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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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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President Bush gave Afghans a taste of freedom

After the publication of my review of his enthralling and inspiring book Special Forces Interpreter, I had the privilege of being in touch Eddie Idrees. He agreed to answer a few questions and I am extremely grateful and happy to publish the content of this exchange today, as we commemorate Remembrance Day. I am sure you will appreciate this content as much as I liked conducting the interview.

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a betrayal.

Mr. Idrees, how did you feel about the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan last summer?

In short, it was a betrayal. President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, was not only a betrayal to me and millions of other Afghans, but to the Americans, the families who lost loved ones, to the Canadians who lost their lives in Kandahar or the Brits in Helmand. It was a betrayal of the cause. I felt like Biden allowed a terrorist network to win and gave psychological victory to the rest of the terrorist networks in the West and the Middle East. I have so much to say, but this was a historic betrayal of American values.

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Pour Brejnev, « la meilleure façon de survivre [en politique, c’était] de s’entendre avec tout le monde »

Leonid Brejnev n’a jamais vraiment eu bonne presse dans l’opinion nord-américaine. C’est du moins l’impression que j’ai retiré des discussions que j’entendais dans ma tendre jeunesse. Lorsque les adultes commentaient l’actualité relativement à la Guerre froide, le numéro un soviétique faisait figure d’« imbécile en chef » pour reprendre la formule citée par Andreï Kozovoï dans la récente biographie qu’il consacre à Brejnev. Son successeur, Mikhaïl Gorbatchev, n’a pas beaucoup aidé en le diabolisant. Et comme le père de la Perestroïka était adulé en Occident, il n’y a qu’un pas à franchir pour comprendre que les chances de Brejnev d’être apprécié à sa juste valeur étaient bien minces.

Cela dit, Brejnev est un personnage fascinant à découvrir. Sous une plume agréable et accessible qui évite la confusion avec autant de noms qui peuvent être méconnus pour un.e néophyte, Andreï Kozovoi relate avec brio l’ascension au pouvoir d’un personnage trop facile à sous-estimer. Au fait, ça ne vous rappelle pas un autre opérateur docile qui s’est tranquillement placé dans les bonnes grâces de la famille Eltsine avant de déménager ses pénates au Kremlin le 31 décembre 1999? Mais je digresse…

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Countdown bin Laden

Twenty years ago this morning, our hearts crumbled simultaneously with New York’s Twin Towers. Osama bin Laden orchestrated an attack that would scar the face of the Earth and change history forever. After the heartless attacks that left 2977 people dead and countless families grieving, it was inevitable that the terrorist leader would be brought to face justice.

In his new book, Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace offers the gripping story of this historic manhunt and the commendable sacrifices made by those who planned and executed it over a period of 9 months.

In the same manner he wrote his authoritative Countdown 1945, the renowned journalist (with Mitch Weiss) details the nitty-gritty of what will certainly be remembered as one of the most famous and consequential special operation in the history of warfare in Countdown bin Laden: The Untold Story of the 247-Day Hunt to Bring the Mastermind of 9/11 to Justice. Tremendous sacrifices were consented by these intelligence officials who sacrificed their family lives. SEAL Team 6 operators faced their own mortality as they were ordered to descend in the Devil’s Den at the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden had taken refuge between 2005 and May 1st, 2011.

More than the military aspects of the mission to bring back OBL dead or alive, what impressed me most in this book was the decision-making process of the operation. It is easy to associate the warlord tag to President George W. Bush for his decision to launch a war against Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His successor, Barack Obama, appears as a more dovish character, at least in the public’s perception.

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The Peasant Emperor

A few years ago, media outlets reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping dined on steamed buns in a Beijing restaurant. Whether this venue was an orchestrated photo opportunity or the instantaneous desire of a world leader searching for a whiff of normalcy in the sometime claustrophobic alleys of power doesn’t really matter. Its true purpose was revelatory of who Xi is; a leader who is and wants to be close to the people.

