When Expansionism Fails: Putin, Bagdhadi, and Keeping Up Appearances
Question – what do Vladimir Putin and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have in common? Answer – both man’s dream of territorial expansion are failing. While both had initial successes – Putin in the Crimea and Baghdadi in Syria and Northern Iraq, of late, both have seen their dreams fade. Putin’s forces in the Ukraine have not expanded their influence and have failed to consolidate any gains. Baghdadi is even worse off, losing key terrain over the last year to everyone from the Kurds to his old compatriots, the al Nursa Front. So what is a strongman to do? Image is everything. Supporters follow a strongman because they believe he is invincible, or at least not a loser. If kinks appear in their leader’s armor, dissolution and disenchantment will splinter the devotees. If their leader appears weak, then that leader is open to attack by others seeking the throne.
Luckily for our anti-heroes, there is a solution – diversion. If you are not succeeding in one theater, open up an offensive in another. Putin, after years of ignoring Assad, has suddenly decided to aide him in his fight against ISIS. He seeks to join the coalition of Western states reminiscent of the Yalta Conference. Bagdhadi, with his history of work with al Qaeda, “ran back to mamma” and returned to international terrorism. He seeks to make the West believe that his numbers are legion and every refugee is a part of his world-wide army.
While some might consider these acts as increasing each strongman influence on the world stage, both cases reveal a weakness in their primary efforts. Putin cannot succeed in protecting the “Russian Speakers,” code for ethnic Russians moved into concurred territory during Stalin’s reign. He will not be able to force Europe to accept his territorial aims. Similarly, Baghdadi’s vision of a restored Caliphate is slipping away with every airstrike. He is not gaining ground anymore. Without victories, it is hard to convince the faithful to give up their lives and join the jihad. Both had to do something. Both chose the same course of action. A slight-of-hand to distract the masses with “victories” on other fronts in hopes no one notices that they are losing ground on their primary ambitions.
So, before you believe that Russia, led by Putin, bear chested, riding a white stallion, armed with only his hockey stick, will save the West’s efforts in Syria and singlehandedly crush ISIS; before you cower in fear of every refugee because they are agents of the Rolex wearing pretender Bagdhadi, realize that you are witnessing the actions of two men whose carefully crafted image is their true source of power, and what they are most afraid of losing. Before you tremble in fear of the Wizard’s stage show, pay a little attention to the man behind the curtain. In reality, both these leaders are losing their ability to achieve the territorial gains and maintain their followers, and both are desperately working to ensure that those followers don’t begin to look elsewhere for leadership.