Naval Battle of Port Arthur, 1904. Russo-Japanese War. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Russia’s Tsushima moment

Campaign Diary: Putin’s regime is suffering from an old problem — imperial overreach

“I think that the constant study of maps is apt to disturb men’s reasoning powers,” said Lord Salisbury, thrice Britain’s Prime Minister at the end of the nineteenth century. He was referring to Cecil Rhodes’ dream of a strip of British pink from Cairo to Cape Town.

The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury had a point. It is too easy to look at the shading on a chart and imagine another map with a far greater share of the same hue, acquired at the expense of the other colours around it. Thus, the riot of shades that make up the world’s land masses lose their rainbow effect and become unsubtle blocks of dull matte black, red, pink, blue or whatever. We seem to have arrived at such a moment today.

Nazi underground bases appeared as Fleming’s villains’ secret headquarters

I am certain Vladimir Putin has a giant coloured globe, or maybe a huge map set in a wall, which at the tap of a button, silently slides in and out of view. In his mind, he will no doubt have experimented with his artist’s palette, of coating many of his geographical neighbours with his favourite shade of bright, bloody crimson.

Talking of sliding panels operated by secret switches, I would be surprised if the Russian leader has not watched all the James Bond movies, if only out of professional interest. He would see, if so, that he is every one of Ian Fleming’s villainous creations — Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Le Chiffre, Sir Hugo Drax, Auric Goldfinger, Emilio Largo, Dr Julius No and Francisco Scaramanga — all rolled into one person.

Presiding over the robber state that is the Russian Federation, Putin is at once militarily and politically all-powerful, but also the master international criminal. At a 2017 US Senate Judiciary Hearing, the Putin arch-critic and American financier, Bill Browder, estimated the Russian had “accumulated $200 billion of ill-gotten gains”, describing him as “one of the richest men in the world, if not the richest”.

It was the Second World War espionage boss, Commander Ian Fleming, who brought not only his world famous spy to life, but also the lairs of James Bond’s opponents. Fleming had inspected many of the Nazi underground factories and subterranean rocket bases immediately after the defeat of the Fatherland in 1945. In print, they appeared as his villains’ secret headquarters.

Fleming’s novels were in turn translated into celluloid by the talent of set designer Ken Adam. He worked on seven Bond movies, beginning with Dr No in 1962, via You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds Are Forever, and devised the circular War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove of 1964. If you don’t remember the scene, you’ll recall its most poignant line: “Please, gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.”

Adam was also working with inside knowledge, for he was born in Berlin, to Jewish parents, who fled to Britain in 1934. On the outbreak of war, Adam enlisted into a British army engineering unit composed of Axis nationals, designing bomb shelters. He later joined the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot, where he was known as “Heiney the Tank Buster”. After VE-Day, Adam toured the concrete structures and German bases he had attacked. “I flew fighters in the war, made some great movies and was Knighted by the Queen [in 2003]. Not bad for a Jewish lad from Berlin,” he told me in an interview.

In a bizarre case of real life imitating fiction, it was Alexei Navalny, now rotting in Russia’s harshest penal colony for his exposé, who discovered Putin’s covert lair. Sprawling on the Black Sea coast, it might have been designed by Ken Adam. The Russian leader’s $1.9 billion palace comes with a below-ground grand salon, hollowed-out of the cliff-face, lit by a gigantic panoramic window, that, at the touch of another button, can be retracted to let in the sea breezes. Access to the beach or the rest of the complex is by tunnels carved into the rock.

Its existence is naturally denied by the Kremlin, but the site, at Cape Idokopas, near the village of Praskoveevka, is equipped with two helipads, and reputedly 39 times the size of Monaco. I make the basic assumption that scores of designer-stubbled security muscle, dressed in black, toting sub-machine-guns, with a shoot-on-sight brief, will be prowling about.

Ian Fleming must be nodding, but aghast at his own foresight

There is no country that Putin’s agents of influence cannot penetrate, no media organisation that cannot be “turned” to promote his message, nowhere safe from his assassins and “sleeper” agents, no bank or firm of international lawyers that cannot be compromised by offering him their services. Looking down, Ian Fleming must be both nodding with approval, but aghast at his own foresight. Thus, the sliding world map on the wall of the hollowed-out bat cave, with its retractable, panoramic glass window (note: Hitler had one of these at Berchtesgaden to view the Bavarian alps), attack helicopters, ruthless bodyguards — and presumably somewhere a tank of killer sharks — are all small change to the billionaire controller of… well, take your pick of any of the abbreviations on offer, SMERSH, SPECTRE or the FSB.

In my (much) younger television-viewing days, every 1960s screenplay of all my favourite shows, from Star Trek, The Saint and Freewheelers to The New Avengers, Mission Impossible, The Persuaders and Dr Who, seemed to portray our heroes battling Nazis attempting to create a Fourth Reich. Terry Nation, who designed the Daleks, is on record as having based the Doctor’s iconic opponents on SS stormtroopers, with their belief in their own superiority, pitiless attitude to lesser races, and of course, that catchphrase, “exterminate”.

