Time for the West to Start Building Russia a ‘Golden Bridge’

 

As sanctions cripple the Russian economy and Ukraine bravely holds its own against Putin’s onslaught, it’s time for the West to prepare for a pivot. And they should do so by taking the advice of a 19th-century Russian general.

In 1812, Napoleon launched a full-scale invasion of the Russian empire, expecting a few big wins would force Czar Alexander I to capitulate. It had worked with other European leaders; should be wrapped up in a couple of months. But the old, obese, one-eyed General Mikhail Kutuzov had another idea.

As the invasion began, Napoleon took Smolensk, along with significant casualties. A victory nonetheless. He marched toward Moscow, adding far more French casualties (especially from disease). But he was still on the move. Kutusov and his generals heroically fought him at Borodino, about a day’s march from Russia’s old capital. They essentially fought the French to a draw in the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, but surrendered the field and moved east of Moscow. A Pyrrhic victory for Napoleon, but technically a win.

Finally, Napoleon arrived in Russia’s largest city to find no one but a remnant of the elderly, infirm, and vagabonds. He took the largest city in Russia; the Czar was sure to capitulate, right?

Right?

Napoleon’s repeated demands for surrender went unanswered. Several weeks later, the first snow flurries fell, and Napoleon realized he had to get back home.

Kutuzov at the conference of Filii decided to surrender Moscow to Napoleon. Aleksey Kivshenko (1851–1895)

Kutuzov wasn’t trusted by a lot of his glory-hound generals or his chivalric czar. Alexander was furious Kutuzov didn’t put up a fight-to-the-death for Moscow. But now was the general’s time to shine. Time to build a golden bridge.

“I prefer giving my enemy a ‘pont d’or’ [golden bridge], as you call it, to receiving a ‘coup de collier’ [blow born of desperation].” — Gen. Kutuzov

Kutuzov refused to engage in large battles until he was sure that Napoleon was safely out of the way. Why trap the French Guards in Russia and create a life-and-death struggle for the Russian army?

His subordinate, Gen. Mikhail Miloradovich explained the strategy to a vengeful underling desperate for a glorious set-piece battle:

“The old man’s view is this: if we incite the enemy to desperation, that will cost us useless blood: but if we let him run and give him a decent escort he will destroy himself in the course of a few days. You know: people cannot live on air, snow doesn’t make a very homely bivouac and without horses he cannot move his food, munitions or guns.”

Kutuzov knew that his best weapons weren’t cannons or Cossacks, but the brutal Russian winter and the vastness of the empire. Napoleon was 1,500 miles from Paris; he had lured the French emperor far, far from home. His troops were sick, hungry, and demoralized.

As officers drew up plans to surround the French, Kutuzov knew that the path to victory was getting those foreigners the hell out of Russia.

They cleared the main road back to western Europe and blocked other routes. As the French trudged through mud, then snow, then ice, they were cut down from behind and on either side by ruthless Cossacks. After they had abandoned gear and ate their horses, even more French soldiers died sick, frozen, and starving.

About 600,000 French invaded Russia; about 100,000 made it across Kutuzov’s Golden Bridge.

Charles Minard’s 1869 chart showing the number of men in Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign army, their movements, as well as the temperature they encountered on the return path

Back to 2022. For the time being, Ukraine should keep fighting like hell. The West should keep sending arms to Zelensky and ratcheting up the sanctions. At this point, the war is far closer to Smolensk than Napoleon’s retreat.

But wise minds in DC and European capitals should be drafting blueprints for a Golden Bridge. Trap Putin on every side except one red-carpeted pathway to withdrawal.

Russia certainly won’t face a snow- and disease-ridden retreat, but this bridge is more about soft power than military destruction.

The longer Russia remains in Ukraine, the more deaths on all sides, the more foreign mercenaries flood the country, the bloodier a grinding insurgency. That won’t help anyone, least of all Ukraine. Direct Putin, his senior advisers, and his generals to some type of face-saving exit.

Putin isn’t ready to abandon the field now, not by a long shot. But western allies better be planning what to do a week from now, maybe three. Seduce some oligarchs with promises that sanctions could be lifted upon a retreat. Impress a general or ambitious politician that maybe Russia would be better off with new leadership.

