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The Fate of Russia and the Image of the French Revolution

by Gordon M. Hahn
What Do Russia’s liberal intelligentsia, Napoleon, and Western Democracy-Promotion have in common? In a word: revolutionism. In September-October 1799 the Russian army was doing battle with the French revolutionary army marched by Napoleon across Europe to install what he called ‘republican democracy’ at the point of the gun. In retreat, the Russians managed to pull off one of the most astonishing feats in military history. Under the command of 70 year-old Field Marshal Aleksandr Suvorov 18,000 Russian and 5,000 Cossack troops crossed the Alps, traversing the already deep snows of the Panix Pass and the 9,000-foot Bunder Oberland mountains. Although thousands of Russians fell to their deaths from cliffs or surrendered to cold and hunger, Suvorov and 16,000 of his men eventually escaped impending encirclement by French troops and reached Chur on the Rhine, where they bivouacked for the winter at Chur on the Rhine.
Suvorov had engineered a monumental strategic withdrawal while fighting off the four times larger French force and returned to Russia with minimal casualties. Twelve years after Suvorov died of illness in 1800, Napoleon’s army invaded Russia. On March 17, 1991 the New York Times characterized the accomplishment of Suvorov and his men as “one of the most extraordinary feats in either the Alps or the history of warfare — a sort of late 18th-century Dunkirk achieved without rescuers.” American writer J. T. Headley wrote in 1845 that compared with the Russian Hannibal’s exploits, the original’s were “mere child’s play beside it.” 
However, in a recent article published in the often excellent Russian opposition newspaper Novaya gazeta, author Aleksei Polikovskii offers a different take; one that explains much about contemporary Russian politics. Polikovskii condemns the Russian army’s feat because of its purported goal, which he reduces not simply to another manifestation of Russian imperialism, but rather to effort to crush democracy. He writes:
But really why did the Russian field marshal go through the Alps with 20 thousand troops into Switzerland? The goal was to clean Switzerland of revolutionary French troops and then go to Paris, because Paris was the heart of revolution, the city that declared freedom, equality, and fraternity. And death to the kings. The goal was to pacify France, chase the people back into the previous arbitrary rule, restore the old order, and suppress the revolution
[In Russian: И действительно, зачем русский фельдмаршал с 20 тысячами солдат ходил через Альпы в Швейцарию? Цель была ― очистить Швейцарию от революционных французских войск и идти потом на Париж. Потому что Париж был сердцем революции, городом, провозгласившим свободу, равенство, братство. И смерть королям. Цель была ― усмирить Францию, загнать людей в прежнее бесправие, восстановить старый порядок, подавить революцию (]
In short, Polikovskii tries to deflate the military feat because its goal, as he describes it, was to defeat democracy. Thus, whereas the author reduces Russian actions to its traditional imperialism and opposition to democracy, he raises Napoleon’s to altruism – the goal of global democratization stripped of the violent means chosen to attain and the even greater imperialistic imperative that actually inspired French actions. France’s revolutionary leaders had signaled to where their movement would lead, but few seemed to heed their words. As they slaughtered tens of thousands and forcefully drafted over a million Frenchmen into the first mass conscript army, which by 1794 had become the largest army world history had seen, they openly stated they were doing so to spread democratic republicanism by violence in the first international revolution. The Jacobin Georges Jacques Danton stated that in rolling “the head of a King”, Louis XVI’s head, revolutionary France threw down the gantlet of revolutionism at the feet of all of Europe’s monarchs. Organizer of the French revolutionary army, Lazare Carnot, warned the world: “No more maneuvers, no more military art, but fire, steel, and patriotism. We must exterminate! Exterminate to the bitter end!”
Their dictatorial successor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who realized the revolutionaries’ imperial dreams, was not very much about democracy-promotion programs or support for honest elections being demanded by populations yearning for freedom. He was about French and, by extension and more importantly, Napoleon Bonaparte’s glory. Thus, Polikovskii leaves out a ‘minor’ point: Suvorov’s ‘invasion’ of Switzerland and planned march on Paris were on the agenda in order to join up with allied Austrian forces  and expel French revolutionary forces that had invaded Switzerland and chase those forces back to Paris where they belonged.
