Australian Outlook

In this section

Book Reviews: We Need to Talk About Putin: Why the West Gets Him Wrong & A Short History of Russia: From the Pagans to Putin

26 Apr 2022
Reviewed by John West

History seems to be accelerating with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, following in the footsteps of COVID-19 and the rise of China. To gain a quick understanding of the background to the Ukraine war, two recent books by Mark Galeotti on Russian history and Vladimir Putin are excellent primers.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is very much Vladimir Putin’s war. And yet, the premise of Mark Galeotti’s 2019 book, We Need to Talk About Putin, is that the West still fails to understand the man who has led Russia for some two decades. In eleven fast-paced chapters and less than 150 pages, Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London, seeks to uncover the man behind the myth.

Hilary Clinton once asserted that Donald Trump was playing checkers, while Putin was playing three-dimensional chess. Galeotti argues that Putin is not playing chess at all, but rather judoka – “much of the art is in using the opponent’s strength against him to seize the moment when it appears.” Thus when it comes to geopolitics, there is no great strategy – Putin is an opportunist.  He knows that the West is much more powerful than Russia, so he waits for the West to make a mistake to strike.

Putin is determined that Russia be treated like a great power, even though on any objective basis such status is not merited. But his notion of great power is a 19th century one, not a 21st century one, according to Galeotti. He thinks that a great power has a sphere of influence and buffer states, and a voice on all global issues, but should not be bound by international laws and norms.

Putin is not a philosopher. He has no ideological commitment to anything, writes Galeotti. He believes in power and pragmatism. As a pragmatist, Putin was open to some kind of positive working relationship with the West in the early 2000s, and he felt jilted when the West shunned him. He is happy to play many roles to many audiences, but they are just performances. He may pose as the devil-may-care adventurer, but in reality he is cautious and risk-averse. Despite his regime’s numerous high-profile murders and poisonings, he only wants to destroy traitors, not enemies.

Putin grew up in poverty in Leningrad, and from the school of hard knocks he learned that confidence and determination can make up for strength and wealth. But today, Putin appears both politically and psychologically dependent on his small entourage of former spooks. And like many authoritarian leaders, he has become less and less willing to listen to alternative perspectives.

After twenty years in power, Putin is increasingly disengaged from government and his own country. While there is speculation that Putin is looking for a successor, he may never feel secure enough to put his future in someone else’s hands. The brittle nature of Putin’s regime is evident is his rigging of the 2018 elections, and its panic about opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. According to Galeotti, the West’s relations with Russia will never improve while Putin is in power.

As Putin rules Russia as a virtual czar, another of Galeotti’s books, A Short History of Russia: from the Pagans to Putin, provides us many insights into the history from which Putin has emerged.  Galeotti takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through over one thousand years of Russian history in less than 200 pages. There are traces of many invaders, from Vikings and Mongols to Napoleon’s French and Hitler’s Germans.

According to Galeotti, “Russia is a country with no natural borders, no single tribe or people, no true central identity.”  Its vast size, scattered population, and inaccessibility of many of its regions help “explain why maintaining central control has been such a challenge, and why losing that grip on the country is such a terror for its rulers.”

There are many themes running through Galeotti’s narrative. Both today’s Russia and its previous incarnation, the USSR, are more empires than countries. The breakup of the USSR in 1991 amounted to the beginnings of a process of decolonisation, which the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires went through a century ago. And Russia’s present invasion of Ukraine could be regarded as a desperate attempt to regain lost pieces of that empire. Losing an empire and great power status can indeed be hard, something which both France and Britain have also had difficulty coming to terms with.

While Russia thinks of itself as a “great power,” it has never managed to match its great power aspirations with its capabilities. In contrast to the West, Russia has failed the challenge of modernisation. In recent centuries Russia’s economy has swung from feudalism to state-planning and now to crony capitalism. Meanwhile, its politics transitioned from monarchy to communism and now authoritarianism.

What has Galeotti had to say since the publication of these two books?  Like many Russia “experts,” Galeotti has conceded that he thought that there was a low probability of Russia invading Ukraine. Indeed, he claims that most insiders in Russia were not informed and did not see it coming. Galeotti believes that Putin has changed, perhaps by being locked down through COVID-19, or by narrowing down his circle of advisors, or by brooding over his historical legacy.

Galeotti argues that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine simply does not make sense. Russia cannot win the war. Even if it defeats the Ukrainian army, it will never defeat the Ukrainian people. Further, the Russian military, which Putin has spent 20 years building up, has been mauled and will take years to recover. The Russian economy will be in crisis, as Putin has squandered all the economic gains of his presidency and is dragging Russia back to the 1970s. In short, this war announces the beginning of the end of Putinism and the end of “​​Homo Sovieticus.”

Looking ahead, Galeotti is unfashionably optimistic about the West’s relations with Russia. The next generation of Russian leaders is just as corrupt as Putin and his cronies. But they don’t bear a grudge about losing the Cold War, nor do they have a desire for restoring Russia’s great power status. In due course, Russia is going to be faced with a choice of being some kind of ally of the West or some kind of vassal of China. Most Russians would prefer to be an ally of the West. The West should not abandon Russia, even if it is run by pragmatic kleptocrats, as it could well be a useful strategic partner in constraining China.

These two books by Mark Galeotti are written in a fresh, crisp, and readable style, and are of very digestible lengths. They would be very suitable for anyone interested in history and international relations, especially undergraduate students.

This article contains reviews of:

Mark Galeotti, We Need to Talk About Putin:  Why the West gets him wrong, and how to get him right (Ebury Press, 2019).  Paperback ISBN: 9781529103595.

Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia: From the Pagans to Putin (Ebury Press, 2021).  Hardback ISBN: 9781529106381.

John West is adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. His book Asian Century … on a Knife-Edge was reviewed in Australian Outlook.

This review is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.