FDL Book Salon Welcomes Steve LeVine: Putin’s Labyrinth
[Welcome Putin’s Labyrinth and Foreign Affairs Writer for Business Week, and Jerome Guillet from DailyKos and the European Tribune.]
Lately, whenever I see another article blaming Russia for turning authoritarian again, or threatening Europe (with the infamous "energy weapon"), or bullying its – usually gutsy – neighbors, I cringe.
The anti-Russian drumbeat in that period has been consistent and persistent, replete with talk of a new Cold War, uniformly blaming Russia for the tense relations now existing between them and the West, such that the image of Russia again is that of a dangerous, treasonous and unpleasantly powerful enemy, led by vicious ex-KGB officers, and crushing democracy and human rights within and without.
The problem with that propaganda is not that it’s untrue, it’s that it’s not news and thus that it hides something else. To wit: why do we care about Putin’s authoritarianism today while we did not in the early years of his presidency? (Hint: it’s about energy) And it’s the breathtaking hypocrisy of our governments towards Russia that galls: how can we take seriously pronouncements from the governments that invaded Iraq and gave us Guantanamo and Abu Grahib, and their cheerleaders, about human rights in and around Russia?
So when I was asked to host this Salon and was first given the blurb for Steve LeVine’s book about a number of gruesome murders or deaths that took place in Russia or involved critics of the Kremlin in the past few years, I was very worried that I’d have to write a hostile introduction, filled with scathing criticism and abundant debunking (to give you an idea of my opinions on the topic, here are two reasonably representative texts I wrote last summer, following the conflict in Georgia: Russian gas and European energy policy – a reprise and So, what to do with Russia?. But thankfully, this will not be necessary. Not that I don’t disagree with Steve on some major issues, but his work has one great quality: despite the fact that he focuses on episodes of political violence under Putin’s presidency, he is at least well aware of the history of political violence under Yeltsin, as he covered the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s. I have a lot of respect for the few brave – and rather isolated – journalists that covered these conflicts at a time when it was not fashionable to be as critical of Russia as it is today, and I respect the consistency of his position that covered violence then and now.
He chose to make this a highly personalized story – this is a tale where he is not shy to bring himself on stage, as he interviews the family and entourage of some of the victims (and in some cases, had the opportunity to talk to them before their deaths) and tells their stories through their eyes, focusing on mundane events before or around the time of the murders – and it makes for an original and easy-to-read book. However, and this is a weakness that has been noted by others, it makes the case he makes against Putin in various asides along his tale much weaker. His main message is that Putin’s Russia encourages political violence, uses it as a tool to assert itself on the world stage – and (scandalously) gets away with it. The second message is that this is fundamentally coherent with both Putin’s and Russia’s nature, and that the West’s hostile and dismissive attitude towards Russia, which he fairly points out, is ultimately not the cause of this – Russia would have turned hostile and prickly even if the West had been more receptive to its expressed interests.
We’ll never know, given that we don’t get to rewrite history, but he doesn’t really make the case and it is an argument that makes me rather skeptical, because, ultimately, it amounts to a criticism of power politics that calls for (more vigorous) power politics to fight it. The West (or rather, Europe) is too "weak" with Russia, it needs to grow a spine and stand strong to the bully. This ignores all the power politics we played on Russia: NATO’ extension, the bombing of Serbia without a UN authorization in 1999, the abrogation of the ABM Treaty, the refusal to rescind Jackson Vanik or to admit Russia in WTO, the bases in Central Asia becoming permanent features (and saying that bringing NATO to Russia’s border is not hostile does not make it true, from the Russians’ perspective, and from any rational observation – just imagine if Mexico had been invited to join the Warsaw Pact). But beyond such hypocrisy, that argument also forgets that we did not really care about Russia’s authoritarianism as long as its oil & gas reserves were open to Western oil majors. The tide in opinions about Russia turned at the time Khodorkhovski was jailed (and prevented from merging his oil company, Yukos, with an American one), and strengthened after the latest episode of the Russian-Ukrainian gas wars in 2006 (about which I can only recommend you to read this article I wrote last year – which, by coincidence, was the time when the UK turned from a natural gas exporter into an importer and realized that, contrary to its continental neighbors, it had not built the corporate, contractual and physical infrastructure to deal with that situation.
This has taken us away from the murders of Politovskya, and Litvinenko, but given that energy is, as flagged by Steve in his book, what is behind Russia’s resurgence, and why we care at all about what’s happening in Russia, it is worth mentioning that our policies towards Russia are driven more than anything by our elite’s frustration about having lost absolute control over our energy sources, and a desire to create a diversion for the general population for the lack of sane domestic energy policies: it’s easier to blame a bogeyman than to explain why we should use less energy.
But I’d like to conclude with another point, which will bring my first question: what these murders show more than anything is the profound division of the Kremlin between clans that often fight each other very brutally. The unchecked violence, and the inability of the Russian State to find who’s behind them, demonstrates that Putin does not actually control the various clans, and has to build policies around highly public acts he did not initiate. So; does Steve think Putin is all-powerful, or just one figure trying to navigate between forces beyond him?