Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest
by Angela Stent.
Twelve, 2019.
Hardcover, 448 pages, $30.

Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy
by Anders Åslund.
Yale University Press, 2019.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Sumantra Maitra

Two recent contributions in the crowded field of sophomoric Russia analyses are by Angela Stent and Anders Åslund. Stent, a British-American professor at Georgetown University and a veteran Russia analyst, and Åslund, a Swedish-American economist and combative social media persona, trace similar roots to the problems they consider. “In the nineteenth century,” Stent writes, “deputy minister of education and classical scholar Count Sergei Uvarov summed up the essence of the Russian Idea in the famous triad Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. This is what defined the Russian state. Its three basic institutional pillars were the Orthodox Church, the monarchy, and the peasant commune.” Uvarov gets a nod from Åslund as well.

Åslund’s central thesis is that Moscow historically possessed a strong authoritarian streak: a “dominant strain in Russian political thought throughout history has been a conservatism that insisted on strong, centralized authority,” citing Richard Pipes. The fascination with faith, flag, and family led Putin to follow Tsarist and Soviet strongman traditions and establish a new aristocracy, a “hereditary plutocracy,” based on “illiberalism.” Åslund argues that after the tumultuous and decadent nineties, where Russian democracy failed to bloom properly, after the economic “shock therapy” and resultant oligarchy, Putin’s second term saw Moscow’s resurgence, fueled by an oil price boom. Åslund is not clear as to what motivated Putin, but mentions the Russian President’s admiration for a couple of “antidemocratic and nationalist” philosophers, Ivan Ilyin and Lev Gumilev. Why? Because Putin happens to have quoted them a few times publicly Political analysis based only on rhetoric is by definition subjective—though that’s beyond the scope of this essay—but this gives a sense of Åslund’s project.

In this attempt to create a strong state, Putin “embraced state capitalism explicitly.” In Putin’s own words, “Russia is characterized by a tradition of a strong state” and “the anarchy of the 1990s discredited both the market economy and democracy.” But this was not uniform. Åslund mentions that a Russian intellectual elite embraced globalization, but as Russian security interests turned anti-Western since 2012, Moscow resorted to protectionism; the implied nudge is that authoritarianism goes hand in hand with protectionist tendencies.

This, according to Åslund, is the crux, the chain of causality that traces from a strong authoritarian aspiration, to a strong state and oligarchy, to state capitalism and foreign aggression. Putin’s economic system is based on “monopolies and cartels. The most important economic sectors are divided among a few companies, which in turn are each dominated by one person.” For example, five main companies, Gazprom, Rosneft, Novatek, Surgut, and Lukoil control the entire oil and gas industry, weaponized by the Kremlin while dealing with Europe. “Such a combination of assets is scary and characteristic of a declining power,” Åslund reminds us. One is tempted to note the similarity of the media monopoly in the West and tally it with liberal bias.

Åslund continues, “for the Kremlin, the temptation might be overwhelming to exploit its military strength while it still can. Quite logically, it has pursued three wars since 2014—the annexation of Crimea, the incursion into eastern Ukraine, and the military intervention in Syria.” It is for this reason, Russia tried to replicate a Eurasian Union with Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. “Putin’s priority since 2003 was to integrate Ukraine together with Kazakhstan and Belarus, and he wanted to do so before Ukraine’s presidential elections in the fall of 2004.” But naturally, the Orange revolution (and other Colour revolutions in Europe) was something Putin did not expect.

What, therefore, is to be done? Åslund suggests a dual approach. First, promote liberal internationalists in Moscow. Åslund makes his own choice clear. “[Alexei] Navalny is currently the most interesting political leader in Russia, although he barely registers in the opinion polls.” We are informed that “[h]e works skillfully with social media, targeting the young and the provinces.” Second, target the offshore funds of the oligarchs. “Hundreds of billions of dollars of ill-gotten Russian wealth is hidden in Western offshore havens, primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom. All Western countries should demand the revelation of all beneficiary owners.” Åslund argues that all monetary flows should be subject to bank regulations, and all Western governments, should break up “tainted funds.”

