This is my review of The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia by Angus Roxburgh.
More readable than many crime thrillers, this mixture of clear analysis with entertaining anecdotes has an authentic ring, Roxburgh being a former BBC Moscow correspondent and sometime PR advisor to Putin’s press secretary.
He acknowledges Putin’s initial success in restoring law and order, curtailing the power of the oligarchs who hijacked Russia’s rapid adoption of capitalism in the 1990s, stabilising the economy, reducing debt, achieving growth (admittedly with the aid of high Russian oil and gas prices) and even in supporting the Americans in their fight against Afghanistan – perhaps not in itself a good thing.
Roxburgh expands on the depressing recent turn of events as an increasingly authoritarian leader establishes the “vertical of power”, appoints cronies to senior positions in key industries, and turns a blind eye to, if not exactly ordering, the liquidation of anyone who dares to criticise corruption in such chilling cases as the shooting of the journalist Anna Politovskaya and the killing in prison of the young lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, “arrested by the very officials he had accused of fraud”.
Thought to have accumulated a vast personal fortune, Putin seeks to retain personal majority support as president partly by impressing people with his often stage-managed macho exploits, but also by resorting to ballot-rigging and laws to restrict the freedom of speech, conscience and mass media, “the fundamental elements of a civilised society” which he promised on first coming to power. Opposition is still too fragmented to bring him down, and he can dismiss the disaffected middle classes as the tools of western influence. Roxburgh is particularly interesting on the comparisons between Putin and his one-term presidential stooge, Medvedev, who seems more liberal and flexible, but unable to stand against him.
Roxburgh is fair-minded in showing how the West has repeatedly failed to see matters from the Russians’ perspective, to sense, for instance, how humiliated they felt to be excluded from NATO when former Eastern Bloc countries have been admitted, and to be regarded as the enemy against which NATO must protect itself. The author points out how the US has repeatedly tried to get Russia to give up nuclear weapons, without relinquishing its own one-sided plans for anti-missile defence. How can Putin be expected to take lessons over Chechnya from a government that went to war with Iraq on spurious grounds, without UN approval and which makes drone attacks on Pakistan?
After an almost naïve expectation of being welcomed by the West, it is sad to see Putin growing hardened and bitter in his sense of rejection borne of a mutual lack of understanding. It is no criticism of Roxburgh that he has no solutions to offer except, “the evidence of history suggest that pragmatic engagement is the only chance of success…..that in the end Russia will reform from within, not under outside pressure”.