Military history doesn’t give us much hope of a happy, peaceful conclusion. We still should try to convince Russia it’s in their best interest. The potential for a financial collapse and a power struggle creates a whole new set of challenges (see: Republic, Weimar).

Russian paranoia about the West isn’t limited to Putin but is common among his people. Make sure the punishing sanctions are blamed on the autocrat, not the US or EU. Offer a gilded off-ramp festooned with olive branches to make a retreat as easy as possible.

Today remains the time for force but we need to start building that golden bridge. Putin may refuse to cross it but, hopefully, those who care about Russia’s future choose the pont d’or.

Published in Foreign Policy, Military
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  1. Nathanael Ferguson Contributor
    Nathanael Ferguson
    @NathanaelFerguson

    Excellent piece. One might call it VDH-esque both in style and substance. 

    • #1
  2. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    That’s certainly the best analysis of the situation and, I hope, outcome that I have read.

    • #2
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: But wise minds in DC and European capitals should be drafting blueprints for a Golden Bridge. Trap Putin on every side except one red-carpeted pathway to withdrawal.

    The aptly-named Golden Bridge has been built. The trap has been laid.  But too many western oligarchs have been dragging their feet on springing the trap, thus protecting Putin’s forces from defeat.

    Putin and his oligarchs have been investing their wealth in western countries, where it is protected by the rule of law.  Putin has by far the largest share, but it is in the custody of his oligarchs. Putin’s latest yacht, not quite completely furnished, sailed away just before he launched his invasion, so it will be hard to seize that item. But there is much, much more that is not so portable.

    I got some of that (though not the fact of Putin’s tremendous wealth) from this interview with Bill Browder:

    Browder and people like him know where a some of that wealth is in the west, and it could be seized.  But a lot of it is hidden from view.  (You can watch the Alexei Navalny video’s about Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, or others of his anti-corruption group’s videos, to get a lot of insights and learn specific instances of how money and wealth are laundered.) 

    Browder would like laws enacted to require western participants in these wealth-hiding operations to make the true ownership known, with criminal penalties including prison for failing to divulge it.

     

    • #3
  4. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel was caught off guard, and was rapidly going through munitions.  In one of his best moves, Nixon directly supplied the Israelis.  I would hope that Biden would let our NATO allies know that we will replace munitions that they give to Ukrainians.  

    According to the Washington Post, there was a 1:40 doctrine to adequately occupy a country after the Second World War.  Ukraine has 40 million people.  Russia does not have 1 million troops to hold Ukraine.  

    • #4
  5. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    The Golden Bridge is Sun Tzu, no? Timeless advice. Sun Tzu probably got it from Marcus Aurelius, who got it from Alexander, who heard about it from some wizened historian. 

    The oligarchs need to be reassured they can have all their money back, and be allowed to sail their gross gilded barges into tony Euro ports and tell all their friends they were part of the resistance. Fine; make it so. The military needs to know we will invoke the Sgt. Schultz clause, and no one will be held accountable for anything.

    In short: smoke that pig, your Visa cards work again, and all is behind us. Oh, did we mention you get a taste of Vlad’s stash. Because you do. 

    • #5
  6. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    The Golden Bridge is Sun Tzu, no? Timeless advice. Sun Tzu probably got it from Marcus Aurelius, who got it from Alexander, who heard about it from some wizened historian. 

    I’ve seen it credited to Sun Tzu, Scipio Africanus, and a few other ancient guys, so I left out the attribution. I Googled it because I assumed Clausewitz said it. By the way, if you read Clausewitz’s “On War” have an IV of caffeine nearby; bit of a slog…

    • #6
  7. Podkayne of Israel Member
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    The Golden Bridge is Sun Tzu, no? Timeless advice. Sun Tzu probably got it from Marcus Aurelius, who got it from Alexander, who heard about it from some wizened historian.

    I’ve seen it credited to Sun Tzu, Scipio Africanus, and a few other ancient guys, so I left out the attribution. I Googled it because I assumed Clausewitz said it. By the way, if you read Clausewitz’s “On War” have an IV of caffeine nearby; bit of a slog…

    Indeed. Machiavelli is a snap compared to Clausewitz.

    • #7
  8. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    In some ways, such a bridge is already assumed: if Putin is gone, all the sanctions, etc. will vanish. 