Stent’s approach to understanding Russian political culture is more historical. Stent is in agreement with Åslund about Moscow’s “conservative-authoritarian” political culture, although she prudently avoids the term “illiberal,” which in the modern Whiggish interpretation of history means any political system of governance opposed to the “End of History” model of borderless liberal-technocratic internationalism. “No wonder Putin likes to stand next to statues of Prince Vladimir and Tsar Peter the Great. Putin represents traditional, collectivist, authoritarian Russian political culture and appeals to a sense of Russian exceptionalism, which defines itself in opposition to the West,” Stent argues.

But what shapes Russian interests? Unlike Åslund, who traces motivation back to the economy, Stent argues for historical factors. A defeated Russia in the nineties faced what it perceived as an overbearing West. President Clinton’s foreign policy was heavily influenced by the End of History and Liberal-Democratic peace narrative, an idea that since democracies do not go to war with each other it is imperative to spread liberal democracy, coercively if necessary. The early stages of NATO enlargement, for example, were designed not just to institutionalize peace in the continent, but to spread the liberal institutions eastward. The idea was not to help, but to transform East Europe and Russia. There was, however, one tiny problem. Russia was a former imperial power, unlike the small states in Central and Eastern Europe, and uninterested in imposed peace. “The Western assumption that Russia would gradually accept the loss of empire and its new, diminished role in the global order turned out to be a product of wishful thinking,” Stent argues.

This difference of perception was at play when Moscow stunned the Europeans by annexing Crimea. Crimea, a province of immense strategic interest to Russia, had only become Ukrainian due to what Stent terms “an accident of history.” Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine at a time when no one thought the Soviet empire would one day collapse. It was a historical lack of foresight. A naval port that belonged to the Tsars and then the Soviets thus had to be retaken by Russia due to a sudden and unforseen change in the regional balance of power. The human hubris and confidence in historical predictions and certainties affected the Russians as well. “‘Putin surprised everyone,’ said one of [Merkel’s] senior aides. ‘The swiftness, the brutality, the coldheartedness. It’s just so twentieth century—the tanks, the propaganda, the agents provocateurs.’” Russia continued to pour in troops and armament, and in due course the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic were formed, under the protectorate of Moscow. “[H]arking back to Catherine the Great’s eighteenth-century conquests, the separatists referred to this region north of the Black Sea as Novorossiya.” History, instead of being an arc, looked like a Hobbesian cycle.

Stent is fair-minded about the root cause. The transformation of NATO from a purely defensive alliance to a frontier force spearheading liberal institutionalism was also a break from classical Republican grand-strategy and American history. Stent argues that NATO “represented a radical transformation of U.S. foreign policy, away from its previous isolationist inclinations, which reached all the way back to George Washington’s admonition in his Farewell Address: ‘Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?’”

“With hindsight, NATO enlargement to include the Baltic states was undertaken without fully thinking through its implications,” she argues. In fact, every unilateral action in the liberal 1990s had a reaction. The West’s intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, and subsequent acceptance of Kosovo’s independence, was used by Putin, play by play, in his own ruthless campaign in Georgia. The Iraq and Libya interventions were replicated in Syria and Ukraine. The signs were all there, ever since Russia shocked the European powers in the Munich Security Conference speech in 2007. The Colour revolutions in Eastern Europe were perceived in Moscow as regime change by peaceful proxies, with NGOs and transnational activists as agents of the West. Added to that was the narrow geopolitical angle. “Russia’s stake in Ukraine is far greater and more compelling than is that of the United States or many members of the EU. Ukraine is an existential question for Russia, as Russia is for Ukraine.” Moscow’s alignment with Tel Aviv in Syria was also a symbol of narrow realpolitik based on shared interests. As Putin said after intervening in Syria, “[Y]ou must, at last, take us seriously now.”

