Lynch on Lourie, 'Putin: His Downfall and Russia's Coming Crash'

Author: 
Richard Lourie
Reviewer: 
Allen Lynch

Richard Lourie. Putin: His Downfall and Russia's Coming Crash. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017. xxii + 264 pp. $26.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-312-53808-8.

Reviewed by Allen Lynch (University of Virginia) Published on H-Diplo (April, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51180

Do not judge this book by its cover: Richard Lourie has written a much more interesting interpretation of the Vladimir Putin years in Russian politics and foreign policy than the melodramatic title implies. Neither a standard academic study nor a journalistic account of the Putin years, Lourie’s book develops a series of eclectic reflections on Putin’s accomplishments and failures, weaving them into the rich contextual fabric of Russian cultural, political, and international history, especially the country’s long, fraught, and complex interactions with the Western world.

Lourie has organized his inquiry into two basic parts. The first, comprising nearly half the work (95 of 224 pages of narrative), is a standard account of the Russian 1990s and Putin’s path to power in the course of them. The second analyzes a series of issue-areas in which Putin and his political machine have sought to advance the interests of post-Soviet Russia as they define them. These issues include the energy sector, which Lourie correctly sees as a wasting asset; the Ukraine crisis, emblematic of Russia’s efforts to establish a durable sphere of influence along its historical borderlands; the lure of Arctic resources as a mellowing climate renders far northern waters more easily navigable longer each year; the relationship with a dominant China in Asia; and the weaponizing of the Internet. In a brief concluding chapter, Lourie speculates on Russia’s eventual post-Putin future.

Lourie’s main arguments may be summarized as follows. First, Putin’s record needs to be viewed against the destabilization and virtual collapse of Russia as a functioning society in the late Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin years. Putin built a functioning Russian state, one that, even if deeply corrupt, has also sought to husband the country’s resources for essential public functions. His establishment of a series of state-administered funds to ensure that the fuels sector worked for the state (as well as the private interests of those in charge of energy assets) allowed Putin’s government to pay off Russia’s entire external sovereign debt by 2005 and to accumulate by 2008 the third largest dollar reserves in the world (after China and Japan). These allowed Putin’s government to survive the massive shock administered by the world economic crash of 2008-9 and the ensuing collapse of oil prices from 145 dollars to 33 dollars per barrel by the end of 2008 (p. 120). The contrast with the crumbling of Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s governments after comparable oil shocks in 1986 and 1998, respectively, is striking. Moreover, Putin repeated the performance after the oil crash of 2014 and the imposition of Western economic sanctions over the Ukraine crisis: even though the Russian economy never recovered to pre-2008 levels of economic growth (7 percent per annum was typical between 2000 and 2007 versus 1-3 percent between 2010 and 2013), Putin’s finance officials ensured that the government retained sufficient reserves to weather the storm.

Second, and this is the core of Lourie’s critique of Putin, the Russian leader failed to convert his genuine successes into political coalitions that could move Russia beyond a natural-resource-based economy into a knowledge-based one.  He also failed to move Russia beyond a personalistic political order to one where succession is governed by generally applicable laws and norms. Instead Russia has suffered from continual palace intrigue. It is worth quoting Lourie at some length in this regard: “Putin was given a unique opportunity by history, a period of wealth and peace that he could have used to liberate his country from its dependence on oil and on authoritarian rule. He squandered that opportunity to unleash the source of Russia’s true greatness—the still untapped skills and spirit of its people.... But Putin did not trust. He did not trust the world outside Russia, which in the end he could only see as the enemy at the gates. He did not trust the Russian people out of fear that they would run rampant if given liberty.... And in the end on some level he did not trust himself sufficiently to manage a freer people in a world that might be opposed at times to Russia but was hardly inimical to it” (p. 223).

Third, Putin’s rule has had the effect of encouraging the chauvinist and anti-Semitic Far Right instead of the liberal and social democrat Left of the Russian political spectrum. These alternatives are far worse for both Russia and the world than Putin’s own authoritarian regime. Indeed, the possibility that Russia itself might once again implode in the absence of Putin, given his indispensable personal role as the capo di tutti capi of Russia’s elite power clans, cannot be entirely excluded.

