Should We Fear Russia?

USSoldiersAfghanistan_Newsweek
US soldiers in Afghanistan (Source: Newsweek)

“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.

ShouldWeFearRussiaAs I read these words, the New York Times revealed last Sunday that “United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

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.

Continue reading “Should We Fear Russia?”

Vladimir Putin, Defender of Russia’s Interests

VladimirPutin
President Vladimir Putin, participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, on June 22, 2020 (Source: Spokesman.com)

Cliquez ici pour la version française

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?

DmitriTrenin
Dr. Dmitri Trenin

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.

Continue reading “Vladimir Putin, Defender of Russia’s Interests”

The importance of “Soft Power”

GeorgeHWBush_ChinaFile
President George H. W. Bush on Tiananman Square in Beijing (China), February 25, 1989 (Source: ChinaFile)

Cliquez ici pour la version française

Few years ago, I was captivated by Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. I recently approached the former Dean of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Clinton administration official to submit him a few questions. He generously accepted to respond. Here is the content of our exchange.

You are the father of the term soft power. Just to make sure all my readers understand well, what would be the best short definition of this concept and why is it so important in international relations?

Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want and it is basic to international relations analysis.  You can affect others by coercion, payment, and attraction. Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment.

Continue reading “The importance of “Soft Power””

Sailing True North: A character-building guide in these troubled times

SailingTrueNorthSea Power has always fascinated me. I will forever cherish the memories of walking in the footsteps of Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor and Admiral Horatio Nelson at Gibraltar. Back in 2011, I spent a night on the Rock and had trouble sleeping. Heat certainly had something to do with it, but I was also pondering how the British legend spent his days here, defending the interests of King and Country at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. I like to think that I might have crossed his spirit while walking in the beautiful streets of this British Overseas Territory.

These men and women who ruled the waves were gifted with exceptional and inspirational values. And I’m very grateful to retired Admiral James Stavridis for writing Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, where he details how these larger than life figures not only mastered what are certainly some of the most demanding jobs in the world, but also their character in front of adversity, whether it is the threat of invasion, war, bureaucracy, sexism or racism just to quote these examples. The best lessons are seldom learnt in easy circumstances.

Naturally, I will not talk about each of the fascinating personas that are presented between the covers, but I will write a few words about my Top 3.

Continue reading “Sailing True North: A character-building guide in these troubled times”

Why Mattis didn’t survive in the Trump administration

HoldingTheLineReading memoirs of important players who worked during presidencies has always fascinated me. I notably cherish the moments spent reading Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s books during my University years. Classics in my humble opinion.

I was therefore thrilled to dive into Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass, former Chief Speechwriter and Communications Director for Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

What strikes me upon finishing this book is how difficult it must have been to work for and with the 45th President. Picture this. You’ve prepared a briefing for the leader of the free world and this man is only fixated on organizing a big military parade in Washington, D.C., because he was impressed with the 14th of July celebrations in Paris. You therefore realize that, next time around, you will “[…] only use slides with pictures… no words.” You’re talking here about the individual who makes life-and-death decisions for 1.3 million members of the Armed Forces and can decide to start a war.

I could also mention the particular episode when Lockheed Martin’s executives decided to flatter Trump’s ego by pretending his involvement in the F-35 contributed to lower the cost. “The only problem? Those savings had been already planned for years in advance […].” That’s how insecure and immature the current resident of the White House is.

And then there’s the moment when people at the Pentagon – the Secretary of Defense at the top of the list – learnt, probably live on TV or over the Internet, during a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un that “war games” historically planned and organized between the US and South Korean armies would be suspended. Talk about respecting your allies. Much the same happened with the creation of the Space Force. Not to mention the NATO summit when POTUS went off message. In brief, “the administration wasn’t operating strategically, but rather looking for issues to provide immediate satisfaction.” The type of instant gratification you can expect from children.

To a certain extent, this portrait of the man was to be expected. Donald Trump has never been renowned for being a serious person, an avid reader or an intellectually curious politician. Chances are slim he will fall in love with a tome about General George Marshall or the minutiae of military affairs. I doubt we will see a pile of books set aside for him at the Barnes & Noble downtown D.C. (I once saw such a pile set aside for President George W. Bush during one of my visits in the US Capital).

I don’t know why, but what flabbergasted me the most was to read how Mattis reacted to Trump and the way he accepted to be treated. On one hand, he could have a phone conversation with the President, using a very ingratiating tone of voice and, on the other, he would lose control of a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and State Secretary Mike Pompeo, allowing them to interrupt him with impunity. Not the type of behavior you expect from a man who is compared to General George Patton and whose nickname is “Mad Dog”.

According to the author, James Mattis “[…] is actually conflict-adverse in dealing with people he sees on a regular basis.” Which could explain how a retired US Marines Corps General got trampled over by a real estate mogul and his minions. In other words, Mattis became a legend with men who served under him, but he was not necessarily cut to serve alongside a president who doesn’t believe in the tenets of diplomacy which are so important to Mattis and to Rex Tillerson who served as Secretary of State at the beginning of the current administration and was also fired by the Tweeter-in-Chief.

It goes without saying that Donald Trump could have benefited so much more from the talent, expertise and knowledge of a bookish military figure “[…] who at one point owned more than seven thousand books in his library […]” and who takes inspiration from the legendary Henry Kissinger, but these type of men need more than 180 characters to reflect and take action. In a sense, one wonders how is it that such a great man could stick around so long in an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of grace, diplomacy and vision.

Many books will be published in the future about the inside story of the Trump administration. But I’m certain Guy Snodgrass will be among the most interesting, because of his inspired style, but also his profound decency (between the lines, you can understand that this guy was way too kind for the treacherous world of politics). Like his former boss, he’s a warrior-scholar. And Lord knows we need such men more than trigger-happy provocateurs.

All roads lead to Beijing

9780525656401According to some news reports, Turkey seems inclined to go beyond the threats of potential American sanctions, choosing to equip itself with a Russian air-defense system over the US Patriot air-defense system. As mentioned by one source: “One can’t fall out with Putin but can fall out with Trump.”

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.

topThe 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.

Why Vladimir Putin came to occupy the driver’s seat

TheEdge2It 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.

Churchill and Gorbachev

Churchill_Gorbatchev
Photo credit: NBC News and Wikimedia. Montage: Pinso.

Coming from the man who made sure that Soviet soldiers fired no bullets when the Iron Curtain came down, it is worth heeding the lessons given by Mikhail Gorbachev about the current situation. Without this man and his interlocutor, US President Ronald Reagan, the world might be a much worse place today.

Gorbachev’s advice reminds me of what Winston Churchill said in the British House of Commons on May 2nd, 1935:

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

We might not agree with everything the former Soviet leader says. And I certainly don’t. But the more time we will spend listening to people like Gorbachev who were on the brink and who made sure we would not fall into the abyss, the less we will regret we did not.