Vladimir Putin has been the leader of Russia since 2000. It is therefore not surprising that in these 22 years, a number of books have been written about him. One of the early ones, published in 2001, called the First Person was an authorised biography. It helped demystify the person.
“Who is Mr. Putin?” was the question often asked after his unexpected elevation to the Russian Presidency the previous year. Two decades later, President Putin evokes interest the world over; in some places, strong admiration, and some others, feelings of revulsion.
Philip Short, once a correspondent for the BBC, The Economist and The Times has been working on this biography for eight years. His previous biographies include those of Mao, Pol Pot and Mitterrand. Short may have hoped that the publication of this book would coincide with the culmination of President Putin’s political career. That is nowhere on the horizon.
In fact, the book has been released in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. Its unfolding may well determine President Putin’s legacy. Short is well aware of the difficulties of writing about Putin. Those looking for a ‘distillation of the turpitudes’ of Russia or the ‘demonization’ of Putin will be disappointed, he warns early in his 853-page book.
Yeltsin’s drunken leadership
For fifteen years, during the time of Gorbachev and the Soviet collapse, and that of Yeltsin and his drunken leadership of a weak and chaotic Russia, America and Europe, worked themselves into a spell of expecting from Russia nothing less than fawning admiration for Western primacy.
The West has not forgiven Putin for breaking that spell. As Short writes, “America the dominant global power believes that its role is to lead; Russia refuses to be led”. Putin’s political life has been defined by this refusal. His place in history will be determined by its consequences.
Based on extensive interviews, including with a number of former diplomats who worked in Russia, mostly from Western countries, Short has produced a detailed biography touching upon Putin’s personality — his childhood in Leningrad, induction into the KGB, service in Dresden during the late ’80s, his role as Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg, his move to Moscow and the meteoric rise through the ranks of the Kremlin to become head of the FSB, NSA, Prime Minister and then President of Russia.
Glacial and brutal
Short says Putin’s now widely recognised characteristics of fearlessness and masking of emotions predated his joining the KGB. ‘Putin was Putin before he joined the KGB.’ writes Short. During his first meeting with Putin in 1999, Strobe Talbot found him ‘radiating executive competence.’ Later, President Hollande of France said Putin could be both ‘warm and solicitous’ as well as ‘glacial and brutal’. These features have not changed over the years.
Among the great powers, Russia has had the distinction, perhaps along with Germany, of rising twice from the ashes of defeat in the span of a century — in Russia’s case 1917-24 and 1991-99. President Putin is singularly responsible for the second turnaround, and his role is well chronicled in this book.
There is a balanced treatment of his role in Chechnya, consolidation of Russia’s federal structure through the ‘power vertical’, economic reforms, and taming of the rapacious instincts of oligarchs responsible for the loot of Russia in the previous decade.
Short is critical of the increasing restrictions on democratic practices, suppression of dissent, the growing power of the Siloviki, and the recent constitutional amendments to extend previously restricted Presidential terms up to 2036. Short does not venture a guess on Putin’s intentions after 2024.
In his early years in office, President Putin saw engagement with the West as the core objective of Russian foreign policy. Short lists a number of areas where disagreements with America arose — Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Arms Control, largely due to unilateral US actions.
Putin sought accommodation and cooperation with the US after 9/11. In those early years, Putin stressed the European connection to Russian civilisation. He was rebuffed in many ways. (The EU commissioner Manuel Barroso once told Putin that he could spare only an hour for a meeting.)
As Russia regained power in later years, it pushed back, first against the EU and then against the US. Putin survived in power longer than most Western leaders. He in turn riled them in ways that became his hallmark — coming late for meetings or unleashing his Labrador dog during a meeting with Chancellor Merkel of Germany. It was payback time, Putin-style.
NATO expansion and relations with Georgia and Ukraine, leading up to the ongoing Ukraine conflict are dealt with in fascinating detail. The book argues that Putin did not seek conflict with the US on NATO — in fact, his protestations in the early phases of expansion were so mild that some in the Kremlin felt that Putin was being played by the Americans. Ukraine was always an existential question for Russia’s security. Gaps in understanding expanded finally into unbridgeable differences. The turning point was the Maidan events of February 2014.
Who then was to blame for the current crisis? Short’s answer, surprisingly is short — ‘US’ inability to listen’ — a conclusion that will not endear him to many in the West but will be more understood elsewhere. He bemoans the collapse of the middle ground in America — ‘between those who loath Putin and the contrarians who try to understand what makes him act the way he does.’
“In retrospect,” Short concludes, “what is surprising is not that Russia’s relations with America finished up as a train wreck, but it took so long for it to happen.”
For a book that sets to put aside stereotypes, its narrative is remarkably objective giving space for the Russian argument and perspective, without necessarily accepting them. As compared to other books recently published, which have a prosecutorial aim of reaching predetermined conclusions of condemning Russia or demonising Putin, this book is a welcome addition.
It is informative and exhaustive. But it is unlikely to be a definitive biography of Putin. It is written for a Western audience and hence is very thin on Russia’s relations with India, China, Japan, or Turkey which over the past decade have acquired a new significance in its foreign policy. In this sense, it remains a bit disconnected from the larger canvas of global relations.
As the Ukraine crisis rages on, this book may not offer solutions but it does provide a sober analysis of how Russia’s relations with the West have turned, tragically, into a ‘bonfire of illusions'.
(The reviewer is a former Ambassador of India to Russia)
Check out the book on Amazon.