Should We Fear Russia?

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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

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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)

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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?

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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.

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The importance of “Soft Power”

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

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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.

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The reading habits of Vladimir Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (source: Alexei Druzhinin/ Pool Sputnik Kremlin/Associated Press)

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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.

What is or what are his favorite(s) books / biographies? Continue reading “The reading habits of Vladimir Putin”

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.