“Justin Trudeau inspired me to enter politics” – Volodymyr Zelensky

I’m not the type who runs after books of quotations in bookstores. But I have two exceptions to that rule: Winston Churchill and Volodymyr Zelensky. Because both men decided to face the adverse winds of history at a most crucial time.

Bestselling author Liza Rodak, assisted by translator Daisy Gibbons, opens a window into the Ukrainian President’s worldview in a new book Volodymyr Zelensky in His Own Words (Pegasus Books). “You’ve never seen someone like me”, declared the statesman in April 2019. Coupled with his staunch determination to hold his ground in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, this might be one of the reasons why he is so popular. “I don’t trust anyone at all” he said a few months later. Who could blame him, when you imagine allies hedging their bets at the beginning of the war to see if he stood a chance or not.

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Planet Strongman

In his 2020 bestseller Rage, Washington legendary journalist and author Bob Woodward recalls discussing the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy with the President. Mentioning his dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding the war in Syria, the commander-in-chief said: “I get along very well with Erdogan, even though you’re not supposed to because everyone says ‘What a horrible guy’. But for me it works out good. It’s funny the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know?”

In his captivating recent book The Age of the Strongman (Other Press), Financial Times foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman quotes former National Security Affairs specialist Fiona Hill when she declared that her former boss was seduced by “autocrat envy”. From Jair Bolsonaro (in Brazil) to Vladimir Putin, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 45th President got along quite well with those whom he perceived as being strong, an expression easily interchangeable with being autocratic. This trend was confirmed early last month when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) gathering in Dallas, Texas.

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The financier who exposed Vladimir Putin

Six years ago this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived a coup launched by a faction of the Armed Forces. The statesman mobilized his supporters, enjoining them to resist the coup, by using the FaceTime app on his iPhone. At the time, I was impressed by the powerful impact of such a small tool in creating such a momentous outcome.

I was reminded of that story while reading Bill Browder’s book Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath (Simon & Schuster), not only because of the cruciality of knowing how to use the modern tools of communications, but also because there is a huge price to pay when you confront an autocrat.

Bill Browder can attest to that.

The author of Freezing Order is an American-born financier (now living in the UK) and founder of Hermitage Capital Management who has been active in Russia between 1996 and 2008. In June 2008, one of his lawyers, “[…] Sergei Magnitsky, discovered that […] criminals had used our stolen companies and their fake claims to apply for a fraudulent $230 million tax refund.” That’s where the roller coaster ride that is this book begins.

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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.

_________

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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Putin thought he could get away with the invasion of Ukraine

Giles Milton (source: Macmillan)

Giles Milton is one of my favorite authors. And it’s always a real pleasure to be in touch with him. Even before I wrote my review of his last book, he agreed to answer some questions for this blog. If you haven’t read his book yet, run to the bookstore or get it online. This is a must, in the context of the aggression war conducted against Ukraine. For the time being, I trust you will enjoy this interview.

Mr. Milton, Checkmate in Berlin is a brilliant lecture about American and British innovation in adversity, mainly in organizing the Berlin airlift. Do you see the same attitude these days towards Ukraine?

Nothing on the scale of the Berlin Airlift had ever been attempted before. True, the Americans had airlifted vast quantities of weapons to the Chinese during the Second World War, but the Berlin Airlift was supporting (and keeping alive) several million Berliners.

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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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Putin is following Hitler’s blueprint

I started reading Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by historian Roger Moorhouse last summer, with the intention of reviewing it on the 82nd anniversary of the tragic events that unfolded in September of that fateful year. But life caught up with me and the book remained unfinished on my desk for several months. That was until Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine.

Let me start with an observation. Not much – not enough I should say – is written in English about Polish military history. I remember reading Adam Zamoyski’s Warsaw 1920 in 2012, when I first visited Poland. During that trip, I also visited the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army and the Warsaw Uprising Museum, both located in the capital city. Notwithstanding these contacts with Polish military history, I always have the image of Polish lancers attacking the mighty Wehrmacht in a useless charge.

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Will Kyiv be another Stalingrad?

Adam Zamoyski (source: History Extra)

Few years ago, around the time I visited Poland for the first time, I devoured the insightful book Warsaw 1920 by acclaimed biographer and historian Adam Zamoyski. He is also the author of a masterful book about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. I therefore reached out to him, asking if he saw any parallel between history and the current invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. He generously accepted to share some thoughts with me and I’m extremely grateful for that.

Here is what the acclaimed biographer of Napoleon generously shared with me:  

The parallel that struck me, weeks ago, is that with 1811-1812, when Tsar Alexander I set as his condition for maintaining his alliance with Napoleon that the French Emperor issue a formal public declaration that he would never allow the re-creation of a Polish state. This was something that Napoleon would and could not do (any more than NATO could bind itself to refusing Ukraine membership if that country wished to join).

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“Overall, 2021 has been a difficult year for the Biden team” – Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.) (source: US Naval Institute)

Before the Holidays, Admiral James Stavridis USN (Ret.), one of my favorite authors, granted me an end of year interview about issues related to his amazing novel 2034 about a war between China and the United States. These geopolitical issues are unlikely to disappear from the radar in the coming months and years. The Admiral’s insights are therefore not only very informative, but also crucial to grasp the state of the world.

Admiral Stavridis, I’ve read and reviewed 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (Penguin Random House) with tremendous interest. Before we head into more serious stuff, a question burns my tongue. Since there are lots of mention of the delicious M&Ms throughout the novel, I was wondering if you are a fan of that candy yourself and if that’s the reason why it is mentioned in the book?

While I am not personally a fan of M&M candies, I have known many sea-going naval officers who are. I liked the idea of Lin Bao [one of the main characters of 2034] enjoying an American candy, essentially a nod to the duality of his upbringing.

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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.

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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