By John Helmer, Moscow
The Russian tactic of giving an adversary an exit through which to escape was coined by Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov (left) during the war against Napoleon. He called it the “pont d’or” (golden bridge). The meaning was that Napoleon and his army should be allowed to retreat out of Russia, harassed, starved, diminished, but not annihilated. Kutuzov’s reasoning was strategic. It was not worth the risk and cost to the Russian army of a struggle to the death with the French. Worse, Kutuzov thought, if Napoleon were totally destroyed, there would be nothing to stop the British from emerging to threaten Russia more powerfully than the French had been capable of.
“You don’t realize,” Kutuzov talking to a subordinate in November 1812, as Napoleon and his stragglers crossed the Dnieper river, “that circumstances will in and of themselves achieve more than our troops.And we ourselves must not arrive on our borders as emaciated tramps.” And in a put-down of Sir Robert Wilson, a known English spy at the tsar’s field headquarters: “I am by no means sure that the total destruction of the Emperor Napoleon and his army would be of such benefit to the world; his succession would not fall to Russia or any other continental power, but to that which commands the sea, and whose domination would then be intolerable.”
Is the golden bridge still a doctrine of Russian strategy, and if so, who will express it?
The question should be asked as we pass by the 200th anniversaries of the battles of Borodino (September 7, 1812), Maloyaroslavets (October 24), Viazma (November 3), and Borisov (November 21), and prepare for the anniversaries of the Russian victories in the 1813 campaign. President Vladimir Putin spoke at Borodino on September 2, conferring special awards on Maloyaroslavets for the 1812 battle and on Mozhaisk for its resistance to the Germans in 1941. There was nothing strategic in Putin’s speech except this: “only by trusting each other can we stand against the modern threats we face today.” The one tactical ploy Putin used was to call Napoleon’s multi-ethnic army French. The Germans who attacked in 1941 he called Nazis.
Last week, on January 10, Putin had another chance to enunciate Russian warfighting strategy when he presided at the commissioning of the new nuclear submarine, Yury Dolgoruky, presented a campaign award to the cruiser Pyotr Velikhy, and held an open conference with the new defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and Navy commander, Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov. Putin’s remarks were restricted to construction details, budget allocations, and weapons procurement.
The Pyotr Velikhy is the flagship of the Northern Fleet and has been practising operations above the Arctic circle, which has been identified for a decade now as a strategic priority in defence of continental shelf energy reserves, ship movement through the Northern Route, and deterrence of poachers – of fish and everything else of value. Still, Putin had nothing to say to pinpoint Russia’s adversaries.
A month earlier, Putin told the State Duma in Moscow that he is aiming to boost Russian nuclear submarine capabilities in the east as well as the west. “Russia should have two bases for our strategic submarine force, one in the European part, and one in the Far East. That will form a very powerful and essential balance in maintaining our national security. These two clusters are located remotely, which is of great military strategic significance.” In the east, on the Pacific, he said “we do have rearmament plans, including those for Vilyuchinsk naval base [Kamchatka peninsula], and they will be implemented, everything is up to schedule.”
He didn’t have anything concrete to say on the future of aircraft carriers in Russia’s forward naval strategy. There was no money for them in the 2011 naval budget, but with Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov out of the way on November 6, Vice-Admiral Chirkov got his carrier toe in the water, announcing that design of a new generation of vessels will be funded. “Design bureaus are tasked to develop a new aircraft carrier project. These works are well-financed”, the admiral said on November 23.
Aircraft carriers and submarines are intercontinental weapons against American, NATO, and possibly Chinese adversaries. They are too costly and unnecessary for a strategy of protecting seabed oil and gas; Arctic, Baltic, or Black Sea trading lanes, or concentrating force on local warmakers around Russian borders, like Georgia or North Korea.
A study of Russian naval strategy from the UK Defence Academy, published in October 2010, footnoted several statements and documents from then President Dmitry Medvedev, but almost nothing from Putin. Asked when Putin last spelled out Russia’s military strategy, Russian military experts refer to the publication of the presidential documents, Maritime Doctrine to 2020 (2001) and the 2010 Military Doctrine. But they propose doing everything, with little clue of the concrete priorities or how arguments should be decided over the money, equipment and manpower to achieve them.
The spending is growing fast. In 2009 the budget outlays for national defence totalled Rb621.9 billion ($21 billion); by 2011 it was Rb1,516 billion ($52 billion), up 144% in just two years. Last year the planned growth rate was 21%, — a slowdown of sorts. But the Kremlin has decided to speed up. By the end of 2014 it will have spent Rb2,750.8 billion, a growth rate for the next two years of 25% per annum.
Naturally for the domestic economy this is a powerful source of cash stimulus. For the oligarchs commanding the minerals, metals and machine sectors, this is also a guarantee of state cash for the production cost and operating profit lines on their balance-sheets, before they divert the bottom-line profit offshore.
