“Putin’s war has forged Ukraine’s sense of nationhood on the battlefield”

Ukrainian soldiers (McGill University)

Two of the greatest pleasures I have as a blogger is reading the best books and being in touch with their authors. Few things make me happier than when they accept to answer a few questions for an interview.

I have always been a huge fan of Sir Rodric Braithwaite, and I was extremely happy to read and review his recent and captivating book about the history of Russia at a time when this country is at crossroads.

As a former British Ambassador to Moscow between 1988 and 1992 and a former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister John Major, he combines the experience of a man who was on the ground when the URSS was on the cusp of exploding and the talent of an inspired historian.

I, therefore, felt extremely privileged when Sir Rodric generously agreed to answer my questions. I trust you will find his answers of tremendous interest.

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Sir Rodric, I’m of the school according to which great leaders make history. In that regard, I would be curious to know which Tsar or leader impresses you the most in the history of Russia and why?

The question of whether history is made by great leaders or impersonal forces will never be settled. It is the intellectual underpinning for Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In my view, you need both. Even the greatest leader cannot buck reality: Bismarck is eloquent on that.

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Russian Game of Thrones

Back in March 2014, while I was sojourning in Moscow for the second time, I visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Borodino Battle Museum, and the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812. I also took the time to drive to Zhukovo to visit the Museum dedicated to the famous Marshal – Georgy Zhukov – who vanquished the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Any serious student of history couldn’t help but note how attached the Russians are to their military heritage. It was an amazing trip for a military enthusiast like me!

To a degree that might seem astonishing to a Western mind, war occupies a fundamental place in the history of Russia. And it is imperative to fully grasp that reality, if one wants to ascertain what has been happening since February 24 in Ukraine. In that perspective, I was extremely happy to dig into Russia: Myths and Realities (Pegasus Books) by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.

I could detail all the qualities and insights of this book, but its main merit is to brush the portrait of a nation and people forged in war. “More than a thousand years ago a people arose on the territory of today’s Russia whose origins are disputed”, writes the author. “But Kievan Rus was invaded and destroyed in the thirteenth century by the Mongols.” The tone was set and even after the “Mongol yoke” was removed from Russia’s neck, the pugilistic character was well ingrained into the nation’s DNA.

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How Putin Saved Zelensky

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.

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“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 Rogak, 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.

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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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