“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.
The blogosphere is a jungle in which the blogger has to make his or her way. We depend on the interest we generate, beneficiaries of our readership.
For my part, I am constantly looking for subjects to discuss, books to devour and review and authors or historical figures to interview.
Upon closer examination of this blog, you will notice I am very interested in Russia, its history and its political life, especially its president.
A few weeks ago, I made a crazy bet, arousing the doubtful gaze of my loved ones. I got in touch with the Kremlin Press Office, asking if they would be willing to answer a few questions for this blog. To my surprise and delight, this request was met favourably, a privilege bestowed on few people I am sure.
The importance of this interview is not so much based on its content – one would have to be disconnected from reality to think that the assistants of the Russian President who work behind the mythical walls of the Kremlin will entrust secrets to a modest blogger – but rather on the fact that I got a response.
I am therefor very grateful toward the Press and Information Office of the President of the Russian Federation. Here is the Q&A about President Putin, followed by the French version of this exchange.
Who are President Putin’s favorite historical figures and why?
Generally the President is seriously interested in Russian history, although he has deep knowledge in world history, especially the history of the European continent. Vladimir Putin has sympathy for many statesmen in the history of our country, but perhaps most often in this regard he mentions Peter I. The role of Peter the Great can hardly be overestimated, it was him who laid the foundation of Russian Eurasianism [Editor’s note: a political ideology positioning Russia’s re-emergence as a conservative world power in opposition to the hegemony of the west and its values], which became the forerunner of the modern Russian state.
After reading his insightful, well-written and gripping book about President Vladimir Putin, I asked Professor Mark Galeotti if he would accept to answer a few questions for this blog. He swiftly agreed and I’m very grateful for the generosity of his time. Here is the content of our exchange.
Many sincere thanks Pr. Galeotti for accepting to respond to a few questions for my blog.
His very privacy means we all get to imagine our own personal Putin…
On page 22 of your excellent book about President Putin, you write “If people think you are powerful, you are powerful.” On page 53, you refer to “purposeful theatricality”. In your book, Putin doesn’t come across as a bad person. Is there an important difference between the public and private persona of the Russian President? How is Mr. Putin different in private than what he shows in public?
The thing is that we really have very little sense of the true private self of Vladimir Putin: he absolutely protects that side of his life, and instead what we see is a guarded and carefully managed public persona. I think that for all the opulence of his lifestyle – the palaces, the personal staff, the thousand-dollar tracksuits – he is actually something of a lonely and distant figure, now almost trapped within the public persona, but this is very much my own imagining. In a way, that’s the point: his very privacy means we all get to imagine our own personal Putin…
On page 75, you debunk the notion that Vladimir Putin is some kind of social conservative (he notably upholds abortion rights), arguing that he is a pragmatist first. This notion is unfortunately not widely known in the West. Why do you think observers and commentators still hold to the notion that he is some kind of conservative ideologue?
In the process of writing my review of his excellent book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, I got in touch with Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), asking if he would agree to respond to a few questions for my readers. Despite a busy schedule and numerous media requests in relation with his book, he kindly accepted. I’m both grateful and impatient to put my hands on his upcoming book.
Commander Snodgrass, what’s your favorite political memoir, apart from Peggy Noonan’s (I assume it’s on the top of your list)?
All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos.
His favorite bios are the ones written about Henry Kissinger and George H. W. Bush
What’s your favorite biography? (My little finger tells me it might be “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson).
Either Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (for it’s no-holds portrayal of Kissinger) or Power and Destiny by Jon Meacham (the biography of former President George H. W. Bush).
Given your past career, you certainly nourish an interest in military history? What’s your favorite book in that category?
I’ll give you the standard TOPGUN answer to your question: it depends. I have a lot of ‘favorites’ depending on the application or topic at hand. Top three are: Eisenhower At War by David Eisenhower, The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, and The Encyclopedia of Military History by Ernest and Trevor Dupuy. For fun I’ll throw in Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot.
NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.
During your tenure with Secretary Mattis, which international personality (military or political) left the best impression on you and why?
Jen Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. He is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.
The U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations (Russia and China) on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.
I’d be very curious to know if you share Henry Kissinger’s vision about Russia and China? (I would have loved to read more about it in your book, but I understand it was not its scope)
No, at least not the way Kissinger views them now. Russia and China actively work to subvert U.S. influence around the world. Kissinger is far too eager to rush into their arms from what I’ve seen from him in recent years. Regardless, the U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.
