Putin’s Russia: Napoleon syndrome

It is easy to be completely consumed by the drama of British politics and covid strategy right now. But big things are happening in the wider world, as the West retreats and other countries try to capitalise. I have seen some quite alarmist comment on China and Russia in particular. I will look at China another day – but this time was a cold, hard look at Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin.

I came to political consciousness in the 1970s Cold War. At first I was swept up by the anti-Soviet alarmism stoked up by conservative politicians and commentators. In due course I came to see through it: the threat was real but heavily exaggerated. Soviet strengths were talked up, and Western ones were discounted. I was left with the feeling that this stemmed in part from a secret admiration by the conservatives for the Soviet system, with its clear command and control, and its prioritisation of the military. I see this same pattern being repeated with respect to Russia now – as well as China.

No discussion of Russia can get very far without consideration of its undisputed leader of the last two decades: Mr Putin. The historical figure he most reminds me of is Napoleon. He sees other states either as adversaries or satellites. Of course he has to accept that some of the world’s powers, notably China, cannot be treated as either, but there is something very transactional about his relationships with these middle-ground states. One adversarial relationship predominates: with Mr Putin it is the United States, whereas with Napoleon it was Britain (or England as most people called the country then). A second resemblance with Napoleon is Mr Putin’s genius for searching out the weak spots of his adversaries and probing them hard. He repeatedly pulls off masterstrokes – such as his seizure of Crimea and intervention in Syria, which make Western leaders look leaden-footed. A third resemblance is that he clearly loves military power, and wants to find ways of using it to advance his prestige. And from what does he draw prestige? He clearly craves international recognition, including the expansion of Russian territory, and an increase in the number of satellites. There are echoes of Napoleon there. And Mr Putin is absolutely ruthless.

All of this means that Russia represents a huge threat, especially to the free countries of Europe. Mr Putin clearly wants Russia to take back its old frontiers in Europe, especially by retaking Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the Baltic states. He probably feels the same about the Caucasus and the ex-Soviet Asian republics, but that seems to be secondary in his defining conflict with the West. Mr Putin is clearly trying to think of ways that he can further these objectives, and he wants to use his growing military arsenal, including nuclear weapons, to achieve this – though in practice this is very hard to do. That adds up to a massive headache. The parallel with Napoleon does point to some important things about how this headache has to be managed.

The first is that there can be no lasting diplomatic accommodation with Mr Putin’s Russia. He has come to define himself on this adversarial relationship and he will never be satisfied. Britain and Russia found this with Napoleon – not even practical control of virtually all continental western and central Europe could satisfy him. He could never be trusted to keep to a bargain. The European powers came to see that Napoleon was the problem, and not France. Western leaders personalise the Russian problem on Mr Putin, and that is exactly the right approach to take. He is as close to evil as we can see in the current world, but the country he leads is a wonderful one, with which we should be having flourishing, peaceful relations based on mutual respect.

The second lesson from Napoleon is that you don’t beat him at his own game. The Russian Tsar Alexander tried to out-Napoleon Napoleon and the result was catastrophe at Austerlitz. In the end Napoleon was beaten by patient leaders, like the Russian general Kutusov and Austrian Schwarzenberg, whose military strategy might be described as anti-Napoleon. They, and the political leaders of Europe they served, caught Napoleon in a spider’s web from which he found it impossible to escape. In the process they built a European political system that lasted for a century. A system, in other words, that did not require charismatic leaders at its heart. The point is to beat the evil genius by using institutional methods that will last, and exploiting strengths in an asymmetric way.

Mr Putin is not Napoleon; Russia is not post-Revolutionary France. Mr Putin has lasted much longer but achieved nothing like the same pinnacle of prestige. Mr Putin has undoubted strengths, but major weaknesses too. His methods may work well for the efficiency of his intelligence and military services, but they are creating a country where nobody wants to live, compared to its European neighbours. The economy is held back by rampant corruption. Citizens may have access to the basics of modern civilised life (and much more so than in Soviet days), but as soon as they want to challenge corruption or injustice, they feel threatened and helpless. When Mr Putin initially took power, it was conceivable that most people in Belarus and Ukraine would have liked to join up with his country in a prosperous democracy, as these countries were in an even worse state. But Russia’s attack on the Donbas in 2014 (the seizure of Crimea is more ambiguous because the casualties were not heavy) has made up Ukrainian minds, even Russian-speakers who had been more sympathetic to Russia. The protests in Belarus over a rigged election show that winning hearts and minds there is going no better. In the Baltic states and Poland the choice between the West and Russia is also very clear. Other countries, like Hungary flirt with Russia, but only because they feel it is at a safe distance. It is this weakness that is the West’s main strength in dealing with Mr Putin. Time is not on his side; the more people know him, the less they like him.

