Ebury Press, 2019, $19.95, 160 pp.
Editor’s Note: This is the first essay in a multi-author series on “Getting Russia Right”. Read the second installment by Carla Anne Robbins here.
Mark Galeotti’s new book, We Need to Talk About Putin—subtitled “How the West Gets Him Wrong”—is a sharp, short effort that gets Putin (mostly) right. Galeotti stresses that his book—more of a long essay, really—is not an academic study. In fact, it’s a rather playful work as a whole. At the start, Galeotti lists a “cast of characters” with short descriptions of each one of them, as if he were starting a Shakespearean tragedy, or, in some places, a farce. Indeed, Galeotti himself appears as a minor character in the play, sitting at dinner at a famous Moscow restaurant and listening to an unnamed Russian official explain Putin to him. It’s a clever narrative device that nevertheless sets up a mystery of its own. But more on that later.
Overall, Galeotti’s main argument is simple: Not everything that is going on in the world plays into Putin’s hands, or is even to be blamed on (or credited to) him. Not every Western setback is part of some complex Russian strategy. Indeed, the Kremlin draws psychological strength from the misunderstanding of its enemies. “By acting as if Russia is a great power, Putin hopes to persuade everyone else either that this is true, or at least that it’s not worth trying to challenge the idea,” Galeotti writes. As David Kramer noted in our pages recently, this is exactly how Putin manages to do as much as he does, largely unchallenged.
The bluster alone is not sufficient to be effective. The hot rhetoric must be matched with the illusion of strategic genius. Galeotti points out that, on the contrary, both in his personal life and on the world stage, Putin is a judo black belt but not a chess grandmaster. “He has a sense of what constitutes a win, but has not predetermined a path towards it. He relies on quickly seizing any advantage he sees, rather than on a careful strategy,” Galeotti says. “[T]his helps explain why we are so often unable to predict Putin’s moves in advance—he himself doesn’t know what he’ll do next.”
It’s also important to remember that the bolder geopolitical moves, like the annexation of Crimea, often belie a different tendency in the Russian President. Putin, Galeotti notes, usually “wants clarity, he wants safe choices and guaranteed successes.” He literally hid from public view for ten days after Boris Nemtsov was killed in front of the Kremlin in 2015, emerging to deliver only a slap on the wrist to the Chechen strongman who had in all likelihood directly ordered the killing. And when faced with tough choices on committing resources to Ukraine and to Syria, he has eschewed making a decision, opting instead to muddle through. “Time and again, Putin either backs away from a tough decision, ducks out while he agonizes, or hopes that with time, the need to make a decision will disappear.”
Galeotti is also excellent on the question of what constitutes what one might call “Putinism”—the ideology behind the man. There’s not much to it, he argues. He ably demolishes the narrative that has arisen around Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian fascist philosopher who is regularly described in Western accounts as “Putin’s brain,” and he dismisses the influence of the writings of people like the anti-Bolshevik émigré Ivan Ilyin. There is little evidence that Putin actually reads these people, Galeotti asserts. I might add that there is little evidence that Putin reads much philosophy at all.
Putin’s nihilistic pragmatism extends far and wide. Putin supports right-wing populists in Europe and the socialists led by Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. The only thing that unites these two parties is their stand against Europe and the United States. If Putin ever quotes someone, or some ideologies seem to emerge as driving forces in Russia, it is only because they are “politically convenient, and when they become liability they fade from view.” Putin is not an Islamophobe, for example, nor is he a frothing homophobe, but he readily reaches for any of these poses if they give him a means of skewering Western norms. There are more than a million Central Asian migrant workers in Moscow alone—most of them Muslims—but it is Europe that is “falling apart” under the immigrant flows from Middle East, Russian propaganda insists. Top positions in Putin’s administration, as well as in Medvedev’s cabinet and the Duma, are held by people widely known to be gay, and Putin himself has publicly said that he has gay friends, but it is Europe that is regularly mocked as “Gayropa” in the media.
Tellingly, Putin goes through the motions of religious piety, but unlike most truly conservative Orthodox Christians in Russia, he hasn’t ever said anything against abortion or the role of women in society. It might come as a shock to Bannonites who see in Putin some kind of guardian of traditional values, but everything suggests that in his personal life, Putin is far more liberal and progressive than most white rural Christian Americans. If tomorrow Europe were to start executing gay people and throwing out Muslim immigrants for some reason, Russia could easily morph into a gay haven that welcomes Syrian refugees. There is no moral core here. It’s pure cynicism.
But just because Putin doesn’t read philosophy, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t read. The country’s three intelligence agencies each put together a folder with briefings that goes on Putin’s table daily—“the FSB’s report on domestic affairs, the SVR’s on developments around the world, and the FSO’s on what is going on within the Russian elite.” Galeotti notes that a foreign service officer bitterly complained to him that Putin regularly ignores his agency’s analysis in favor of that of the spooks.
