How Much Does Putin Matter? A recent book explains an old Russian desire. But how much does Russia realize that the world has changed?

Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest

By Angela Stent (2019, Twelve) 433 pages with photos, illustrations, endnotes, and index.

When I first saw the title of Angela Stent’s new book I felt a slight sense of dread. Over the past few years, there have been multiple books published with the word “Putin” in the title which have not actually been about Putin. The name “Putin” seems to sell books. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I began reading. While this book is not explicitly about Vladimir Putin and his life, it is about “Putin’s world,” “Putin’s project,” and “Putin’s strategy.”

Dr. Stent has been writing about the Soviet Union, Russia, and their political and economic relations with “the West” for about forty years. She is a Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and has written numerous articles and four books (including this one) about such topics as: the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet-West German relations, Russia and Europe, and Russia and the United States, to name a few. Her experience in the field is unquestioned; her thorough, scholarly approach to writing this book a relief; her many endnotes interesting and often edifying. The book is a good and solid general review for those of us who have been monitoring Soviet and Russian affairs over the years, perhaps somewhat inconsistently and sporadically. The book’s chapters are nicely organized if such a review is the reader’s goal:  “Russia and Germany,” Russia and NATO,” Russia and China,” etc.

Stent notes that from the very beginning of his tenure, Putin has insisted that the world pay attention to Russia in the same way that it paid attention to the Soviet Union.

As promised in the title, Stent makes a strong effort to define “Putin’s world,” for the reader, describing it in various ways over the course of the book, beginning in the “Introduction.” According to Stent, “Putin’s world is one in which relations with the United States and much of Europe are adversarial…in which Russia has a deepening partnership with China, an increasingly influential role in the Middle East, and has returned to areas of the world from which Russia was forced to withdraw after the Soviet collapse.”(3) It is also a world in which Russia exerts influence only by exploiting the chaos and disarray present in other parts of the world, most notably in the United States and Europe.

According to Stent, the creation of Putin’s world is an intentional result of “Putin’s project,” which he has been working on since he first came to power in 2000, and which is carried forward by his vision of Russia’s return to global prominence as a world power that is both respected and feared. Stent notes that from the very beginning of his tenure, Putin has insisted that the world pay attention to Russia in the same way that it paid attention to the Soviet Union.  He has made it clear that he will not merely play along as a junior partner in a world that works according to rules established by “the West”, i.e.: the United States, Europe, and NATO. He wants a say in how the world is ordered at the global level and, according to Stent, feels that Russia has a right to this. In addition, Stent aptly points out that, historically, Russia has always been in empire-building mode. Stent claims that losing as much land as it did after the fall of the Soviet Union was humiliating. “There is no precedent in Russian history for accepting the loss of territory, only for the expansion of it.”(17)  This is one of the major reasons, Stent argues, that Russia views the countries that were formerly associated with the Soviet Union as it does–why it re-acquired Crimea and continues to be an unwanted presence in, for example, the Republic of Georgia.

As Stent elaborates on, and develops her theory of “Putin’s world,” she reveals a basic paradox. After several hundred pages, which include a good amount of historical overview and details about Russia’s involvement in various countries and regions across the globe, Russia, the Kremlin, and Vladimir Putin merge into a single, powerful symbol.  Towards the end of the book, I started to have visions of Orwell’s Big Brother from 1984. Stent writes: “This is Putin’s World: meetings with world leaders in fora where Russia is a key player, highlighting Russia’s military might, celebrating the Kremlin’s close ties to the Orthodox Church and summoning the great symbols of the past to stand with him as he marks two decades at Russia’s helm and approaches the future.” (345) If she had ended the book here, leaving the reader with this stark image of Putin controlling Russia’s historical destiny, I might have been convinced that his project had indeed taken the form he had originally intended. However, Stent does not stop here.

By the very end of the book, she has retreated from this somewhat dystopian image of Putin and his world, suggesting that Putin is not actually the master of this world. In fact, his world is more a projection, something that he is still striving towards, but has not yet attained. “Putin’s world is designed to project an external image of military might, forward movement, and economic dynamism. But the reality may be different. The extravagant rhetoric and external shows of strength in Putin’s world mask serious domestic weaknesses.” (351) Putin’s world “is one in which Russia has returned to the global arena on all cylinders in pursuit of influence and acceptance.” (361) Putin has not really been able to fully inhabit the space that Stent has been calling, “Putin’s world.” While he has insisted on his intention to create a world on his own terms, he has not been able to achieve this goal. Even while he occupies a prominent place on the world stage, he has still not gained access to the inner circle of power–he remains an outsider in pursuit of power and acceptance, someone whom we should be wary of, but who is not allowed to become an equal partner. “In Putin’s world, it is prudent to expect the unexpected.” (362) The last words of Stent’s book are a mild warning at best and not something that indicates a great deal of respect or fear towards Russia, Putin, or “Putin’s world.” Paradoxically, then, while Putin remains, or perhaps is kept by other stronger rivals, on a lower level in the global power structure, he still manages to exert a powerful global influence that cannot be ignored.