    But in other ways, such a bridge is very hard to build: how would or could the West (or indeed, anyone in Russia) credibly offer Putin a way in which he can survive if he steps down?

    • #8
  9. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    The Golden Bridge is Sun Tzu, no? Timeless advice. Sun Tzu probably got it from Marcus Aurelius, who got it from Alexander, who heard about it from some wizened historian. 

    Sun Tzu died 496 BC. 150 years before Alexander. I am sure he is the earliest known source for the concept and the name for it.

    • #9
  10. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    It seems to me that the parallels with Napoleon are not so parallel and the analogy fails.  It’s too early for us to know how things are really going.  We cannot see if one side or the other has reserves to rely on.  Jon’s analysis is interesting, and I hope accurate, but we are just spectators of a wolf attack, and we can’t yet know if the wolf pack will win or quit.  What we’re seeing could yet be a whole lot of propaganda designed to draw in assistance.  I’m hopeful, but there is more to see yet.

    Napoleon didn’t threaten to use nuclear weapons.

    • #10
  11. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    If the West merely publicly offered Putin a personal exit strategy that guaranteed his personal safety, etc., it would be a huge PR blow. If Russians start openly speculating that Putin might bail out, it sharpens the knives within Russia.

    • #11
  12. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    I’m not sure Putin has to go.  He wants Crimea, which he has and doesn’t want NATO in the rest.  We wouldn’t accept China dominating Mexico or Canada either.   The out is there and the more costly for Russia and the more unambiguous the West, probably the sooner the compromise. The more EU leads and the less Biden, who has no credibility, the better.

    • #12
  13. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I Walton (View Comment):

    I’m not sure Putin has to go. He wants Crimea, which he has and doesn’t want NATO in the rest. We wouldn’t accept China dominating Mexico or Canada either. The out is there and the more costly for Russia and the more unambiguous the West, probably the sooner the compromise. The more EU leads and the less Biden, who has no credibility, the better.

    There’s a big difference, though.  China is an oppressive government.  Ours isn’t.  The is no reason to act as though our objection to China in Mexico would be morally equivalent to the Ukraine’s objection to Russians.

    • #13
  14. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    I wish this was possible.  But all indications from what I can tell, Russia is going to win this and gain all there goals.

    There is a larger plan at work here.  For example the Russian economy has stabilized.   They took a hit yes, but they knew they would, it was all part of their plan.

    They got kicked off of Swift?  Did they.  Do  you know the Russians and China have an alternative to Swift they plan on using.  It looks like India and Saudi Arabia about to start using it as an alternative.

    The most effective sanction against Iran has been denial of Swift.  Guess who will be one of the first countries to sign up to this alternative program.  Guess who will be getting there economy back up and running?  

    We keep reacting and looking at this tactically.  The other powers are following a strategic plan to reshape the global order.

    And we keep following into there golden bridges. And thinking we are laying one out for them.

    • #14
  15. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    It’s not Moscow, and it’s not Winter.

    The lingering weaknesses in the Russian military (which has everything to do with logistics, aged equipment, spares, etc) have been shown to the world.  Imagine the Russians trying to pull off a Gulf War type of engagement.  There’s a reason he’d be hoping for a quick win.

    What does Putin want?  I am honestly confused by this simple question, which defines all his downstream actions and reactions.  That would shape the strategy.

    The other option is the Closed Bridge.  Meaning you’re here now, Vlad, and you’re going to stay, and you’re going to suffer for it.  Sadly, it’ll be Russian soldiers doing the suffering, not Vlad, but that’s a long and steeped tradition in Russian history.

    They repeat themselves.  As do we.

     

    • #15
  16. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):
    What does Putin want?

    Power and control over everything.  He’s a dictator.  That’s what they do.  He wants to resume Russia’s control over the former SSR’s and then keep going.  He wants Poland, Hungary, East Germany, etc.  That’s not really a hidden agenda at all.

    • #16
  17. Podkayne of Israel Member
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    It’s not Moscow, and it’s not Winter.

    The lingering weaknesses in the Russian military (which has everything to do with logistics, aged equipment, spares, etc) have been shown to the world. Imagine the Russians trying to pull off a Gulf War type of engagement. There’s a reason he’d be hoping for a quick win.