Matters did end with a Russian march on Paris, but a dose of that march’s pre-history will provide an antidote to the context-less ‘analysis’ offered by Polikovskii and shed light on the question of Russia’s supposedly unique imperial past.
Polikovskii can be forgiven for his negligence regarding the tens of thousands killed by revolutionary fervor in France — 85 percent of the victims being commoners — and more than a million or so elsewhere. Greater lights were under no lesser delusions at the time. Thomas Jefferson thought the French revolution’s fate would determine that of his own and hopes the former would spread across Europe. And although he deplored the carnage, he thought it necessary. In January 1793 he said: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest and…rather than it should have failed. I would have seen half the earth desolated.” He would not live to see half of Europe so desolated by the French. Jefferson added: “Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it is now.”
The French ‘Spring’/Napoleonic Nightmare
Napoleonic France’s revolutionary wars began in 1792 when King Louis XVI declared war on Prussia and Austria. Berlin and Vienna countered with an allied invasion of the country that was eventually defeated, and the French victory emboldened consummation of the revolution with the National Convention’s abolishment of the monarchy. Subsequent French victories by the revolutionary French army were followed by defeat at Neerwinden in spring 1793. Revolutionary France’s ‘freedom, equality and brotherhood’ suffered a democracy deficit that year, as the Jacobins rose to power and imposed its own Great Terror to unify the country against the outside threat the revolutionaries themselves had provoked.
The Jacobins intensified military operations in 1794-5 with victories against Austria, Spain and the Austrian Netherlands captured by the French. The then unknown Bonaparte emerged in a campaign against Italy that decimated the Hapsburg Empire’s troops with the capture of over 100,000 troops, expelled them from the Italian peninsula, and allowed the French revolutionary army to march on Vienna, forcing the Austrians to abandon the war effort under the Campo Formio Treaty, ending what was the First Coalition against the French revolutionary army. Note that the coalition was Western-led, not Russian-led and was prompted by military invasions undertaken by Paris in order to bestow the Jacobins’ ‘republican democracy’ on the rest of Europe whether its countries’ populations or rulers desired this or not.
The Second Coalition was prompted by Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, in response to which the coalition allies acted asymmetrically, using the French army’s preoccupation with North Africa and naval defeats to the British, to regain losses from the First Coalition. The European coalition chased the French out of Italy entirely and defeated French forces in Switzerland until the September 1799 Battle of Zurich. The French victory at Zurich and Suvorov’s strategic retreat through the Alps forced Russia out of the war. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s forces were destroying Egyptian and Ottoman armies, which along with their conquest of Egypt, allowed Napoleon to return to Paris in the fall of 1799 to cheering crowds of thousands that lined the in the City of Light’s streets.
Napoleon’s Coup of 18 Brumaire against the ruling Directory and his self-installation France’s ‘Consul’ was followed by another crushing campaign against the Austrians begun in spring 1800. This ‘French spring’ ended in a rout of the Austrians at Marengo in June, forcing their withdrawal from the peninsula again, and was followed by another decisive French triumph in Bavaria forcing another Austrian withdrawal from the war in the 1801 Luneville Treaty. With both Austria and Russia sidelined, the United Kingdom sued for peace in the French-British naval war under the 1802 Amiens Treaty, concluding the first two coalitions against France’s pro-democracy revolutionary wars.
Napoleon was crowned emperor in 1804; that is, when Napoleon’s Grand Army of some 600,000 troops invaded Russia it was led not by an elected president or a commander of forces appointed by one, but rather by a self-appointed and self-anointed emperor who rose to power by way of a coup. The second phase of the French revolutionary-turned Napoleonic wars began in 1803, lasted until 1815, and prompted five more coalitions, consisting of shifting membership that included at one time or another, Austria, the United Kingdom, Russia, Prussia as well as a series of other smaller European countries and statelets. The Third Coalition emerged by 1805 when Great Britain offered to finance the enterprise and convinced Austria and Russia to wage war on the continent. Admiral Nelson’s famous October 1805 victory over the French fleet at Trafalgar confounded Napoleon’s plans to invade the British Isles.
