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Vladimir Putin. What’s left to say?

A review of We need to talk about Putin. How the West gets him wrong. By: Mark Galeotti. Publisher: Penguin Random House, United Kingdom, 2019.

May 2, 2019 - Adam Reichardt - Books and ReviewsIssue 3-4 2019Magazine

There are few people in the world today that are blamed for the ills of the West like Vladimir Putin. And for good reason. There is indisputable proof that Russian actors (Kremlin-backed) interfered in the US presidential election in 2016 (despite not having access to the final Mueller Report) via a massive social media network, hacking of the Hillary Clinton Campaign and some shady financial dealings. There is clear indication that Russia was involved in influencing voters ahead of the referendum which has led to the mess that is now called Brexit.

Russia’s direct intervention in Ukraine by illegally annexing Crimea via unmarked military units later called “little green men” and its active support and supply of separatist entities in eastern Ukraine has led to the loss of over 13,000 lives and over a million people being displaced, and which has forced NATO allies to open their eyes wide to the possible threat looming from the neighbour in the East. From Syria to Venezuela – it would seem that in every place the West has some objective to achieve, Russia is there, ready to demoralise western resolve and force western policy-makers to rethink their strategy. Meanwhile, western societies, driven by social media and encouraged by Russian trolls, often question whether liberal democracy is the right system and have begun electing populists to power – some directly supported by Kremlin resources, others reflecting the Kremlin narrative, while others indirectly help achieve Kremlin aims of weakening western unity and discrediting democracy and the rule of law. And who is often blamed? The man at the top – Vladimir Putin.

The bogeyman in the Kremlin

But do we over-obsess with Putin? Glancing at the countless number of biographies available, including his own autobiography, the question is certainly worth asking. The pages of this magazine itself have dedicated a couple of issues over the last eight years to him – the most recent was issue 2/2018, titled “The Many Faces of Putin”. We have a text in this very issue which examines the Putin inner circle and who has influence in Russian decision-making – domestic and foreign. His name has almost become synonymous with that of a villainous character; a strategic mastermind who has calculated his every move, seemingly always one step ahead of his perceived enemy – the West.

This is the topic of the latest book by Mark Galeotti titled We need to talk about Putin. How the West gets him wrong. The title already indicates the thesis that Galeotti proposes in the short 143 pages of the book: We give the Russian president way too much credit. Galeotti is not a new face among Kremlin-watchers and is certainly well-positioned to write such a biography. The author is a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and has authored countless books, some more academic than others. He maintains a blog, ominously titled “In Moscow’s Shadows” where he often writes on organised crime in Russia, Russian politics and security affairs.

We need to talk about Putin is well-written and an easy read.It is a sort of guidebook to everything Putin and Kremlin, without getting too deep into the weeds. Galeotti provides a succinct outline of Putin’s life and times before and during his rule in Russia and we meet the cast of characters of the most important people in Putin’s circle. The book is short and concise. Grab it for your next short flight.

As the title suggests, the author’s objective is to give us a new take on an already exhaustive topic – the role of Vladimir Putin inside and outside of Russia. Specifically, Galeotti argues the West overestimates Putin’s role as a bogeyman who can be blamed for everything wrong in the world (from our subjective perspective) – Trump’s election, Brexit, the migration crisis, the rise of far-right populism in the West, etc. For any author writing an analysis about Putin this is a challenge – one of which and I am not convinced Galeotti has fully met. Yet, that is not to say the book is without merit and its thesis is worth further debate.

Oftentimes the reader is met with familiar (and correct) arguments we know to drive Putin’s behaviour. On geopolitics Galeotti writes: “Putin has a view of what being a great power in the world means that is more rooted in the 19th century than the 21st … he sees a great power as having a voice in all global issues of consequence, not because it necessarily has interests at stake, but rather because this symbolises this status.” On domestic politics, Galeotti convinces, Putin values personal ties and loyalty above all. Money or even ideology is not a motivating factor. It is indeed power, devotion and faith in the man that will keep the country on the right path to greatness. Putin is surrounded by those who believe he will make Russia great – even greater – and their loyalty outweighs their corruption and massive plundering of public resources. Above all, Putin takes care of those closest to him. “For those in his trusted inner circle, Putin will move heaven and earth to look after them,” we read.

