After the publication of my review of his insightful biography of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, author and political analyst Serhii Rudenko generously accepted my invitation to respond to a few questions for this blog.
In the aftermath of the war launched by Vladimir Putin on February 24th, the offices of the television station where he worked became a bomb shelter. He has moved to another region, which suffered the recent Russian onslaught. The coming winter will undoubtedly be extremely difficult for Ukrainians, but Mr. Rudenko’s resilience and determination to pursue his work is immensely commendable.
I consider myself privileged to be in touch with him and to present you with the content of our discussion.
Mr. Rudenko, in your book, you depict an administration with a lack of political experience and a very high turnover level. Has the situation stabilized since the beginning of the war?
Yes, it has stabilized. In the conditions of war, Zelensky had to choose the most optimal and effective people. Now we see around the President of Ukraine a team that governs the state in the conditions of war. Hardly anyone in the world has such experience in governing the state. It is not easy.
The world “would hardly have heard about [Volodymyr] Zelensky if he had become an engineer, gone into the military, or became a doctor”, writes political commentator Serhii Rudenko in a recent biography of the Ukrainian President (Polity Books). Thanks to the political reality crafted by Servant of the People in which he played the role of a history teacher elected against the odds to lead the country, fiction turned into reality in 2019. And thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to start a war on Ukraine before sunrise on February 24th, the actor turned President has become an icon of resilience in defense of freedom and democracy.
Serhii Rudenko paints the portrait of a leader who was not on sure footing before the war intervened.
After his election, Zelensky broke his promise to distance himself from the nepotism espoused by his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. “[…] A year after his election, the Poroshenko family was replaced by the Zelensky family – or, more precisely, by the Kvartal 95 Studio.” In other words, those who accompanied him in his showbusiness career, including in his role as President Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko on television.
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.
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.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is embroiled in a “Partygate” which might provoke the end of his premiership. For all we know and depending on the circumstances and the conclusions of the Sue Gray report, he might be living his last days at 10 Downing Street. Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London is one of the best specialists on the Conservative Party. Despite a busy schedule, he kindly accepted to answer a few questions for this blog.
Professor Bale, considering Mr. Johnson’s persona and past, do you think the organization of parties at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the UK was in lockdown was predictable?
Johnson has never considered rules as something that should constrain him, so it’s all too easy to believe that those parties took place and that he didn’t care.
“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.
“Russia has no serious reason to fear the West », writes Dmitri Trenin – Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center – in his insightful book Should We Fear Russia? But President Vladimir Putin is not shy to “punch above his weight” and “always testing and pushing one’s boundaries” to ensure that Russia’s place at the table of great powers is respected.
Then, another quote from Dr. Trenin came to mind: “Forcing his way to the high table, and making others deal with him out of necessity if not of choice, has become Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic trademark in his relations with US leaders.”
There is always a murky zone around special ops and covert operations, which always offer “plausible deniability” for operations like what allegedly happened in Afghanistan. Conventional wisdom would suggest that targeting soldiers for assassination does not appear like a good way to make and keep friends. But Moscow might get away with murder, since “for all its military superiority that it has been using elsewhere quite liberally, the United States lacks serious military options vis-à-vis Russia.” In other words, Vladimir Putin can continue pushing his luck with impunity.
In just a couple hours, the heart of Russia will vibrate to the sound of patriotic military music. People will celebrate Victory Day and the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany – a feat that would have been impossible without Soviet contribution. President Vladimir Putin will be the host of the ceremony that will unfold in Moscow. Since he has been at the helm of Russia for 20 years and because it is realistic to think that he will carry on beyond the end of his current mandate in March 2024, I thought it might be interesting to conduct an interview about the President of the Federation with a leading expert of this country. Dr. Dmitri Trenin, author of many insightful books on the subject (I recently reviewed his captivating book about the history of Russia) and Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has generously accepted to answer my questions. Here is the content of our exchange.
Putin has broken the American monopoly in world affairs.
Entire forests have been used to print analysis and op-eds condemning President Putin and portraying him as a threat to the world’s stability. On the other side, your book about the history of Russia presents him as a leader who wants his country to be respected. What is his worldview and agenda?
What you say depends on where you sit. For those defending the current – post-Cold War – order of unprecedented dominance of the United States and the liberal and democratic norms that the U.S. has established – upholds and polices, Vladimir Putin is a dangerous disruptor. Since his Munich speech of 2007, he has been publicly challenging U.S. global hegemony and since 2008 (pushing back against Georgia’s attempt to recover breakaway South Ossetia) and 2014 (intervening in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine) has been pushing back against Western geopolitical expansion. Putin has broken U.S. de facto monopoly on intervening in the Middle East by sending forces into Syria in 2015. The following year, Russia interfered with its information resources in U.S. domestic politics which stunned many Americans who are not used to foreigners seeking to influence them. Russia has also strengthened partnership with China, America’s principal challenger of the day. Moscow has energy assets in Venezuela, whose leadership Washington seeks to topple; it has a relationship with Iran and contacts with North Korea, two minor enemies of the United States. Above all, however, Russia, under Putin, has veered off the West’s political orbit; returned to the global scene as a great power; and rebuilt its military might. Russia, which had been relegated to yesterday’s news, an international has-been, a regional power at best (Obama) and a filling station masquerading as a country (McCain), made a stunning comeback.
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.