In response, Napoleon rapidly advanced his now own coalition Grand Army into Central Europe, promising independence to a Poland which at the time was partitioned by and ruled from St. Petersburg and Vienna. Napoelon’s demolished Austrian forces yet again, won a decisive victory over the coalition allies in the historic December 1805 Battle of Austerlitz. Prussian concerns about growing French power prompted formation of the Fourth Coalition in 1806. Napoleon first defeated the Prussians twice in major battles and then marched the Grand Army deep into Eastern Europe and routed the Russians at the June 1807 Battle of Friedland, leading to the Treaties of Tilsit signed by all the coalition members in July.
In an attempt to further consolidate his hold on Europe by choking off British shipping, naval and thus trade access to the continent through Gibraltar and Mediterranean, Napoleon invaded Iberia in 1808. However, the Spanish and Portuguese, backed by the British money, resisted and prevailed in what became a six-year guerrilla-style war. In 1809 the Austrians and British initiated the War of the Fifth Coalition, but the French triumphed again at the July Battle of Wagram in July, solidifying Napoleon’s grip over all Europe again.
Russia’s Nightmare
Unwilling to bear the economic damage caused by reduced trade with Europe created by Napoleon’s ‘Continental System’ of blockades, trading bans, and ship requisitions, Russia routinely violated the system. Napoleon invaded Russia on 24 June 1812. In control of the entire European continent through a network of mostly occupations, but also treaties and protectorates, Napoleon sought first to quickly defeat Russia’s army and force Petersburg to cease all trade with Britain. To garner additional support, he characterized the war as one for the liberation of Poland, the “Second Polish War”, and recruited nearly 100,000 Polish volunteers
The history of Russian forces’ retreat, the abandonment and burning of Moscow that left French troops wanting for shelter and freezing and wanting for food and starving, and Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia in which the Grand Army was reduced to a fifth of its strength at time of invasion is well-known and need not be recounted here. In the wake of Napoleon’s rout in Russia, Prussia and Austria joined Russian forces in 1813 under the Sixth Coalition that would drive Napoleon back to Paris. The French invasion of Russia saw widespread destruction of Russian lands and cities during both the invasion and retreat, some of which but far from all of which was carried out under a Russian scorched earth deprivation strategy. Ignoring the count from the earlier French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars outside Russia – the real first world war – and focusing on those of the revolutionary emperor’s Russian campaign, we find a long casualty list. French modernization-promotion at the point of a gun in Russia in 1812-1813 cost approximately one million military and civilian lives, approximately evenly divided between Russian and French forces and allies. Russian losses were approximately evenly split between soldiers and civilians, with some 210,000 military killed, meaning the French had killed at least some 200,000 Russian commoners. The French revolutionary army lost another 380,000-600,000 lives to the cause, depending on the source. The British lost 300,000 men to the French revolutionary dream-turned nightmare.
Lessons Learned and Not Learned
In attempting forge its “Empire de la Liberte`,” the French revolution had spread ‘total war’, the nation-state, and a revolutionary ethos that has plagued both Russia and the West ever since. In Polikovskii’s ‘eternal Russia’ reading of history, even with two centuries of hindsight, revolutionary France was an unmitigated benefit to the world; Napoleon’s attempt to promote democracy by military force is unworthy of consideration; and Russia’s attempt to prevent a future invasion is condemnable. To be sure, Russia had suppressed Polish freedom by force and was doing the same in fighting Napoleon. But whereas Poles had decided for themselves that they preferred freedom from Russian rule, Napoleon was deciding for others – rejecting ‘spontaneity’ as Lenin would call it a century later – what kind of system they should live in and when.
