Books on the increasingly pugnacious Vladimir Putin, seemingly Russia’s president for as long as he wants, are not in short supply, but this short, shrewd analysis stands out.
“Not since the days of Reagan,” writes New Left Review editorial board member Wood, “has Russia seemed so central to US political life—and not since the depths of the Cold War has it been so unambiguously assumed across most of the political spectrum that Russia is the United States’ principal enemy.” There is less there than meets the eye, according to the author, who maintains that Putin is simply carrying on the policies of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Leaving the KGB in 1991, Putin made his reputation as a hardworking, absolutely loyal functionary. As designated successor in 2000, his first decree granted Yeltsin lifelong immunity from prosecution. Drunken and unpopular, Yeltsin was an easy act to follow, but Putin had a stroke of luck. Oil prices, the major source of government income, reversed their decline, allowing much of the population its first taste of prosperity. No more liberal than his predecessor but more efficient, Putin brought the media under government control, hobbled rival political parties without eliminating elections, and converted Russia into the “imitation democracy” that Western observers deplore. Few influential Russians, Putin included, pine for the old Soviet Union. The sole exception is its superpower status, whose loss rankles, and Wood believes that America’s greatest mistake was rubbing their nose in it by expanding NATO into Eastern Europe and meddling in areas like Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s backyard. The amenable Yeltsin complained bitterly, and Putin’s push back—e.g., the annexation of Crimea—was popular at home. Wood concludes that Putin has no great ambition except to stay in power and that successors will demonstrate the same patriotic fervor and deal with the same internal problems and dependence on oil prices that vex Putin.
Discouraging but insightful.