The financier who exposed Vladimir Putin

Six years ago this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived a coup launched by a faction of the Armed Forces. The statesman mobilized his supporters, enjoining them to resist the coup, by using the FaceTime app on his iPhone. At the time, I was impressed by the powerful impact of such a small tool in creating such a momentous outcome.

I was reminded of that story while reading Bill Browder’s book Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath (Simon & Schuster), not only because of the cruciality of knowing how to use the modern tools of communications, but also because there is a huge price to pay when you confront an autocrat.

Bill Browder can attest to that.

The author of Freezing Order is an American-born financier (now living in the UK) and founder of Hermitage Capital Management who has been active in Russia between 1996 and 2008. In June 2008, one of his lawyers, “[…] Sergei Magnitsky, discovered that […] criminals had used our stolen companies and their fake claims to apply for a fraudulent $230 million tax refund.” That’s where the roller coaster ride that is this book begins.

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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.

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

Vladimir Putin, campaign manager

A few years ago, I was captivated by Peter Schweizer’s book Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. That fascinating book detailed how the 40th President of the United States used the economic weaknesses of the USSR to bring it on its knees, notably with the help of the Saudis regarding the oil price and the military build-up with which Moscow could not compete with Washington.

Turns out that, while the USSR crumbled, a young KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin took good note.  In a recent interview with a former Soviet official, my interlocutor spoke to me about the Russian President’s love of judo – his favorite sport – and the transposition of its techniques in politics. The master of the Kremlin’s dealings in world affairs is a good illustration of his abilities to take advantage of his opponents’ weight to knock them down.

Nowhere is this ability more evident than in the pages of British journalist Luke Harding’s book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West (Harper). In a real page-turner, the author details how the Russian government and its entities are influencing the West’s political life. For example, using Novichok as a calling card in attempting to neutralize Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who betrayed the GRU (The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). Or shabby dealings using banks allegedly to bail out influential people – allegedly like former US President Donald Trump. Moscow is determined to go to any lengths “[…] to return to a nineteenth-century model of great-power politics and to disrupt the ideals-based international order established after the Second World War […].”

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Benjamin Netanyahu: Survivor

Sergeant Benjamin Netanyahu, member of the Sayeret Matkal Unit of the IDF (source: The Times of Israel).

Israel went to the polls for a fourth time since 2019 yesterday. If the past is prologue, everything indicates that Benjamin Netanyahu will form another government in the coming weeks. Holding 59 seats with his right-wing allies (at the time of this writing), the leader of the Likud still holds the best cards in his hands to remain in power.

But how is it that, besieged with scandals, trials and the turmoil of political life in the heart of one of the most intense political arena in the world, the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel can still successfully navigate these tumultuous waters?

This might sound cliché, but the key to understand Netanyahu’s political longevity is to reach in the confines of his personality. So far, the best biography I have read about Bibi (the PM’s nickname) is the one written by Anshel Pfeffer, which I reviewed 2 years ago on this blog. I do not intend to repeat the argument I brought forward then (those who are interested can read it here), but there is one essential aspect which I did not refer to back then.

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Ian Fleming et James Bond: tel père, tel fils

Dans Skyfall (le meilleur film de James Bond à mon humble avis), il y a une scène où 007 fausse compagnie aux mercenaires de Silva en empruntant un tunnel secret dissimulé dans la maison de son enfance. Au moment de s’y engouffrer, le mythique agent secret déclare : « j’ai toujours détesté cet endroit ». Cette déclaration se veut non seulement emblématique des sentiments du personnage, mais aussi de son créateur, Ian Fleming.

Dans l’enlevante biographie qu’il consacre au père de James Bond (Perrin), l’historien Christian Destremau permet au lecteur de constater à quel point le père et le fils littéraire partagent le même ADN. Amour des voitures, de la vitesse, des douches à l’eau chaude, des montagnes, caractères irrévérencieux et vie sexuelle bien assumée, voilà autant de traits donnés par Fleming à son emblématique personnage. Et j’oubliais que la mère de l’agent du MI6 est Helvète, tout comme celle de Fleming. Je laisserai aux psychologues le plaisir d’épiloguer sur la parenté entre les deux hommes, mais je peux facilement imaginer que l’auteur aurait rêvé de vivre les aventures de son héros. Après tout, n’est-ce pas là le but de la fiction?

