It's recorded that when a ruler was confronted by an enemy in very ancient times in China, he would ask the gods for advice on what moves to make, and what chances for victory to expect.

Sun-tzu caused a revolution in Chinese decision-making, because his advice concentrated on the lay of the land on which armies had to fight; on the armament and quality of troops; on logistical factors like supply and mobility; and on intelligence assets, such as surprise, concealment, and inside knowledge of the enemy's plans.The Chinese kings whom Sun-tzu advised were a ruthless, violent bunch, and sometimes slow learners. They had trouble understanding why, if the diviners claimed the gods were on their side, victory wasn't certain.

That's why Sun-tzu boiled his advice down into simple sound bites. ''If it's not advantageous, do not move,'' was a caution intended to prevent impetuous action by an over-confident king.

For rulers with an exaggerated sense of their physical prowess, Sun-tzu warned it was better to defeat an enemy by not fighting at all: ''If you are equal in strength to the enemy, then you can engage him. If fewer, you can circumvent him. If outmatched, you can avoid him. A small enemy that acts inflexibly will become the captives of a large enemy.''

Sun-tzu isn't recorded as saying much about the retreat of kings, let alone their retirement. He knew these were touchy matters; he himself was forced to do both more than once in his career.

From that experience came one of his greatest innovations: the lesson that in uncertain situations - contentious terrain, in his words - ''The one who yields will gain, while the one who fights will lose.''

Sun-tzu was dead almost two millennia before the Russian state was consolidated. But even now, whenever Chinese intelligence is in doubt about how to assess Russian political developments, Sun-tzu's analysis always proves useful.

That may be why the Chinese have a different analysis of the latest upheaval in the Kremlin, where President Boris Yeltsin eliminated one apparently loyal prime minister after just a few weeks' service and appointed another.

Most of the Russian explanations claim Vladimir Putin was picked not only because his loyalty is greater than that of his predecessor, Sergei

Stepashin, but also because he is more aggressive. And therefore he is seen as more likely to defeat Yeltsin's enemies - Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, the Communists.

In fact, almost everyone in Russian politics outside Yeltsin's family is now an enemy, for the simple reason that no one who supports him can win an election.

The Russian theory is that Yeltsin, suffering from delusions of megalomania and paranoia, has made a rash movement onto fatal terrain in hopes of destroying his opposition. Putin seemed to say so, declaring himself in a combative mood on his first day in office and revealing, among his few personal details, that he practices the martial arts.

But what if Yeltsin and his family have understood the lay of the land, and realize they will be defeated if they venture onto the battlefield? The Russian answer to that question has taken the form of dozens of scenarios of how the Kremlin courtiers are plotting to cancel or steal the elections on one pretext or another. Nothing Yeltsin and Putin can say to deny this is believable. Perhaps they think it useful to keep stoking suspicion.

Is this the tactic of attack by a force that out-numbers its enemy five to one, which was the ratio Sun-tzu recommended? No - not even if the rubles and media minutes commanded by the Kremlin are counted in the balance of forces.

Perhaps then the Chinese guess may be closer to the truth. This suggests that Yeltsin and his family are actually retreating to save as much for themselves as they can.

This is not a feigned retreat, which Sun-tzu counselled against and Yeltsin would never contemplate. It is a real retreat. To be effective, however, Yeltsin's enemies must be convinced it is nothing of the sort.

This, so the Asian reasoning goes, is why Yeltsin eliminated one prime minister for another. Not because Putin has a better chance of victory, but because Putin is better at fighting the rear-guard action.

His purpose, something Stepashin wasn't capable of, is to fight so fiercely that he can mislead the enemy, and cut the losses such a retreat would cause under other conditions.

Of course, if an old Chinese philosopher publicly proposed this variant of Russian events, in Moscow he would be greeted with ridicule.

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