Unlike Polikovskii, Jefferson quickly learned the lessons of France revolutionism’s failed experiment in violent revolution and militarized democracy-promotion at home and abroad. In January 1806, pondering Napoleon’s route of Russia and its coalition allies at Austerlitz, he lamented the specter of the two hegemons of the day: “What an awful spectacle does the world exhibit at this instant. (O)ne man bestriding the Continent of Europe, and another roaming unbridled on the ocean.” Another apparent ‘barbarian’, British prime minister William Pitt, told Parliament that the fight against Napoleon was for “the happiness of the whole of the human race.” He also pinpointed the essential problem that French revolutionism was fighting to bring liberty “to every nation, and if they will not accept of it voluntarily, they compel them. The take every opportunity to destroy every institution that is most sacred and most valuable in every nation where their armies have their appearance; and under the name of liberty, they have resolved to make every country in substance, if not in form, a province dependent on themselves.”
Interestingly, the period of the Napoleonic wars and America’s internal debate over whether to side with Paris or London and how to deal with their respective trade sanctions became the context in which the first American debate over Russia occurred. The debate was sparked in the wake of several dinners held to celebrate Russia’s victory over Napoleon, news of which reached the New World in March 1813. The dinners’ hosts were anti-Republican political figures and opinion makers, and were in good part held to demonstrate opposition to the increasingly untenable pro-French policy of Republican president James Madison. Both sides deployed its particular image of Russia as part of the larger ‘France or Britain debate’, which in turn was a key part in the domestic political battle. Those who supported a more neutral or pro-British position — the latter also being problematic given past history and British trade sanctions and ship and crew requisitions — were more inclined to be less belligerent towards Russia, given Russia’s war with Napoleon. Anti-British voices tended to apologize for Napoleon’s offensive war and play up the Russian threat [I.I. Kurilla, “‘Russkie prazdniki’ i amerikanskie spory o Rossii v 1813 godu,” in Rossiya i SShA: poznavaya drug druga: Sbornik pamyati akademika Aleksandra Aleksandrovich Fursenko (St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriya, 2015), pp. 168-79, at pp. 168-9 and 179].
The debate’s apogee came in an exchange of speeches, articles, and letters published in the press between Federalist Robert G. Harper and Republican Robert Walsh. The exchange began with a speech Harper gave at a 5 June 1813 soiree` attended by Russian envoy A.Ya. Dashkov. In his toast, published on June 10th in the Maryland gazette, Harper heaped praise on Russia’s military triumph, the Russian people, and Russian military commanders, including Mikhail Kutuzov, in whose shadow Napoleon was said to have paled. He emphasized that in terms of the U.S. national interest, Russia’s victory offered “the best if not the only hope for peace; the best, if not only chance to avoid a union with France and in this event the inevitable French domination.” The Baltimore Patriot newspaper (19 June 1813), Military Monitor (26 July 1813), and then Walsh critiqued Harper’s view. The Military Monitor disparaged those who a few weeks ago “sang tedaeums to the Russian victories which fertilized the land with the blood of thousands of innocent victims” (Kurilla, pp. 172-3). Walsh’s first missive to Harper came the day after the Monitor’s commentary. It consisted of charges that Harper overstated the extent of Russia’s military successes were mostly attributable to the Russia weather and vast territory. Walsh’s main emphasis was on the nature of the Russian regime and people, of which “there none no others in the annals, whose history…was more harsh.” Russian government was too long under the Mongol yoke, a “sad and stupefying despotism,” “equipped in all ways to encourage vices, bloody to primitiveness and anarchy inside the country” and “practicing arbitrariness at home and abroad.” By contrast, Walsh argued that Harper had “too modest an opinion of the genius and resources of Bonaparte” and yet feared the result of Russia’s victory would be Russia’s hegemony in Europe. Although he did not suspect Alexander I of such aspirations, he posed a scenario under which Russian domination of Germany led the Tsar Liberator to manifest his “Russian character” or was replaced by an Ivan IV, Peter I, or some ambitious military strongman reflecting the spirit of his people and government” (Kurilla, pp. 174-5). The irony of the contrast between the ambition French military leader’s “genius” and Russia’s possible production of such a leader was striking.