Cela dit, n’importe quel amateur des questions de renseignement, aussi novice soit-il, aura tôt fait de constater que M. Bond détonne de manière très exubérante par rapport à la discrétion élémentaire requise de la part des manœuvriers de cet univers ombrageux. Rares doivent être ceux et celles qui raffolent d’attirer l’attention. Il n’est donc guère étonnant que le biographe écrive que « […] James Bond est pour une large part l’héritier des braves du SOE » (Special Operations Executive) – les légendaires services spéciaux créés par Churchill quelques semaines après son arrivée aux commandes en juillet 1940.

poursuivre la lecture

Making James Bond Blush

TheForce_SaulDavidFew years ago, while visiting in Italy, I booked a talented guide to visit Monte Cassino and its vicinity. As I left the train, upon arriving in the bucolic town whose name is associated to one of the most famous battles of World War II, I was struck by the breathtaking landscape. Up above a steep mountain, the famous Benedictine Abbey lays towering over the surrounding valley.

I immediately wondered what kind of soldiers could conquer such a hostile environment and dislodge the Germans, ferociously guarding the impregnable summits forming the Winter Line set up to block the Allies on their way up North to the Eternal City, Rome.

Some years later and thanks to renowned military historian Saul David, I finally found the answer between the covers of the book The Force: The Legendary Special Ops Unit and WWII’s Mission Impossible. Assembled from scratch with Canadian and American soldiers in the summer of 1942 “for a top mission behind enemy lines”, the First Special Service Force was initially trained to operate in winter conditions with a new snow vehicle.

The mission of the unit soon became the object of turf wars and power plays between British and American top brass and politicians. While Churchill – who had a “”particular interest” in the Force” jealously fought toe and nails to reserve these exceptional warriors for an eventual foray in Norway (operation Jupiter), US Army chief of staff George Marshall considered such a venture to be a sideshow. The American warlord was certainly frustrated to exclude such a powerful tool from a vital theater of operations.

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Le génie en guerre

ClaudeQuetelOperationsWW2« La guerre n’est jamais avare de nouvelles inventions », d’écrire l’historien Claude Quétel dans son dernier livre Les opérations les plus extraordinaires de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. J’oserais pousser la note en ajoutant « et d’audace » à cette formule, tellement les stratèges et leurs exécutants y sont allés de prouesses souvent inimaginables durant ces hostilités.

Ces 400 pages m’ont donné l’impression que l’auteur a pris la plume spécialement pour moi. D’abord parce que je suis un fan fini de Ian Fleming et de James Bond, j’ai toujours été fasciné par tout ce qui entoure les opérations spéciales et j’ai eu le privilège de visiter certains lieux décrits entre les couvertures du livre.

Je conserverai toujours un souvenir impérissable de cette journée d’été passée à Zagan, localité polonaise située à environ 200 km de Berlin et 400 km de Varsovie, lien emblématique où était localisé le célèbre camp allemand de prisonniers de guerre Stalag Luft III – immortalisé dans le long métrage La grand évasion (The Great Escape) (1963), mettant en vedette Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson et James Donald pour ne citer que ces noms-là.

Photo prise au-dessus du nom du Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, lors de ma visite à Zagan à l’été 2015.

Effectuer de nos jours le court parcours du tunnel Harry offre au visiteur la possibilité de mieux comprendre la détermination, l’esprit de sacrifice et la maestria de ces braves hommes qui n’avaient rien perdu de leur volonté de croiser le fer avec la horde nazie. Leur quête d’évasion était d’ailleurs une manière très imaginative de poursuivre ce combat. Et que dire de l’émotion ressentie à la vue du nom de Roger Bushell (le fameux Roger interprété par Richard Attenborough dans le film) inscrit sur l’une des stèles de granit alignées, immortalisant le point de départ, le parcours très étroit, l’effondrement du tunnel et le point de sortie creusé et emprunté par les valeureux fugitifs.