All that reading is not necessarily conducive to good decision-making. For his part, Putin is not the intelligence insider he makes himself out to be. Though he served in the KGB, he never distinguished himself on the job, and he never rose through the ranks enough to be able to properly understand how these bureaucracies think and work. For their part, the spy agencies are busy competing amongst themselves for favor before the eager tsar, both in coming up with the most attention-grabbing analyses that might nevertheless be questionably grounded in fact, and in hiding the worst news from their increasingly cantankerous authoritarian boss. Putin, Galeotti quips, “is King Lear to his ambitious daughters, apportioning his kingdom based on how well they flatter him.”
Despite the list in the beginning, Galeotti’s book doesn’t actually spend much time on the cast of characters surrounding Putin. Paranoids like the head of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev and ruthless bullies like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin—both key players in Putin’s inner circle—only get glancing mention. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov is looked at closely only once, in an episode quoted from Mikhail Zygar’s All the Kremlin’s Men, on how he helped oligarch Vladimir Potanin manipulate Putin into getting into the Sochi Olympics bid. It is an amusing interlude in Galeotti’s narrative, but there are many more like it circulating out there, many instructive.
I was witness to another telling episode. At the end of 2014, Echo of Moscow, the liberal radio station I work for, was under pressure by its major stakeholder Gazprom Media. Echo’s editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov was feuding with Gazprom Media’s newly appointed CEO Mikhail Lesin—a man who would several years later end up mysteriously dead in a Washington, DC hotel room. Lesin wanted to remove Venediktov, but was finding it difficult to do so, given Echo’s carefully worded governing statutes about editorial non-interference. Venediktov, a smart operator, turned to Peskov and asked him to put news about the fight—a printout from a state-run news agency—on top of Putin’s daily news folder. That’s all it apparently took: Venediktov kept his job and Lesin backed down, and by the end of 2015 he had been fired from Gazprom Media (presumably for other reasons).
The theory of the “collective Putin”—that Putinism is the sum of the characters that surround and influence the man at the center—has fallen out of favor with Western analysts as Putin himself has cycled through his flunkies. And in truth, it never was a satisfying explanation of how things really worked. Still, it’s a pity Galeotti spends so little time on the bizarre people that surround and influence the isolated Russian President. Understanding the paranoid mindset inside the Kremlin is important, even if it doesn’t explain absolutely everything about the Russian state.
Galeotti is also too indulgent on Putin’s own background. On how he came to be an intelligence officer, Galeotti regurgitates Putin’s own stylized account from the “authorized” volume of interviews titled First Person, a book that was used to introduce Putin to the broader Russian public in 2000. Putin claims that as a teenager, inspired by literature and movies about the derring-do of spies, he decided he wanted to serve in the KGB and approached the service’s recruitment office. Considering the rough background he came from and the street toughs he associated with, it’s more likely Putin was himself approached. Spies are heroic action heroes only in the movies; in reality, most intelligence officers, especially in authoritarian countries, are gray, weak, and dependent specters, and recruiters know what they are looking for. Just as sports can be a way for underprivileged kids to transcend their origins, so the KGB represented a way out for Putin, and for that he is clearly grateful. But Putin didn’t excel as a spy, and the job was anything but glamorous. There’s no reason to follow Putin’s own lead in romanticizing his own beginnings.
Nor would I romanticize the nature of his relationships with his friends from childhood—men like the Rothenberg brothers whom Putin helped turn into some of the richest men in Russia. Putin was put into power by a powerful clan of individuals surrounding the increasingly senile Boris Yeltsin—the so-called “Family” of relatives and related oligarchs who came up in the turbulent 1990s. They relied on Putin to help protect them once Yeltsin was out of power, but they had made their fortunes before him and as such did not feel they owed him anything. The most logical thing for Putin to do in response was to grow and groom his own clan of oligarchs—a set of people who would owe him everything, whose whole status would depend on him. One plugged-in Russian told Galeotti that “Putin is sentimental.” I think “ruthlessly pragmatic” is a better description.
Galeotti’s read of Putin’s relationship to money is also off. “It is clear that it is power, not money that is his thing,” Galeotti says at one point. “Putin doesn’t go looking for money, money goes looking for him,” he quotes a Russian official as saying. Yes, as the most powerful man in Russia, it’s true that money can seem incidental to the bigger business at hand. But it’s a mistake to think that Putin is not motivated by greed, or that targeting his wealth is not going to be effective.
The man likes living in luxury. Just the other week, well after Galeotti’s book had already been published, investigative journalists in Russia identified a brand new palace being built on the outskirts of Moscow, watched over by Presidential guards, wired with a secure line to the Kremlin, and registered to an offshore company based in the British Virgin Islands. The Magnitsky Act-related sanctions that were passed in response for embezzling and laundering vast sums of money from Russia’s budget—$2 billion of which ended up in offshore accounts registered to a close cellist friend of Putin’s—infuriated the Russian President. He has been hounding Bill Browder, the financier turned human rights activists responsible for getting the relevant sanctions laws adopted in the United States. He has tried to discredit the Magnitsky Act in Congress by trying to muddy the waters surrounding the case that spawned the bill. And his flunkies have even approached the Trump campaign to try to have the sanctions removed. Galeotti writes that “we shouldn’t assume that targeting Putin’s money . . . is some sort of magic weapon.” The evidence suggests otherwise.