    What does Putin want? I am honestly confused by this simple question, which defines all his downstream actions and reactions. That would shape the strategy.

    The other option is the Closed Bridge. Meaning you’re here now, Vlad, and you’re going to stay, and you’re going to suffer for it. Sadly, it’ll be Russian soldiers doing the suffering, not Vlad, but that’s a long and steeped tradition in Russian history.

    They repeat themselves. As do we.

     

    The mud after the spring thaw can be worse than the winter. That’s why Putin attacked before it got too warm.

    • #17
  18. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    Come now, Jon. Biden and the West just got through building Putin a golden bridge INTO Ukraine. And it was Zelensky to whom Biden offered a Golden bridge OUT of Ukraine. And it was Biden who gave our intelligence to Cuna and tried to outsource the job of talking Putin out of invading to Xi. Whereupon Xi told Putin he had his back and Putin invaded. Now Biden is all but supporting Putin with faint sanctions. Looks to me like Biden is with Putin and Xi. Perhaps they have more serious Kompromat on Joe than does Ukraine.

    The West in general and Biden in particular we’re expecting a quick and easy victory for Russia after which it would be back to business as usual and nothing to see here, move along, move along. The pesky Ukrainians are threatening to upset that applecart. How dare they! So Biden has no choice tonight but to try to get out in front of the Ukrainians’ parade and pretend like he is leading it.

    I am afraid, Jon, that your brilliant suggestion is going to fall on deaf and cognitively challenged(and likely compromised) ears, at least for the moment.

    • #18
  19. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Jon, what makes you think that sanctions will be effective?  This has hardly ever happened before, as far as I can tell.  Even if you can find an example, they take a lot of time, don’t they?

    I saw Marco Rubio on Fox last night, claiming that Russia was facing an economic disaster in 10 days.  We’ll see.  It sounded like fantasy, to me.

    I also think that your military analogy is mistaken.  This is more like the Germans going into Belgium than the French going to Moscow, I think.

    Or maybe like Hitler taking Poland, which probably would have succeeded if he hadn’t repeated Napoleon’s mistake.

    I doubt that Putin will make such an error, but we’ll see.  I suspect that he won’t even move on western Ukraine.

    • #19
  20. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Gazpacho Grande’ (View Comment):
    What does Putin want?

    Power and control over everything. He’s a dictator. That’s what they do. He wants to resume Russia’s control over the former SSR’s and then keep going. He wants Poland, Hungary, East Germany, etc. That’s not really a hidden agenda at all.

    I don’t know what Putin wants in his heart of hearts.

    As a military man, how do you assess Russia’s chances of taking Poland, or Hungary, or East Germany?

    My impression is that I’m getting contradictory claims from different people (at least, I hope they’re different people).  Some people are claiming that Russia is incapable of taking Ukraine, and that the Russian offensive has failed.  Other people seem to be claiming that the Russians have the ability to take Berlin.

    My impression is that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  It looks to me as if the Russians can pretty easily take eastern Ukraine and encircle Kiev, and they seem to be doing this quite rapidly.  On the other hand, it looks to me as if they have inadequate forces for a serious drive on NATO, even without considering the dangerous geopolitical implications of such a move.

    • #20
  21. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
     I suspect that he won’t even move on western Ukraine.

    He already has. He may try to settle for less than the west, but it’s on his hit list, unless you think he’s lying about that.

    • #21
  22. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Gazpacho Grande’ (View Comment):
    What does Putin want?

    Power and control over everything. He’s a dictator. That’s what they do. He wants to resume Russia’s control over the former SSR’s and then keep going. He wants Poland, Hungary, East Germany, etc. That’s not really a hidden agenda at all.

    I don’t know what Putin wants in his heart of hearts.

    As a military man, how do you assess Russia’s chances of taking Poland, or Hungary, or East Germany?

    My impression is that I’m getting contradictory claims from different people (at least, I hope they’re different people). Some people are claiming that Russia is incapable of taking Ukraine, and that the Russian offensive has failed. Other people seem to be claiming that the Russians have the ability to take Berlin.

    My impression is that the truth is somewhere in the middle. It looks to me as if the Russians can pretty easily take eastern Ukraine and encircle Kiev, and they seem to be doing this quite rapidly. On the other hand, it looks to me as if they have inadequate forces for a serious drive on NATO, even without considering the dangerous geopolitical implications of such a move.

