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.
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.