In his long and sprawling book, British journalist Philip Short covers Putin’s life and depicts the environment in which he grew up, worked as a KGB case agent, served as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and eventually became president. of Russia. Short spent eight years writing “Putin,” which is extensively researched. The book contains new material based on in-depth interviews, but much of this discussion will be familiar to people who have read previous Putin books, including 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 absolve Putin, but to understand what motivates him. And in his account, the United States is largely responsible for what has become of Russia and Putin.
Putin operates in the opaque world of Russian security services. The sources of his corruption, his responsibility for the numerous murders or poisonings of opponents, and the exact story of his coming to power continue to provoke heated debates in a world where misinformation thrives. Short recounts Putin’s difficult childhood in post-war Leningrad, his indifferent school record, and the German and martial arts teachers who saved him from an unpromising future. In particular, he minimizes the influence of the KGB on his development as a person and as a leader. “Putin was already Putin before he joined the KGB,” writes Short. But Putin himself explained how important his stint in the intelligence agency was. Indeed, he tried to enroll when he was a teenager and was told to come back after his studies. The combination of martial arts proficiency and his experience as a KGB case officer in East Germany allowed him to become a skilled people manipulator.
This portrait of Putin is nicer than the others. Short clearly respects Putin and what he has accomplished, and gives him the benefit of the doubt on many questions that we may never know the answer to. Short blames the United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, for what 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 policies have been heavily influenced by ties to the West, implying that the West is somehow guilty by association – but he never elaborates on how the West has affected these policies. . In reality, the West has had very limited influence on Russian domestic politics since the Soviet collapse.
While Short admits that Putin is directly responsible for the fatal poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in Britain and 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. Both the US and UK governments have said the Skripal poisonings were the work of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. However, there is no denying that Putin has created an environment in which the GRU believes it is empowered to undertake high profile assassinations. Short also denies that Putin was involved in the September 1999 apartment bombings that consolidated his power soon after he became prime minister, a subject of ongoing debate.
Throughout the nearly 700 pages of text, Short asserts what Putin was thinking without saying what his sources are. For example, he states that Putin felt he went out of his way to support the United States after the 9/11 attacks and received nothing in return. What Putin wanted was US recognition of Russia’s right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, which the US was not prepared to concede. Nevertheless, 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 seemed to welcome these quid pro quos.
Short also wonders if Putin is as rich or corrupt as many claim. He attributes Western accusations of corruption to a failure to understand how the Russian system works. “While in the West, illicit exchanges of favors are considered wrong, in Russia, as a patrimonial state, they are an integral part of the system without which it could not function,” writes Short. He was clearly not convinced by the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers, which indicate that the scale of multibillion-dollar corruption goes well beyond the conventional operation of patrimonial networks. The Panama Papers, for example, 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 ties to Putin. Short, contrary to the findings of investigative journalists who uncovered the material, says there is no evidence that Putin has any money hidden in offshore accounts.
Short is among those who blame the West for deteriorating relations with Russia. He accuses the United States and its allies of pushing Putin to carry out aggressive military actions in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The original sin, for him, lies in the enlargement of NATO, which he depicts as a cynical maneuver by the United States to control its European allies: “The tail of Eastern Europe was wagging the American dog . He reiterates the unproven claim that in 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker promised the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not expand if Gorbachev accepted German unification, and Short joined the chorus of those who accuse NATO of the war in Ukraine. He describes the post-Soviet territories as the “territory” of Moscow. Apparently, like Putin, he thinks these countries are not fully sovereign. And Ukraine’s potential NATO membership was seen as a threat because Putin would not have been able to subdue it, as he seeks to do now.
“Whataboutsim” and the moral equivalence between the United States and Russia permeate this book. When Russia or Putin are blamed for something, Short points the finger at America’s sins and failings. For example, he claims that during the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, neither the United States nor Russia really cared about Ukraine’s interests and that it is hypocritical to claim otherwise. The United States only wanted to expand its influence in areas along Russia’s borders. This is, of course, how the Kremlin interprets what the United States is doing. But that’s not an accurate description of how the US government viewed the situation during those months, or its subsequent support for Ukraine. Short’s pointing the finger at the United States hardly excuses Putin’s aggression toward his neighbors, or his increasingly draconian repression against his own people.
Short correctly identifies two of Putin’s main mistakes when he invaded Ukraine. First, he failed to understand that Ukrainians and Russians are separate Slavic nations, both with a strong sense of national identity, and that people who defend their homeland have an advantage over those who seek conquer. His second mistake was to overestimate the capabilities of the Russian army, unable to take Kyiv in the early days of the war. Perhaps because he concluded this book before the full extent of Russian atrocities was known, he suggests that Russia is acting differently in Ukraine than it did in Chechnya or Syria, where it destroyed Grozny and Aleppo. So far, Russia has razed Mariupol, Severodonetsk and parts of other cities to rubble, and indiscriminately targeted civilians.
In launching this war, Putin closed the window on the West opened by his revered predecessor Peter the Great and declared that Russia had turned to the East. Putin would not have launched this war without being convinced that China would support Russia. Short argues that it would be no more acceptable for Putin to be China’s junior partner than to be the US junior partner. But that is precisely the choice that Putin made.
Short concludes with a startling statement: “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 confrontational relationship.” As long as Putin is in the Kremlin, it’s extraordinarily hard to imagine.
Angela Stent is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Putin’s world: Russia against the West and with the rest.”