Sir Lawrence Freedman on Vladimir Putin, China and Liz Truss


A new book picks apart 70 years of battle to find out what the victors have in common (Image: Getty/Reuters/AP/AFP)

How do you win a war?

It’s a serious question that a whole generation in the West has been largely insulated from thinking about, but is once again looming large.

With the return of trenches and tanks to the continent, there has been much soul-searching about the will and ability of the democracies of Europe to defend themselves should the day come.

Everyone prays it won’t – but history instructs us on the durability of peace, and that’s not comforting.

Sir Lawrence Freedman has wrestled with these questions for decades.

He is widely regarded as one of Britain’s most important foreign policy thinkers and has been a leading academic, adviser to Tony Blair, the official historian of the Falklands War and sat on the inquiry into the Iraq War.

IN Commandhis new book on the politics of war and the human decisions and relationships under which they are conducted, he comes to a harsh but comforting conclusion: open democratic systems are less likely to lose.

Through a sweeping account of various crises since the end of World War II, he finds evidence of bellicose dictators blind to their own failings, fearful generals cowed into nihilistic obedience, and communication breakdowns between civilian and military leaders.

A Ukrainian marine walks in a trench at the demarcation line from pro-Russian rebels, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. President Joe Biden has warned Russia's Vladimir Putin that the United States may impose new sanctions on Russia if it is taking further military action against Ukraine.  (AP Photo/Andriy Dubchak)

War has returned to Europe and discussions of ‘preparedness’ no longer feel so hypothetical (Image: AP)

Governments and their militaries are self-reliant and their leaders must be ready to respectfully coexist and adapt to each other, he argues—and the Russian president is engaged in the costly process of proving his theory right.

Sir Lawrence told ‘I always thought Putin was overrated, I never thought he was a great strategist.

‘I think he made some big mistakes in 2014 which has led to the terrible situation everyone is in now.

“He’s a judo artist rather than a chess player – he’s quite impulsive and believes in these kinds of dramatic bold moves as a way of catching the opponent unaware.”

He said Putin was operating under a “completely delusional view of Ukraine” and made the “absolute classic mistake” of “being overconfident in his own strengths and overly dismissive of those of his opponents”.

Putin is a man who ‘hasn’t really thought through how to get out of this mess’, adding: ‘You don’t start a war thinking it’s going to last three days and still be at it six months later and get high marks in history books.’

The Russian president’s pre-war televised Kremlin meeting with his senior military and security officials, the siloviki the hardliners he surrounds himself with turned out to be a study in the perils of a leader who enjoys the company of nodding dogs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the Russian Ground Forces Oleg Salyukov walk after a military parade on Victory Day, marking the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2022 .REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Vladimir Putin has surrounded himself with tough men, but his disastrous war campaign suggests they are too afraid to say no to him (Image: Reuters)

One by one, they rose to tell Putin how everything he believed about Ukraine was correct, with the president stepping in bitterly to publicly humiliate the head of his overseas spy agency when he briefly strayed from the party line.

It is surely inconceivable that not one of them had reservations about the idea that Ukraine was ready to be overthrown in a matter of days – but no one said that.

Sir Lawrence said: ‘It was a very striking example of the various courtiers desperately trying to work out what to say and even changing their minds when they realized they were saying the wrong thing, instead of giving honest open advice.’

So should we be encouraged that Xi Jinping, another autocrat with expansionist ambitions, will fall into the same mistakes?

Sir Lawrence believes that “the risk of a direct attack on Taiwan is not as great as those attempting some sort of siege blockade” and that he “hopes” Beijing follows the mess Russia has gotten itself into.

But if Xi decides to launch an all-out amphibious assault on China’s island neighbor, a big question mark remains over whether it has the combat expertise necessary to win.

