It’s only a matter of time, writes longtime Russia hand Lourie (A Hatred for Tulips, 2007, etc.), before Vladimir Putin oversteps his bounds and his imperial project comes tumbling down. Or is it?
There are large questions tucked away inside this provocative book, which posits that Putin’s Russia will not long endure in its present iteration. Rather, it will become a more democratic power, or perhaps a more despotic one, perhaps richer or perhaps “no more than China’s gas station and lumberyard.” The author imagines, for instance, a scenario in which the president of Kazakhstan passes away suddenly, leaving a vacuum of power in a region now contested by several state powers, to say nothing of Islamists who will already have enlisted the support of China’s Uighur population. One likely outcome might be that Russia, as it did with the Crimea, would annex Kazakhstan in order to protect the minority Russian population, dealing along the way with the Uighurs, an accidental favor to China. In all this, the balance of power would shift in Russia’s favor—and all because Russia has never been averse to showing force. For all that, writes Lourie, Russia is already showing signs of weakness; he sees in Putin’s recent formation of a kind of army-within-the-army Praetorian guard a nervousness, a fear, while he finds in Russia’s scramble for the Arctic another kind of vulnerability, since “without Western investment, equipment, and expertise, [the Arctic will be] much more difficult to exploit.” Of course, many other writers have predicted Putin’s downfall, and the man has to die sometime. The author does give Putin credit for a few positive accomplishments, and the author assesses a few potential replacements, including Alexei Navalny, a youngish opposition candidate who has publicly characterized Putin’s party as “the party of crooks and thieves” and gotten much traction for it.
Solid overall, as crystal-ball geopolitical treatises go, though with enough hedging to allow for a broad range of outcomes.