Fourth, a long series of encounters with the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in the post-Cold War world, including NATO expansion and the contest for predominant influence in Ukraine, has left Russia without a Western option in its diplomacy, its foreign economic policy, and its sociocultural orientation. Isolated in Europe, and in the West more broadly, Russia can at best be a junior partner to China in Asia. While “Putin is not about to turn rejection in the West to humiliation in the East,” Russia “doesn’t have the economy to support a sustained presence in Asia” (pp. 176-177). The absence of plausible integration strategies in Europe and Asia only intensifies Russia’s stake in securing predominant influence for itself along the post-Soviet borderlands; yet here too it is contested, by the United States and NATO in Ukraine and by China, implicitly, in Central Asia.

Fifth, and related, Putin’s Russia sees NATO expansion not just as a humiliation and a betrayal of assurances given Gorbachev in compensation for the rapid unification of Germany in NATO but as a genuine threat to Russia’s core interests, above all in border states like Georgia and Ukraine (both promised admission by NATO in April 2008). “Geopolitics becomes existential, Darwinian.... No Russian leader could allow his country to be outflanked from the Baltic to the Black Sea.... Putin ... found himself being outflanked by a hostile military alliance that also manifestly seeks to reduce his economic lifeline of gas and oil, all of which puts him in supreme jeopardy in the infighting of the Kremlin. To have failed to understand this was a cardinal sin on the part of the West” (pp. 144-145, emphasis added).

Finally, after several years of confusion and hesitation, Putin and his colleagues in Russian intelligence learned how to weaponize the Internet for their own ends. Lourie spends considerable time in an extended preface and in his last substantive chapter detailing this development and analyzing its specific application to the 2016 US presidential election. Lourie is persuaded that the Russian government intervened with information measures in order to help elect Donald Trump, a thesis that the heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and National Security Agency (NSA) sustained in a January 2017 report (although the NSA chief held this with “moderate confidence”).[1]

There is, however, another way of evaluating Russian motives that is also consistent with much of the evidence that Lourie presents in his book. There is little in Putin’s background or record in office to indicate that he would take a truly major risk for such a low-probability event as Trump’s election. To believe that Putin intervened in order to help elect Trump is to believe that Putin thought that Trump had a good chance to win. Recall that The New York Times gave Trump a 15 percent chance in the closing weeks of the campaign while Larry Sabato’s perennially accurate Crystal Ball projected 352 electoral votes for Hillary Clinton as late as October 20, 2016.[2]

It is much more in keeping with the character of Putin, a self-styled “realist,” to base his policy on the assumption that Clinton would be the next president. Given the unravelling of the Russian-US “Reset” since 2011, when as secretary of state Clinton publicly castigated Putin for corrupt election practices, Putin had little to hope for and something to fear from a Clinton presidency: a renewed US campaign in the name of democracy and human rights to discredit Putin at home at a time when he was preparing his next reelection (March 2018). These were stakes worth taking risks for, given the unlikelihood of improvement in the bilateral relationship if Clinton won. Mischievously intervening by way of encouraging the dissemination of such low-hanging fruit as the weakly guarded electronic files of John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee, in this view, would serve to sow embarrassment about US democracy and expose US double standards in ways that would help neutralize an expected Clinton administration’s full-court political press on Putin’s regime. In other words, to grasp Putin’s motives (as best we can), we need to place them in the context of the collapse of the Barack Obama-Russia Reset and long before that of the failure of every attempt to set post-cold war US-Russian relations of a stable and durable basis. The stupefying irony is that, with Trump elected, the broad bipartisan political reaction in the Congress to Russia’s interference practically ensures that Trump, on his own, cannot offer the Russians what they want (relief from sanctions, from the Magnitsky human rights bill, etc.). But that is a story not about evil Russians acting and innocent Americans reacting but rather about how many years of Russian and US interactions have left both sides convinced that they cannot advance their own core interests through negotiating with the other. 

Notes

[1]. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, January 6, 2017, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf, p. ii.

[2]. Rebecca Savransky, “Sabato Stuns CNN Anchor with Prediction Clinton will get 352 Electoral Votes,” The Hill, October 20, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/301975-sabato-stuns-cnn-anchor-with-predi....

Citation: Allen Lynch. Review of Lourie, Richard, Putin: His Downfall and Russia's Coming Crash. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51180

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.