In 2004, Islamist terrorists attacked a school in Beslan, in southern Russia’s South Ossetia region. The brutal terrorists murdered students at will and refused to give the hundreds of child hostages basic essentials, such as water. Eventually, an ill-fated raid, perhaps launched in haste during the crisis, led to the deaths of many terrorists and hundreds of children. Russian leader Vladimir Putin was stoic and defiant. “The root cause of the present troubles, Putin insisted, had been the break-up of the Soviet Union, which had unleashed ethnic tensions previously held in check,” writes Philip Short in his epic biography of Russia’s leader.
“The root cause of the present troubles, Putin insisted, had been the break-up of the Soviet Union, which had unleashed ethnic tensions previously held in check.”Philip Short
It’s easy today to fall into clichés about Putin. His invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a vicious war and caused millions to flee. Russia is accused of gross human rights abuses. The new book on Putin helps to put some of that in perspective. Ostensibly, the army that Putin ordered into Ukraine had been reformed from its even more brutal legions of conscripts that had gone into Chechnya two decades ago.
Short’s book is not about the recent conflict. In fact, most of the book is about the rise of Putin, and also his difficulties as a young man growing up in Leningrad and trying to find a career. The book helps provide insights into some key aspects of Putin’s personality and mentality. For instance, it notes his friendships with Jews as a younger man, which helps explain his disdain for antisemitism.
A book on the rise of Putin, insights into his personality and mentality
This book is not an anti-Putin biography; it tries to investigate and push back against simplistic narratives and conspiracies. For instance, it is critical of theories that regard a series of terrorist bombings that took place during his rise to power as some kind of inside job. It also doesn’t paint a picture of a conspiracy by the KGB and its successor, the FSB, to bring back to power an old Soviet-style operator. What is most interesting in this account is how lucky Putin was to be at the right place and at the right time during key moments.
The current Russian leader saw the fall of the Soviet Union as it happened – as a KGB officer posted to East Germany and then as a rising bureaucrat in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. It’s hard for many in the West to understand the chaos of the 1990s in Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union had been quick. Not only had a bunch of satellite states become independent, such as Estonia, but inside Russia there was widespread poverty, gang violence, corruption, ethnic tensions and an economic system that gave oligarchs power and let Westerners prey on the economy, if briefly. Putin’s role as a bureaucrat in the 1990s didn’t really solve these issues at the local level. In fact, he is portrayed as a manager who was willing to work within a system of gangs and corruption. Only later would he try to tame it.
The war in Ukraine seems to have been foreshadowed by Putin’s reading of history. He wanted to get back areas that had been part of Russia or the Soviet Union. He was also willing to suffer casualties to do it, and he gambled on the weakness of the West. Short is good at weaving in some foreshadowing in this respect. He describes one Estonian leader warning the West about appeasing Russia.
Putin came to power as the world was changing. Russia was critiqued for its heavy-handed crushing of Islamist rebels in Chechnya. After 9/11 the critique stopped, as the West was dealing with similar types of terrorism. Putin set about reorganizing Russia internally, stepping up control of various regions, and reining in oligarchs, while getting rid of free media. In many ways, his model was the one followed in Turkey and other countries that have become authoritarian. Putin was also clear from the beginning that a multi-polar world had to be created, bringing Russia back to its rightful place and reducing the US’s power.
Russia, Iran and a nuclear deal
There isn’t a lot in this book about Israel, but there are some interesting asides about Iran and US leaders, such as Joe Biden. In 2009, it turned out that the Obama administration was looking for Russia’s help regarding Iran. “If Russia would help to ensure that Iran would not develop a nuclear weapon capability [Obama wrote], there would be no need for America to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.” In short, the US administration sold out Eastern Europe to get the Iran deal, helping Russia. Then-vice president Joe Biden was happy to press the reset button on relations, the book says.
A fair look at history but a lot of questions unanswered
Putin didn’t change. The book is judgmental of the West for not abiding by its promises not to expand NATO and is also critical of the US media for hypocritically claiming that Russia meddles in elections, while not asking the same question of how the US has meddled in elections abroad.
This is a fair look at history but leaves some questions to be answered. A lot of the NATO expansion that Putin supposedly cares about took place after he came to power. Didn’t Poland have a right to join NATO? Should Russia be allowed to decide that a huge swath of Eastern Europe is its near abroad [the newly independent republics formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union]?
In the end, Putin is portrayed as getting revenge or payback for how the US behaved in the 1990s. Russia’s conflict with Georgia and recognition of breakaway republics, like Abkhazia, is seen as revenge for the US war on Serbia. Russia was willing to intervene in Syria to get back at the US for its role in Iraq and Libya. While this payback doctrine may be an accurate portrayal of Putin’s mentality, it doesn’t go all the way to explaining Russia’s abuses in places like Ukraine.
While it is true that the US invaded Iraq, it’s not true that the US has committed the kinds of abuses that Moscow did. And it’s not true that the US simply invaded for the heck of it its bordering states, such as Mexico. Russia’s decisions are Russia’s own, and they can’t all be explained by how the West behaved. Nevertheless, this excellent book goes a long way toward understanding Putin’s worldview. It doesn’t fully explain his failures in the 1990s to rein in the chaos in St. Petersburg, and there is a lack of focus on the last decade of his rule, but it goes a long way toward helping the reader understand the Moscow regime.
Putin By Philip Short Henry Holt and Company854 pages; $40.00