Are you working on another book or is it something you are planning?
I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service.
Would you consider a run for political office in the future?
Would I? Possibly. Both U.S. political parties are incredibly unsettled at the moment, so I have a hard time determining if recent shifts in platforms are permanent or merely a reaction to President Trump. I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be able to publish and make a positive impact in the lives of others.
America’s current foreign policy, “We’re America, bitch”, undoubtedly has something to do with it.
In his fascinating new book, The New Silk Roads, bestselling Oxford historian Peter Frankopan explores and details how China is taking advantage of the fact that the United States have become a vector of permanent destabilization – notably under the leadership of a president who has no qualms to toss away old friends – in order to make “friends in strategically important locations”, in the context of a very well-articulated good neighbor policy.
The new Silk Roads along which Beijing seeks to play an always greater role not only spans a determinant geographical area between China and the Eastern Mediterranean, but also encompasses 63% of the world’s population. Peter Frankopan nevertheless goes on to observe that “[…] it is striking then to see how few friends the US and the West have along the Silk Roads.”
Of course, one should not be naïve to the point of thinking that the descendants of the Middle Kingdom have no interest in articulating their friendly and constructive geopolitical posture. Domestic, economic and security needs are at the core of the rising power’s motivations.But that’s to be expected, for international relations are mainly about interests, not idealism. One cannot expect Xi Jinping to throw billions in Djibouti or Sri Lanka without expecting something in return.
The author opines that “All roads used to lead to Rome. Today, they lead to Beijing”. We should therefore be prepared or, at least, prepare ourselves to deal with the power shift that is slowly but surely developing under our eyes. Alas, in the words of Henry Kissinger, “[…] we don’t understand their history and culture.” I have said it often and I will keep on repeating it, more interest, much more interest, should be devoted to understanding what comes out the halls of power in Beijing and to those who are making the decisions.
Xi Jinping might not be a frequent user of Twitter or a master of the vitriolic formula, but he’s becoming a master at winning the hearts and mind of those he wants to be his allies. In that regard and since he’s at the helm of the decisions perpetrating the shift of gravity from the West to the East, he might be the most consequential current world leader.
Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, New York, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.
I’m always happy when The Journal of Slavic Military Studies releases a new issue. Since 80% of the Wehrmacht losses occurred on the Eastern Front, I’ve always thought it is primordial to be interested in that vital aspect of World War 2.
The current issue of the JSMS features a very interesting article by Valerii Nikolaevich Zamulin about the difficulties related to the supply services before the battle of Kursk.
Since the soldier of the Red Army was the one who carried the burden of fighting the Germans, it is astonishing to read about those: “[…] tens of thousands of men each day who were under the stress of moral danger were unable to receive the most basic needs – a clean uniform and a decent meal.”
We can also refer to those commanders who “[…] bullied and mistreated subordinates, who were daily shoveling dozens of cubic meters of earth, erecting defensive lines, while being half-starved, unwashed for several weeks, and drenched in sweat in winter tunics and trousers.”
Wasn’t it Napoleon who declared that: “An army marches on its stomach”? Under those circumstances, the soldiers of the Red Army had a tall order.
General Nikolai Vatutin – commander-in-chief of the Voronezh front – had to find a solution to this situation and to other challenges, like lack of transport and replacement issues, encountered by the Red Army in that sector before the battle.
Against all odds, Vatutin succeeded.
Along with his subordinates, “[…] they managed to organize the system of rear services on an acceptable level”, they “[…] expanded the infrastructure of the territory where the Voronezh Front’s armies deployed and practically from scratch managed to create a logistics system that supplied the troops with everything necessary” and they ensured that “[…] all of the rifle divisions and the artillery and tank unites were not simply replenished but essentially brought back to table strength […].”
Under heavy duress, the Red Army soldier was therefore given the tools to fight with gallantry against his enemies.
Zamulin’s article is truly fascinating and deserves to be read by any student of the Eastern Front and the Red Army.
It is too easy, in the Western context, to perceive the armed forces as a ceremonial tool used during commemorations and the military sector as a greedy budgetary expenditure for governments. As Mark Urban writes in his recent and sublime book, The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End?, “[…] most of the European public has been conditioned by education and popular culture to be repulsed by war, yet has little experience of it.” (p. 49).
Alas, this far too common perception and phenomenon associated with blind pacifism ignores the deep currents of history. Since time immemorial, armies have been used to conquer, defend, impress or intimidate. I know he’s been quoted already too many times for any reference to him to be original, but Clausewitz said it best when he said that: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.
