Book review: Putin’s world

There are books which remain in my memory because they’re good. There are others which I remember because they’re awful. And then there are those I soon forget about, because they’re just kind of middling – solid, but uninspiring. Angela Stent’s new book, Putin’s World: Russia against the West and with the Rest, is one of the latter. Stent is an old ‘Russia hand’, having flitted in and out of government and academia in the United States for many years, including a stint as National Intelligence Officer for Russia. In Putin’s World, she examines Russian foreign policy and seeks to explain ‘how Putin’s Russia has managed to return as a global player and what that new role means.’ She generally does a competent job, starting with some historical context, and then going through Russia’s relations with various countries, such as Germany, Ukraine, China, and Japan, before coming on to US-Russia relations. Those who don’t know much about Russian foreign policy could learn a lot from all this. But as someone who has already studied the subject, much of it was already rather familiar and I had to will myself onwards in order to finish it. If it had been truly terrible, with outrageous propositions such as in Luke Harding’s Collusion or Timothy Snyder’s Road to Unfreedom, it would actually have been rather more interesting. As it was, I found it respectably ok, but a little dull.

stent

The main point in this book’s favour is that it avoids the more extreme condemnations of Russia which are so prevalent nowadays. It’s mercifully free of the ‘evil Putin dictator’, ‘Russian aggression’ language we’ve become so accustomed to. Stent attempts to understand the Russian point of view and present it fairly. Her descriptions of Russia’s relations with its key partners are very detailed, and readers looking for specific information about say Russia-EU or Russia-Japanese relations could find much of it useful. The chapter on Ukraine, however, was rather weak, portraying the events of 2013/2014 in a very one-sided way, and describing the war in Donbass in terms solely of ‘little green men’ from Russia pouring into Ukraine. ‘There have been as many as tens of thousands of Russian troops in the Donbas’, she writes, which is most definitely not true (thousands possibly, on two limited occasions – tens of thousands, not). This part of her analysis, in my opinion, was not very sophisticated. As befits a Democrat, she’s also a bit too willing to give credence to some of the Trump-Russia collusion story, suggesting that much of the infamous (and discredited) Steele dossier about Trump’s Russia connections may be true. It struck me that the book is strongest when analyzing those aspects of Russia’s relations which don’t directly touch on American interests. But when the latter are being discussed, the otherwise admirable neutrality somewhat dissolves.

To be fair to Stent, she does takes the Russian side on some issues, writing for instance that, ‘Yeltsin was correct in believing that explicit promises made in 1993 about NATO not enlarging for the foreseeable future were broken.’ She also considers NATO’s promise to give membership to Ukraine and Georgia, ‘unnecessarily provocative.’ That said, she concludes that NATO’s actions were only a minor cause of the NATO-Russia rift. ‘The more important reason’, she writes, ‘is that Russia has not, over the past quarter century, been willing to accept the rules of the international order that the West hoped it would.’

In making this case, Stent makes a few somewhat dubious claims. ‘The new Russia’ she says, ‘in many ways still resembles the old Soviet Union.’ Having spent time in both the Soviet Union and modern Russia, I find this rather hard to accept. ‘What is it that propels this Russian drive for expansion?’, she asks, as if such a drive were a given. ‘Russia rulers early on defined themselves by how they differed from Europe, stressing their Eurasian vocation’, she says. This is simply not true. ‘The peasant commune … formed the basis not only of the Russian Idea but also of an incipient political system that still influences the way Russians view relations between rulers and the world,’ she claims. This confuses Slavophile ideology with the realities of the Russian political system, but the two never have been synonymous (and Russia’s rulers have generally viewed Slavophile ideas with great suspicion). And so on. In general, while I found Stent sound on specific details of Russia’s foreign policy, I found her analysis of the historical and political context rather weaker.

Overall, Stent is quite moderate in her opinions. The West, she rightly says, can’t isolate Russia – as she puts it, this is ‘not an option’. But despite this moderation, Stent is still very much part of the US establishment, and that establishment’s understanding of American interests, in particular America’s right to lead, comes first. Viewed this way, Russia is a ‘challenge’, as Stent puts it. Thus she concludes her book by giving the following advice to American policy makers: ‘Engage [Russia] on issue of mutual interest and be prepared to be more forward-looking if Russia moderates its behavior’. At the end of the day, therefore, when it comes to changing behavior the onus is on Russia, not on America.