Stent concludes that this is different than the last Cold War. There is no ideological competition or aspiration for global hegemony from Moscow’s side, but an alignment of certain great powers opposed to American hegemony. “The United States is much stronger militarily than is Russia, and it used to view Moscow more as a regional than as a global strategic competitor, although Russia believes it has recently indeed become a greater and global competitor to the United States, thanks to Putin’s accomplishments.” Russia is also integrated to the global economy, unlike the autarkic Soviets. In conclusion, she states that the goals of Moscow are straightforward. Russia desires a sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space and is unlikely to allow former Soviet neighbors to join any Euro-Atlantic security structure. Russia also believes in an old-fashioned Great Power politics, instead of liberal institutionalism. In reality, this translates to a Athenian “might is right” sphere of influence politics from antiquity. The strong do what they can. While Russia, U.S., UK, China, and India are free to decide their own destinies, Ukraine, Libya, and Georgia are not. Russia also does not seek permanent allies but is willing to form alignments based on interests. Finally and most importantly, Moscow prefers order over anarchy. “Russia will continue to present itself as a supporter of the status quo, an advocate of conservative values, an international power that respects established leaders. The West, according to the Kremlin, promotes chaos and regime change, as happened during the Arab Spring—without thinking through the consequences of its actions.”

So, how do these arguments stack up compared with all the ideological nonsense we’ve been reading in the past few years? To recap, Åslund’s chief causal variables are economy and domestic politics. If one simplifies his argument, one can claim that Putin’s Russia is an oligarchy guarded by a conservative-authoritarian superstructure. That, in turn, is the primary motivator for Russian aggression. It is a compelling theory, but it falls short on closer scrutiny. Moscow’s aggression in the last decade or so was in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. One of these cases, Georgia, was during an economic boom, the other two during periods of economic stagnation. His book fails to explain the difference. It also fails to explain that Georgia is a region that has Moscow’s gas pipelines, something that can be logically expected to be defended by a great power, but which is not applicable in Syria and Ukraine. More to the point, Åslund’s fire is aimed at Moscow’s “illiberalism,” an idea that is currently in vogue among liberals still clutching on to the End of History thesis. By that logic, every polity, great power, or nation-state that refuses to follow “liberal-internationalism” is by definition illiberal, and therefore evil. Consider the cases of nationalist-conservative democracies like Hungary and Poland, also deemed to be illiberal and therefore illegitimate. From Brexit, to the election of Trump, to the Gilet Jaunes protests in France, to the rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil, to Putin’s Russia—every society, movement, or event predicated on a “narrow,” nationalist, “faith-flag-family” polity is equally contemptible.

That is a Whiggish interpretation of history. The reality is somewhat different. All these countries and leaders enjoy significant domestic support. Even in Russia, with its hideously rigged electoral system, one only has to go through the independent Levada polls to see Putin’s approval ratings, and compare them with Åslund’s liberal hero, Alexei Navalny, or even Boris Yeltsin. There’s a reason why Putin’s regime, despicable though it might arguably be, enjoys domestic support. Russians are mostly, apart from some urban liberals, considerably comfortable with the semblance of order Putin has provided after the anarchic and hyper-liberal 90s. This is a key distinction that is needed to understand Russia and formulate policy accordingly. A more important question here, therefore, would be what to do with those people and great powers that refuse the liberal-internationalist order? Is the solution promoting liberal-internationalism with evermore crusading zeal, or a more Nixonian approach of coexistence and classical conservative realpolitik?

A gaping hole in both theses is a failure to consider a simple puzzle. What explains the fact that Moscow’s actual use of military force and aggression has been limited to certain specific geographical regions? Why did it not spread to the whole of Ukraine or Georgia? Why was Moscow only focused on carving out Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Why did it stay limited in Donetsk and Luhansk? Why did Russia not go to war when Macedonia joined NATO, but did in Ukraine? Why did Moscow not intervene in Libya, but used military force in Syria? None of this is, logically, the behavior of an imperial entity. Imperial entities are by definition power-maximizers.

Stent, for example, argues that “(there) is no precedent in Russian history for accepting the loss of territory, only for the expansion of it … [W]ith no natural borders and vulnerable to invasion from the south, east, and west, Russia could only be safe if it conquered its neighboring territories. Security for Russia meant defensive expansion.” Even if one ignores that this assertion fails to explain why Russian reaction was muted in the first two phases of NATO expansion, or why Putin wanted to be on the bandwagon with the West against Islamist terrorism immediately after 9/11, or why Putin’s aggression was territorially limited in Ukraine and Georgia, it is also historically oversimplistic. For example, as Matthew Rendall’s research suggested, Moscow “passed up chances to bid for hegemony in 1815, and to topple Ottoman Turkey in 1829,” even at the zenith of her power in the European balance.

