anyone who dares take a negative view on Russian culture, even if they are part-Russian Slavs with first hand experience of Russians in Russia. To say this has not been your finest hour would be a masterly understatement. Cromwell had an apt suggestion that you would do well to take to heart, or are you always correct?

  • Petr Borysko

    Russian culture on show for all to see in Kyiv’s suburbs. Maybe [some people] thinks Putin drove from Moscow & tied these people’s hands behind back before shooting in street like dogs. Guarantee this was done by common Russian soldiers pissed off becaus of massive casualties they took over last month. If you want to understand true beating red heart of Russia, just look at these pictures closely, but I maybe you have to be like me, part Polish, part Ukrainian, part Russian, and working in all those places for most of life to understand that. People wonder why Ukrainians fight like wild wolves against the invader, this is why. Anyone from this part of world knows what waits for loser when you face Russian soldiers, there is a reason Ukrainian social media calls them orcs. We remember Katyn forest, ordered from above, but also remember the thousands of small atrocities, the ones without sombre memorials where they happened.

  • Edited the otherwise excellent comment above, Petr, let us not make this personal.

  • […] Petr Borysko, who is apparently doing his part keeping the famous Ukrainian tractors […]