Review by John M. Handley, Ph.D.
The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, by Angus Roxburgh; New York, NY: I. B. Tauris, 2012, ISBN 978-1-78076-016-2, 337 pp., $28.00 (hardcover)
Angus Roxburgh is a distinguished British foreign correspondent and Russian specialist. He served as the Sunday Times Moscow correspondent in the mid-1980s and the BBC’s Moscow correspondent during the Yeltsin years. He is the author of The Second Russian Revolution, and Pravda: Inside the Soviet Press Machine. Angus is particularly well placed to write this specific book. While working for a BBC four-part documentary entitled “Putin, Russia and the West,” he conducted hundreds of interviews with high level officials in Russia, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Ukraine, and Georgia. He worked from 2006 to 2009 as an advisor to Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. Before his career as a journalist, Angus taught Russian and worked as a translator in Moscow.
In the introduction, the author describes Putin as extremely vain and while exceedingly well informed on some subjects, he is surprisingly ignorant about Western life. He is both courteous and boorish. He has created a top-down system, which instills fear and stifles initiative. The author’s task in this book is to explain why Putin became more and more authoritarian; how he challenged the West and how the West challenged him; and why each side failed to understand the concerns of the other, creating mutual mistrust and lost opportunities. Additionally, the author evaluates the struggle for reform inside Russia and addresses the question of whether Dmitry Medvedev as president was either a frustrated liberal or mere window dressing.
The book depicts Putin in power. Although not a biography, it does include a look at Putin’s background and the path he took to reach the highest office in Russia, with particular emphasis on the roles he played, and assistance he provided, to Yeltsin, both during and after the Yeltsin presidencies. Chapter 1 also includes Putin’s reaction to the 1999 NATO expansion, the NATO war against Serbia, the 1996 withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and their re-introduction in 1999. Chapter 2 treats Putin’s desire to re-integrate Russia into Europe, the Bush-Putin summit, Russia’s support for the US against the Taliban, Putin’s concerns over the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and the creation of a new, albeit greatly watered-down, strategic arms limitations treaty both Putin and Bush needed for symbolism. Chapter 3, on economic reform, addresses the efforts taken early in Putin’s administration to stimulate the economy, entrench free market ideas, and abandon any remaining vestiges of communism. The Gref Plan, created by German Gref and his Centre for Strategic Research, reduced taxes from 30% to a flat tax of 13%, corporate tax fell from 35% to 24%, and a new land privatization bill allowed people to buy and sell commercial and residential land for the first time since 1917. With these accomplishments, Putin refused to consider any tampering with Gazprom, which, in time, became one of his most effective levers of power.
Putin’s development as an authoritarian comes to light in Chapter 4 as the author describes the methods Putin employed to muzzle the Russian press, to implement his idea of vertical power, to appoint his cronies to high office, to prosecute the war in Chechnya, to his callous reaction to the sinking of the Kursk, and to his ability to “tame the oligarchs.” The chapter includes a lengthy section on the Khordorkovsky affair, resulting in the latter’s loss of both his freedom and his fortune. Chapter 5 deals specifically with NATO and Putin’s expectation of an invitation for Russia to join this body, but the best the West would offer was a NATO-Russia Council. Six months after setting up this NRC, seven former Soviet satellites received actual invitations to join NATO. Putin was not amused. Chapter 6 describes the January 2004 “Rose” Revolution of Georgia and the election of Saakashvili, a West-leaning democrat, as president. Putin regarded the election as a threat to Russia, perhaps in part because the first trip outside Georgia Saakashvili made was to the US where he requested US military personnel to train and equip his army as well as membership for Georgia in NATO. The chapter ends with a lengthy account of the attack on Beslan and Putin’s belief that this attack was part of a Western conspiracy to dismember the Russian Federation.
The Orange Revolution, as depicted in Chapter 7, nearly failed in November 2004 due to blatant corruption and election vote rigging, but after considerable outside (and inside) pressure a new late-December run-off resulted in victory for the pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, over the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. The author describes Putin’s bitter disappointment as he viewed the results of the election as the work of US special operations who he believes have been working on a “Destroy Russia” project since 1990. The chapter ends with Putin’s use of energy as an economic weapon in his first “gas war’ in 2005 against Ukraine. Chapter 8, on a new cold war, addresses the September 2006 eruption of violence between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia; the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya; Putin’s increased control over Russia’s energy sources; a Putin confrontation with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and the assassination in London of Soviet KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko. Chapter 9 reveals the coordination undertaken between Putin and Medvedev as Putin puts Medvedev forward to succeed him as president after his 2 terms (eight years) with Medvedev agreeing to appoint Putin as Prime Minister, thus allowing Putin to run for election to a third presidential term in 2012. Medvedev also had the Duma pass a constitutional change that would extend the next president’s term of office from 4 to 6 years. As the author opines, the West may eventually have to deal with 20 collective years of Putin presidencies.
Chapter 10 begins with Russia’s negative reaction to Kosovo’s February 2008 declaration of independence and its subsequent US recognition, fearing such recognition would encourage Chechen separatism. Paradoxically, Putin was prepared to support South Ossetia and Abkhazia in their secessionist efforts against Georgia. The remainder of this chapter deals with the Russo-Georgia War, which resulted in both a Russia military victory, and Russia recognizing the independence of both secessionist countries, recognized only by Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island of Nauru. In Chapter 11, the author describes the repercussions of the Caucasus War—a war, according to Putin, caused by the US in an effort to boost the presidential campaign of John McCain. While Putin continued to engage in economic blackmail with energy supply to various European countries, the new Obama administration decided to “push the reset button.” The July 2009 Obama-Putin summit gave the prime minister the opportunity to lecture the US president for an hour on NATO’s bombing of Serbia, ABM, Iraq, WTO, NATO expansion, missile defense, and Kosovo. Obama listened and the reset showed some success, especially with a change of attitude by Russia toward Iran and the latter’s nuclear program, as well as a US-Russia arms reduction treaty signed in April 2010 called New Start.
Chapter 12 describes how Putin, as Prime Minister and thus responsible for Russia’s economy, managed to weather the financial storms that began in 2008. The chapter ends, sadly, on the realities of dealing economically with and in Russia—everything and everyone has a price. Corruption is rampant, from the highest cabinet official, to the manager of any business venture, to the policeman on the street. Out of 183 countries rated, the World Bank rates Russia at 123 for “ease of doing business,” while Georgia comes in at 19 and Kyrgyzstan is 44. In terms of “dealing with construction permits,” Russia is 182 ahead only of Eritrea. The last chapter deals with the “confrontation” between Putin and Medvedev as both men sought their party’s nomination for president. The “phony” campaign ended in September 2011 when Putin announced he would be the United Russia Party presidential candidate and Medvedev would be his prime minister. The author goes to some length to explain what Medvedev did to actually try to win the opportunity to run for a second term, but Medvedev simply did not have access to the same Gazprom resources that stood at the center of Putin’s power system.
All in all, The Strongman is a well-written, well-researched, well-documented account of Putin in power as both president and prime minister. The author’s style is eminently readable. Although the freedom and democracy that flowered during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years led to considerable chaos, Putin has returned Russia to a sense of stability at the cost of curtailing democracy. One wonders if Medvedev could have given the Russians both.