Category Archives: Book review

Book review: Dealing with the Russians

‘How do you deal with a problem like the Russians?’ It’s a question which seems to dominate public discourse nowadays, with the Russian Federation elevated to the status of Enemy Number One in much of the Western world. Oxford University’s Andrew Monaghan has an answer – ‘not like we’ve done so far’. In his last book, The New Politics of Russia, he attacked the mainstream Western view of Russia as ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive’. Now, in a new book Dealing with the Russians, he lambasts the Euro-Atlantic security community for its approach to the ‘Russia challenge’. ‘The problem Russia poses is being misdiagnosed and the responses, therefore, poorly framed,’ he argues. It is time for the ‘retirement of the worn-out and out-of-date repetitions, and the tired clichés and template phrases that currently dominate the public policy lexicon.’ What we need, says Monaghan, is ‘fresh thinking.’

monaghan

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Book review: the lands in between

I’m told that the famous British journalist Bernard Levin was once fired from his job as a theatre critic after he failed to write about the play he’d been told to review but instead filed an article detailing the walk he’d taken after he left the play half way through. It was Levin’s way of saying how terrible the play had been.

I’m tempted to take the same approach with Mitchell Orenstein’s book The Lands in Between: Russia vs the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War, recently published by Oxford University Press (OUP). Is it really worth giving it attention it doesn’t deserve? It would be much more entertaining to tell you instead about my outing last Friday to Sergiev Posad. But I promised OUP that I would review it (though after this one, I doubt that they’ll send me any more books to read!). So I shall. If nothing else, it will serve to demonstrate what sort of stuff is now being propagated by serious publishing houses and how exactly the architects of the ‘New Cold War’ go about spreading fear among the general population.

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Book Review – John Helmer

The back of Australian journalist John Helmer’s memoir The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia contains an endorsement from Euromaidan Press describing him as one of a group of ‘Pro Kremlin leftists and liberals … who echo the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda’. I take it that Helmer, who reported from Russia for about 30 years, considers being insulted by Euromaidan Press a sort of compliment. The charge that he’s a ‘pro-Kremlin’ propagandist is not, however, unusual. A couple of years ago, Helmer hit the headlines here in Canada when he used his blog Dancing with Bears to spread the story of the Nazi connections of Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather. This was rapidly denounced by Freeland and Prime Minister Trudeau as ‘Russian disinformation’, as if Helmer was simply doing the bidding of the Russian government. A report by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institution about Russian disinformation similarly remarked that ‘Recent articles on Helmer’s blog also promote other Kremlin positions’, and commented that, ‘John Helmer is also a regular contributor to a well-known anti-Semitic, pro-Kremlin media platform called Russia Insider.’ (I suspect this isn’t true and Russian Insider has just republished stuff from Dancing with Bears). Suffice it to say that Helmer is not much loved by the Russophobic wing of the Western political spectrum.

You’d think, then, that The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia would be full of pro-Kremlin propaganda, painting Russia in glorious colours as a land of milk of honey. If so, you’ll be very surprised. This isn’t a book which makes Russians – or anybody else for that matter – look good at all. The first half is primarily an account of Helmer’s near-fatal dealings with the Russian aluminium company Rusal and its owner Oleg Deripaska. Helmer recounts how two Rusal agents attempted to bribe him to write a positive review of Rusal prior to the company’s attempt to sell shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. When Helmer refused to do so, but instead published articles indicating that Rusal was in financial trouble, three armed goons turned up at his apartment and attempted to gain entry. Wisely, Helmer and his wife refused to let them in, but instead called the police, who soon arrested them and found in their possession not only weapons but also incriminating documents linking them to Rusal. It seemed like a pretty clear case of attempted murder, and the police, according to Helmer, were keen to press charges.

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At that point, however, things changed. Somebody somewhere called some bigwig, and the initial policemen were taken off the case and replaced by new ones, who declared that the whole episode was just a misunderstanding and then let the goons off scot free. Helmer subsequently persuaded a court to order the police to reopen the case, but they never did anything more.

That wasn’t the end of Helmer’s problems. A few months later he was stripped of his official accreditation as a journalist, and so forced to leave the country. Subsequent attempts to obtain a Russian visa have all failed. He is, in effect, persona non grata and banned from Russia. His crime – stepping on the toes of the people with power and influence.

The second half of Helmer’s book covers a different story: accusations made by a washed-out former KGB agent Yury Shvets that Helmer and his wife had been Soviet spies. The story continued to circulate for years despite the fact that various newspapers had been forced to recant it and admit that there was no evidence to support it. Helmer uses the episode as a means of lambasting the journalist ethics of some of his colleagues, who don’t let such awkward things as the truth get in the way of a good headline. He ends his book with what may be said to an overall comment on the state of Western journalism:

Repeat a lie often enough and it will erase the truth as if it never existed. So long as the subject is a Russian one, this is the rule for all conmen and reporters to get away scot-free, with the cash.