Underlying the “plan” and the “project” is Putin’s strategy, which Stent refers to over and over again throughout the book, putting forth the theory that it emerged from Putin’s engagement with Judo: “… Putin’s sport is judo—and that has given him a unique perspective on dealing with competitors and adversaries. Growing up poor in postwar Leningrad, martial arts transformed his life because it was a way of defending himself against larger, tougher boys who tried to beat him up.” (4) Whether Stent does this consciously or not, starting her discussion of Putin’s basic foreign policy strategy with this description primes the reader to think of Putin as a small, weak boy. Stent goes on to write: “In judo, a seemingly weaker practitioner can rely on inner strength and force of will to defeat a larger, more aggressive foe.  Putting an opponent off- balance and taking advantage of their temporary disorientation to strike a winning blow is a basic technique.  Putin has proven to be adept at seizing opportunities presented to him by the disarray in the West and the indecisiveness of some of its leaders.” (4)

Paradoxically, then, while Putin remains, or perhaps is kept by other stronger rivals, on a lower level in the global power structure, he still manages to exert a powerful global influence that cannot be ignored.

Stent gives many examples throughout the book that illustrate this basic technique: Russia has taken advantage of tensions in Europe that have arisen around immigration and accepting migrants. (59) Putin has encouraged frozen conflicts in post-Soviet space, for example in the South Caucasus, and in Ukraine, especially once he figured out that the United States and/or NATO were not going to provide the type and amount of aid that might lead to an all-out military conflict with Russia. And again, in 2015, Russia’s military intervention in Syria and the Obama administration’s ambivalence about the role of the United States there, provided Putin with a perfect opportunity to employ his basic judo strategy. He was able to capitalize on U.S. inaction and pre-existing regional rivalries and, skillfully exploiting them, re-emerge as a respected “player” in a number of Middle East conflicts. (259-60) Most recently, Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections provided Putin with another key opportunity to employ this strategy. Russia was able to take advantage of the polarization within U.S. society and to provoke Americans to question the legitimacy of their democracy. With the election of Donald Trump, writes Stent, “The Kremlin can only sit back and observe these transatlantic quarrels with satisfaction while it seeks to exploit them.” (342)

Somewhat surprisingly, however, after several hundred pages of elaborating on Putin’s basic strategy, Stent concludes: “Putin’s strategy–if that is indeed the appropriate term for policies that often involve a rapid and shrewd response to opportunities created by Western disarray or inaction–has enabled Russia to reappear on the world stage in unanticipated ways that will continue to challenge the world.” (361) I was confused by this conclusion. Is Stent proposing that Putin is still just a small, weak boy defending himself against larger, tougher boys who constantly try to beat him up, or is he a shrewd strategist, who is able to use patience, speed, and cunning, to overcome “larger, more aggressive foes?” While Stent seems dismissive of Putin’s basic strategy, she has also made a convincing case for the fact that he has effectively been able to use it to his advantage, over and over again.

In the end, I suppose that the pleasant surprise I felt when I began Putin’s World must have developed into some set of higher expectations. Given Stent’s scholarly expertise, I believe I was expecting more than the advice she leaves us with at the end of the book–that engagement with Russia must be realistic and flexible, that it must occur around issues of mutual interest, and that we should expect the unexpected. While this is certainly good advice, it is general, somewhat simplistic, and disappointing.  In addition, I am not sure whom Dr. Stent is addressing at the very end of the book when she says: “It is important to remember that the Kremlin does not speak for all Russian citizens. The West should encourage a wider dialogue with Russians whenever possible.”(361-2) As an educated reader with some knowledge of global affairs and a specific interest in Russia, I felt this piece of advice to be inadequate. Stent’s careful attention to history, her detailed descriptions of complex moments in Russia’s relations with other countries, and her attempt to carefully construct a framework within which readers might understand Putin’s actions over the past two decades led me to expect that she would conclude this work with some more complex and creative ideas, which would have grown out of thinking deeply about this topic over the past several decades. The book is a good, solid, interesting read, nothing more.

While Stent seems dismissive of Putin’s basic strategy, she has also made a convincing case for the fact that he has effectively been able to use it to his advantage, over and over again.

What, then, about this book so disturbs me? Perhaps it is the seemingly unquestioned assumption on Stent’s part that our basic world, which she presents as one in which a few dozen world leaders, “players,” as she so often refers to them, strut upon a stage, competing with one another for total domination, forming and breaking alliances, playing games with special rules that some players like (and, in fact, get to write) and adhere to and others do not, is still a viable world. While she seems just at the cusp of looking beyond the edge of the proscenium and noticing that there might be an audience out there, that there might be another, more interactive way to engage with, and make use of the audience’s vast talents, intelligence, and creativity, I could not be sure.  Her final recommendations felt trapped within the confines of a world that is entrenched in old habits and practices.  People who live in such a world may no longer be capable of the agile thinking that is necessary if we are truly going to thrive in a world in which it is “prudent to expect the unexpected.”