In 2012, the writer and adventurer Sylvain Tesson commemorated the bi-centenary of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow by driving (in a sidecar with friends and much vodka) westwards from Moscow back towards France, replicating the journey taken by Napoleon’s disintegrating army.
A crucial point in that journey was the Battle of Berezina (Belarus), where the harassing Russian army chased the French towards the ice filled Berezina River. Heroic work from French engineers meant that a good number of Napoleon’s troops successfully crossed the river, only to be faced with cold, starvation, disease and further attack by the Russians.
The calamity of Berezina was a final catastrophe for Napoleon’s Russia campaign, reducing perhaps the greatest army ever assembled from 600,000 to about 110,000 survivors and curbing Napoleon’s ambitions of European dominance. The only comfort for Napoleon was that the Russians had not pressed him harder, fearing that the end of the Emperor would lead to an ‘even more intolerable’ domination by the British.
Reading this account, some might be tempted to say that in the context of the invasion of Ukraine, little has changed in Europe but the fact is that this war is a terrible interruption to multi-decades of peace and successful diplomatic relationship building (think of France and Germany or the Good Friday Agreement). What is also remarkable is the way in which many of Napoleon’s more positive contributions – in education, law, civil service and infrastructure still define how France operates. It is the world’s fourth military power and the sixth largest economy, or fifth, depending on the pound.
In contrast, Putin’s Russia is hollowed out on many of these variables, and regular readers will know that I often lament the way ‘strong man’ countries like Russia and Turkey allow their political economic infrastructures to atrophy to the point of inevitable crisis. The risk for Russia now is a deep economic malaise and capture by Chinese capitalism.
In the shadow of Napoleon, the question that goes begging is beyond this terrible war, what changes will we see to the geopolitical map of Europe. Bearing in mind that this was the invasion few thought would happen, we should answer this question in an imaginative way.
In the near-term elections this weekend in Hungary will attract attention, notably because it looks likely that Viktor Orban will extend his reign. Orban, at one time an advocate of the ‘open society’ has made a dark and mysterious transition during his political life, towards ‘illiberal democracy’ and somehow magnetically drawn towards Russian power and money (the FSB is believed to be well implanted in Budapest).
In many respects what happens next will be a test of the EU rather than Orban. Brexit has opened up the possibility that countries can leave the EU and the new emphasis on ‘European values’ by the EU makes Orban’s Hungary a very difficult member. My sense is that in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine there will be more calls to penalize Hungary (for its closeness to Russia) and to find a mechanism to force its full or partial exit from the EU.
Indeed, some of Hungary’s neighbours may also face greater scrutiny – Serbia may find its path to EU membership slows to a halt, and Austria, a seemingly respectable EU member will be pushed to clean up its intelligence services, banking, legal and property markets to rid them of all Russian influence.
On the more positive side, Poland is now a political force in Europe, and has an opportunity to make peace with the EU following estrangement over ‘European values’. Together with the geopolitical ‘tigers’ in the Baltic states, I expect Poland to try to steer a more hawkish European approach to security in general and Russia in particular. One ally in this regard will be the USA.
At some stage people will begin to question the viability of Russia’s presence in other countries, from the role of Russian mercenaries in African countries (which we discussed in ‘The Man on the Horse’), the many ‘Stans’ notably Kazakhstan, and in Belarus.
I am simply not familiar enough with the situation in Belarus to understand why there has not been an attempt to topple Alexandr Lukashenko (there has been some civil disobedience, sabotage of Russian trains by railway workers and reports of near mutiny in the army). A change of regime in Belarus would be a very speedy way of destabilizing Russia, if someone wants to have a crack at it.
This is one potential catalyst that could accelerate a geopolitical crisis and reacting of the political map of to the east of Europe. I have not even yet mentioned many of the bigger trends – the remaking of energy policy in Europe and a coming revolution in defence and security policy.
In a week where the head of French military intelligence was fired, for making the same mistake as Napoleon’s army in misreading the Russians, the world we are entering into will produce some very sharp and surprising changes in alignment and political identity across Europe and beyond.
Have a great week ahead,