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. An exercise certainly enriched by the capacity to be detached from an emotional determination of attributing negative motives to every one of his gestures,

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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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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The Day Zhukov Danced

After German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the articles of surrender on May 9th, 1945, “Soviet officers shook hands with their allies from the west.” World War II was officially over, and a festive spirit descended upon the victors. “Vodka and champagne flowed, freely, and buoyed by the joyous atmosphere, [Soviet Marshal] Zhukov even performed a Russian folk dance on the parquet floor of the officers’ mess.”

Passages like those abound in Volker Ullrich’s most recent book Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich (Liveright). Between the covers of this absorbing and sometimes revolting book, the reader is immersed in the tragic hours when the grandees of the Nazi horde maneuver to cling to power under the leadership of Admiral Karl Dönitz, while trying to save as many German soldiers as possible from the advancing Russian soldiers who are – legitimately, one could say – thirsty for “revenge and retribution”.

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Wellington took care of his soldiers

A few months ago, I reviewed the very insightful book Wellington’s Command by G. E. Jaycock. Being interested in anything related to the Iron Duke, it was therefore natural for me to read S. P. G. Ward’s Wellington’s Headquarters: The Command and Administration of the British Army during the Peninsular War (Pen & Sword).

While the objective of the author was to detail and explain the functioning of the Peninsular Army and give a portrait of the overall machinery of war, the most interesting aspect of the book is the portrait of the warlord. Wellington, it is a known fact, was a micromanager. For instance, the author explains that “[…] he was his own Director of Military Intelligence”. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to understand that he must have been quite a difficult character to deal with – like most famous personalities in history. About the interrogation of prisoners of war, he reduced one of his subordinates, Stewart, to tears because the latter wrongfully thought it fell within the province of his responsibilities.

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“The epicenter of the Cold War”

In June 1987, just shy of my 13th birthday, international affairs were already part of my daily interests. I would clip newspaper articles about the Cold War from our local paper before my parents even had the chance of reading it, much to their despair. During that month, on the 12th to be more precise, US President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and pronounced a major speech calling for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. “He’ll never do that”, my father replied to me. Retrospectively, anything is possible of course. But few people could imagine back then what would happen only two years later when the Wall crumbled without a single shot being fired.

Fast-forward to 2015. After 9 grueling months stranded as administrative prisoners in Poland due to lack of efficient bureaucracy (to put it mildly), we finally received our coveted residency cards. First order of business was to plan a serious change of scenery for everyone. I could finally take a few days off. Berlin was just a couple hours away by train and I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.

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Fulfilling MacArthur’s Promise

In a recent interview for this blog, I questioned former Gurkhas commanding officer General Sir Peter Duffell about the reasons why Viscount Slim – the victor of Burma – is less recognized in popular culture than Field Marshal Montgomery for his contribution to victory in World War II. Montgomery, he replied “[…] was much the better-known British Commander because his campaigns were fought much closer to home [North Africa, D-Day, Arnhem].” In a certain way, much the same applies to the fighting of the American forces. Anyone visiting Washington, D.C., can admire the impressive Iwo Jima Memorial, but movies, bookstores and the remembrance rationale are largely dominated by the fight in Europe.

Fortunately, recent years have offered the publication of excellent books about the Pacific theater – for example the contribution of China to the Allied war effort. As we observe and live the geopolitical shift towards Asia, this literature is not only a welcoming phenomenon to better understand the Second World War, but also to navigate the troubled seas of the current world order. Thankfully, the increasing interest generated by the war in the Pacific will be of assistance to further develop our historical conscience in that direction.

I was therefore thrilled to read Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArthur’s Revenge on Japan (Caliber) by Kevin Maurer. Having been forced to evacuate the island on 11 March 1942, General MacArthur only makes his entrance in the story at the very end, after the men of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment neutralized the Japanese troops assigned to defend the strategic sentry island guarding the entrance of Manila Bay.

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Wellington was not an easy figure to build into a romantic hero

The Duke of Wellington (source: National Army Museum)
(Cliquez ici pour la version française)

I recently had the tremendous pleasure of exchanging with internationally renowned author and historian Alan Forrest about his book on the Battle of Waterloo. Here is the content of our discussion.

Professor Forrest, it’s been a real treat for me to read and review your amazing book on this blog. Many thanks for accepting to answer a few questions for our readers.