For the military services, especially the navy and the shipyards – the navy is currently taking the lion’s share of the defence budget, about 40% — this represents a transfer from the bust side of the economy to boom. Politically, this may be policy justification enough, a golden bridge to pacify domestic threats to the president, and allow potential rivals to concentrate, as Napoleon’s marshals did at the start of the withdrawal from Moscow, on getting their loot and booty safely over the western frontier.
But are there foreign enemies to be deterred or defeated by such a strategy?
The service chiefs and their predecessors have gone public with a strategy of defending against the US and NATO with big-ticket procurements. The retired Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Valentine Selivanov, has mocked a strategy of lesser targets, “terrorists and tribal pirates.”
Critics of the Kremlin, especially those employed by US think-tanks like Pavel Felgenhauer, regularly beat the drum that Russian weapons are obsolete, military units undermanned and under-trained, and ships of the line no more than accident-prone rust buckets. According to Felgenhauer, only by an escalating campaign of espionage can Russia’s new generation of weapons be made to work. “The Russian defense industry virtually cannot produce any modern sophisticated weaponry without Western-made components and materials, with some essential parts coming directly from the United States… A top-level source within the Russian defense industry, speaking on condition of anonymity, previously told Jamestown that high-resolution radars needed for the most modern Russian fighter jets, as well as anti-aircraft and ballistic missile defense systems require US-made components.”
Felgenhauer is as reflexively inimical to Putin as he was ingratiating to his predecessor: “The late Russian President Boris Yeltsin is reported to have told his admirals: ‘I will not give any money to revive a Soviet-style navy, come back with a new concept’ (VPK, July 11). Putin seems to be ready to spend a fortune to revive a grand, ocean-dominating navy, primarily built to counter the US; but this goal is still far out of reach.”
Putin’s response to this type of criticism is muffled in ambiguity. “How important it is,” Putin claimed in his address to the Federal Assembly on December 12, “to preserve the historical military memory of the Fatherland. After all, is it fair that we still do not have a single worthy national monument to the heroes of World War I? Our predecessors called it the great war, but it was undeservingly forgotten and struck from our historical memory and history for political and ideological reasons. Meanwhile, the morale of our Armed Forces is held up by traditions, by a living connection to history, by the examples of bravery and selflessness of our heroes. I feel that we should revive the names of the most renowned regiments, military units and major formations of past eras within the Russian army – both from Soviet times and earlier eras, such as Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky regiments.”
If there’s this justification for making the “living connection to history”, how does the president read it himself?
Dominic Lieven’s history, Russia Against Napoleon, was published in 2009 in the UK, and a year later in the US. It is the first history in English to use Russian documents to substantiate the victories of the first Patriotic War, and to be dedicated by a non-Russian author thus: “in memory of the regiments of the imperial Russian Army who fought, suffered and triumphed in the great war of 1812-14”.
Lieven’s enthusiasm for Tsar Alexander I can be explained by his acknowledgement that the Lievens were part of the Romanov mishpocha – General Christoph von Lieven, a Semenovsky Guard, was head of the tsar’s personal military secretariat; Lieut-General Johann von Lieven commanded the 10th Infantry Division, Princess Charlotta von Lieven, Christoph’s mother, was bosom friend and chief lady-in-waiting to Alexander’s mother, Empress Marie, and governess to the tsar when he was a boy. Christoph’s wife, Dorothea, was the daughter of another of the empress’s ladies-in-waiting.
But there are three strategic lessons, which Lieven credits to the tsar, Kutuzov and others in the Russian command, and which qualify for Putin’s recommendation to re-read the history and apply it to today’s battlefields. The first is logistics – by withdrawing before Napoleon’s advance, and destroying the forage and food, the Russian strategy eliminated the forage on which Napoleon’s horses, and hence his supply chain, as well as his power projection (artillery, cavalry) depended. “The horse was a crucial – perhaps even the single most decisive – factor in Russia’s defeat of Napoleon”, Lieven concludes. Napoleon lost 175,000 horses in Russia in 1812. The following year Russian intervention prevented him getting hold of new horses from studs in Poland, Prussia, and Austria. It was easier to replace the men lost to the French army than the horses.
The second is intelligence. The record of the first Patriotic war reveals one of the most thorough penetrations of an enemy’s military plans, and its leaders’ most intimate conversations, in European history. With bribes, interceptions, seduction, and other means, Russia’s command had access to every Napoleonic secret from unit strengths, arms and orders to what went into Napoleon’s mouth for breakfast, and what was happening in his sensitive stomach. The Russians were also able to mobilize considerable counter-intelligence capability, turning French and British agents into conduits of disinformation. In intelligence gathering and its application to tactics and strategy, the Russians clearly outclassed the British.
