Book Review | Putin, America and the war on truth in Ukraine
There are two views in the West about Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The first is that he is a brutal warmonger psychologically predisposed to seeking violent solutions to problems and points to his KGB past as a clue to his present behaviour. The other view is that Mr Putin, far from being a psychotic glory seeker, is in fact a hard-headed chess player who is a risk taker and for whom restoring Russia’s position as a global power is paramount.
The first view is the more public view as also the favoured one for Western propaganda. The aim is to evoke universal revulsion for Mr Putin by painting him as a modern-day Hitler determined to bring death and destruction on the free world. The second view is more considered in the backrooms of policymakers where realism rather than deception is paramount.
Mark Galeotti’s work Putin’s War leans on the side of the first view. For him, Mr Putin is a danger and has “like many a prince or tsar before him, turned to military might and war fighting as a crucial instrument not just in re-asserting his country’s place in the world but also in building a national myth of pride, glory and success. He is actively recreating a narrative of Russia’s evolution through the centuries that emphasises the lessons that suit his interests: that the world is a dangerous place, that Russians need to stay united and disciplined, that to look weak is to invite attack, and that, as Tsar Alexander III memorably asserted, ‘Russia has just two allies: its army and its navy.’”
Given that promoting national pride and glory is pretty universal and believing the world is a dangerous place is not entirely delusional, one would imagine that these are hardly attributes worthy of condemnation. After all, the neo cons of the United States had a far more paranoid view of the world and wreaked far more havoc than Putin is even capable of. But that clearly is another matter. For, as far as the author of this book is concerned, there “is no likelihood of any pacifist turn under Putin.” Implicit in this view is that Mr Putin and his Mother Russia must be put down like rabid dogs.
A large part but not all of the book details Putin’s wars, including the ones in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and now Ukraine. One cannot, however, shake off the feeling that somehow these accounts are not quite the observations of a dispassionate observer. The point the author tries to make again and again is the sheer brutality, often ineptness and inhumanity of Mr Putin’s methods.
Coming from a military historian such a view is astonishing given that all wars are brutal, including today’s faceless ones. Was there any lack of brutality in the US military’s campaigns in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq where hundreds of thousands were bombed out of existence simply because they stood in the way of Washington’s strategic calculations even though they were thousands of miles from American shores? It is absurd to imagine a war could be fought gently.
Equally contentious is the author’s view that Mr Putin is an empire builder. The author argues that after the success of the second Chechnya war Russia once again became a global power. He then goes on to say that if Mr Putin had “been content with building a strong nation within its own borders rather than chasing fantasies of empire, Putin would likely have been remembered as a successful statebuilder. Instead, for years and perhaps decades, even under his eventual successor, Russia will still be recovering from the damage caused by his overreach”.
This perspective is not entirely credible. For, it could equally be argued that Mr Putin, rather than empire building while trying to build economic relations with Europe, was trying to desperately maintain the status quo in Russia’s backyard. If anything, it was the Western powers led by the United States who were instigating one coloured revolution after another in a region of Moscow’s immediate strategic interest and pushing the frontiers of Nato.
Using military means to maintain the status quo is not new. How can one forget the Cuban missile crisis when the United States had to issue a military threat to Nikita Khrushchev when he stationed missiles in Cuba? The Soviets did not actually attack the United States but the missile crisis was a threat to the status quo and had to be stopped. The 19th century Monroe Doctrine had codified the idea of the Americas as Washington’s sphere of influence which could not be intruded upon.
As early as in the 1870s, when Britain clashed with Venezuela over a boundary dispute, Washington stepped in and threatened war if London did not negotiate with Caracas. The examples are legion and it would be historically erroneous to single out Mr Putin for doing what any self-respecting nationalist leader would do.
Be that as it may, the author is certain that Mr Putin is doomed: “Having paralleled himself with historical figures such as Peter the Great, Putin risks actually looking more like Nicholas II, the last tsar, who thought the First World War was a chance to relegitimise himself and his regime, and found himself leading his country in a war it could not win. In the process he doomed himself and his dynasty. Maybe the tough decision to end this war will end up having to be made by his successor, whoever and whenever it may be.” This might well be the denouement but not for the reasons the author tries to assert in his book.
Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine
By Mark Galeotti
pp. 384, $35