“Putin is clearly trying to ignite a larger conflict” – Martin Dugard

Author Martin Dugard (source: MartinDugard.com)

After the publication of my review of his excellent book Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights (Caliber), Martin Dugard kindly accepted to answer some questions for this blog. I feel privileged for the interview with an excellent and engaging author, who is also the coauthor of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Series.

Here is the content of our exchange.

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Mr. Dugard, where did the idea of writing Taking Paris originate from?

The book actually started as Taking Rome but as the research expanded it became obvious that the story of Rome worked more nicely as a small section in the larger context of the 1940 fall of Paris and 1944 liberation.

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Moscow has no discernible exit strategy in Ukraine

Professor Bettina Renz (source: YouTube)

In the aftermath of my review of her timely and absorbing book Russia’s Miltiary Revival (Polity), author and University of Nottingham Professor of International Security Bettina Renz granted me an interview. I am extremely grateful for her insights, one week from Victory Day parade in Moscow.

Below is the content of our exchange.

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The situation is now a war of attrition with no immediate end in sight.

Professor Renz, considering the last 9 weeks, what is your assessment of the performance of the Russian army in Ukraine? Are you surprised by the way the situation evolved?

Knowing what we know now, the poor performance of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine is no surprise. On the one hand, the Russian military is numerically and technologically superior to their Ukrainian counterpart. On the other hand, the history of warfare has demonstrated repeatedly that superiority in numbers and kit cannot make up for poor strategy.

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A striking parallel between Zelensky and de Gaulle

I initially wanted to review Taking Paris: The Epic Battle for the City of Lights by Martin Dugard last February, but then Vladimir Putin launched his troops against Ukraine and I had to shuffle my publications calendar. As you will see, there are fascinating parallels between the fate of France in World War II and the current situation in Ukraine, if only at the leadership level.

After the invasion of France by the Germans in May 1940, the country is in disarray and its statesmen have given up. In the ashes of defeat, a temporary brigadier general will rise to the occasion. Fleeing his homeland on board an airplane provided by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle left with a “[…] hastily packed suitcase contain[ing] four shirts, one pair of pants, and a single photograph of Yvonne and the children, whose current whereabouts he does not know.” I couldn’t help but think of the same predicament in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky found himself on February 24th. As did de Gaulle, he chose to fight, but from home.

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Drone Wars: The Poor Man’s Air Force

A few years ago, I was intrigued to read that President Barack Obama ordered 10 times more drone strikes than his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Since their appearance, drones have become omnipresent on the battlefield and not a week goes by without a news article about their feats.

Incidentally, drones have played a role in the war of aggression launched against Ukraine by Russia in the last few weeks. They are also used in several theaters around the world. In a nutshell, “the drones developed by Israel and then revolutionized by America have now proliferated everywhere”, writes Seth J. Frantzman in Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier Books).

The author writes that everyone wants drones, notably because they are cheaper than airplanes and reduce the potential for human casualties. They have become the “poor man’s air force”. Hence, their use by Houthi rebels in Yemen in the cross-fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia.About this conflict, the Jerusalem Post correspondent and analyst reminds us of a chilling episode when Houthi drones attacked an Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia – “some 1,000 kilometers from Houthi frontlines in Yemen” – in August 2019. The kingdom which ranked in 6th place in terms of military expenditures in the world in 2020 was defenseless in front of this incursion. A real military representation of the biblical tale of David versus Goliath and a manifestation that superpowers are not immune from an attack performed by a “poor man’s air force”.

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How Yeltsin Paved Putin’s Way

The Russian army and soldiers are all over the news since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. It is therefore crucial to understand the military machine that is supposed to serve Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. In her insightful book, Russia’s Military Revival (Polity), University of Nottingham Professor Bettina Renz quotes a fellow academic who observed that “by the end of the 1990s, Russia had largely been written off as a global military force as it was generally assumed that its armed forces stood ‘perilously close to ruin.’” While Putin’s 2008 modernization program proved instrumental in giving the Russian army its pride and means, the main argument of the author is that this development “did not occur in a vacuum.”

Since the reigns of the Tsars, “[…] having a strong military has always been important to Russia”, mainly to ensure régime stability, its presence in the world as a great power and the necessity – in the Kremlin’s perspective – of keeping a buffer zone against real or imagined potential invasion. Continuity is the main theme developed by Bettina Renz in her book.

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Turkish Drones Over Ukraine

Seth J. Frantzman (source ANF News)

Seth J. Frantzman is a senior correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post, one of the world’s leading newspapers. He’s also a defence expert on anything related to drones in warfare. He recently published an insightful book on the subject, Drones Wars. Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russians forces on 24 February, drones have played a role on the frontline as videos have circulated about their performance or the devastation and atrocities they permit to observe first-hand. Despite a grueling schedule, Mr. Frantzman, whose book I will review here soon, has kindly accepted to answer a few questions for me. I am sincerely grateful for that.

Here is the content of our exchange.

It does not seem the drones are playing a major role, but if they can show that Ukraine can still operate in their airspace, even when contested by Russian air defense and Russian warplanes, it will be an important accomplishment for armed drones.

Mr. Frantzman, I have watched with amazement the images of the Turkish-made drone attacking the Russian military in Ukraine. What place are the drones occupying in this conflict? 

There is a lot we don’t know about how Ukraine is using the Bayraktar drones it has acquired from Turkey. Basic information about how many are still flying and where they are operating appears to be lacking from most reports. Nevertheless, there have been several videos claiming to show the UAVs targeting the Russian military. It does not seem the drones are playing a major role, but if they can show that Ukraine can still operate in their airspace, even when contested by Russian air defense and Russian warplanes, it will be an important accomplishment for armed drones. 

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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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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 chance to put the terrorists in their holes”

“Interpreters are the forgotten heroes who played a significant role in the war against terrorism.” Reading these words in Special Forces Interpreter: An Afghan on Operations with the Coalition (Pen & Sword) by Eddie Idrees reminded me of the frustration I felt late last summer when I heard that those Afghans who sacrificed so much to help the coalition forces involved in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) during so many years were threatened by the withdrawal from Afghanistan decided by the Biden administration and followed by other countries like my own, Canada.

While I was keeping abreast of all developments happening in Kabul airport at the time, social media algorithms suggested I read a memoir from a courageous young man who took the fight to the enemy alongside American and British soldiers. In that moment, there was no doubt in my mind that I would review this book, if only to better understand the crucial role played by the interpreters in the “forever war”.

The author – who writes under a pseudonym for understandable reasons – summarizes that “it was the Afghan interpreters who provided information on cultural issues to avoid misunderstandings between the village, tribal leaders, Afghan forces and US forces. In this way they ultimately reduced casualties.”

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General Milley stood up to Trump

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley. (source Los Angeles Times)

Here are excerpts of Peril, the new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward and his colleague Robert Costa. I’m not yet done with reading it, but I can already observe that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, wasn’t afraid to stand up to President Donald Trump on several issues.

Reading this book is an excellent antidote to the perception that General Milley is a weak figure.

Two examples.

About Confederate flags:

Trump asked Milley, what do you think?

“I’ve already told you twice, Mr. President. Are you sure you want to hear it again?”

Yeah, go ahead, Trump said.

“Mr. President”, Milley said, “I think you should ban the flags, change the names of bases, and take down the statues.”

He continued, “I’m from Boston, these guys were traitors.”

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