Against contemporary thinking

At the same time, the author does present arguments that challenge western alarmist views of Putin – which often perceive Putin as a grand strategic mastermind moving pieces on a global chessboard while the rest of the world plays checkers. Yet, Galeotti argues, Putin does not play chess. He has no grand strategy. Instead he fights Judo. He reacts to moves and attempts to predict the moves of his opponents. In geopolitics he is an opportunist, not a strategist. There is no masterplan. In fact, the author labels the Putin system as an “adhocracy” – a system that has developed not based on some rules or plan but on how loyal one is to the boss on the top. And that is also why official titles matter little, everything is ad hoc.

What’s interesting is that Galeotti argues that the Putin system is based on a bottom-up approach of activities aimed at achieving Kremlin aims. In other words, it is not Putin who dictates the objectives and methods or tools; he may set the tone, but instead it is the people on the ground – working in RT or Sputnik or managing troll factories – who “guess” what the Kremlin, ultimately Putin, would want as a result of their work. This means that functionaries of the system can get too overzealous in trying to please their boss (and their boss’s boss). And who gets credit for promoting the Kremlin narrative in the West?

Galeotti also argues that Putin is not the murderous tyrant that western media often make him out to be. Deaths or assassination attempts of prominent Russian critics (e.g. Boris Nemtsov or Sergei Skripal) are not the result of a hit ordered by Putin himself, Galeotti asserts; but rather they are more likely the result of a personal feud: “People die not because Putin wants them dead, but because some other powerful figure does, and Putin doesn’t care enough to stop them.”

Galeotti further breaks contemporary thinking on Putin in some of the biographical parts of the book. Everyone is familiar with Putin’s background as a KGB agent and how this most likely shapes his thinking until today. Yet, no one really asks the question as to what kind of KGB officer he was. Certainly our imagination gets the best of us without all the facts. As Galeotti writes, however, Putin was an absolutely average KGB officer. He had no spectacular career. He spent his formative years of 1985-1990 in Dresden doing mostly paperwork and drinking beer.

Another more provocative argument is counter to our perception of Putin as a strongman in control of everything. In fact, the Putin that Galeotti presents is largely a coward. His strongman persona is theatrics. When the pressure is high, the author maintains, Putin goes into hiding. The case of the murder of Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken Putin critic, is cited as an example. After it became clear that the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had a hand in the assassination, Putin was unsure how to react. So he disappeared to give himself time to formulate a reaction that wouldn’t risk him looking weak or provoking a strong reaction from Kadyrov. Galeotti argues this is classic Putin. He is no macho – he minimises risk.

The symbol

Earlier this year polls coming out of Russia showed trust in the government has reached an all-time low. A slow economy, misadventures abroad and the row over a rise of the retirement age began taking a toll on Russian confidence in its government. Putin’s approval rating dipped to a low not seen since before the annexation of Crimea. Yet, Putin’s popularity is not the most important fact which would indicate a loss of faith, Galeotti would argue. According to the author, Russians treat Putin not as a man, but as a symbol. Russians can be dissatisfied, unhappy or even angry at their life situation while at the same time remain loyal to Putin as the symbol of Russia. “To vote for him is not to endorse a programme,” he writes, “but to express patriotism.” That’s why it makes it so difficult to read Russian social attitudes towards Putin and why he would never be removed from office.

In all, We need to talk about Putin’s greatest takeaway is that the Putin regime is a much larger creature than just one man, and it does not always have a plan or strategy. Yet at the same time, no matter how much we want to avoid it, Putin is the man on top. It is he who sets the tone; it is loyalty to him that shapes the current system. And this leads to the final topic of the book, the part that is most fascinating, which looks at what comes next. Galeotti argues that there are strong signs that Putin himself has become bored, disengaged and out of ideas. As a result, Russia has fallen into routine – both domestically and internationally. A gloomy sense of hopelessness, he writes, has fallen over Russia. Is it time for Putin to retire? And if he does, what comes next? No one knows for sure. But certainly, if Putin does get out, there’s a whole new conversation to be had.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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