The Man Who Knows Who Too Much About Russia is replete with conspiracy, shady characters, and murky goings-on. The picture it paints of Russia is hardly a positive one. Rather, it’s portrayed as a country in which oligarchs are happy to murder journalists, and use their influence to subvert the judicial process and to persuade the government to have those they fail to kill expelled from the country. Helmer doesn’t even let Vladimir Putin off the hook. It is surprising, he says, that Western observers ascribe such power to a man ‘of such smallness’, ‘who does what the oligarchs’ interests dictate’. Overall, Helmer concludes, Russia is ruled ‘by small men scheming at crimes, and defeating their enemies, domestic and foreign, who are not less small and criminal themselves.’

It’s somewhat surprising, therefore, that the more Russophobic elements of the Western commentariat are so keen to portray Helmer as a Russian propagandist. He is clearly nothing of the sort. But the last part of the phrase quoted above provides a clue. He lambasts the Russians. But he portrays Westerners as no less corrupt. He complains at length, for instance, that the Australian authorities failed to protect him when warned that his life was in danger because they didn’t want to alienate Deripaska and Rusal, who were investing large sums of money into the Australian economy. Helmer is an equal opportunity critic. And in the current political climate that is unacceptable. One is either with us or against us. Any signs of whataboutism, or any criticisms of the prevailing Western narrative which indicate that you’re not 100% on our side, are proof positive that you must be a fully paid up Kremlin agent. It is, of course, absurd, but alas it seems that that’s the way it is.

Overall, then, I’d say that if you’re the sort of person who likes moral clarity, and is looking for a black and white tale with good guys and bad guys, this book isn’t going to be to your liking. There aren’t any good guys here. But if you’re of a more cynical frame of mind, relish stories of conspiracy and all-round corruption, and tend to think ‘A plague on all your houses,’ then The Man Who Knows Too Much About Russia will probably be right up your alley.

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

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Book Review: Moscow Rules

Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.

Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.

Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’

moscow rules

So what distinguishes Russia from the West?

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Book of the year prize 2018

Barring the publication of something quite remarkable in the next couple of months, I can now announce the winner of the 2018 prize for ‘best book about Russia I’ve read this year’ – Russian Hybrid Warfare: Resurgence and Politicisation by Ofer Fridman, a research fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Actually, the title Russian Hybrid Warfare is a bit misleading, as the book is not exclusively about Russia. Rather it’s about hybrid warfare in general, and more specifically about how it has been conceptualized and politicized in both Russia and the West. Readers will come away with a good understanding of how the term ‘hybrid war’ came into being, what people mean by it, and how it has been used, or more correctly misused, by various actors to serve their own political and bureaucratic interests. Russian Hybrid Warfare is succinct, solidly researched, clearly written and jargon-free, devoid of obvious political biases (a rarity in discussions of Russia these days), challenges clichés, and brings nuance and understanding to a field of study too often characterized by black and white simplicities. The one weakness of the book is that it is a little repetitious; Fridman enjoys saying the same thing more than once; he likes to tell us what he’s already told us; he says things over and over. But apart from that, I found nothing to fault. I realize that strategic theory isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but given how hybrid warfare has become part and parcel of public discourse in the past few years, everyone with an interest in international security should give this book a read.

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Book Review: Creating Russophobia

Russophobia – literally, fear of Russia, but more commonly understood as dislike or hatred of Russia – is not a new phenomenon. Academics have written a number of books about how citizens of various Western countries have viewed Russia over the centuries – Marshall Poe on early modern European perceptions of Russia, James Casteel on Russia in the imagination of Germans, David Fogelsong on Americans’ missionary attitude towards Russia, and so on. But until now the general phenomenon of Russophobia has never been comprehensively analyzed. This gap in the literature, as we academics like to say, has now been filled by Swiss journalist Guy Mettan, with his 2017 book Creating Russophobia: From the Great Religious Schism to Anti-Putin Hysteria. Or at least, partially filled, for while Mettan’s work contains much which is perceptive, it also suffers from certain biases which, I think, will make it more of a starting point for future studies of Russophobia than the definitive, final word on the subject.

A former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tribune de Genève, Mettan is an intelligent and well-informed observer who deserves to be taken seriously. He’s also very much a Russophile, as shown by the fact that he was granted Russian citizenship in the mid-1990s by the administration of President Boris Yeltsin. He complains of ‘widespread prejudices, cartloads of clichés and systematic anti-Russian biases of most western media,’ and states that the purpose of his book is ‘convincing readers that there is no need to hate Russia.’ While Creating Russophobia is founded on detailed research into centuries’ worth of Western writings on Russia, it is not, therefore, a neutral academic book, but one with a definite political purpose.

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