MOSCOW BLOG: 1812 revisited

By bne IntelliNews October 31, 2012

Ben Aris in Moscow -

Exactly 200 years ago this month, Napoleon rode out of Moscow with what was left of the Grande Armée, having failed to crush the Russian army, only to be famously defeated himself by the Russian winter.

Given the love of round number anniversaries by the press and governments I am surprised more has not been made of this historic anniversary. And while I am not sure there are any deep lessons to be learnt from it, what surprises me reading about it now is how many similarities there are with Russia today.

To remind you of the history: as Napoleon rode out of the city on October 18, he ribbed his entourage for overestimating the severity of the legendary Russian winters, commenting: "It's a lovely day; nicer than Fontainebleau at this time of year." He quickly had to swallow his words as temperatures plunged.

On the 200-year anniversary, the same thing is happening in Moscow. October 18, 2012 was a bright sunny day with a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius, down from the mid-teens for most of that week. However, on October 29 Moscow was thrown into traffic chaos by a change in the weather. I am sure the Eskimos have a word for the kind of snow we had, but in English it can best be described as a heavy shower of freezing sludge that was dumped, rather than falling from the sky. This ain't picture postcard weather.

If the temperature had been a single degree lower there would have been a repeat of the "ice rain" that fell in December 2010, which froze on contact with anything solid. By the end of that afternoon, the ice had brought smaller and older trees down under the sheer weight of the water. Two years on and the forests that surround the city are still full of maudlin trees, miserably bowed over until their tips touch the ground from that day.

Within days of leaving Moscow, much the same happened to the Grande Armée. Temperatures fell to between -5°C and -15°C until the first heavy snowfall on November 6. From then on it stayed at between -15°C and -30°C for the rest of the six weeks it took to get out of the country. In a catastrophic miscalculation, Napoleon failed to issue coats, hats and gloves that were easily obtainable during his six-week sojourn in Moscow, but he dithered unsure what to do next. Indeed, the first officers and wounded to be sent home a week ahead of the main body cantered right through to Paris without any problems.

What held Napoleon up was that he couldn't work out what the Russians were up to and totally lost the initiative as a result. He assumed they would attack to save Moscow, resulting in a battle he would have surely won. The only clever thing Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov did during the whole campaign was to abandon and burn Moscow - as much out of fear of facing Napoleon as for any strategic reason. Kutuzov then simply camped out to the south of Moscow and resupplied himself. He didn't really have a plan other than to avoid fighting at all costs; he just waited and let the weather do its work.

Napoleon entered Russia on June 24 with nearly half a million men; he left Moscow with maybe a quarter of million due to deaths on the road and heavy casualties suffered at the battle of Borodino near the capital; the army finally escaped with only 27,000 soldiers still standing.


The roots of the war were the Treaties of Tilsit, signed between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I in July 1807, following Napoleon's victory at Friedland. Napoleon could have destroyed the Russian army, but wanted to secure his eastern border and make Russia safe so the treaty made Russian an "ally". This "friendship" involved ordering Russia to close its borders to the British ships, Napoleon's real enemy, which crippled the Russian economy because then, as now, it didn't make anything, importing even its pots and pans from Britain.

What is striking is Napoleon's arrogance as he rose roughshod over the slightly gawky Tsar. Russian ire at Napoleon's high-handed treatment built up over the following years. The legacy of the Cold War has been blamed for poor relations between east and west today, but even in 1812 the French saw Russians as a people apart - the "Slavs", the "barbarians" - and looked down on them as a people. This view was only reinforced by the appalling poverty in the regions they found once they had entered Russian lands -- something else which hasn't changed -- which also meant the Grande Armée could not supply itself even on the relatively easy march into Moscow.

Alexander eventually lost all faith in Napoleon's feigned friendship and massed his army on the border of what was left of Poland.

