Posts Tagged ‘Putin’

Once Again History Rhymes

Tuesday, September 6th, 2022

“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” – Mark Twain

In 1870, Germany ended the Franco-Prussian War by decisively defeating the French army in a Battle of Annihilation at Sedan. Germany’s overly greedy and needlessly cruel terms of surrender were excruciating for France and included the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, a move against which the prescient Bismarck had advised. It became a constant, festering wound in the heart of every French man and woman. From that point on both countries, each of whom knew they would meet again on the battlefield, prepared for the rematch that would become World War I.

Looking at the behavior of one of the two belligerents, Germany, over the next 45 years illuminates and instructs what is happening now more than a century later, as Vladimir Putin, who has been planning the conquest of Ukraine for nearly 20 years, is following the same unsuccessful, potholed road. We can learn a lot from the mistakes of the past. We can, but we don’t.

In the interval between Sedan and 1914, Germany’s Chief of the General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, devoted his entire tenure (1891 to 1906) to creating what would become the German Plan of Attack. The plan called for a huge, lightning-like strike through Belgium, which would result in the capture of Paris in nearly six weeks, 40 days. But there was a problem: Belgium neutrality, which had been created in 1831 at an international conference in London that recognized Belgium as an independent, neutral state, its neutrality to be guaranteed by the European powers. Forty years later, shortly after the Franco-Prussian War, British Prime Minister Gladstone secured a treaty from France and Germany that if either violated Belgium neutrality England would work with the other defending Belgium, although without engaging in “the general operations of the war.”

Regardless of Belgian neutrality, Schlieffen’s plan devotedly followed the bible of Germany’s war oracle Baron Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote in the time of Waterloo. Clausewitz had ordained a quick victory by “decisive battle” as the primary object of an offensive war, the only kind Germany understood. He advocated the fast capture of the opponent’s capital above all else. Consequently, to conquer France quickly by taking Paris required ignoring Belgium neutrality.

Schlieffen edited and re-edited his plan over the course of his term, and in 1906, when he retired, the plan was complete.  It was exact in every detail, a model of precision, and it factored in every possible contingency.

The only thing it lacked was flexibility. That is, what to do if something went wrong. And many things did. As that great American philosopher Mike Tyson put it, “All your plans go out the window the first time someone punches you in the mouth.”

The Germans invaded Belgium on their way to Paris on 4 August 1914. In addition to misjudging the determination of the French to defend themselves and believing Britain would either stay out completely or join the battle late, Kaiser Wilhelm was certain the puny Belgians would simply roll over and play dead. However, Belgium’s King Albert, the Kaiser’s cousin, had other ideas and refused to follow the plan. In an act of heroic patriotism, he mobilized the Belgium army, primitive though it was, and fought. Belgium resistance disrupted Schlieffen’s precise timetable, and the Germans never did get to Paris. Instead, Germany was forced to settle for four years of trench warfare, attrition and ultimate surrender in November 1918. The terms of surrender forced on Germany were as bad as it had forced on France after Sedan and led to Hitler’s rise and World War II. We never learn.

The German defeat in the first World War can be directly linked to the arrogance and hubris of its leaders in their certainty that King Albert would not object to the invasion of his country by an army an order of magnitude larger and more accomplished than his own. They did not take into consideration the hatred taking Alsace-Lorraine had spawned in the French, or that the British would do the honorable thing and come in on the side of France following the violation of Belgian neutrality. Neither did they appreciate that Russia, a signatory to the treaty for defending Belgium, would mobilize, join the war, and engage the German army weeks before Schlieffen’s plan anticipated.  Schlieffen and the Kaiser, with their myopic tunnel vision, had never believed any of this would happen. They had refused to even contemplate that their perfect plan could be inadequate in any way.

Schlieffen died in January, 1913, and never saw any of the debacle that was to follow. On 9 November 1918, the German high command, two days before the country’s surrender, forced Kaiser Wilhelm to abdicate. He retired to  neutral Netherlands where he lived in isolation for the rest of his life.

In yet another example of history rhyming, even repeating, we are now witnessing a new instance of military and dictatorial myopia. This time in Ukraine where Vladimir Putin, who seems to fancy himself the second coming of Peter the Great, has wildly miscalculated both the tenacity and determination of Ukrainian patriotism and the commitment and unity of NATO members who, like Gladstone’s Britain, are committed to defending Ukraine, although without engaging in “the general operations of the war.”

