With the advent of social media, email and text messaging services on our phones and computers, we have become used to a lifestyle of on demand information and social interaction. We can become annoyed if our favorite websites don’t load as quickly as usual, and we can also become addicted to certain forms of online entertainment resulting in the shortening of our attention spans.
It is ironic that in an age of instant gratification and shallow fulfillment, a long-term political goal is the only thing can rid us of our current demographic and political predicament. The trends of politics and world events often work in decades, not days, and it is rare that something can instantly change the geopolitical landscape, and set it on a new trajectory in a dramatic way. Of course, this does sometimes happen, with the 9/11 terror attacks being the most obvious example that springs to mind. Those who take a short-term approach, like celebrities who binge on success and excess, usually end up in rehab or are saddled with health problems and meet an early death. This short-term thinking has also lead to the downfall of world leaders as well; however, those who have embraced a long-term mindset have often reaped the rewards.
Currently, there is one leader who does understand the Long Game, and he is doing very well out of it. Vladimir Putin, who came to power as President of Russia on the last day of the 20th Century, is in no mood for quick or risky action. He spent the first few years of his time in office restoring the honor of the beleaguered Russian Military by defeating Islamists in Chechnya, while also forcing Oligarchs, who had ransacked the country in the 1990s, to start paying their taxes. With a steady grip on power by 2004, Putin understood that Russia was still not strong enough to stop the pro-western Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and so he chose not to intervene militarily. By 2008, Putin had switched places with Dmitry Medvedev and demoted himself to become Prime Minister, a smart tactic which gave the illusion he was no longer in control when of course he was still pulling the levers of power from behind the scenes.
Russia was on a much firmer footing by then, and the Russian Military intervened in the conflict in Georgia, and by doing so cemented Moscow’s claim over the Pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Putin returned to the Office of President in 2012, and by this time his work was beginning to pay off. Russia was now much stronger, and wiser than in previous decades.
In 2011, Putin’s ally Syria, and more importantly the Russian’s naval base in the country, was under threat from the Civil War that had ignited in the country. But once again, Putin did not act hastily. He helped supply the Syrian Government, but he did not militarily intervene in the conflict until September 2015, 4 and a half years after the war started, when by this time his ally Bashar Al-Assad was facing certain defeat. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 (and the referendum in the peninsular which cemented such a move), was also a very significant but cautious step; a step which was only taken when his ally in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, had been ousted after months of turmoil. 10 years before in 2004, when a similar coup in Kiev occurred as I mentioned above, Russia did not have the confidence or power to act in this way. This change from mostly being a sideline spectator in 2004, to being a conqueror in 2014, is all down to Vladimir Putin’s long-term strategy of steadily and carefully building up Russia’s power over time. This is in stark contrast to the quick and risky power building activities of many previous leaders, including the likes of Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Long-term thinking also allowed Putin to intervene in the Ukrainian Donbass conflict gradually. The conflict in Donbass has been raging on and off since 2014, yet Putin is in no mood to bring a quick end to it because there is no reason to. Why launch a large-scale invasion of the Donbass area, and provoke international sanctions, threats, and organizational expulsions, when you can just gradually use much smaller numbers of your military and allies to increase your hold over the area? This allows you to turn the conflict on and off when it suits you and brings a much smaller element of risk and loss. This is the same reason why Putin used air power in Syria rather than ground forces primarily. It meant the risk was much lower, yet the certainty of victory (and the strategic power and rewards it would bring), remained the same as if he had thrown the entire Russian Army into the fray.
Instead of spectacular victories and invasions involving millions of men (and the inevitable millions of deaths and defeats which follow), Vladimir Putin has mastered the art of slow progression over time, a tactic which China has noticed and embraced in the South China Sea. His country, after 19 years of recovery, is now back as a respected power in the world. Ironically the end result of Putin’s work – a strong and powerful Russia rescued from the turmoil of the post-Soviet 1990s, will probably only be completed after his lifetime. It will be his children and grandchildren’s generation which reap its rewards, not him. However, that doesn’t matter, because his sensible long-term plan will have been successful, and he will be remembered as a great leader and Russian patriot for that.
Sometimes in life, there is a need for an immediate, momentous reaction; but these times are rare, even for world leaders. In your life, act thoughtfully from day to day, but always think strategically in the long term. Plans for the future may need to be changed over time, but long-term thinking will reap its rewards. The use of patience is very hard, especially when wielding significant power over decades, yet Putin has managed to do so. Restraining ourselves as humans is an arduous task, but it is not impossible by any means.
Be productive when you can, but do not rush to success unless you are sure of a good outcome, because the long decades ahead can reap their rewards, and bring a much better long-term outcome than any short-term gain.