But Galeotti is not wrong to focus on the question of how Putin perceives these things. It’s not only about the money. As Peter Baker wrote in a revealing 2013 essay, Putin was genuinely astonished when the Bush Administration confronted him about the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. The at-the-time-much-younger Russian President believed that the West was just as corrupt as Russia, hiding its true nature beneath happy talk of democracy and human rights. He believed that as long as he cooperated with the West, the West would not intervene into his internal affairs. That is where the rage about the Magnitsky Act comes from. The murder of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky in a Russian jail is his—Putin’s—domestic issue. Tax revenue service officials who steal money from the federal budget and launder it in the West—this too is his internal affair. For Putin, l’état, c’est moi, and there is little distinction between going after his money and attacking the Russian state.
But these are ultimately quibbles; overall, Galeotti reads Putin very well. His book is an excellent corrective to the kind of lazy analyses that have recently inflated Russia’s petty tyrant into some kind of Machiavellian genius. Putin is nothing of the sort.
And yet there was something nagging at me as I put down the book. It has to do with how the whole thing is framed. In focusing on Putin the man, Galeotti misses something important about today’s Russia more broadly considered.
The hint comes when Galeotti says that the election of Putin was the result of “people looking for a credible (and sober) defender of the nation.” It’s a commonplace among Russia analysts to say things like this, but the truth is that Putin’s rise to power was predetermined. It was a carefully orchestrated operation managed by a coterie of powerful people close to the ailing President Yeltsin who needed someone to guarantee their position. The book elides the fact that in 1999 Putin was mostly a cypher to the public, with ratings close to zero, and that only a massive parliamentary election campaign orchestrated by Boris Berezovsky (at that time a friend to the Yeltsin “Family”) actually made Putin recognizable to the general public. Galeotti has a chapter on Putin being loyal to the oligarchs he created, but he fails to mention how loyal Putin has actually been to The Family as a whole. The newly minted President’s promises went far beyond his first presidential decree, titled “On guarantees for former President of the Russian Federation and members of his family.” Once the parameters of Russian politics going forward were established—“businessmen” needed to refrain from challenging Putin’s rule (a message Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky didn’t properly internalize)—all of The Family were kept fat and comfortable. Bailouts were offered when needed (Oleg Deripaska in 2008) and questionable opportunities for self-enrichment were common (as with the sale of the Alfa Bank-owned TNK-BP oil company to the state-owned Rosneft at a 40 percent premium).
And here we get to the mystery I alluded to at the start of this essay. The book begins and ends with a conversation over dinner with a former Russian official from Putin’s presidential administration in a lavish Moscow restaurant called White Rabbit. The man’s identity is never revealed, but given the location, a Muscovite who follows such things might immediately think of either Vladislav Surkov or Aleksander Voloshin, two regulars at the restaurant who are generally eager to talk to foreign journalists critical of the regime. Surkov still manages the Ukraine portfolio for Putin, while Voloshin is mostly retired. Both are highly intelligent, both cut their political teeth as members of Yeltsin’s Family, and both are prone to spinning. And lately that spin has been that the Family wanted a more democratic Russia, that its members were and are liberals at heart, and that they just miscalculated by backing Putin.
This is self-serving stuff being offered up by a group of people who are starting to glimpse a future after Putin and are eager to position themselves well with the West once change comes. Galeotti is too seasoned a Russia hand to have simply relied on the words of someone as notoriously manipulative as Surkov or Voloshin—if he spoke to them at all. But intentionally or not, the frame of Galeotti’s story serves these people’s preferred narrative: There are good guys among Russia’s oligarchs, and smart Western policy should distinguish between them and the really rotten bunch that Putin created. (Suffice it to say, I think this is all wrong.)
The book ends with a snippet of the conversation over that dinner at White Rabbit. Galeotti’s host recalls a well-known story Putin told about himself—about how as a child growing up in St. Petersburg, Putin ended up cornering a rat in the basement, and how the cornered rat in turn attacked Putin. And then the mood gets philosophical:
“Russia thinks it’s Putin, out hunting rats, but we’re actually the rat. Everyone fears us, but we’re just doing what comes naturally. Corner us, though, and we’ll turn.” He paused, and then added, “Actually, that’s Putin—the big rat, the one willing to turn. But there’s always another one, somewhere in the shadows.”
“There could be another Putin, an even bigger one, waiting in the stairwell,” Galeotti adds, this flourish being the book’s last sentence.
That there are other Putins out there in today’s Russia, there’s no doubt. But the alternative to them should not be anyone who was responsible for Putin’s rise. Because these people not only knew what they were doing; they are as responsible for what has happened to Russia as Putin and his dreaded siloviki.