Failure to take these factors into consideration will come to a price to those who are guilty of ignorance. The future of the world will not solely be influenced by the tectonic plates of the economy, but also by the capacity of the emerging power to promote and defend it with the bayonet and the fighter jet. China, for instance, has understood that lesson very well.
We can’t say the same about Western countries, the United States chief among them. Outside the high-flown discourse they articulate and promote, Washington’s capacities to implement it in a concrete military way are decreasing. “What seems clearer is that many in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have not yet registered how old much of the United States military equipment has become, how far its numbers have already fallen, and how projected cuts will make it impossible for America to have the kind of military reach it used to.” (p. 79-80). In other words, the Emperor is loosing his clothes.
Enter Russia. One of the main gaps in how the West perceives Vladimir Putin is the fact that the Russian president is a keen student of history. Incidentally, one of the only observers not to fall in the trap of assuming that Putin is a shallow brain is journalist Ben Judah – but that’s another story.
Mark Urban notes that Russia has “[…] the will to use its armed forces to re-draw the map and [is] also reaping the dividends of a long reinvestment in these capabilities.” (p. 86) Vladimir Putin knows that, on the ground, good and modern tanks are better than eloquent United Nations resolutions or huge vocal protests without consequences. As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel reportedly once said: “in a man-to-man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine.”
For Vladimir Putin, military power is not just a beautiful toy to be displayed on the parade square or during commemorations, but a powerful and meaningful political tool. They’ve been an essential part of history making for ages and the Russian president knows that more than many other statesmen. That’s why he will, most probably, remain in the driver’s seat for many years to come.
All in all, Mark Urban’s book is one of the very best I have had the pleasure of reading since a long time. To be honest, I was sad to finish it. Short, very well researched and thought provoking, it should have a place on the bookshelves of any policymaker or serious student of history.
Permit me to come back on the subject of Victory Day celebrations and Russian (Soviet) veterans. I’m coming back on it because this is a neglected aspect of World War II history.
When I watched those Jewish-Israeli Soviet veterans marching in Israel last week-end, I started looking for some books or articles on this subject. After all, this blog is not called “Books and Bayonets” for nothing.
And I found an excellent article by historian Kiril Feferman about the “’The Jews’ War’: Attitudes of Soviet Jewish Soldiers and Officers Toward USSR in 1940-41” in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies(vol.27, no 4, 2014), which is edited by none other than military historian David M. Glantz.
This article covers the attitudes and motivations of Jewish soldiers who fought under the hammer and the sickle banner during WW2. Before the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, “[…] a minority of the Jewish military men held indifferent or even hostile attitudes toward the Bolshevik regime.” But that was to change.
The German attack against the USSR “[…] promptly transformed all Jewish soldiers and officers into the staunchest anti-Nazi force and hence, probably one of the most reliable groups in the Red Army. This occurred even before the knowledge of the Holocaust became widespread.”
What motivated them to act in such a way? A combination of the desire to be fully recognized as citizens of the Soviet Union, of avenging the persecution of the Jewish people by Nazis or even the fact that they simply had no alternative because they knew what would happen if they fell into the hands of the Nazis.
All in all and based on the works of other academics, Feferman observes that “[…] the Jewish contribution to the Soviet victory over Germany was not lower but probably even exceeded in relative terms that of other Soviet peoples.”
It is unfortunate, in the context of the Western discourse, that the essential contribution of the Red Army to the victory of 1945 is overlooked or undermined. It is also a fact that the Jewish soldiers contribution on the battlefield is a neglected area of collective memory.
It would be an act of legitimate and deserved gratefulness not to restrict this remembrance to a couple of days in May or in the few pages of an excellent academic journal.
Today, I wish I was in Moscow, most probably on Tverskaya street, to watch the impressive parade that is now unfolding to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi hordes – a victory made possible by the huge sacrifices consented by the Soviet people and the Red Army.
But since I’m not there, I’m watching victory parades of the past. Understandably, I’m more interested in the one that was organized in 1945. So it’s a pleasure for me to share these images with you!
For those of you who might have a bit more time on a Saturday, the second video (below) is much longer but no less interesting. As for the first one, the most powerful moment comes at 10 minutes when the Nazi flags and banners are laid down on the ground. Nobody could have marched on that day anywhere in Europe, if millions of Soviet and Allied soldiers had not fallen or poured their hearts into battle.