    Putin’s capability today is not the same as his capability tomorrow. His capability tomorrow is affected by what happens today.  Same with the west’s capability to defend itself from Putin’s aggression, whether military or diplomatic. 

    • #22
  23. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    Before we can prepare for Vlad’s defeat, we have to sure up supply lines to the Ukraine.  All these munitions promised Ukraine do no good it they can’t be delivered.  

    Likewise, Russia’s convoy is open, obvious and vulnerable.  If a few bridges are destroyed, the delay would be serious.  The Ukraine can’t be shy about destroying infrastructure key to Russia’s advance.  

    It is very early to be talking about golden bridges.  We need desperate Russians first.  

     

     

     

    • #23
  24. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    I suspect that he won’t even move on western Ukraine.

    He already has. He may try to settle for less than the west, but it’s on his hit list, unless you think he’s lying about that.

    What in the world are you talking about?

    Are you saying that Russia already has forces in western Ukraine?  If so, please provide a source.

    If you’re claiming that it’s on his “hit list,” what is your source for this?  I think that we need to be careful not to read too much into his statements.

    • #24
  25. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    Are you saying that Russia already has forces in western Ukraine?  If so, please provide a source.

    Please tell me how you define “western Ukraine”?

    Physical Map of Ukraine showing its relief, major mountain ranges, Crimean peninsula, major rivers, bordering countries, important cities, etc.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Maybe what Russia – or at least Putin – really needs is not a Golden Bridge, but a Golden Shower.  I expect there would be a surplus of Ukrainian volunteers.

    • #26
  27. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    iWe (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    Are you saying that Russia already has forces in western Ukraine? If so, please provide a source.

    Please tell me how you define “western Ukraine”?

    Physical Map of Ukraine showing its relief, major mountain ranges, Crimean peninsula, major rivers, bordering countries, important cities, etc.

    Good question.  There are a couple of ways.

    On that map, something like west of Zhytomyr.

    Overall, I suspect the Putin won’t advance past “Russia-oriented Ukraine, who’d is approximately a line from Kharkov to Chisnau on that map (meaning a line to the Ukraine-Moldova border in the direction of Chisnau).  The exception to this is Kiev, which I think he will encircle.

    This is just my speculation, based on my assessment that it would be difficult and unnecessary to go further.  We’ll have to wait and see.

    • #27
  28. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Where’s the fire? That was pretty important. 

    And there were battles as Napoleon’s forces left on the main road. They were cavalry and relatively few men. Russia had the best cavalry in the world at the time and the French didn’t sharpen the horseshoes to deal with the ice and snow. Big mistake. The Poles had warned them. Napoleon himself was the first out and faced none of the hardships of his army. 

     

    • #28
  29. Jager Coolidge
    Jager
    @Jager

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    I suspect that he won’t even move on western Ukraine.

    He already has. He may try to settle for less than the west, but it’s on his hit list, unless you think he’s lying about that.

    What in the world are you talking about?

    Are you saying that Russia already has forces in western Ukraine? If so, please provide a source.

    If you’re claiming that it’s on his “hit list,” what is your source for this? I think that we need to be careful not to read too much into his statements.

    I guess we need to better define what we mean by east and west in Ukraine.  Russian troops took over the Chernobyl power plant. That seems pretty far west to me. 

    https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/chernobyl-power-plant-captured-by-russian-forces-ukrainian-official-2022-02-24/

    • #29
  30. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Jager (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    I suspect that he won’t even move on western Ukraine.

    He already has. He may try to settle for less than the west, but it’s on his hit list, unless you think he’s lying about that.

    What in the world are you talking about?

    Are you saying that Russia already has forces in western Ukraine? If so, please provide a source.

    If you’re claiming that it’s on his “hit list,” what is your source for this? I think that we need to be careful not to read too much into his statements.

    I guess we need to better define what we mean by east and west in Ukraine. Russian troops took over the Chernobyl power plant. That seems pretty far west to me.

    https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/chernobyl-power-plant-captured-by-russian-forces-ukrainian-official-2022-02-24/

    Maybe Ukraine should let Russia take Chernobyl back to Russia with them.

    • #30
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