Stent is of course, completely correct in tracing the roots of Russian paranoia. A great power with no natural defensible borders, which has historically faced invasions from Mongols, Ottomans, Napoleon, the Kaiser, the Japanese, and Hitler, has a different perception of security than the British and Americans. That, as she rightly points out, affects how Moscow views the world, regardless of the regime holding the Kremlin. But it does not demonstrate that Moscow is or has been ideologically motivated, imperial/hegemonic, or mindlessly expansionist. Regardless of any aspiration, the Kremlin is simply not capable of hegemony. By every measurable index Russia lacks the material, military, demographic, technological, and aggregate power to bid for one, compared to her peer rivals, the EU, China, or the U.S.

But there is a method in Moscow’s madness. Exploring the recent military use of force by Russia points to a balancing pattern. Moscow only goes to war when its direct strategic and material interests are threatened, and reverts back to the status quo when the immediate threat is neutralized. This pattern was visible in the first two phases of NATO enlargement. Russia was militarily and economically weak and agreed to NATO’s expansion if two conditions were initially fulfilled—that there would be no new troops or offensive weapons systems in the new member states. NATO agreed to the conditions and the NATO-Russia Founding Act that led to the creation of the permanent joint council, and Moscow accepted NATO enlargement in central Europe. Further down the line, after the Kosovo rift between Moscow and Washington, by a quirk of fate, September 11th gave Russia an opportunity to work with the U.S. After President Bush’s speech in 2002, the reframing of NATO’s purpose negated any perceivable offensive intention on NATO’s part, as the West seemed like an ally in the broader struggle against Islamic jihadism. Moscow accepted a junior role, and that was reflected in the political rhetoric, as well as the military doctrines and force posture of the times. However, with the Colour revolutions and the Mesopotamian misadventures, there was a permanent rift, one that wasn’t cured even by a misspelt reset.

Moscow’s military aggressions, likewise, were all in locations where Russia had strategic interests. Georgia’s rapid move towards NATO and the EU, threatened Russian peacekeepers based in the breakaway rebel provinces, as well as Russia’s status as the net security provider of the oil and energy pipelines in the region. In Syria, the prime motivation was the threat of the loss of Russia’s only Middle Eastern client state, as well as a warm water naval port. Ukraine provided a Russian Black Sea fleet base in Crimea, and Eastern Ukrainian firms provided Russian supply chains, spares, and guidance for Russian jets, missiles, and Russia’s sole navy carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Ukraine’s military-industrial complex is located in Eastern Ukraine, and it is no surprise that most of the fighting is concentrated in those specific regions. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire without Ukraine. Russian annexation of Crimea settled the long-term issue of a naval port, and added the vessels of the Ukrainian navy to the Russian fleet.

These are not acts of mindless expansionism, but rather calculated strategic endeavours, unsavoury though they might be, in challenging conventional Liberal wisdom. They also indicate that, unlike Britain and the United States going to war for ideological (nation-building) and humanitarian reasons, Moscow goes to war for strategic reasons. Rather than an aura of invincibility, this thesis gives Russia predictability, and helps Western policymakers calculate where and when the next conflict might come, and which areas might observe a lot of rhetorical posturing but no actual action.

The world is, of course, enormously complex; no single theory or book can have complete explanatory power. But as Kenneth Waltz once suggested, for that very reason, the aim is to simplify reality and facilitate a discussion—and most importantly to formulate a way forward. With that in mind, one can argue that both these books have disadvantages, although Stent is closer to explaining Russian “reaction” than Åslund. Stent’s theory that Russia needs to be understood from a Russian perspectives is correct. Åslund’s suggestion of going after offshore funds is one of the strongest parts of his book. Those are their two most important contributions. One still wishes that they had kept their Whig historiography in check. Two decades of Western liberal evangelizing was not successful. Perhaps it is time to go back to a Nixonian realpolitik, based on an awareness of Russia’s interests and a narrower conservative understanding of an adversarial great power shaped by its own history and sense of exceptionalism, forever destined to be a wild and independent presence on the cusp of two powerful continents.  

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher awaiting final submission after a successful thesis defense, at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is a Senior Contributor for The Federalist, and a non-resident fellow at the James G. Martin Center. His research is related to great powers and neorealism. He can be found on Twitter, @MrMaitra.