Harper answered in August rejecting the idea of Europe’s subjugation by Russia. He praised the Russian peasantry for its “extraordinary bravery, durability, patience, obedience, ability to overcome fatigue, carrying out long marches.” If their physical state was “half-barbarian,” then their government “masters all fruits of contemporary science, superior civil servants at all ranks, and all modern improvements in military art.” “(B)eing absolute, it can plan and pursue long-term political schemes.” Harper saw Alexander I making Russia “the defender of other nations, the sword and shield of national independence.” Walsh corresponded later in the month, rejecting the idea that Russia possessed modern and effective political and military leadership, citing a series of secondary Western European sources, and claiming that despite Alexander I’s modernization efforts Russia remained an “Asiatic despotism.” In a final letter to Harper, Walsh asserted that Russia was prepared to begin “unlimited conquest than any other existing nation” and was “far more backward than Mr. Harper imagines, and the impurity of barbarianism makes her only more dangerous” (Kurilla, pp. 175–7). In October 1813, the government newspaper, the National Intelligencer, backed Walsh’s position, decrying: “The Mr. Harper’s attraction to Russia and his hatred of France are so great” (Kurilla, p. 178).
Occurring in 1813, the Harper-Walsh debate preceded the March 1814 Battle of Paris. In October, as the U.S. government newspaper was focusing on Harper’s ‘attraction to Russia,’ the Sixth Coalition, led by Russia and including Austria, Prussia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and a number of other states routed Napoleon at Leipzig, allowing the Allies to march on France, seize Paris in March 1814, force Napoleon to abdicate in April, and restore the Bourbons to power. Napoleon escaped exile from Elba Island in February 1815, took power in France again, and thereby sparked the the Allies’ Seventh Coalition, which inflicted the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June.
With Napoleon and what remained of the revolutionary Grand Army checked, Russia’s occupation of Paris ended with withdrawal of all its troops back to the homeland. This was a mirror opposite policy to that of the French military genius and strongman. The 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna, with ‘eternally backward Russia’ playing the leading role, established the terms and conditions ending the reign of ‘freedom, equality, brotherhood,’ and terror in Europe. The Russian-led Congress established a new Europe with new borders and reconstituted the independence of all the European states subdued by the French revolution’s dictator. In this, Russia justified Harper’s expectations and exposed Walsh’s bias. France’s defeated glory-seeking had consisted of barbarous empire-building far more than did Russia’s triumphant glory-seeking in restoring the nations’ state sovereignty (aside from Poland). Contrary to Polikovskii’s implication, Russia’s goal was not imperial, nor its military actions offensive – an imperial gambit to seize France and all Europe. Contrary to Walsh’s expectations, neither Alexander 1 nor any of his Imperial Russian successors sought to extend their dominion beyond Poland. Russia’s ‘barbarian Asiatic despotism’ released up to 100,000 captured French and other Grand Army soldiers in 1814.
Recent scholarship has also confirmed the veracity of Harper’s more measured views on Russia and debunked Walsh’s bias and alarmism. Dominic Lieven’s superb study of Russia’s 1812-1814 war against Napoleon demonstrates that Harper’s view of Russia’s possession of modern science, bureaucracy and military art was far closer to the truth than Walsh’s ‘Asiatic despotism.’ Exploiting untapped archival documents, Lieven unearthed the key role of Russian light cavalry, the horse industry, and related and other logistics which allowed the Russian army to outmaneuver Napoleon, who had underestimated the role of light cavalry and failed prepare for the eventuality of losing not just his army’s men but the horses upon which new recruits could be deployed [Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace (New York: Penguin, 2011)].
