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.

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Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, New York, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

The Resilience of the Red Army Soldier

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King & Country Red Army “Attack” set (RA073)

I’m always happy when The Journal of Slavic Military Studies releases a new issue. Since 80% of the Wehrmacht losses occurred on the Eastern Front, I’ve always thought it is primordial to be interested in that vital aspect of World War 2.

The current issue of the JSMS features a very interesting article by Valerii Nikolaevich Zamulin about the difficulties related to the supply services before the battle of Kursk.

Since the soldier of the Red Army was the one who carried the burden of fighting the Germans, it is astonishing to read about those: “[…] tens of thousands of men each day who were under the stress of moral danger were unable to receive the most basic needs – a clean uniform and a decent meal.”

We can also refer to those commanders who “[…] bullied and mistreated subordinates, who were daily shoveling dozens of cubic meters of earth, erecting defensive lines, while being half-starved, unwashed for several weeks, and drenched in sweat in winter tunics and trousers.”

Wasn’t it Napoleon who declared that: “An army marches on its stomach”? Under those circumstances, the soldiers of the Red Army had a tall order.

General Nikolai Vatutin – commander-in-chief of the Voronezh front – had to find a solution to this situation and to other challenges, like lack of transport and replacement issues, encountered by the Red Army in that sector before the battle.

Against all odds, Vatutin succeeded.

Along with his subordinates, “[…] they managed to organize the system of rear services on an acceptable level”, they “[…] expanded the infrastructure of the territory where the Voronezh Front’s armies deployed and practically from scratch managed to create a logistics system that supplied the troops with everything necessary” and they ensured that “[…] all of the rifle divisions and the artillery and tank unites were not simply replenished but essentially brought back to table strength […].”

Under heavy duress, the Red Army soldier was therefore given the tools to fight with gallantry against his enemies.

Zamulin’s article is truly fascinating and deserves to be read by any student of the Eastern Front and the Red Army.

 

 

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.

The best soldiers of the Red Army?

Permit me to come back on the subject of Victory Day celebrations and Russian (Soviet) veterans. I’m coming back on it because this is a neglected aspect of World War II history.

When I watched those Jewish-Israeli Soviet veterans marching in Israel last week-end, I started looking for some books or articles on this subject. After all, this blog is not called “Books and Bayonets” for nothing.

And I found an excellent article by historian Kiril Feferman about the “’The Jews’ War’: Attitudes of Soviet Jewish Soldiers and Officers Toward USSR in 1940-41” in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (vol.27, no 4, 2014), which is edited by none other than military historian David M. Glantz.

This article covers the attitudes and motivations of Jewish soldiers who fought under the hammer and the sickle banner during WW2. Before the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, “[…] a minority of the Jewish military men held indifferent or even hostile attitudes toward the Bolshevik regime.” But that was to change.

The German attack against the USSR “[…] promptly transformed all Jewish soldiers and officers into the staunchest anti-Nazi force and hence, probably one of the most reliable groups in the Red Army. This occurred even before the knowledge of the Holocaust became widespread.”

What motivated them to act in such a way? A combination of the desire to be fully recognized as citizens of the Soviet Union, of avenging the persecution of the Jewish people by Nazis or even the fact that they simply had no alternative because they knew what would happen if they fell into the hands of the Nazis.

All in all and based on the works of other academics, Feferman observes that “[…] the Jewish contribution to the Soviet victory over Germany was not lower but probably even exceeded in relative terms that of other Soviet peoples.”

It is unfortunate, in the context of the Western discourse, that the essential contribution of the Red Army to the victory of 1945 is overlooked or undermined. It is also a fact that the Jewish soldiers contribution on the battlefield is a neglected area of collective memory.

It would be an act of legitimate and deserved gratefulness not to restrict this remembrance to a couple of days in May or in the few pages of an excellent academic journal.

Victory Parade in Moscow

Today, I wish I was in Moscow, most probably on Tverskaya street, to watch the impressive parade that is now unfolding to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi hordes – a victory made possible by the huge sacrifices consented by the Soviet people and the Red Army.

But since I’m not there, I’m watching victory parades of the past. Understandably, I’m more interested in the one that was organized in 1945. So it’s a pleasure for me to share these images with you!

For those of you who might have a bit more time on a Saturday, the second video (below) is much longer but no less interesting. As for the first one, the most powerful moment comes at 10 minutes when the Nazi flags and banners are laid down on the ground. Nobody could have marched on that day anywhere in Europe, if millions of Soviet and Allied soldiers had not fallen or poured their hearts into battle.

Lest we forget!

“Most of the Holocaust survivors were saved by the Red Army”

The Soviet War Cemetery in Warsaw, May 2015.
The Soviet War Cemetery in Warsaw, May 2015.

There is a sad tendency, these days, to rewrite history for political purposes.

In a recent book, French historian Philippe Richardot writes in his introduction: “The deciding factor of World War II is what occurred on the Eastern front” (my translation). And there is ample academic evidence to support this statement.

Alas, because of the current geopolitical context, in which many world leaders are opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is hard for many to resist the temptation to equate this situation with the intention of rewriting history.

Fortunately, there are people who are holding these revisionists to account.

Take for example this Israeli man who was interviewed by the Russian radio.

Here are two revealing excerpts of his interview:

“Most of the Holocaust survivors were saved by the Red Army. And they are live witnesses up until now. So it never happened in Israel anything like in Europe, nothing undermining the Russian part in the Second World War.

[…]

There are 39 memorials commemorating those who were responsible for this great victory, 39 memorials for the soldiers of the Red Army primarily. You don’t have anything like this in any other parts of the world. So today together with the Holocaust there is a memory of the great victory in Israel combined together.”

Scoring easy political points on the back of a leader you dislike is one thing, distorting history and betraying the memory of those who fell to ensure victory of barbarism and Nazism is another one. And it is unacceptable.

The Red Army deserves credit for the 1945 victory and we should never shy away from being grateful.

The T-14 Armata tank and the military buildup of the Russian army

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The new Russian T-14 Armata tank. Source: http://bit.ly/1DS5YTD

Jane’s is a gem of a resource for anybody interested in military affairs and analysis.

This video shows that, with new acquisitions for its land forces, the Russian army will benefit from a big increase in capability.

Watching it reminded me of a very interesting and revealing quote in Mark Urban’s new (and honestly excellent and impossible to put down) book, The Edge:

“But even if his [President Putin’s] planned military buildup cannot now be funded, Russia has already taken its forces to the point where it is the global leader in several areas. Equally important, given the need of any aspiring military power to match capability with intent, the Kremlin has shown the willingness to use them.” (p. 89).

And this disposition will only benefit from economic recovery.

While the countries in the West continue to play cheap political games with cutbacks in military resources.