Because of this, it’s hard to see in what ways a US foreign policy Stent-style would differ substantially in its approach towards Russia from what we’ve seen in the last two American administrations. It would just be more of the same, but with a little less of the extremist rhetoric. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from this it’s that Russians would be unwise to expect any significant change in American policy no matter who’s in power.

Overall, I didn’t find myself wanting to take up arms against this book. But neither did I find that it inspired me. If you want to get a sense of what passes for moderation in the American establishment, Putin’s World is not entirely unhelpful. But if you want to study Russian foreign policy, I’d suggest an academic author like Jeffrey Mankoff or Andrei Tsygankov instead.

13 thoughts on “Book review: Putin’s world”

  1. When you’re a professor at a elite university and you’re publishing a book, it’s advisable to avoid thoughtcrimes. So, she does.

    It’s a real danger. I remember one Ward Churchill, a tenured – tenured – professor who wrote a politically unacceptable essay back in 2001, and poof – that was the end of his professorship…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Better yet, go for those who don’t worry about such while writing erudite pieces on foreign policy. James Jatras and Srdja Trifkovic come to mind.

      In that very spirit, here are some not so distant articles dealing with US foreign policy and mass media:

      https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2019/04/10/rebuking-zakaria-and-goading-trump-the-right-way/

      https://www.eurasiareview.com/19022019-putting-the-new-cold-war-and-russia-bashing-into-proper-perspective-oped/

      For quality control purposes, top consideration should be given to those with thought provoking and valid comments that have been downplayed within establishment circles.

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  2. Regarding Jeffrey Mankoff, his propping of a subject like the one discussed below is on par with the negatively inaccurate commentary concerning Russia:

    Recall other similar instances from him.

    More like China is “respected” on account of its economic prowess, in conjunction with that aspect reaching some influential Americans (like Joe Biden), in conjunction with the anti-Russian emphasis that has been evident in the US – something that Andrei Tsygankov has discussed at some length.

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    1. Yeah, I find it odd to see Mankoff recommended here. He is a lackey for the war party through and through. I listened to several Russian Roulette podcasts waiting for it to be good and sensible…that never happened. I recall specifically that when the “hackers” used the name Felix Dzerzhinsky, most people thought it was proof that the FSB was *not* behind it, because how stupid would that be? He, on the other hand, went on and on about how purposeful and obvious they were being by doing that…yikes.

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  3. ‘The peasant commune … formed the basis not only of the Russian Idea but also of an incipient political system that still influences the way Russians view relations between rulers and the world,’ she claims.

    Paul, a lot of things about your review are interesting. Let me–admittedly highly arbitrarily–pick this one out.

    The image of the peasant as something significant in describing Russia then and now drew my attention at one point in my post Sept. 2001 look at life, matters, and opinions on events unfolding around me. Concerning Russia it seemed to pop up a lot. I am not aware that “the peasant” is that present anywhere else, nowadays. There may have been variations on the theme that escaped me, not many seemed to pick up on it if it was present, but neither did anyone ever challenge it. It seemed to be one of the central building blocks it wasn’t necessary to question one way or another.

    Admittedly: This was a rather limited look into current matters from the perspective of specific discussion forums on H-Net over several years.

    Thanks, appreciated.

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  4. What I don’t understand is why the book’s title is “Putin’s world”. The lede, buried in the shallow word-grave, informs us that:

    ‘The new Russia in many ways still resembles the old Soviet Union.’ …‘Russia rulers early on defined themselves by how they differed from Europe, stressing their Eurasian vocation’… ‘The peasant commune … formed the basis not only of the Russian Idea but also of an incipient political system that still influences the way Russians view relations between rulers and the world’

    See? Devout othering and fairly blatant handshakable racism, the founding stones of the American Empire, of which dear authoress is a benefactor. I don’t think that she’s being “careful”, adding obligatory soundbites only in order to avoid accusations of the thought crimes. No, it’s “highly likely” ™ that she really believes in everything written in the book. The fact, that the book is both “middling” and (comparatively) moderate is not a bug but a feature – it makes it an entomological treasure, allowing a peek inside a hive-mind of equally middling people, who comprise the majority of the American Empire’s “thinking/opining” class. And the majority of them thinks that:

    “Russia has not, over the past quarter century, been willing to accept the [West invented and constantly changed] rules of the international order that the West hoped it would.’”

