In the picture
Cover of Angela Stent's book, 'Putin's World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest' (New York: Twelve, 2019) 433 pages.
[We reproduce the review of the book 'Putin's World' that appeared in Global Affairs on 27 February 2020. Pending books on the war in Ukraine and the new era of Russia's relations with the rest of the world, Angela Sent's book is a compendium of Putin's worldview and his interaction with the world around him].
Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasia, Russia and Eastern Europe programs of study , presents in this book an in-depth analysis of the nature of Russia at the beginning of the 21st century. To understand what is happening today, we sample first look at the historical outlines that shaped the massive heartland that Russian statesmen have consolidated over time.
Russia took advantage of the global showcase of the 2018 World Cup to present a renewed image. The operation to sell Russia's national brand had some success, as reflected in surveys: many foreign (especially American) spectators who visited the country for the football tournament came away with an improved image of the Russian people, and vice versa. However, what was presented as an opening to the world has not manifested itself in the Kremlin's domestic or international policy: Putin's grip on the hybrid regime that has ruled Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union has not been loosened in the slightest.
Many experts could not predict the fate of this nation in the 1990s. After the collapse of the communist regime, many thought Russia would begin a long and painful road to democracy. The United States would maintain its unique superpower status and shape a New World Order that would embrace Russia as a minor power, equal to other European states. But these considerations did not take into account the will of the Russian people, who understood Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's management as "historical mistakes" that needed to be corrected. And this perspective can be seen in Vladimir Putin's main speeches: a nostalgic feeling for Russia's imperial past, a refusal to be part of a world ruled by the United States, and the need to bend the sovereignty of the once Soviet republics. The latter is a crucial aspect of Russia's foreign policy that, to varying degrees, it has already applied to Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and others.
What has changed in the Russian soul since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Have relations with Europe suffered ups and downs throughout the history of the Russian Empire? What are these relations like now that Russia is no longer an empire, having lost almost all its power in a matter of years? The author takes us by the hand through these questions. The Russian Federation as we know it today has been ruled by only three autocrats: Boris Yeltsin, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, although one could argue that Medvedev does not even properly count as president, since during his tenure Putin was the intellectual leader behind every step taken in the international arena.
Russia's complicated relations with European countries are notoriously exemplified in the case of Germany, which the book compares to a roller coaster (an expression that is particularly eloquent at Spanish ). Germany is the Federation's door to Europe, a metaphorical door that, throughout contemporary history, has been ajar, wide open or closed, as it is now. After the seizure of Crimea, Merkel's Germany's relations with Moscow have been strictly limited to trade issues. It is worth highlighting the enormous differences that can be found between Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik and Angela Merkel's current Frostpolitik. Although Merkel grew up in East Germany, where Putin worked as a KGB agent for five years, and the two can understand each other in both Russian and German, this biographical link has not been reflected in their political relationship.
Germany went from being Russia's biggest European ally (to the extent that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, after leaving position, was appointed after leaving position chairman of Rosneft's management committee ), to being a threat to Russian interests. After sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014 with the support of the German government, relations between Putin and Merkel are at their worst. However, some might argue that Germany is acting hypocritically given that it has accepted and financed the Nordstream pipeline, which heavily damages Ukraine's Economics .
Besides the EU, the other main opponent for Russian interests is NATO. At every point on the map where the Kremlin wishes to exert pressure, NATO has strengthened its presence. Under US command, the organisation follows the US strategy of trying to keep Russia at bay. And Moscow perceives NATO and the US as the biggest obstacle to regaining its sphere of influence in "near abroad" (Eastern Europe, Central Asia) and the Middle East.
Putin's fixation with the former Soviet republics has by no means faded over time. If anything, it has increased after the successful annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the civil war that flared up in the Donbass. Russia's nostalgia for what was once part of its territory is nothing more than a pretext to try to neutralise any dissident governments in the region and subjugate as much as possible the countries that make up its buffer zone, for security and financial reasons.
The Middle East also plays an important role in Russia's international affairs diary . Russia's main goal is to promote stability and combat terrorist threats that may arise in places that are poorly controlled by the region's governments. Putin has been fighting Islamic terrorism since the separatist threat in Chechnya. However, his possible good intentions in the area are often misinterpreted because of his support in every possible way (including aerial bombardment) for some authoritarian regimes, such as Assad's in Syria. In this particular civil war, Russia is repeating the Cold War proxy war game against the US, which for its part has been supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurds. Putin's interest is to keep his ally Assad in power, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran's financial aid .
Angela Stent draws an accurate picture of Russia's recent past and its relationship with the outside world. Without being biased, she succeeds in critically summarising what anyone interested in security should bear in mind when addressing topic Russia's threats and opportunities. For, as Vladimir Putin himself declared in 2018, 'no one has succeeded in stopping Russia'. Not yet.