What will Russian President Vladimir Putin do next? Not even the Americans who predicted the war in Ukraine knew. Will he escalate or downgrade, will he turn to eastern Ukraine or spread everywhere, will he secure supply routes or will he bomb cities? Global leaders and analysts agree: “Only Putin knows.”
Confucius said: To predict what a man will do next, one must study his past. Putin’s self-proclaimed mantra is: “If you’re going to fight, then you punch first.” That explains his first steps in Ukraine, while claiming he won’t invade. His past shows that he strikes hard – communities in Chechnya, Syria and now Ukraine have all been razed to the ground.
Putin started boxing, but later switched to martial arts. “Judo is a philosophy, not a sport,” he said. Judo uses the enemy’s strength against him, identifies the enemy’s weaknesses, and then penetrates the gaps. In European armor, the gap is its border. Less attention has been paid to Putin’s “invasion” for his deployment of “mass immigration weapons.” “Putin is using refugees as a weapon to destabilize Europe,” said Monika Sie, director of the Dutch think tank Klingendall Institute.
Of the 10 million Ukrainian refugees, 4 million fled to Europe. In 2015, a million refugees poured into Europe, sparking political and social unrest. Detonating this bomb 10 times larger than the influx in 2015 would have huge consequences. Currently, Europeans welcome Ukrainians with enthusiasm. But delaying the war can lead to rising military, humanitarian and energy costs, stressful citizen management, public chaos and social polarization, as locals begin to resent the strangers living among them and drain limited services and resources. Russia used mass immigration against Europe during the war in Syria.
In addition to war refugees fleeing to Europe, there are “orchestrated” migration of asylum seekers to pressure the EU. Last winter, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, an ally of Putin, hoarded asylum-seekers on his border with Poland and the Baltic states, who then rallied to block entry. The EU and even NATO now define mass migration as a “security threat”. Europe’s refugee crisis could worsen as aftershocks of the Ukraine war lead to food shortages. Hunger, violence, inflation and climate change can exacerbate mass migration, especially from Africa during the summer months when dangerous sea crossings resume.
An important concept in judo is “maximum efficiency with minimal effort”. This principle explains Russia’s cyberattack, not its war in Ukraine, which appears to be “greatest power, least conquest.” Putin’s calculations are difficult to understand. But he is fighting his war in his own way. Given Ukrainian resistance, it is questionable whether he can hold onto the territory, as Western analysts say. This is the quagmire he avoided in Syria.
Putin was a Cold War fighter who fought in the wars of the 20th century. But his hybrid and cyberwarfare reveals his 21st-century mindset. Is destruction for forced submission? Maybe someone had to dig up his KGB past in East Germany on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Screaming protesters surrounded the KGB’s Dresden headquarters. Putin scrambles to preserve classified documents. Crazy calls for the “mothership” went unanswered. Then, Putin famously recalled, “Moscow was silent.”
So Putin spoke up. He walked up to the protesters and declared, “There’s a tank behind me, and I’m here to tell you that if you don’t disperse, you’ll be ordered to shoot.” The protesters dispersed. His show of force was a bluff. There were no tanks and no one gave orders. He learned two lessons: Threats are effective, but if your bluff is called, you must have and use firepower. Is his nuclear threat a bluff? Only Putin knows.
Pratap is a writer and journalist.