    This lament, combined with already mentioned racist (if it would have been written about any non-white nation in the world there will be an outcry of the Abyssal proportions) essentialism, promises Russia a fate of king Leopold’s Congo if either shy and conscientious middling Democrats or their dye in the wool Cold War LARPers would have their way. As they don’t like their own commoners (only tolerate them deplorables), they won’t find even a sliver of mercy for the barely human Orks of Russian Mordor, if presented with half a chance to murder and pillage their way to sustain their Exceptional Nation.

    That’s the message of the book – Russia is Mordor, hell bent on conquering everyone, and only the shining Western Valinor can “contain” (and then – defeat) the Horde. Unfortunately, Free People of the Middle Earth are too weak as of right now to carry out liberating lebensraum of the Realm of Darkness. Sure, they still hate them Orks and Easterlings, whom they will never consider human or even human-li(t/k)e. That’s why middling people of the Middle Earth keep produce such things that completely lack any key of what to do or provide some clues to the grand strategy. But books like this one fulfill another, non-advertise role – they serve as important piece of propaganda among the “thinking/opining” readers of the enlightened West. Through such books maintains the nuclear ideological triad, that keeps the American Empire waddling through:

    1) Xenophobia. There is scary malign Enemy Beyond, right across the border, that had to be subject to unconditional destruction

    2) Paranoia. There is always some internal source of problems – Enemy Within. Whether it is the deep cover agent from the outside, or either deceived or otherwise seduced home born traitor, they should be identified and punished.

    3) Racism. Good guys are always good. Because they are good. Because they are Americans/Westerners/Our Bastards. Others may be somewhat better and stronger, but the good ones are always US.

    That’s it – another book-stone on the tower of the American millennial Reich.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with Lyttenburgh. Was their any such a thing as a “moderate Nazi?” The U.S.’s quest for global domination, with all the lives it has destroyed and continues to destroy, is based on a belief system that is fundamentally evil. That means anyone who buys into it in any way is morally and ethically corrupt. Either you believe that the U.S. should stop undermining and destroying other countries around the world solely because they won’t go along with American imperialism or you don’t, and if you do you deserve what “intellectuals” such as Alfred Rosenberg got after WW2.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “I don’t think that she’s being “careful”, adding obligatory soundbites only in order to avoid accusations of the thought crimes.”

      That’s always a mystery, isn’t it: cynical opportunism or sincere lunacy?

      Reading her wikipedia page, it describes a career that is too smooth, too stable, too brilliant for a lunatic. It’s difficult for a lunatic to follow zigzags of the party line.

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      1. That’s always a mystery, isn’t it: cynical opportunism or sincere lunacy?

        🙂

        I know, that I already posted it, but

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  5. “Because of this, it’s hard to see in what ways a US foreign policy Stent-style would differ substantially in its approach towards Russia from what we’ve seen in the last two American administrations. It would just be more of the same, but with a little less of the extremist rhetoric. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from this it’s that Russians would be unwise to expect any significant change in American policy no matter who’s in power.”

    One of your articles from last year confirmed that already.

    “The other point which struck me in Gessen’s article is the relative ideological unity among the experts who advise the American government about Russia. Gessen’s interviewees propose various ways of dividing the Russia hands up into different groups, but it’s clear that the divisions between the groups aren’t very great. As Michael Kofman of the Center for Military Analyses tells Gessen, there are really only two types of Russia experts:

    There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”
    https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2018/05/08/the-russia-hands/

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with your recommendations. I have found everything that I have read by Tsygankov to be thoughtful, measured, and highly valuable in understanding both what he describes and what we are watching today. There are other writers that are also worth reading in my opinion (e.g., Gregory Carleton is a recent discovery, Michael Kofman is another), but Mankoff and Tsygankov are well worth the time spent in reading their works.

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