Book review of Putin by Philip Short

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How did Vladimir Putin go from calculating pragmatist to reckless empire-builder? And why did he embark on an unprovoked war that will leave Russia weaker, poorer, more isolated and deglobalized? As the Russia-Ukraine war of attrition grinds on, Putin seems to have achieved the opposite of what he intended. The West so far remains united and willing to bear the costs of robust economic and energy sanctions. Its weapons deliveries enable Ukraine to push back against Russian territorial gains. Ukrainians — including Russian-speaking ones — have consolidated a national identity that defines itself in opposition to Russia. Finland and Sweden have jettisoned decades of neutrality to join NATO. And NATO, after the Afghanistan debacle, is stronger than it has been for some time and has discovered a new mission, which is really its old one: containment of Russia.

In his long, sprawling book, British journalist Philip Short covers Putin’s life and depicts the environment in which he grew up, worked as a KGB case officer, served as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and eventually became president of Russia. Short spent eight years writing “Putin,” which is exhaustively researched. The book contains some new material based on extensive interviews, but much of this discussion will be familiar to people who have read previous books about Putin by, among others, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Masha Gessen, Steven Lee Myers, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Karen Dawisha, Catherine Belton and Mark Galeotti. Short’s goal, he writes, is neither to demonize nor to absolve Putin, but to understand what motivates him. And in his telling, the United States bears much of the blame for what Russia and Putin have become.

Putin operates in the opaque world of the Russian security services. The sources of his corruption, his responsibility for the many murders or poisonings of opponents, and the exact story of how he came to power continue to provoke heated debate in a world where disinformation thrives. Short recounts Putin’s hardscrabble childhood in postwar Leningrad, his indifferent academic record, and the German and martial arts teachers who saved him from an unpromising future. Notably, he downplays the influence of the KGB on his evolution as a person and as a leader. “Putin was already Putin before he joined the KGB,” Short writes. But Putin himself has explained how important his time in the intelligence agency was. Indeed, he attempted to join when he was a teenager and was told to come back after his studies. The combination of martial arts mastery and his experience as a KGB case officer in East Germany enabled him to become a skilled manipulator of people.

This portrait of Putin is more sympathetic than others. Short clearly respects Putin and what he has accomplished, and gives him the benefit of the doubt on many questions where we may never know the answer. Short blames the United States and, to a lesser degree Europe, for what has happened in Russia and for the breakdown in relations. He discusses Putin’s crimes but says the West has demonized Putin and Russia for too long. He also claims that Russia’s domestic policy has been heavily influenced by ties with the West, implying that the West is somehow guilty by association — but he never spells out how the West has affected those policies. In reality, the West has had very limited influence over Russian domestic politics since the Soviet collapse.

Whereas Short admits that Putin bears direct responsibility for the fatal poisoning of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in Britain and for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, he denies that Putin was involved in the murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov or in the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The U.S. and British governments have both said the Skripal poisonings were the work of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. However, it is undeniable that Putin has created an environment in which the GRU thinks it is empowered to undertake high-profile assassinations. Short also denies that Putin was involved in the September 1999 apartment bombings that consolidated his rule just after he became prime minister, a subject of continuing debate.

Throughout the nearly 700 pages of text, Short asserts what Putin was thinking without saying what his sources are. For instance, he declares that Putin felt he had put himself out to support the United States after the 9/11 attacks and had received nothing in return. What Putin wanted was U.S. recognition of Russia’s right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, which the United States was not prepared to concede. Nonetheless, by defeating the Taliban in the fall of 2001, the United States did Moscow a great service by eliminating a threat to Russia in its own backyard, and the United States offered Russia a number of economic and other opportunities for cooperation. At the time Putin appeared to welcome these quid pro quos.

Short also questions whether Putin is as rich or corrupt as many contend he is. He attributes Western charges of corruption to a failure to understand how the Russian system works. “Whereas in the West, illicit exchanges of favors are seen as reprehensible, in Russia, as a patrimonial state, they are an intrinsic part of the system without which it could not function,” Short writes. He clearly has not been persuaded by the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers, which indicate that the scale of multibillion-dollar corruption goes way beyond the conventional workings of patrimonial networks. The Panama Papers, for instance, revealed that Putin’s close childhood friend Sergei Roldugin had a $2 billion account in Panama, which would make him the richest cellist in the world. The Paradise Papers documented large sums of money held by Russian oligarchs with connections to Putin. Short, contrary to the conclusions of the investigative journalists who uncovered the material, claims there is no evidence that Putin has money concealed in offshore accounts.

Short is among those who blame the West for the deterioration of relations with Russia. He accuses the United States and its allies of provoking Putin to take aggressive military actions in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The original sin, for him, lies in NATO enlargement, which he depicts as a cynical U.S. move to control its European allies: “The Eastern European tail was wagging the American dog.” He reiterates the unproven claim that in 1990 U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not expand if Gorbachev agreed to German unification, and Short joins the chorus of those blaming the war in Ukraine on NATO. He describes the post-Soviet territories as Moscow’s “turf.” Apparently, like Putin, he believes that these countries are not fully sovereign. And Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO was seen as a threat because Putin would not have been able to subjugate it, as he seeks to do now.

“Whataboutsim” and moral equivalence between the United States and Russia suffuse this book. When Russia or Putin is accused of something, Short points to U.S. sins and failings. For instance, he asserts that during the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, neither the United States nor Russia had any real concern for Ukraine’s interests and that it is hypocritical to claim otherwise. The United States wanted only to expand its influence into areas along Russia’s borders. This is, of course, how the Kremlin interprets what the United States does. But it is not an accurate depiction of how the U.S. government viewed the situation during those months, nor of its subsequent support for Ukraine. Short’s pointing the finger at the United States hardly excuses Putin’s aggression toward his neighbors, nor his increasingly draconian crackdown on his own population.

Short correctly identifies two of Putin’s major mistakes when he invaded Ukraine. First was his failure to understand that Ukrainians and Russians are distinct Slavic nations, both with a strong sense of national identity, and that people defending their homeland have an advantage over those seeking to conquer it. His second mistake was to overestimate the capabilities of the Russian military, which was unable to take Kyiv in the first days of the war. Perhaps because he concluded this book before the full scope of Russian atrocities was known, he implies that Russia is acting differently in Ukraine than it did in Chechnya or Syria, where it destroyed Grozny and Aleppo. So far Russia has leveled Mariupol, Severodonetsk and parts of other cities, turning them to rubble, and has indiscriminately targeted civilians.

In launching this war, Putin has closed the window on the West that his venerated predecessor Peter the Great opened and has declared that Russia has pivoted to the East. Putin would not have launched this war without confidence that China would back Russia. Short claims that it would not be any more acceptable for Putin to be China’s junior partner than it would to be the United States’ junior partner. But that is precisely the choice Putin has made.

Short concludes with a surprising claim: “Just as Putin is convinced that one day, despite the war, Moscow and Kyiv will overcome their differences, he believes that America and Russia will eventually settle into a less contentious relationship.” As long as Putin is in the Kremlin, that is extraordinarily hard to imagine.

Angela Stent is a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest.”

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