Command demonstrates how wars are not spreadsheet exercises where the side with the biggest weapons and most soldiers wins.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People's Liberation Army soldiers at a barracks in Hong Kong, June 30, 2017. - Xi tours a garrison of Hong Kong's People's Liberation Army garrison as part of a landmark visit to the politically divided city.  (Photo by DALE DE LA REY / AFP) (Photo by DALE DE LA REY/AFP via Getty Images)

Xi Jinping has surrounded himself with the trappings of a military emperor – but neither he nor his army are battle-tested (Image: AP)

An inspirational commander in the field can win a battle against the odds, a miscommunication between a political leader and general can undo years of planning, a defense force can draw on mental reserves that no Ministry of Defense could ever buy.

No one knows—not even Xi—whether China’s theoretical status as a budding military superpower will be reflected should it ever go over the top.

Sir Lawrence said: ‘They have a problem – not that it’s a bad problem – that they haven’t actually fought a war for a long time, so they don’t, they don’t have people with a lot of experience around them.

‘They also have the red versus expert problem, which is “should you have people who have the right political philosophy perspective in the key positions or people who actually know what we’re talking about?”.

China’s leadership, he says, is ‘aware’ that they have this problem and ‘it’s not clear that they have found a way to solve it’.

Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, on the other hand, is an object lesson in why military experience is not a prerequisite for being an effective leader.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, has become a heroic warlord due to his skill, charisma and personal bravery (Image: AFP)

When he traded his suit for fatigues and bravely rejected an American offer to evacuate him from Kiev (‘I need ammunition, not a ride’), he transformed himself from an actor-turned-politician with a medium-sized reputation for a heroic wartime president. with the ability to galvanize a resistance with international support.

Liz Truss inherited the keys to Downing Street during a feverish situation on the world stage and will have to be honest about the ‘trade offs’ that arise as a result of the Ukraine situation, he says, not least in the area of ​​energy.

The UK has donated billions of pounds worth of equipment to stem the threat posed by Putin, meaning “our supplies have been greatly reduced and defense production has not really started to ramp up to meet the shortfalls in stocks “.

A promised increase in defense spending to 3% of GBP will be taken up by ‘having to pick up where we left off’ and there won’t be ‘much room for major new expansions of capability – just filling in the gaps will take quite a long time time”.

Sir Lawrence said it may be necessary in part to “undergo the revision”, a reference to the major defense plan that was published just 18 months ago but is already under scrutiny given the rapidly changing security outlook in Europe.

09/02/2022.  Moscow, Russian Federation.  Foreign Secretary Liz Truss visits Moscow, Russia.  Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in Red Square Moscow, Russia.  Image by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

As Foreign Secretary and a leadership contender, Liz Truss made political capital out of her ‘turning down’ Putin (Image: Number 10)

In any future conflict, Mrs Truss will also need to be ready to be at the center of decision-making and quickly learn when to override her military leaders or when to exercise “self-restraint” by leaving it to professional soldiers.

During the Falklands War, most of the fighting happened while Margaret Thatcher slept and communications across 8,000 miles of the Atlantic were ‘painfully slow’.

Contrast that with the image of Joe Biden sitting in the situation room watching his forces wipe out an Isis leader in real time on footage sent back to Washington from Syria on a body-worn camera.

The most important thing the new prime minister can do, he says, is to learn the lessons of recent months and ensure Britain has a world-class military command in place as a deterrent, should that dark day come, it is necessary.

That, he admits, is no small feat – so is he worried about the way forward?

Sir Lawrence said: ‘There is a lot to worry about and the question becomes one of “are we able to learn from this and manage it so things don’t completely fall apart?”

President Biden, Vice President Harris and members of the president's national security team observe the counterterrorism operation responsible for removing Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi from the battlefield?  the leader of ISIS.

Modern technology is inserting world leaders into the thick chain of command like never before (Image: The White House)

‘And I think you just have to be hopeful that yes, we can.

‘One of the lessons for Britain and Europe is to recognize that there are circumstances where you have to respond militarily to situations because that is what others are prepared to do

‘It rarely works out well for us if we try to solve our own problems by military means – what you have to do is stop other people trying to do it.’

Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine by Lawrence Freedman was published by Allen Lane on September 8, 2022

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