Re-reading Vladimir Putin’s State of the Union Address in the light of Japanese strategic traditions

And aren’t you glad that I read it, so that you don’t have to?

Putin’s speeches are often somewhat rambling, though, to be scrupulously fair, this tends to be because he quite clearly doesn’t give a shit about his audience. Live, it can just about pass muster, since the average listener can’t remember more than about two sentences back, and your brain fills in the gaps and glosses over the disconnects. On paper, it’s close to unreadable: you can say this shit, but you sure as hell can’t parse it.

However, despite the difficulties inherent in extracting any sort of significance from it at all, I suspect that it does contain one significant strategic error, and it’s not the religious nationalism that got the Western papers in such a tizzy.

The problem lies with the order in which the subjects are tackled: Ukraine, then the economy and education and so on. Personally, if I had to give this speech (and you know, insh’Allah, stranger things have happened), I’d have done it in the opposite order. Partly because I’m a nasty little cockbag and would enjoy watching the journos sitting there on tenterhooks waiting for the Ukraine stuff while I blathered drearily on about education grants. Partly because it’s the only way of doing it that doesn’t come across as defensive.

If you do the Crimea bit first, everything else sounds as though it’s a response to that. A lot of that econ/tech/education stuff would have been there anyway, just as part of a normal year’s plans, but coming as it does after a weary justification of the Crimea episode makes it sound as though it’s been designed as a direct response to the sanctions.

On the other hand, if you save the war til last, then not only do you avoid that, but you also finish on a high note, which is always nice. As it is, the concluding remarks are the rhetorical equivalent of ‘drive safely’. Sure, it’s nice to say, but so what?

You might say that it’s only one speech, so it’s not really that important in the great scheme of things. Certainly not when people are out there shooting at each other in a thrilling manner with real artillery. Despite this, I still think it could well be a crucial moment.

Russia has succeeded to a huge extent in this whole enterprise by taking the initiative and remaining ahead of the ditherers. This speech effectively puts it on the back foot. In other words, they’re making it seem like they’ve lost their sente. That is to say:

A move that leaves the player an overwhelming follow-up move, and thus forces the opponent to respond, is said to have ‘sente’ (先手), or ‘initiative’; the opponent has ‘gote’ (後手). In most games, the player who keeps sente most of the time will win.

Clearly the case here. The West has felt its gote keenly (so to speak) and been forced into a response that was not necessarily what it wanted, but which was the best it could come up with at the time*.

Or, alternatively, as Miyamoto Musashi put it:

Because you can win quickly by taking the lead, it is one of the most important things in strategy (…) In contests of strategy it is bad to be led about by the enemy. You must always be able to lead the enemy about.

Go board

The danger is that an appearance of defensiveness will turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

*The other, sadly ignored, option for the West, would of course have been tenuki – giving the whole Ukraine thing up as a bad job, but – and here’s the important part – creating a new threat somewhere else on the board/world to throw Russia off balance. As the Sensei puts it: ‘One of the most common novice mistakes is getting locked into the local fight and continuing to play there when there are larger plays elsewhere. Tenuki is always an option.’


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