This whole episode smacks of Nato's treatment of Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin poignantly reminded the alliance of its broken promises and fake hand of friendship following the fall of the Soviet Union at the Munich Security Conference in a famous speech in 2007, when the West massed its forces on Russia's border. "I think it is obvious that Nato expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them," Putin said in the Munich speech.

Napoleon didn't want to fight Russia, he only wanted to teach it a lesson and scare the Tsar into a new treaty. So he assembled the Grand Armée - one of the biggest the world had ever seen. Here is one of those examples of when Napoleon assumed the Russians would react rationally: Napoleon arrived with over half a million men, outgunning the Russian army by nearly two to one.

But rather than being daunted by this huge force, the Russian court that was camped behind the lines didn't even notice its arrival. The nobility was too busy having balls and parties to bother with any sort of real preparation.

The first they knew of the Grande Armée's arrival was when it crossed the Nieman river into Russian territory without being challenged. Alexander's generals panicked - they suddenly realised they were going to be attacked and would lose, so they retreated. And the army kept retreating until it reached Borodino near Moscow where it was forced to give battle - and lost, only to retreat again, all the time drawing Napoleon deeper and deeper into Russia.

Like today, the Russian military had a large number of men and materiel, but suffered from a lethal combination of over-confidence and disorganisation. The Tsar contributed to the chaos due to his meddling and failure to put Kutuzov clearly in charge due to clan politics.

As an autocrat, Alexander, like Putin, was entirely dependent on the nobles for power and the high command turned into a nest of vipers as the factions lobbied for advantage - ignoring the approaching French army in the process in 1812, or getting on with the job of reform in Putin's case.

When Alexander eventually went back to St Petersburg and tried to raise money and supplies for the diminishing army, many of nobles promptly stole it, while traders put the price of muskets and sabres up tenfold.

The irony of the whole campaign was the Russian army was totally unfit to fight, let alone fight one of the greatest generals in history. So how did it win?

The saga highlight the fact that Russia's sheer size makes it un-attackable by conventional means (as Hitler also found out). Its vast natural resources also mean armies can constantly be resupplied as Russia was then and is now a rich country. Napoleon's men were amazed by the luxury and grandeur of Moscow on their arrival, which outshone Paris until it was put to the torch.

But maybe most importantly the sheer bloody-mindedness of the Russian soldier and the low value put on life by the high command that makes them very difficult to defeat. In the battle of Borodino, the Russians put their soldiers in range of French guns and left them there: some units lost two-thirds of their men without engaging the enemy once. Napoleon was fighting a modern war and caught out by these tactics of wantonly squandering men, which prevented him from delivering a coup de gr-ce that day.

Putin's Russia has many of these traits. The West is built on the principles of personal freedom, but the autocratic tendency that makes the state pre-eminent is alive and well in Russia. The corruption of the Imperial days never went away; it has gotten worse in the last few years simply because the state has more money thanks to the stratospheric rise of oil prices.

The chaos caused by bickering amongst the "high command" for personal gain is also an easily recognized feature of the current administration. As home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the world (and second most in absolute terms), Russia has then and now too many princes, which makes organising an army, let alone an economy, difficult.

The West is also making the same mistake as Napoleon, assuming that Russia will act rationally when all it does for the most part is react to events. Unable to understand Russia's motives, the West blunders into the increasingly bellicose rhetoric and like Napoleon ends up fighting a war that it doesn't want. Napoleon explicitly said he never wanted to fight Russia, as it had nothing that he wanted, yet ended up suffering one of his worst defeats ever.

Finally, anyone who has spent time in Russia and tried to do something without the correct paperwork sees the nonsensical bloody-mindedness on a daily basis. The apathy that greets the hundreds of people that die every year from swimming while drunk, or eating poisoned mushrooms, let alone the deaths in the two Chechen and one Georgian war, testifies to the enduring low value placed on life in Russia.

The West struggles to understand how such a corrupt, disorganised, wasteful state can function. These problems would quickly lead to the defeat of any normal country, but assuming Russia was like the other countries in Europe was also Napoleon's mistake.

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