Russia Without Putin explains why the Russian oligarchy is hostile.

In his new book, Russia Without Putin, Tony Wood tries to make the case that “too much attention has been paid to the man, and not enough to the system over which he presides.” It’s an intriguing claim, but Wood doesn’t quite pull it off. The book consists of six chapters and an epilogue. And Putin stars in every one of those chapters. Apparently, it’s difficult not to pay the man “too much attention.” He implies, instead, that the question we should be asking is, “Why is the Russian oligarchy hostile to the West?” And his answer will surprise many observers in the US.

Russia Without Putin: Money, Power, and the Myths of the New Cold War by Tony Wood (2018) 225 pages ★★★★☆

Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchy are misunderstood

Nonetheless, Russia Without Putin does contribute to our understanding of the Russian leader and of recent Russian history. Here are a few of the author’s principal observations about the character of leadership in Russia today:

  • It is a myth that Putin’s “imitation democracy” represents a throwback to the Soviet era. Wood insists “there is the widespread notion that Putin has overseen a nostalgic return to Soviet times, reversing the market reforms and democratization carried out by Yeltsin in the 1990s.” But that notion is false.
  • Putin’s policies represent a continuation of Yeltsin’s, not a radical departure from them. “The defining characteristic of the Putin system has been its commitment to defending the capitalist model put in place during the 1990s.” Similarly, the kleptocracy Westerners see in Russia today is nothing new, “nor is it confined to a small clique. . . The cronyism attributed to the Putin years was central to the making of Russian capitalism long before Putin took the stage.” However, “[t]hough nepotism was far from unknown under Soviet rule, its scale never came close to that reached in the Putin era.”
  • Viewing Russia today as an oligarchy is fair, but Westerners tend to mischaracterize the wealthy and powerful men around Putin as “mafia.” The Russian oligarchy is not a criminal gang. Wood writes, “The history of post-Soviet capitalism should be understood . . . as a series of struggles for power and profit within a single elite that spanned the worlds of government and private business.” In other words, though many, perhaps all of these men may be criminals, they’re government officials and businessmen first, not mafia dons. Essentially, Wood explains that the Russian oligarchy’s hostility has come about because the US and its allies are making it more difficult for them to get really, really rich.

Russia’s rivalry with the West is a recent development

When Putin ascended to the presidency in 1999, and for several years after that, his principal foreign policy aim and that of those around him was to join the West. He was even open to NATO membership. But, again and again, under Clinton, Bush, and Obama, Russia’s attempts to cozy up to the US and the nations of Western Europe were rebuffed. Continuing NATO expansion placed the final nail in that coffin. And, given the investigations swirling around Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, there is little chance that will change even under the current administration.

Putin and his colleagues now understand all this clearly, and Wood regards the development as historically significant. “The downfall of the pro-Western idea in Russia represents a major geopolitical watershed,” he writes. And that turnabout has come, he insists, because the West has been unwilling to deal with Russia on an equal basis.

Why the Russian oligarchy is hostile to the West

Putin’s aggressive military moves in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and Syria are grounded in his country’s weakness, not its strength. They represent, above all, Russia’s quest to be treated as an equal. “For all the concern about the tentacular spread of Putin’s influence,” Wood notes, “its actual capacity to shape political outcomes has proved negligible to non-existent—the 2016 US elections very much included.” Wood argues, then, that the West, and the US in particular, has little to fear from Russia. But that assertion is a little hard to accept, when government-controlled Russian hackers hold the capacity to cripple the North American electrical grid.

A perspective on Russia from the Left

Russia Without Putin is also strong in its discussion of the class structure in Russian society today and the growing inequality that threatens the country’s future. Tony Wood is a member of the editorial board of the socialist journal, New Left Review. The Marxist influence is apparent.

There is no new Cold War, Wood insists. That period in history was characterized by profound ideological differences. Since Russia is now firmly in the capitalist camp (even if its “democracy” is a sham), the differences are situational, not inevitable. But that begs the question we started with: why is the Russian oligarchy hostile to the nations of the West? Apparently, in Wood’s view, it all boils down to “bizness.”

How another critic views Russia Without Putin

For a somewhat different treatment of the book, see British journalist Jonathan Steele’s review in The Guardian (December 27, 2018). Steele comments on several aspects of the author’s views that I didn’t cover above. For example, he writes, it’s a myth “that where there were negative distortions in Russia’s transition to capitalism it was because of the legacy of the Soviet past with an authoritarian ruling class and a population made passive by decades of submission to power.”

Steele also remarks that “It was the second Ukrainian crisis of 2014 that sealed the divorce” between Russia and the West, “though Wood believes Putin’s hostile reactions smacked of tactical improvisation rather than a carefully planned anti-western strategy. Interference in western elections is the Russian answer to the earlier and still continuing efforts by the US and EU to help civil society groups and local media to campaign for anti-Kremlin changes within what used to be the Soviet camp.”

For additional reading

Previously I’ve reviewed three other nonfiction books about contemporary Russia and Vladimir Putin:

Click here for more Good books about Vladimir Putin, modern Russia and the Russian oligarchy.

I also found insight about Russia under Vladimir Putin in a novel, Three Stations (Arkady Renko #7) by Martin Cruz Smith, reviewed at In an Arkady Renko novel, a look inside Russia under Putin.

You might also be interested in 20 top nonfiction books about history plus 80 other good books and 13 good recent books about American foreign policy.

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