Putin: A Dilettante in the Art of War



Putin: A Dilettante in the Art of War



The Art of War is an Ancient Chinese dissertation believed to be the product of a general named Sun Tzu, who lived in the sixth century BCE. West Point includes it in the academy's curriculum, and The Art of War has inspired military leaders in our country and others. Selected quotes from this old Chinese document explain why Putin, up to now, has failed in his efforts to dominate Ukraine.

 Sun Tzu said, "Knowing the enemy enables you to take the offensive." Putin thought he knew his enemy, but he did not. He planned an invasion based on the weakness he perceived to exist in Ukraine and the strengths he perceived to be in Russia. His perceptions have proven to be delusional.

 Putin's intelligence on how the west would respond to his invasion was flawed. With support from the NATO countries, especially the United States, his enemy was much stronger than he thought. Given his years as a KGB man, he should have had a much better handle on this.

He might have figured that Donald Trump had weakened the bond of the NATO countries to the point this defense alliance would divide when it came to Ukraine. He was wrong. Putin would have been better off invading when Trump was in office. At least then, the most powerful of the NATO allies would have been on his side, not with military equipment but with isolationism.

Joe Biden grew up in the fifty years of the Cold War when US foreign policy was a bipartisan effort to challenge Russian aggression. Cold Warriors were always ready to take on the Russians. It is in their political DNA.

 Sun Tzu said, "Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night…." Not following this direction from the ancient master of war was Putin's second mistake. The entire world knew Putin's invasion was coming. He made it known he wanted to invade Ukraine for years. That motivated Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to take steps to protect his country, including a failed attempt at NATO membership. His efforts did put Western Europe on alert.

Then Putin had this slow, massive military buildup along the border between Russia and Ukraine. His troop allocations were known to anyone on the planet paying attention. American military analysts were on talk shows illustrating that the buildup on the border was not for some military exercise but for an invasion.

 In November 2022, the think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) released a report that indicated that the Kremlin sent Russian soldiers to the front without proper training, that preparations for battles were deficient, and that supplies were lacking. As a result, morale among the ranks is exceedingly low. Desertion is high among those in uniform and those facing conscription. Ignoring Sun Tzu's proclamation that a leader must "Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons" constitutes Putin's fourth mistake.

 Armies with solid esprit de corps fight harder, surrender and desert less, and never commit mutiny. The Russian military in Ukraine runs away sooner, deserts en masse, and rebellious behavior has 300 Russian soldiers under arrest in a basement in Zaitseve, Ukraine.

As we roll into the second year of this ghastly conflict, we are witnessing Vladimir Putin's fourth mistake. Again, Sun Tzu: "There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare."

Angry over setbacks, Putin applied a scorched earth policy on the very region he covets. There is no benefit for him or Russia. On the contrary, by waging war against a civilian population, he encourages contempt for himself and his people. In their outrage, people are inclined to forget that many Russians are also victims of this man's maniacal behavior.

 Media worldwide show the Ukrainian people bombed out of their dwellings, huddling together in the cold and dark, because the Russians have destroyed power plants and other infrastructure. Stories of torture and Russian soldiers kidnapping Ukrainian children and raping them, horrors common in war, frequently appear in the news. The longer the fighting goes on, the more the reputation of Russia sinks into that dark hole of evil in history shared by the fascists and the Japanese Empire of World War 2.

 Like an amateur painter slapping paint on a canvas and believing he has the talent of Picasso, Putin kills and destroys and believes he has the skills of Peter the Great. He does not.


Steve Bailey

Steve Bailey is a retired history teacher. For the last three years, he has been a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Bookends Review, Commuter Lit, Outlook by the Bay, Paper Dragon, and others. A complete list is on his website, vamarcopolo.com. Steve lives in Richmond, Virginia.


  1. SSGT Larry CogswellApril 18, 2023 at 6:45 PM

    i don;t take anything from Ukraine. They are fighting for their country. But it's likely the Ukrainians had US training and support years before the invasion.

    1. Yes, it is very likely. And not taking that into account could be another of Putin's failures.

  2. Interesting observations from the perspective of military history. How have human beings lived on this planet as long as we have and still not learned how to rid ourselves of military dictators? What can history teach us to prevent this from ever happening again, now and in the future?

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