MOSCOW – Napoleon Bonaparte was the greatest tactician in European history.
Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to understand how similar Russia’s situation, and his own, are to the circumstances facing France, and to Napoleon, when the country was encircled by hostile powers, led by the British; its treasury emptied by corruption and civil war; its army demoralized and unpaid; and its fractious rulers intent on plotting one another.
There will be time over the 18 months that remain before the Duma and presidential elections to see whether Putin can think enough like Napoleon to turn tactical initiative into durable power. But we must begin in November 1793, when Napoleon was a 24-year-old artillery captain, and the battle of Toulon was fought against the British to liberate French territory. That victory launched Napoleon’s meteoric career. It was also a demonstration of Napoleon’s ability to defy conventional thinking, and win.
“It is the artillery that takes the forts, and the infantry that only helps,” Napoleon wrote to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris, seeking their permission for his battle plan for Toulon. He had understood that swollen numbers of incompetent generals needed infantrymen to sustain their rank and privileges, without being able, or willing, to deploy them for effective victories. It’s a succinct statement also of the conventional doctrine today that to overcome well-defended targets, overwhelming military firepower must be used.
Express the same tactical idea in Russian politics, and you must ask what are the entrenched forts that Putin faces today, and what artillery he possesses to blast away their defenses. This is supposing, of course, that the president sees himself as capturing the forts, not defending them.
If the Yeltsin family – a complicated redoubt of interests nominally led by the ex-president, and supported by direct and indirect family members and their placemen – is a target, Putin has yet to signal his intention. If the industry and finance oligarchs, whom Boris Yeltsin put in place, are targets, then Putin has done little but dispatch a handful of infantrymen. The Russian economy is no less dependent on oil and gas than it was before Putin came to power two years ago; arguably, Putin’s economic policies and so-called reforms have made economic recovery even more vulnerable to export prices. The attack on Gazprom, on the railways ministry, and on the electricity utility has been an example of the slow infantry advance Napoleon knew was doomed to failure. Putin used snipers to attack the heads of Gazprom and the railways ministry. He hasn’t touched Anatoly Chubais, head of United Energy Systems, and the only Yeltsin family politician the Kremlin allows to build a base of media and organization around the country for a presidential campaign of his own.
In the regions, Putin dispatched a platoon of infantrymen to attack the governors and bring them to their knees. Giving his men presidential titles hasn’t affected the outcome. Putin has demonstrated he has lost more regional elections than he’s won; that he tolerates as much corruption at the gubernatorial level as before; that he is at a loss when one of them is assassinated; and, finally, that he needs the governors for the same reason that Yeltsin needed them – to assure his re-election.
On just two fronts Putin has concentrated what fire he manages to deploy – the media and the parliament. The removal of Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky – it is clear in retrospect – was a purge of the media opposition, not an attack on the power represented by the oligarchs. The latter have been left largely unscathed; indeed, Putin’s political tactician Vladislav Surkov described Putin’s approach, in a recent interview, as agreeing with the oligarchs “80 percent of the time”.
Putin’s attack on the parliamentary opposition has also succeeded. Still, by neutralizing all factions except the communists, he may find that this will boost communist votes at the Duma election. In his interview, Surkov claims that he follows the polls every day, and that he’s sure support for the communists isn’t rising at the moment. He also says that “in the future, the left wing will inevitably win”. Between now and then, between what’s possible and what’s inevitable, the Kremlin’s tactics, according to Surkov, will be to attack the left in order to restructure it. If Surkov believes that the artilleryman can play the architect, he’s confused. If he believes that the Kremlin’s victory over the media can keep the voters confused on that score, he’s making a risky wager.
Tacticians rarely telegraph their moves in advance, unless they are feinting. For Surkov to describe his commander as “hesitating” and himself as decisive is a hint that Surkov himself is no longer as close to his commander as he would like, or that his tactics will be Putin’s choice. “Nothing is lost,” Napoleon wrote in 1796 to Andre Massena, then his general, “as long as courage remains.” The question for today, as it was then, is the courage to do what, and to whom.