Thus, nothing about where we are in 2022, whether in terms of plot, the bad guys in black with their “Z” badges, their top secret bases or even their language, comes as a surprise. Substitute the Third Reich’s swooping eagle clutching a swastika, with Russia’s double-headed raptor (depicted looking east and west), and you appear to have the third decade of the twenty-first century.

The Russian Emperor, Tsar Nikolai II, also liked his coloured maps and globes. His empire in those days was usually illustrated as a sprawling brown plague, spreading across Europe and Asia. At the turn of the nineteenth century, His Imperial Majesty’s beef was less with his fellow Europeans, and more with the Empire of Japan. The Tsar and his Court could not grasp that this new power in the Pacific, comparatively small by size and population, might possibly be cleverer than their own, barely industrialised nation.

Tsar Nicholai also overlooked another detail. Japan, as one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, felt that Russia was a threat to the very survival of its nation. Amongst the vast, endless brew of races and ethnicities that made up Russia, there was no corresponding consensus. There was also a racist angle, as the Caucasian court in St Petersburg looked down their noses at what was then termed the “Yellow Peril”, regarding the interlopers in the Pacific as little more than mosquitos to be swatted away. The motivations to fight on either side were thus poles apart.

The upshot was the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War. It was fought indifferently by the Tsar’s generals and admirals, who lacked both drive and purpose, against their highly motivated Japanese opponents. After a lack-lustre land campaign, Nicolai’s Baltic Fleet set off for the Pacific in October 1904. Having sailed half-way around the world for seven months, and making for Vladivostok, Admiral Rozhestvensky’s armada reached the Tsushima Strait which separates the Korean Peninsula from the Japanese islands.

Lying in wait for them was a Japanese fleet, superior in training, speed, armament, range finding and wireless telegraphy. It was the product of Tokyo’s recent industrialisation, Western help and studying the navies of the foremost maritime nations. Most of its modern warships had been built in British shipyards and its crews trained by the Royal Navy, while their commander, Admiral Heihachiro Togo, had spent much of his professional life serving with the British fleet. Japanese naval doctrine was borrowed from the influential US historian, naval officer and strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Many of the great powers received setbacks from indigenous forces

This was a curious era, when many of the great powers received setbacks, through arrogance and hubris, from indigenous forces. In June 1876, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer had been humbled by American Indians at Little Bighorn, Montana. On 22 January 1879 at Isandlwana in modern KwaZulu-Natal, a Zulu force equipped with assegai spears and cow-hide shields attacked and wiped out a 1,300-man British column, armed with Martini-Henry breechloading rifles. March 1896 saw a modern Italian army beaten by indigenous forces united under Emperor Menelik II at Adwa, in Ethiopia.

On land, in February–March 1905, a Japanese army bested and spectacularly drove off the Russian garrison of Mukden in Manchuria, after three weeks of bitter fighting. Seeing they were about to be encircled, Nicholai’s generals began a retreat, which soon deteriorated into a rout and brought about their collapse, incurring 90,000 casualties.

At sea, during the course of 28–29 May 1905, thirty-five Russian warships were sunk or captured as they arrived at Tsushima, while six took refuge in neutral ports. Only four of the original forty-five vessels reached the safety of the Imperial Russian anchorage at Vladivostok. The Tsar’s Baltic Fleet was not merely defeated but disintegrated. With it went any hope of regaining mastery of the Pacific. For the next forty years, until 1945, the anniversary of Tsushima would be celebrated as Japanese Navy Day.

The Russo-Japanese War was a rude awakening for the Tsar of All the Russians. He reeled at the news that the tiny island nation — approximately two per cent of Russia’s land mass — could defeat the Empire. His subjects, high and low, took note. Nicholai neither addressed his military shortcomings nor the social unrest they triggered, with fatal results twelve years later.

Although the current Russo-Ukraine War is far from over, Moscow’s initial assault has, in military parlance, reached its “Culmination Point”. Whilst being sold as “the end of Phase One”, Putin’s legions because of their own logistical shortcomings, Ukraine’s splendid defence and President Zelensky’s inspirational leadership, aided by the supply of Western munitions cannot continue with their current plan of operations. Exhausted, they have paused to re-plan, reinforce and resupply. Tsar Vladimir the First has reached his “Tsushima moment” for many of the same reasons his predecessor was literally sunk by his supposedly inferior opponents, the Japanese.

Just as Ken Adam’s Jewish family fled Nazi persecution in 1934, nine years earlier the Russian Jews Judah and Anna Asimov fled the unrest of Communist Russia, landing in New York in 1923. Their brilliant son, Isaac, born near Smolensk in 1920, but better known for his Foundation and Robot series of science fiction, once observed that “the easiest way to solve a problem is to deny it exists”.

Faced with his own Tsushima, Vladimir Putin still has a chance to recalibrate his nation and his army. However, on past form, the real-life Ian Fleming villain, wrapped in his billions, lurking in his professional Neanderthal cave, surrounded by his men in black, will likely conform to Asimov’s astute assertion of denial, and burrow deeper into the lair he has built for himself.

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