Reviewed by John Coffey
Allen C. Lynch, Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft, Potomac Books: Washington, DC, ISBN 13- 978-1-59797-298-7, 2011, 184 pp., $16.99.
If, to paraphrase Carlyle, history is the biography of the “shapers of international history,” Allen Lynch’s book illustrates how Vladimir Putin’s formative experience has influenced his approach to Russian statecraft and paints a grim picture for Russia’s future.
Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 into a postwar Leningrad working-class family from which he inherited an intense patriotism. Initially a poor student and schoolyard bully, he found purpose in music, the German language, and judo, which taught him focus and discipline. Recruited by the KGB while studying law at Leningrad State University, he was posted in counterintelligence in 1985 to Dresden, East Germany. Lynch relates how his experience there after the fall of the Berlin Wall spurred Putin’s resolve to restore Russian state power.
In 1990 Putin became deputy mayor to St. Petersburg reform Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and played a key role in Russia’s liberal transformation. Resigning from the KGB, he produced significant accomplishments, became convinced of the need for strong state management of the economy, and on several occasions courageously defended liberal reform forces. Impressed with Putin’s ability and character, Yeltsin brought him to Moscow in 1996, where he rose rapidly in Kremlin politics, including heading the FSB (the KGB’s successor) and the National Security Council. This “time of troubles” witnessed Russia’s economic collapse, and Putin was shaken by the specter of domestic anarchy. The Chechen crisis led Yeltsin to appoint Putin Prime Minister in August 1999, who responded to the terror bombings of September with a full-scale military assault that won him public acclaim. Putin grasped the public mood, promising Russians he would “wipe out the Chechen thugs wherever they are, right up to the last shithouse.” By January 2000, when Yeltsin appointed him acting President until a March election, Putin basked in a 77% approval rating, handily winning election.
Inheriting an economy in shambles, Putin’s economic reforms and rising oil prices generated 7% annual growth for eight years, doubled living standards, and repaid Russia’s entire foreign sovereign debt. This economic success, however, relied on energy exports (30% of GDP), making Russia a petro state like Venezuela. Putin’s concentration of power and government domination of the energy sector created a kleptocratic corporate state, which sought to control all institutions. The first target was national television, which had criticized Putin’s inaction during the Kursk submarine disaster. By 2008 Moscow controlled 90% of Russian media, and some two-dozen critical journalists had been murdered. Putin consolidated regional governments, appointed their governors, politicized the judiciary, and staffed his administration with forty thousand loyalists drawn largely from the security services. Their management of 40% of the economy spawned a systemic pattern of corruption tied to the criminal underworld. A U.S. Embassy cable released by Wikileaks describes Moscow’s kleptocracy of bribery and extortion: “The Moscow city government’s direct links to criminality have led some to call it ‘dysfunctional,’ and to assert that the government operates more as a kleptocracy than a government…Criminal elements enjoy a krysha (a term from the criminal/mafia world literally meaning ‘roof’ or protection) that runs through the police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), and the prosecutor’s office, as well as throughout the Moscow city government bureaucracy.”1 Lynch estimates that bureaucrats running the energy system have looted 50% of oil/gas revenue. Nevertheless, for eight years Putin’s public approval ranged between 68-87%. “Putinism” may be “Potemkin democracy,” as Lynch calls it, but the author grossly errs in likening it to other one-party systems such Boss Tweed’s New York or Richard Daley’s Chicago!
A realist practitioner of power politics, Putin continued the policy described by Churchill as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”2 Putin’s principal goal has been to restore Russian hegemony in “the near abroad” of the post-Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), particularly Ukraine. Initially after 9/11, he sought a strategic partnership with the West, but U.S. actions, NATO’s eastward expansion, and the Georgian controversy dashed hope for a “seat at the table.” Lynch believes that despite some success in Uzbekistan and the Caucasus, Russia’s blatant intervention in Ukraine’s 2004 election, its inept overplay of the energy card in Ukraine/European gas disputes, and a setback over Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan have prevented Russian predominance anywhere in the post-Soviet region.
Putin reversed Russia’s disintegration, quashed Chechen rebellion, and promoted economic recovery, yet the regime he built is fragile and contains the seeds of its own destruction. Russia depends on energy exports and has failed to modernize its economy. Systemic corruption and secrecy in decision-making in policy and personnel matters block necessary political/economic reforms. Lynch questions whether necessary reforms are possible without loss of political control. Corruption is the political glue holding the regime together, but exposure of corruption would destroy the ruling elite.3 The regime’s survival requires its suicide.
Although regimes don’t kill themselves, we are witnessing an historically unprecedented case of national demographic suicide. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has documented Russia’s unstoppable depopulation due to a “death crisis” that continued unabated through the prosperous 2000s.4 Eberstadt speculates that Russia’s demographic decline could make it a more unpredictable, menacing actor on the world stage, including resort to nuclear diplomacy in a border crisis. Recently, Russian General Staff Chief Nikolai Makarov warned that NATO’s eastward expansion raises the risk of dragging Russia into local conflicts. Makarov added that “under certain conditions local and regional conflicts may develop into a full-scale war involving nuclear weapons.”5
Franz Cede reminds us that the Soviet collapse has not yet played itself out and that Russia’s future remains unfinished.6 In the December 2011 Duma elections, Putin’s United Russia Party failed to win even 50% of the vote, and thousands of Moscow demonstrators protested the fraud-ridden elections.7 With unstable neighbors, a weakened regime, and perhaps irreversible internal decay, Russia faces an uncertain, perilous future.
1. Quoted in Will Englund, “Leaked U.S. Diplomatic Document Portrays Moscow as a Haven of Corruption,” Washington Post, 12/1/10.
2. Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. 449.
3. Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders, “The Kremlin Begs to Differ,” National Interest (Nov./Dec., 2009), 38-49.
4. Nicholas Eberstadt, “Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb,” World Affairs (Spring, 2009), 51-62; and “The Dying Bear: Russia’s Demographic Disaster,” Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec., 2011), 95-108.
5. Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia’s Military Chief Warns of Border Conflicts’ Nuclear Risks,” Washington Post, 11/18/11, A8.
6. Franz Cede, “The Post-Imperial Blues,” American Interest (Nov./Dec., 2011), 115-124.
7. Kathy Lally, “Russian Elections Spark Protests by Opposition, Putin Supporters,” Washington Post, 12/6/11, A18.