Et que dire que la visite privée qui nous avait été généreusement offerte il y a de cela quelques années par un officier britannique à la retraite plus tôt à travers les tunnels creusés pendant le conflit mondial dans le roc de Gibraltar et sillonnés par nul autre qu’Eisenhower. J’imaginais les tractations et décisions à prendre par le grand homme en sillonnant ces passages interdits au grand public. Si seulement le rocher pouvait parler…

Vous l’aurez compris, j’ai une appétence passionnée pour le sujet. Et les 32 chapitres du livre ont dépassé mes attentes, notamment grâce au style de l’auteur. Les formules du genre « Le pacifisme et son cousin le défaitisme sévissent dans la troupe » ou « Dans le domaine de l’imagination, des trouvailles en tous genres et des idées baroques, la Grande-Bretagne en guerre mérite incontestablement la palme. Ces insulaires ont une psychologie d’éternels assiégés » émaillent le propos et agrémentent la lecture.

On croise aussi fréquemment un « grand amateur d’opérations spéciales » nommé Winston Churchill et d’une Écosse véritable pépinière des forces spéciales britanniques – un héritage notamment commémoré par l’impressionnant Mémorial des commandos situé à Spean Bridge en plein cœur des Highlands (une heure environ au sud-ouest du Loch Ness) et surplombant la région où les combattants appelés à accomplir des faits d’armes légendaires s’entraînaient inlassablement. Ce qui n’a rien pour me déplaire, bien au contraire.

Bref, si vous nourrissez un intérêt pour les batailles de l’ombre durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, il serait tristement regrettable que vous passiez à côté de ces excellentes pages. J’aurais pratiquement même envie de les qualifier de délicieuses, tellement je suis gourmand du genre.

Avec tout ce qu’elle comporte de barbarie, de souffrances et souvent de stupidité, la guerre est champ de l’activité humaine qui fait aussi souvent appel à ce que l’être humain a de plus précieux pour son avancement, son génie.

En trois mots, le dernier livre de Claude Quétel est un pur délice.


Claude Quétel, Les opérations les plus extraordinaires de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris, Perrin, 2019, 400 pages.

Je tiens à exprimer ma profonde reconnaissance envers Interforum Canada de m’avoir gracieusement offert un exemplaire du livre.

Moshe Dayan – the Israeli Iron Man

Moshe Dayan figurine by King & Country (IDF001) photographed on Professor Mark Raider’s article about the legendary Israeli warlord.

In May 2017, King & Country (the world’s most notorious toy soldier collectibles company) released a new series about the Six-Days War, featuring Moshe Dayan as its first figure (IDF001). From what I heard, this collection has met with lots of interest and success. And I will admit that I started collecting the IDF figurines and the legendary eye-patched General is my favorite, for the good reason that he never left me indifferent and I developed a profound admiration for him.

Back when I visited Israel in 2008, I purchased a poster of the famous picture of Uzi Narkis, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin entering Jerusalem in June 1967. And I hanged it proudly on the wall, in front of my bookshelves.

So what is it with a Canadian guy like me admiring this Israeli icon?

I have to admit that, since I’ve always been a staunch defender and supporter of Israel, I never really questioned myself about the phenomenon.

Up until I saw that Professor Mark A. Raider from the University of Cincinnati had written an article about it, pertinently titled “Moshe Dayan: “Israel’s No. 1 Hero” (in America)”.

And what a great treat it was. Trust me, I’ve read my faire share of boredom-summoning papers since my University days. But Mark Raider’s article is not among that lot.

In a nutshell, the author explains that the reason why Dayan became so popular in the United States is directly related to the fact that “he meshed seamlessly with the American faith in military heroes who became statesmen.” You can think of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Andrew Jackson or – one of my very favorites – Theodore Roosevelt here.

“In short, by the 1970s the cultural myth surrounding Dayan – cultivated by his promoters, embraced by his admirers, and encouraged by Dayan himself – not only conformed to the American hero pattern but became an indelible feature of American popular culture.”

So, that’s how and why Moshe Dayan became a heroic figure like Tony Stark or James Bond – “[…] safeguarding Western values and ideals […]” in my psyche.

I guess you can predict that, in such great company, Moshe Dayan’s fame and resonance as a member of the “[…] pantheon of the West’s outstanding war heroes […]” has a very bright future ahead.

And I truly hope that Professor Raider will decide to write a book on this fascinating subject. Under such an eloquent analytic pen, it would be a bestseller – no doubt about it.