So what to make of Mr Putin’s latest machinations? There is a build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border, and Russian leaders are making not so subtle threats about using them. They are making demands that might at first look to be just an acceptance of Russia’s status and power, but which Western leaders know full well to be a Napoleonic trap. Some demands look not so unreasonable – such as keeping Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO (NATO would be mad to invite in countries with frozen border disputes and run by corrupt elites), but others seem to be designed to be unacceptable (such as reducing defence commitments to Poland).

Does Mr Putin really mean to invade Ukraine if the West doesn’t cave in? He could be provoked into it, which is why the response needs to be quite circumspect. But it is hard to see what he would gain, beyond some shoot-term looting. Western military analysts seem to accept Russian boasts that their forces would achieve a quick victory, using their superior air power, amongst other assets. But it would not be a pushover. Ukraine is much readier than it was in 2014 and has strengthened its armed forces; it has its people behind it. Furthermore the Ukrainians have been talking to, and buying weapons from, Turkey, amongst other countries, which has developed technology which has seen a lot of success against Russian-backed forces in Syria, Azerbaijan and Libya. Heavy casualties in a war against fellow slavs simply because they enjoy a freer life (that is, are more Westernised) will not make Mr Putin more popular at home. And all he would achieve is the acquisition of a large territory of resentful people that will be very hard to control. His country does not have resources to lavish on the conquest to try and win round herts and minds. In his early years, Napoleon could tell people he conquered that he was bringing down oppressive aristocratic regimes – until constant conscription for his warmaking caused them to see through this; the Russians have no such narrative.

Cool heads need to prevail amongst Western leaders. Care needs to be taken not to provoke Mr Putin excessively, but his demands cannot be met. Economic and other sanctions will not be much of a deterrent – so I wouldn’t place much store on these, except for the subtext that the West’s response to an attack on Ukraine would not be military. The West also needs to make a show of improving the defences of NATO members bordering Russia, to demonstrate its own red lines.

One card that Mr Putin does hold is the dependence of much of Europe on Russian natural gas – especially acute in the winter. But the dependence is two-way. As Russia’s general economy is weak, it depends heavily on its gas exports for the foreign currency it needs. Again the answer is patience. Strategically dependence on this resource needs to be reduced – which of course fits with climate goals. In the meantime Russia commands little public sympathy in European democracies, and a degree of hardship will be accepted if Russia cuts off or limits supplies.

In the end Mr Putin’s regime will collapse in the same way that the Soviet one did, because it cannot deliver the sort of lifestyle that its people want. Its elites will become increasingly cynical and in the end even they will lose faith. In the West we simply need to show the Russian people that a better way of life is possible. And above all we must stick to our principles and behave by the book, according to the rules of international law. That is an integral part of our better way.

Paradoxically, Napoleon’s reputation was enhanced by his relatively early departure from power, and his period of exile when he focus on massaging history. France did not have to endure the long period of decline that inevitably follows from an autocrat holding power for too long, however able. Mr Putin’s achievements are meanwhile fading into distant past, and overshadowed by the failings of his regime. We will have to wait patiently while he slowly loses his grip. For Russia’s sake we must hope that the wait is not too long.

2 thoughts on “Putin’s Russia: Napoleon syndrome”

  1. Some serious geopolitics being played here. The United Kingdom is a key player in NATO and has the capability to project power into the contested region. Liberals, social democrats, pluralists and those who value free societies would see this Putin aggression for what it is: reckless, robust and rogue. Values matter.

    1. Geopolitics is a good word for Putin’s game. It was rampant in the Cold War too, though I now believe that most of the effort expended on “geopolitics” by both sides then was unimportant compared to the main game of ensuring that living standards in the west were much higher than in the east. Still rewarding Putin’s use of military muscle will only encourage others to do so. But what would really hurt Putin is if Ukraine could get a grip on corruption and advance its living standards beyond those in Russia. A long way to go on that, though.

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