I recently read and reviewed an excellent biography of former Soviet leader Leonid Brejnev by Andreï Kozovoï. Even if I found it to be tragic, I was fascinated to read about Brejnev’s role in the toppling of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, in October 1964. Khrushchev’s persona was light years away from the character portrayed in The Death of Stalin – it is a satire, after all – and his bombastic temper certainly played a role in his downfall.
Khrushchev always fascinated me, whether it is regarding his role during World War II, his succeeding Stalin in 1953 or his role with President John F. Kennedy (of whom we commemorate the assassination today) during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I recently came upon a very insightful article, “Nikita Khrushchev and the Compromise of Soviet Secret Intelligence Sources” in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence by David Easter. In his research, the academic exposes several instances where the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union might have compromised Moscow’s intelligence work and capabilities.
Sir Lawrence Freedman is not only an internationally acclaimed author, but he is also the dean of British strategic studies and Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. I have a boundless admiration for this institution and I hope to enlist in the near future to the online Master’s Degree in War Studies it offers.
Sir Lawrence generously accepted to answer a few questions for this blog and I am extremely grateful for that. Here is the content of our exchange.
Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess.
My point was then that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaotic though it was, was unfortunately expected and the lesson (not to put substantial ground forces into a civil war) had been learned a decade earlier. Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess, especially as it plays a disruptive role in European affairs. It poses a challenge that is serious but should be manageable as its underlying position if weak. China has been getting stronger for the past three decades year on year, although that growth may be stuttering now. It has turned itself into a great power, militarily as well as economically, and under Xi has taken a much more assertive stance on a whole range of issues. I believe this stance will turn out to be counter-productive, but it creates a risky and dynamic situation which could spark a wider confrontation (see answer to next question).
In light of the current crisis about Covid-19, Professor Kerry Brown, one of the world’s most renowned specialist on China who is also a biographer of Xi Jinping and who serves as Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London has accepted to respond to a few questions. Here is the content of this written interview.
Professor Brown: many sincere thanks for accepting to receive the following questions for my blog.
One thing we have learned in this current chaotic situation: we all have to become much more attuned and knowledgeable about each other before we end up simply shouting past each other and making things even worse.
In the article, you write that China’s image is damaged in the West. Just today (May 13th), a Canadian poll was released detailing that “More than four-in-five (85%) Canadians say the Chinese government has not been honest about what has happened in its own country.” Since China wants to be considered and respected as a world power, it cannot tolerate that its prestige be tarnished. What will Beijing do to correct that situation? Do you think they might try to mount a PR campaign or any sort of outreach operation to reverse that trend?
It was always going to be hard for a country with China’s political system, its cultural, social and historical differences with the outside world, and its quite specific world view informed by its own complex, often fragmented history to be able to speak easily to the world at a time when its economy is growing more and more important. COVID19 has just made this challenge even harder. It has deepened some of the issues that were already there, and showed that in the US, Canada, etc, a combination of unfamiliarity towards China along with the speed with which China has come to people’s attention has at the very least proved disorientating. This is exacerbated by the ways in which China itself undertakes messaging – something which is often heavy handed, and ill adapted to the sort of audiences in the West it is aimed at. Everyone has to have a rethink about where things are going. Beijing’s messaging needs to fundamentally change – probably the reason behind the government accepting an investigation at some point of the spread of the pandemic, and the stress at the late May National People’s Congress on the need for co-operation. But as the world moves into addressing the massive economic impact of the virus, rhetoric needs to move to actions, and to seeing what sort of collaboration and co-operation is going to be possible. One thing we have learned in this current chaotic situation: we all have to become much more attuned and knowledgeable about each other before we end up simply shouting past each other and making things even worse.