Here in 2022, we watch King Albert come to life in the actions of President Zelenskyy.

As what happened to Schlieffen’s perfect plan, Putin’s hubris-driven quick victory was not to be. Like the Germans of August 1914, he failed to capture the Ukrainian capital in the early days of the war. Now, he is now facing a long, slow slog as victory ineluctably slips farther away. The recent Ukrainian counterattacks in the South and East are living proof of this.

Thinking about all this stupidity, I can only conclude that Schlieffen, the Kaiser, Putin and others who yearn for conquest always fail to appreciate, and seriously undervalue, the love of homeland coursing through the veins of all of us. History is full of examples that continue to be ignored. America, itself, has fallen victim to this many times, most recently in Afghanistan.

It would be less than fitting, but still desirable, if Putin’s generals would do to him what the German generals did to the Kaiser. But that, I fear, is where history will neither repeat nor rhyme.




The Saga Continues In You Know Where

Wednesday, March 30th, 2022

Seated in a stately room on two sides of a large table covered with a starched, white tablecloth, looking for all the world like a couple of teams discussing a private equity acquisition, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are meeting in Turkey to see if there exists anything resembling a face-saving exit ramp for Vladimir Putin, who, more and more, seems to fancy himself the second coming of Ivan The Terrible, the first Tsar of all Russia. Yesterday, the Russian side said it was “drastically” pulling back its troops from Kyiv and Chernihiv  as a demonstration of good will and sincerity by the invaders.  Frankly, I wouldn’t trust those guys (they’re all men) any farther than I could kick Mr. Putin, which I would dearly love to do.

The U.S. and its NATO and European allies are justifiably skeptical. “There is what Russia says and there’s what Russia does,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. “And what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine and its people and that continues as we speak.” The U.S. Department of Defense has yet to notice much of a pullback.

The recent Ukrainian counter-offensive not only stopped Russian advancement, but also drove back its troops. The invaders are now digging in, demonstrating Russia’s version of 21st century trench warfare.* This puts a period to the utter failure of their remarkably poorly planned and executed blitzkrieg attack. An invasion, a “special military operation,” ( Oh, it was certainly special), that was supposed to last a few days, is now in its second month. On Day 2, in a fit of vainglorious overconfidence, Russian state media accidentally, and rather prematurely, you might say, released, and shortly thereafter retracted, a celebratory victory press release.

After all the killing and destruction, it appears the only things Russia has achieved so far are:

  1. Worldwide condemnation and isolation;
  2. The total destruction of some of the earth’s most beautiful cities;
  3. The evisceration of the Russian economy;
  4. The wanton and callous killing of thousands of Ukrainians and up to an estimated 15,000 Russian soldiers (It took four years for that many American soldiers to be killed in action during the Vietnam War);
  5. The creation of four million refugees;
  6. The first-time-ever, joined at the hip unity and cooperation of NATO, the European Union and the U.S.;
  7. Significantly increased funding by NATO for its defense; and,
  8. The emergence of Ukraine and its heroic President as important players on the World stage.

Other than that, the invasion has been a smashing success for Mr. Putin.

To understand what is driving this insanity and, if you can bear it, peer into the warped mind of Mr. Putin, I recommend reading two long-form essays. The first, The Logic of Vladimir Putin, a New York Times Magazine piece by John Lloyd, written in 2000, the year Putin was first elected President of Russia. The second, another New York Time Magazine article, The Making Of Vladimir Putin, published this week, 22 years after Lloyd’s, by the brilliant Roger Cohen, the Paris Bureau Chief of the Times. Among other things, these two articles prove the truth of Lord Acton’s famous 1887 dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (If nothing else, the two essays provide solid rationale for term limits in the U.S. Congress and a limit of two terms for presidents).

Reading the two essays makes how we got to where we are actually understandable. I’d go so far as to say Putin is almost a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense. But that doesn’t change the fact he is has become a walking, talking monster. I’ve always thought it would be nearly impossible for any Russian leader to outdo Stalin in bottom-of-the-soul cruelty, but Mr. Putin is giving it all he has.

Because of Vladimir Putin’s paranoid megalomania, about the only honest thing we can say about how this current lunacy will end is that we have absolutely no idea how it will end.

And so it goes.

*As the great Chad Mitchell Trio put it in 1965, “I want to go back to the days when men were men and start the First World War all over again.” The song, Barry’s Boys, was about Barry Goldwater, but you get the point.