I have always nourished a deep interest and admiration about the Duke of Wellington (the first name of my blog was Wellington.World). But he clearly lacked the “romantic poignancy” of his French opponent in the battlefield. Do you feel he has been mistreated / misjudged by history?

I do not think there is any reason to feel that Wellington has been misjudged. He enjoys a high reputation as a military commander, careful in his preparations for battle and alert to the threat of enemy attack. His record in the Peninsular campaign – where he did not, of course, have to face Napoleon – is impressive; and at Waterloo his use of the terrain and his tactics in the face of repeated French attacks have been widely praised. He was, it is true, a more defensive tactician than Napoleon, but I don’t think that that has led to his military qualities being undervalued, and certainly not in Britain.  On the other hand, he was not an easy figure to build into a romantic hero, in contrast to Napoleon who did so much to create his own romantic narrative and who fascinated even those who had no reason to support his ambitions (Walter Scott, for instance, or Goethe, or Byron). 

What is your global appreciation of the Iron Duke? Has he been overrated?

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Waterloo’s Band of Brothers

For about five hours on the fateful afternoon of July 18th, 1815, a band of brothers of 400 soldiers forming the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion – a unit of the British Army – thwarted Napoleon’s plan of breaking up the center of the Duke of Wellington’s lines at Waterloo. Stoically, “these men, and their reinforcements, held off Napoleon for long enough to change the course of the battle.”

When I lived in Scotland and in the aftermath of my visit on the battlefield of Waterloo few months prior to these fantastic months, I was curious to read more about the iconic battle and those who took part in it. And I still am. I was therefore captivated by the publication of The Longest Afternoon: The Four Hundred Men who Decided the Battle of Waterloo (Penguin Books) by renowned Cambridge Professor and author Brendan Simms.

Even though the book was published 7 years ago, it remains one of my favorites. I am always lukewarm to embrace the notion that one specific battle definitively changed the course of a war or that a single event sealed victory or defeat. I came to understand that wars and battles are much more complex than that. But the story brough forward by Brendan Simms doesn’t fail to convince that a small group of men (400 out of more than 74 000 under the orders of the Iron Duke) could make a difference on the battlefield. When dusk fell after the battle, only 42 out of the initial 400 remained. That’s a survival rate of 10%.

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Every Man can be a Hero

Back in early September 2015, my family and I rented a car in Paris to spend a day in Normandy. I had always dreamt of visiting Juno Beach, where we fellow Canadians landed 77 years ago today. While strolling on the sand, I kept thinking about the level of bravery and heroism required to conduct such an unusual task. Because running to a possible and likely death is certainly not an ordinary action.

Ever since, I have tried to read as much as I can about the men of June 6, 1944. I reviewed Alex Kershaw’s and Giles Milton’s excellent books here. Late last night, I finished reading The Hero Code by retired Admiral William McRaven and Peter Caddick-Adams’ Sand and Steel is on my summer reading list.

Earlier this week, I finished reading the gripping D-Day memoir Every Man a Hero by Ray Lambert and Jim DeFelice (William Morrow). I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself with Admiral McRaven’s book, which I plan to review soon on this blog, but let’s just say that I found the answer to a lingering question between these covers.

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Viscount Slim was the opposite of Field Marshal Montgomery

General Sir Peter Duffell (source: Nepali Times)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Gurkha Odyssey: Campaigning for the Crown (Pen & sword), General Sir Peter Duffell generously accepted to answer my questions for this blog. Below is the content of this fascinating exchange.

But before you read any further, let me remind you that if you are a military history aficionado, this book is a must for your bookshelves.

In my time, we certainly adopted items of jungle equipment from the Australians and rifles from the Americans as they were deemed to be more effective and soldier friendly.

Whenever I attend the change of the guard at the Citadel in Quebec City (home of the Royal 22e Régiment, the legendary Vandoos), I am always impressed by the “Bearskin” hat worn by the soldiers, a tradition that comes from the French. At Waterloo, the red coats picked the hats from the dead bodies of their fallen opponents. Throughout its history, the British Army always knew how to integrate the best parts of other traditions. The Gurkhas are no exception, having been integrated to the British Order of Battle after the Nepal War of 1814-1816. Has the British Army kept this capacity for accepting other’s best capacities and features?

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