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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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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2034: The War With China?

I am not a person who enjoys novels. My youngest daughter was therefore astonished when she saw me reading 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. “Yes, but it’s about a potential war between the United States and China. Plus, it’s written by an author I really like and admire, Admiral Stavridis [and Elliot Ackerman]”, I said. I admit that this was an exceptional experience and not only because of the genre, but mainly because this is one of the most thoughtful books anyone interested in geopolitics and the fate of the world should read now.

2034. About 12 years from now. Might as well say tomorrow. Russian President Vladimir Putin still occupies the highest office in the Kremlin – a scenario that made me smile – and the Israelis have lost the Golan after a military confrontation with Syria – an outcome that makes me cringe, since I have seen with my own eyes how vital this territory is to Israel’s security. The Chinese are still vying for “[…] uncontested control of the South China Sea.” Equipped with superior cyber capabilities, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army neutralizes the weapons and communications system of a flotilla of three American warships. Only one of them will remain afloat at the end of the confrontation. A military operation that was supposed to serve as a message turned into a World War.

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When Khrushchev Helped JFK

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy (source: Foreign Policy)

I recently read and reviewed an excellent biography of former Soviet leader Leonid Brejnev by Andreï Kozovoï. Even if I found it to be tragic, I was fascinated to read about Brejnev’s role in the toppling of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, in October 1964. Khrushchev’s persona was light years away from the character portrayed in The Death of Stalin – it is a satire, after all – and his bombastic temper certainly played a role in his downfall.

Khrushchev always fascinated me, whether it is regarding his role during World War II, his succeeding Stalin in 1953 or his role with President John F. Kennedy (of whom we commemorate the assassination today) during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I recently came upon a very insightful article, “Nikita Khrushchev and the Compromise of Soviet Secret Intelligence Sources” in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence by David Easter. In his research, the academic exposes several instances where the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union might have compromised Moscow’s intelligence work and capabilities.

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“Good strategy might just be staying out of trouble” – Exclusive interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman

Sir Lawrence Freedman (credit: Boston Consulting Group)

Sir Lawrence Freedman is not only an internationally acclaimed author, but he is also the dean of British strategic studies and Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. I have a boundless admiration for this institution and I hope to enlist in the near future to the online Master’s Degree in War Studies it offers.

Sir Lawrence generously accepted to answer a few questions for this blog and I am extremely grateful for that. Here is the content of our exchange.

Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess.

My point was then that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaotic though it was, was unfortunately expected and the lesson (not to put substantial ground forces into a civil war) had been learned a decade earlier. Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess, especially as it plays a disruptive role in European affairs. It poses a challenge that is serious but should be manageable as its underlying position if weak. China has been getting stronger for the past three decades year on year, although that growth may be stuttering now. It has turned itself into a great power, militarily as well as economically, and under Xi has taken a much more assertive stance on a whole range of issues. I believe this stance will turn out to be counter-productive, but it creates a risky and dynamic situation which could spark a wider confrontation (see answer to next question).

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