Napoleon, Revolutionism, and Democratizing Russia Today
If democrats are to come power in Russia, then Russian political actors and the liberal Russian intelligentsia need to stop fetishizing the West and democracy. Although Westernization and democratization are worthy and to some extent attainable goals, they will never be achieved in Russia unless a healthy democratic capitalist conservatism is developed and comes to dominate the democratic opposition. Declaiming patriotism and offending Russian pride — as Polikovskii does when he denigrates Suvorov’s feat and distorts its meaning and context — will always delete half the Russian population from democrats’ subscriber lists.
Similarly, fetishizing revolution, as Polikovskii’s discussion of Suvorov and Imperial Russia’s foreign policy in relation to Bonaparte’s expansionism does, alienates many Russians who understand the dangers of revolution given the outcome of 1917. It is important for both Russians and Westerners hoping for a republican Russia that the lessons of ‘revolutionism’ are learned. As I have addressed this elsewhere, suffice it to say here that revolutions, especially those that turn violent, are uncontrollable in terms of regime type outcome and historically have been more likely to produce dictatorship and terror rather than a free republic. The violent revolutions in France and Russia produced Napoleon, Lenin and Stalin, and brought revolution, terror and war to Europe. Moreover, fetishizing revolution pushes Russia’s soft authoritarian regime to overreact both in domestic and foreign policy. This results in more legal restrictions, searches, and crackdowns domestically and greater fear of color revolution and thereby of the West, exacerbating Russian zapadnophobia. In turn, the worse Russian-Western relations become, the more authoritarian the domestic regime will become and so on and so on.
The Russian liberal intelligentsia’s blanket approval of Western neo-liberalism reflects an idealization and naivete` regarding Western democracies’ societies and states. Just as revolution does not a democracy make, so too does democracy not preclude state arbitrariness, democratic backsliding (as we are seeing in the U.S., Poland and soon elsewhere) or imperialism. Russian liberals and all of us would do good to remember that both the French and Russian revolutions brought dictatorship and imperialism. The president of the model republican government in Napoleon’s time, showed it had its own imperial ambitions tied to the ongoing strife in the Old World. Before the U.S. got bogged down in its own War of 1812 with Britain as a result of London’s own naval clampdown on global trade with France, President Thomas Jefferson hoped that Napoleon’s defeat would allow his new democratic republic to acquire Florida, Mexico, and Cuba (Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, p. 648).
History brings ironic contradictions, autocratic Russia saved a quasi-republican England from a once radical republican France. Russia’s 1917 revolution began with a democratic impulse but ended in Soviet totalitarianism. Soviet totalitarianism’s collapse gave birth to an invigorated American revolutionism – a version of Jefferson’s own revolutionary and later imperial dreams on steroids – and NATO expansionism. That expansion has been a key cause of the Putin regime’s adoption of a more authoritarian domestic policy and a foreign policy more proactive in rolling back said expansion. NATO expansion tainted Western democracy-promotion, producing impression that color revolutions are intended solely to facilitate EU and then NATO expansion at Russia’s expense; hence, the sarcasm Russians infuse into the term ‘color revolution.’
Polikovskii’s reading, use and indeed abuse of history plays right into the beliefs of the West’s most inveterate russophobes and the Russia’s most inveterate ‘zapadnophobes’ and Americaphobes. Indeed, it appears intended to draw hidden parallels between past and present to make points about contemporary Russian domestic and foreign policy. On the one hand, by interpreting Russia’s resistance to France’s revolutionary wars as driven by its opposition to democracy abroad, Polikovskii confirms Western russophobes’ belief that his homeland is the eternal enemy of freedom and democracies. On the other hand, the author appears to be supporting violent revolutionary regime change to bring about republican government at home playing into the hands of those in power who legitimately fear Western interference and those who use such fear to tighten the screws. To be sure, the regime’s authoritarian nature also produces fears and antagonism in society, especially among more pro-democratic elements. This can create a cycle of intensifying mutual alienation and antagonism that deeply polarizes state and society – or parts thereof – leading to either revolution or dictatorship.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago),; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles),; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct,; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.


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