I was reminded of that outing while reading Kerry Brown’s book The World According to Xi: Everything You Need to Know About the New China (I.B. Tauris), a pertinent and still timely book (2018) on the actual leader of the second most important economy on the planet.

“Of the recent leaders of China since Deng [Xiaoping], in many ways Xi is the one with the most authentic, best-known links to the countryside, and his use of this set of experiences aims to convey this.” Furthermore, and probably because he was a victim of the Cultural Revolution himself, Xi had to make no less than 10 attempts to become a member of the Party. In a nutshell, the General Secretary of the Party didn’t get an easy pass to power. And I’m certain this resonates with many ordinary people.

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Xi Jinping: micro-manager

Deng Xiaoping (left) and Xi Jinping (right). (sources: Wikipedia and CNN)

I have always been fascinated with anything related to Deng Xiaoping. It is thus not surprising that an article from the Journal of Contemporary China caught my attention a few days ago.

In the scope of a few pages, the late Ezra Vogel compares the stewardship of Deng to the one of the current leader of China, Xi Jinping. The Harvard University academic, who passed away a few days before last Christmas, was also the acclaimed biographer of Deng, who was at the helm of the People’s Republic of China between 1978 and 1989.

Xiaoping, in the author’s words, established “[…] the foundations for the most successful four decades in China’s history”. He rose to power at the age of 74, cumulating decades of experience, notably collaborating with Zhou Enlai and 13 years spent in the inner sanctum of power. This enviable track record prepared him well for supreme responsibility. Well versed in the discipline of power and most probably surrounded by people who were well acquainted with his methods and thinking, Deng could afford to be a macro-manager. To that end, the following anecdote told by Ezra Vogel is illuminating:

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“Write me a victory”

“Wellington cuts an unattractive personal figure”, writes G. E. Jaycock in his groundbreaking book Wellington’s Command: A Reappraisal of his Generalship in the Peninsula and at Waterloo (Pen & Sword). For the huge fan of the Iron Duke in me, such a conclusion came as a shocker. Full disclosure, this book challenged my conceptions of Wellington’s grandeur and I found myself labouring through it more than once. But I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me to nuance my understanding.

Mr. Jaycock, who completed a MA degree in history about the Duke of Wellington at Buckingham University, argues that “the existing historiography has largely downplayed or ignored” the fact that Wellington’s command was characterized by “poor inter-personal relationships within the army [which] undermined effectiveness.” And his demonstration doesn’t fail to disappoint.

In short, the idolized figure depicted between the covers is one of an autocratic and aristocratic micro-manager who was unable to accept any kind of blame or responsibility. There was also a vituperate – not to say frankly despicable – side to the British icon that could be resumed in the following anecdote brought forward by the author:

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How Deng Xiaoping shaped China

“Ideology doesn’t attract Chinese people – Marxism-Leninism barely registers with them”, writes Professor Kerry Brown in his succinct excellent new book whose title is soberly China (Polity Books). That notion comes as a surprise to anyone following international politics and assuming that communism is the glue of the régime. But the key to understand the rising superpower can rather be found in two other aspects. First, nationalism, which is frequently evoked between the covers.

And pragmatism. The author, who is also Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, credits Deng Xiaoping with ensuring the rise of his country on the world scene. “It was the less dramatic Deng who finally found a balance, trying to work with the world, gain from relations internationally, but always with an eye to China’s benefit.”

Those who assume that those who work at Zhongnanhai (the seat of Chinese power in the Forbidden City) are just a bunch of ideologues should think twice. Of course, the ruling party still advances under the red banner, but its strategists have a cunning vision of history. Hence, the shift from being simply concerned with influence on land to developing capacities to also emerge as a sea power.

While Mao Zedong is pictured as a vengeful and petty figure who encouraged open criticism to expose his enemies, Deng Xiaoping emerges as a more balanced personality and the real power broker behind the current positioning of China. The future leader of the country survived Maoist’s purges because of his “administrative abilities”. Along the way, he was also “[…] one of the many who had noticed that for all the rhetoric of Maoism, something was amiss.” His approach would not be about big speeches and slogans, but concrete actions.

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