The third lesson is the golden bridge. Requiring confidence in their ability to anticipate the enemy, and a realistic appraisal of their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, the Russian command was able to prevent Napoleon from fighting the Russian campaign as he wanted. The bridge strategy gave the enemy the one predictable exit that optimized on the domestic and foreign political calculations in Alexander’s strategy. To achieve it, Kutuzov had to withstand constant criticism of his competence, age and loyalty from younger officers with attack plans Napoleon expected them to deploy. Borodino was the one exceptional sacrifice Kutuzov was obliged to make, allowing Napoleon to deploy 587 guns against almost 100,000 Russian troops on flat ground of less than one square kilometre with minimal cover. Although Kutuzov had 624 guns on the field, they were deployed in a scatter, unable to concentrate their fire on the French, and sitting ducks for the French artillery. In meat-grinders like that, the Russian heroism was in the sacrifice of lives without victory. In the golden bridge, the heroism was in the saving of lives, and victory at the same time.
Russian military experts acknowledge there is a vivid contrast between the level of detail and purpose Putin opens to public discussion of economic and social policies, and the vagueness of his military statements. Is this a case of the traditional suspicion of a plainclothes intelligence and security officer for the uniformed services? An incumbent politician’s apprehension of the political appeal of the army since 1996, when General Alexander Lebed defeated Yeltsin in the first round of the presidential election? Or the commander-in-chief’s fear of backlash from Navy mistakes since the Kursk submarine catastrophe in August 2000, seven months into Putin’s first term?
According to Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of National Defence Magazine, Putin’s military statements usually restate what has already been decided; they don’t anticipate or reveal a new decision, if he’s made one. “The fact is that we have a military doctrine, where everything is written down. So there is no need to detail its provisions. Anyone can read it — it is an open document, which describes the military threats and what we consider for us as danger.”
As for deciding the factional fights for budget, weapons or mission priorities between the services, or within different groups of officers and commanders, Korotchenko concedes that Putin delegates the decision-making to others and reveals no second thoughts of his own, if he has them. “You know, Putin isn’t the minister of defense. From a practical point of view, all processes are up and running. Putin takes part and voices only a few important things. For example, when he was recently at the Northern Fleet, he said Russia will build eight Borei-class missile submarines. But that isn’t news. It was announced five or six years ago. In the state armaments program it’s all spelled out. Everything is done according to the plan.”
Ilya Kramnik, the military analyst for RIA-Novosti and now commentator on the radio Voice of Russia (Golos Rossii), concedes that Putin is exceptionally guarded on military policy. “It’s a fact that there are no public statements.” Putin isn’t afraid to talk at or about the military, Kramnik adds. “In this case, I would not say so. I would say that, in principle, we don’t have a tradition of top executives speaking on such topics publicly.”
Why then was so much said publicly, and so little confirmed authoritatively, during July and August last year, when orders for Russian naval deployments for Tartous, Syria, were changed several times over a matter of days, as Russian Navy announcements were reversed by the Defence Ministry? Read the details here. For more on the Tartous operation, see this. According to Kramnik, the reason for last summer’s controversy is a combination of the political uncertainty onshore in Syria, and at command headquarters in Moscow, as well as reluctance to give away Russian intentions. “Here it is obvious that the situation is one of political uncertainty. In this case, the true intentions, assuming that a particular plan of action exists — whether evacuation of the Russian base and the Russian population, or vice versa and their reinforcement — it is logical to assume that the plan was to try to conceal with a variety of statements and documents, in order to make it difficult to identify the real intentions.”
Writing as a critic of Putin and Russian strategy, Felgenhauer claims the Russian Navy had revealed too much at the time, not only signalling the plan to reinforce Tartous, but exposing a strategy of building fleet operating bases in Cuba, Vietnam, and the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean. Following publication in RIA-Novosti on July 27 of remarks by Vice-Admiral Chirkov (right), the Defense Ministry announced that “the Main Naval Command does not have the legal authority to deal with international issues and cannot make any public announcements in this field”. Chirkov cocked a snook of his own at the ministry, telling Ekho Moskvy radio: “I am not the one to issue orders: We have the defense minister [for that].”
Was the Navy hinting that clear orders weren’t coming down the line? From the pro-American perspective, Felgenhauer claims the hesitancy, ambiguity and contradictoriness have a simple root: “Putin and Russian admirals have ambitions to recreate a blue-water navy, but do not have the capability”.
From the Kremlin perspective, it’s convenient if that’s what foreign adversaries continue to think, and it would be contrary to policy if Putin set them straight.
The hindsight advantage in attributing strategic and tactical brilliance to Tsar Alexander in 1812 is obvious. Lieven’s history shows that at the time Alexander himself was less sensitive to criticism from his officers and courtiers, than afraid of his mother, the Empress Marie’s advice. In August 1808, on his way to the Erfurt negotiation for a temporary alliance with Napoleon, Alexander wrote his mother he was dissimulating and bargaining for delay. “During this precious time,” he wrote, “we can build up our resources and forces. But we must do this in complete silence and not in making our armaments and preparations public or in declaiming in public against this man whom we distrust.”
It goes without saying there is no family which holds Putin in thrall and can pressure him into making strategic mistakes.