Is Putin a Weak Strongman?

22 years ago, tonight, Vladimir Putin ambled in history and became President of Russia after Boris Yeltsin retired. Since then, many have spent countless years scrutinizing his every moves. In a sense, the new master of the game largely contributed to Kremlinology’s survival as a discipline. And the prospect of him seeking another term in two years means that Putinology still has bright days ahead. His exercise of power remains one of the most fascinating questions to any student of Russian politics.

I just finished reading a most excellent book about the Russian President, Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia by renowned Columbia University Professor Timothy Frye. In a documented, clear, and eloquent style, the main conclusion of the author is that Vladimir Putin’s main political quality is his ability to navigate the stormy seas of Russian politics.

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Chefs d’État lecteurs et écrivains

Le général d’armée Henri Bentégeat (source: Alchetron)

Quelques jours avant Noël, le général d’armée Henri Bentégeat m’a fait un très beau cadeau pour mon blogue. Cet auteur est un ancien chef de l’état-major particulier du président de la République qui a ensuite servi en tant que chef d’état-major des armées (France). Plus récemment, il est l’auteur de deux excellents ouvrages Chefs d’État en guerre (2019) et Les ors de la République(2021) – tous deux publiés chez Perrin. Le général m’a donc offert un texte inédit pour publication sur ce blogue. Le thème, vous l’aurez deviné, porte sur les appétences littéraires des chefs d’État. Une lecture fascinante et inspirante, sous la plume d’un auteur que j’admire beaucoup et envers lequel je suis infiniment reconnaissant pour son amitié envers ce blogue.

C’est donc avec un immense plaisir que je partage ce texte avec vous aujourd’hui.

En France, le Prince, qu’il soit monarque ou président de la République, n’a pas le choix de ses goûts et de ses inclinations. Il se doit d’afficher une vaste culture littéraire et artistique, de peur de perdre l’estime de ses concitoyens, tant chez nous, depuis des siècles, la culture est attachée au pouvoir.

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Napoléon, cet animal politique

Je ne pouvais laisser se terminer l’année 2021 sans recenser l’un des meilleurs livres consacrés à Napoléon qui me soit passé entre les mains pendant le bicentenaire de son décès. À cet égard, Les hommes de Bonaparte : La conquête du pouvoir 1793-1800 (Éditions Perrin) de l’historien Jean-Philippe Rey m’a permis de découvrir un aspect de l’Empereur dont ma connaissance était, je le constate bien aujourd’hui, très embryonnaire. Alors que les vertus de celui que Clausewitz appelait le « Dieu de la guerre » sont bien connues, son génie politique l’est beaucoup moins. Et c’est à ce niveau que l’auteur nous renseigne de manière convaincante.

Bonaparte, nous dit Jean-Philippe Rey était un animal politique, un ambitieux désireux de s’investir corps et âme pour grimper au sommet. En témoigne notamment son mariage avec Joséphine (un mariage dont les deux époux tirèrent avantage, malgré sa nature complexe) et une capacité consommée à tisser, entretenir et étendre ses réseaux. Le réseautage est d’ailleurs un – pour ne pas dire le – thème dominant du livre.

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“My subordinates took time to reach out and let me learn how to lead” – Exclusive interview with Vice-Admiral Mark Norman (ret.)

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman (ret.)

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be in touch with Vice-Admiral (ret.) Mark Norman, former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff of Canada. A man for whom I have tons of respect and admiration. He gladly accepted to respond to a few questions for my blog. To that end, we had an extremely pleasant discussion on the phone. Here is the content of our exchange.

Vice-Admiral Norman, as you can see with the name of my blog, books about history (mainly military) are among my main subjects of interest. Are you an avid reader? If so, what are your favorite subjects?

Compared to others, I am not an avid reader. Surprisingly, I don’t read military history directly. I do however enjoy three broad areas of books. 1) believable fiction – often based in an imaginary world. For example, I was recently absorbed by the Dune trilogy. This is a brilliant story. 2) the pseudo-realist genre, whose stories are based on reality. I’m a big fan of James Bond, the Jason Bourne series, Jack Ryan and Dan Brown for example. And 3) non-fiction. I like more analytical pieces and variations of military history. In that regard, I have recently read Destined for War by Graham Allison, books about leadership by retired generals like Colin Powell and Rick Hillier. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I will occasionally dive into naval history, and I have read different translations of Sun Tzu. This said, I am less active in that last category than I am in the two others.

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2034: The War With China?

I am not a person who enjoys novels. My youngest daughter was therefore astonished when she saw me reading 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. “Yes, but it’s about a potential war between the United States and China. Plus, it’s written by an author I really like and admire, Admiral Stavridis [and Elliot Ackerman]”, I said. I admit that this was an exceptional experience and not only because of the genre, but mainly because this is one of the most thoughtful books anyone interested in geopolitics and the fate of the world should read now.

2034. About 12 years from now. Might as well say tomorrow. Russian President Vladimir Putin still occupies the highest office in the Kremlin – a scenario that made me smile – and the Israelis have lost the Golan after a military confrontation with Syria – an outcome that makes me cringe, since I have seen with my own eyes how vital this territory is to Israel’s security. The Chinese are still vying for “[…] uncontested control of the South China Sea.” Equipped with superior cyber capabilities, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army neutralizes the weapons and communications system of a flotilla of three American warships. Only one of them will remain afloat at the end of the confrontation. A military operation that was supposed to serve as a message turned into a World War.

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The General who Prevented a Fascist Takeover of America

Few journalists and observers are more versed in US presidential history than Bob Woodward. In his latest book, Peril, written with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, they write that “Most [presidential] candidates struggle with the message. In his case [Joe Biden], he was the message.” The former Vice-President was the best positioned to carry the day in front of President Donald Trump, a man who didn’t and probably couldn’t grasp the magnitude of Covid-19 (“I wanted to always play it down”, he said to Bob Woodward in March 2020), or the basic tenets of politics. About the latter aspect, “[Corey Lewandowski, who was Trump’s campaign manager in 2016] was surprised that Trump, of all people, did not seem to get that Republican leaders were self-interested.”

In a nutshell, Trump – who did not have a story to tell – couldn’t possibly compete with a man whose own life was and is the story – Joe Biden. “There is no news I can walk in and give him in the morning that is worse than the news he’s been given many other times in his life”, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told the authors about President Biden in what is probably the best book published about US politics this year.

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